Sunday, 30 August 2009

"Take an olive seed"

Today's photograph is of the sign outside the Greenbelt Festival pub, one of the very many and varied tents erected on Cheltenham Racecourse for the weekend. I was helping man the stall of Christian Ecology Link at Greenbelt, an interesting experience for me. I wore a CEL T shirt, to increase my visibility (as if needed). Normally I am not to be seen dead in one.

"Take an olive seed" was the theme of the Sunday Morning Worship at the Festival, said to have been attended by 15,000 people. It was brilliantly devised to celebrate the diversity of those attending, and of the traditions that come together within the Holy Land: there were prayers and readings in both Hebrew and Arabic.

And the Kiss of Peace, for these Swine Flu aware times, was transformed into the elbow bump of peace, as demonstrated here by two of my neighbours. They were volunteering on behalf of CAFOD, drawing attention to the need for climate justice. Appropriately, the CAFOD stall was next door to CEL's: both were well-patronised, any any rate during my sojurn.

Of course, masses of those at Greenbelt seemed intent on other things than climate justice or a greener church: that's why CEL is needed. However, the people who bothered to stop by seemed keen to meet up with others in their local area: I collected quite a few email addresses, and have been busy since I returned putting people in touch with one another. It's good to be able to help with the sort of introductions and connections that only a national organisation like CEL can make.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

County boundaries

Gloucestershire is unusual in not having that many natural external boundaries: for a few miles, the Thames separates its South-East corner from Wiltshire, and in the West the Wye separates it from Wales, but otherwise the main boundaries are internal. The Severn is a major divide between prosperous East Gloucs. and unfashionable West. In the Cotswolds, house prices are at a premium compared with the Vale. Royal South Gloucestershire is another world from housing estates in Tewkesbury.

Today, in pursuit of more photographs for the Summerfield Trust (as mentioned last week), I drove to Cinderford, to see the vibrant Artspace project there; and from Cinderford to Cirencester. My two photographs here show the contrasting worlds I entered: below, Cinderford town centre, with its charity shops, and absence of any buildings of architectural note; and (above) Cirencester, with its elegant modern estates just adjacent to the town's beautiful market place.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Anyone for an iPilgrimage?

This is the time of year when planeloads of pilgrims jet off to Lourdes, Knock etc. for a few days' devotion: all entirely in accordance with tradition and admirably motivated, but a huge expenditure of carbon.

I would like to promote the concept of a virtual pilgrimage, which involved all would-be pilgrims staying at (or near) home for the period they would otherwise be travelling. After all, the idea of the fourteen Stations of the Cross - which you see in very many of our churches, certainly in Catholic ones - evolved as a substitute for those who could not make it personally to visit the Holy Land.

If you aren't familiar with the Stations of the Cross, those in my own church, St Gregory's, Cheltenham, can be "visited" here. The image above is the "First Station: Jesus is condemned to death."

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Dark nights

I am in the process of taking twenty photographs for the Summerfield Charitable Trust - of projects they have supported over the twenty years since they began grant-giving in 1989. Today's trip was to Macaroni Woods, near Fairford, to visit the Noah's Ark Children's Venture. A magical setting has been conjured up there based on an ex-RAF camp: Richard and Liz Wilkinson are the heroes who run it.

According to one of the carers I met today, it was the first experience of darkness at night that really thrilled the children she was with: they had never been out of London to stay in the country before. Getting them to bed this week was a major problem!

Monday, 17 August 2009

Can and contents

Some of what we experienced in London last weekend made me wonder about contemporary culture. Would we really throng to the vast and sumptuous Saatchi Gallery, for instance, to see those enormous American abstract works of art (they seemed utterly baffling and indeed hideous to me), were it not free to enter and a mere stone's throw from Sloane Square station?

Ditto, the Telling Tales show at the V. & A. This again has a sumptuous setting (as the V. & A. is looking splendid these days). The pieces of furniture etc. on display are - we are told - known as Design Art: "they retain their role as functional objects, even if their usability is often subordinated to their symbolic or decorative value," in the words of the handout. So, we see two large blobs of red urethane on the floor with the title "The Lovers' rug," the urethane representing the average quantity of blood in two people. Cosy?

I was pleased to be able to get to the Serpentine Gallery for the first time: what a great space, and how lovely to be able to look out from it over Kensington Gardens! I admired too this Summer's temporary pavilion outside, by Kazuyo Sejima & Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA. But the exhibition? Jeff Koons has been working on a Popeye series over the past seven years: we are therefore treated to an array of huge, lurid cartoons, and brightly-coloured sculpture - something for instance looking like a rubber ring, crushed between a pile of plastic chairs, but which is in fact made of aluminium. Entertaining, and skillful work, but life-enhancing?

Certainly not in the way the BP Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was. As usual, it was fun to criticise the judges' choice of prizewinners, but here there was plenty to admire and be grateful for. Interestingly, very few were self-portraits this year.

In the evening, we went again to the Tête à Tête Opera Festival at the Riverside. Here, the surroundings are none too luxurious for contemporary opera; but was this opera? I enjoyed it last year, for its novelty and nerve; but this year it was just tiresome. Four pieces over the two nights, and none worth repeating, was my view. Even a rather charming piece by Glyndebourne Youth Opera, "Who am I?"

Thursday, 13 August 2009

A word in edgeways

"Don't put it down, put it away." It was the late Tom Fairclough from whom I first heard this, a character it's impossible to forget. From Lancashire, he came to Cheltenham with Rosina, his wife, and a large number of lovely children. He nursed Rosina throughout her long illness - she died of cancer in the late 1970s - and brought up his family whilst still working full-time; until he himself contracted cancer and died, a decade or so ago.

"You have two eyes, two ears and one mouth - use them in proportion," could have been another of Tom's injunctions. I thought of it on Wednesday evening as we were dining with old friends, all thoroughly familiar with one another, but not giving each other time to develop a point, unless it was shouted.

What about a different sort of dinner party, I wondered? One where individuals had up to five minutes to speak uninterruptedly about any subject they cared to bring up, however controversial. Then that subject could be discussed for as long as the discussion stayed on the subject. If the discussion strayed, then someone else would take over the solo input role.

Well, it's an idea.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Plan bee

Having breakfast in the garden, I noticed our lavender was alive with cabbage whites, but also bees. Which reminded me that the call has gone out to us all to mix two tablespoons of sugar with one of water, and place the fix in the garden so as to act as a bee pick-me-up. It seems both honey bees and bumble bees need one at this time of year.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

A Cheltenham church leads by example

This Press Release came my way today: an inspiring story!

After almost two years of intensive planning and fund-raising, Bethesda Methodist Church in Cheltenham is about to install a major array of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on its south-facing roof. Almost invisible from the street, these 40 solar panels will generate upwards of 6,000 kW hrs of electricity a year and any surplus not required by the church will be exported to the national grid.

Funds for the £39,000 installation, which is being carried out by SolarSense, Bristol, have been raised from the UK Government Low Carbon Building Fund, the Methodist Church District Advance Fund, Cheltenham Borough Council, The Summerfield Trust and the Bethesda congregation.

Bethesda is part of the National Eco-Congregation Scheme - an ecumenical programme helping churches make the link between environmental issues and the Christian faith, encouraging them to respond by practical action in the church, in the lives of individuals, and in the local and global community. The church has received two national eco-awards – one of only a dozen or so churches throughout England to have been so recognised. Since its first award, presented by Jonathon Porritt in 2003, Bethesda has become a FairTrade church, sold more than £14,000 worth of fair-trade goods, distributed more than 1000 low-energy light bulbs, operated an extensive recycling scheme, and launched its own carbon offset programme, funds from which have just helped to install a solar hot water system for an AIDS orphanage in South Africa.

Following its second award (presented in 2007 by local MP Martin Horwood during a Sunday morning service), the independent review team commented: “Concern for issues of environmental stewardship and sustainability seem to permeate all aspects of church life”. In their letter of recommendation, independent reviewers concluded: “From any perspective, the Bethesda environmental programme is first class. It should in our view receive maximum publicity. Other churches and indeed secular organisations should be encourage to visit and learn from their example.”

In a recent widely-distributed publication from the Environment Agency, a panel of experts drew up a list of the most important things needed to “save the planet.” The second of their 50 recommendations read as follows: “It is time the world’s faith groups took a lead in reminding us that we have a duty to restore and maintain the ecological balance of the planet.”

Bethesda has been doing this for the last decade, is actively encouraging other churches to do likewise and is now involved in sharing its concerns with the wider community.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Shop local

Another posting on the Christian Ecology Link bulletin board, worth repeating, I thought - this time from Pete Redwood on the subject of supermarkets passing on unsold meat to be burnt:

Sainsbury's have also recently signed a contract with DPM at Doncaster to supply them with all their waste food to fuel their energy generation plant. This includes all fresh food waste. DPM specialises in producing material for pet food and already takes waste from retail butchers, cafes and restaurants within a 100-mile
radius of Doncaster. The new plant is an extension of that business, covers a number of supermarkets and feeds its electricity into the National Grid.

The question was posed, "Why so much waste?". The supermarket model creates waste by definition. In order to maintain an "attractive" display it is necessary to have more stock than can be realistically sold. As soon as the display starts to look empty sales drop.

The sell-by date system also creates a huge amount of waste. It is not a legal requirement in itself, but once shown on a package the retailer must comply with it. It has become standard practice by default rather than by legislation. Most food is still edible well beyond its sell-by date.

It is also worth remembering that most national supermarket chains do not sell truly fresh food. Due to the distribution process it is at least three days old, and usually more, before it even gets on the shelf! Which is why they insist on so many synthetic preservatives in their products.

Until about ten years ago most fresh products were supplied to each store direct by the producers/manufacturers. Each supermarket company insisted that it was supplied on a sale or return basis, and then deliberately over-ordered by one-third. Except for bread, and possibly milk in some cases, this system has now changed and all products are now supplied to a central distribution depot. Manufacturers and producers still cover the cost of waste by the grossly unfair discount structure operated by the main supermarkets.

Sunday, 9 August 2009


Two films exist with this title. (Perhaps more.) The latest - starring Isabelle Huppert - has been described as a "rather beautiful eco parable from Ursula Meier." I hope to see it one day, but this seems unlikely to be at our Cheltenham Cineworld.

Meanwhile, I've been watching the other (current) Home - at home, on the computer. It's a 93-minute documentary film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, with the most beautiful photography of our world from the air. It also has the most annoying soundtrack, but that is easily eliminated by turning the volume off and the subtitles on. Well worth watching!

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Challenging the consumerist ethic

Tony Emerson has posted this on the Christian Ecology Link bulletin board: worth repeating, I thought.

We need to be challenging the consumerist ethic. The marketing processes adopted by modern business are at a level of sophistication undreamt of previously. Advertising is only the tip of this iceberg - market research, motivational research, 'sexy' product design, packaging, product placement, viral marketing, the availability of easy credit, corporate lobbying... these are only a selection of the techniques used either to create or to shape artificial demand, create (artificial) replacement demand or create addictive or dependency-induced repeat demand.

Small environmental movements cannot even think of matching the resources used in such processes. But we can adopt a range of approaches or techniques to undermine their unnecessary consumption-promoting strategy.

First, always challenge the economic dogma that 'consumer demand' is something natural and spontaneous: JK Galbraith exposed that myth 50 years ago, but Governments still base their policy on it, and say 'environmental action should be confined to technology of production.'

Many environmental campaigners also go along with the dogma. So, the need for the journey, the need for living in a particular size house in a particular location, the need for heating your house to 26 degrees C, the need for changing your clothes with the fashion, the need for a particular meat diet… : these are all 'spontaneous' and 'natural'. We are 'arrogant, elitist killjoys, would-be cavemen' if we challenge this dogma. 'We must wait for a new magic generation of green machines to come on the market.'

We have to take that risk of unpopularity - nothing new here for Christians.

Secondly: we need to discuss more how we best challenge the economic dogma of (spontaneous) consumer demand. We can sound as if we are rather elitist, effectively accusing people of being silly or foolish. One principle is that it is easier to challenge someone if you have built up a trusting, mutually-respecting relationship with them. This does make it easier to get an effective environmental programme going in a Christian community, where hopefully we have developed such relationships.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Some while ago, I appointed myself as Welcomer at the mass I usually go to: what this means is that I arrive a bit early to hand out mass books. (Having to get to church on time has always been a strain for me: my grandfather's description of our family's churchgoing was "Once a week and late at that!")

Most people seem pleased to be Welcomed, I find, though some defiantly look away. And I remain a little diffident, as I know that there are even priests who are not in favour of Welcoming.

Anyway, my diffidence is mitigated by an article I have just read, which - kind permission of both author, The Rev. David Deboys, and publisher - I set out here:

Why do we do what we do? Why do we believe what we believe? What is the inter relationship between experience and belief? These are not small questions, but I want to focus them on one particular issue: how we welcome people into church. My answer, simply and starkly, is that welcoming people into church is a gospel imperative. Not to welcome people is a denial of the Gospel. I want to engage with these assertions from family experience and from theology.

Our perceptions are coloured by our experiences. I moved to my present parish in west London on the Feast of Christ the King, 2008. A family member moved to another part of London at around the same time. For six Sundays she worshipped in a well-known parish church. No one spoke to her. No one said hello. No one made the slightest attempt to make her welcome. She was very upset by her experience. She was seeking a place to worship and become part of a community. That wasn’t on offer. Her experience has reinforced my theological commitment to making.

It seems to me that the New Testament bears the scars of the rejection of Jesus. Carol services will often climax in the reading of the first chapter of St John’s gospel. Verse 11 reads: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” There it is, no welcome. Indeed the lack of welcome leads to the Calvary of rejection and Crucifixion. And the first Christians, in deliberate counterpoint to that, stressed welcome. The note of welcome permeates the New Testament. The two on the road to Emmaus find that the stranger in their midst is none other than the risen Christ – but they would not have discovered this if they had not welcomed him into their home. The Epistle to the Hebrews stresses the need to welcome strangers (13: 2): “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

But welcome in a twenty-first-century parish needs some subtlety. I have no truck with buttonholing those who cross the threshold. Our welcome must be genuine, but allow people to melt away quietly at the end of the service if that is their wish.

At my church of St Barnabas in Ealing we have introduced a team of badged welcomers to befriend any newcomer who is loitering after the service, or who actually stays behind to share coffee. However, this takes us back to the question that needs to be asked: what undergirds our welcome of other people?

(First published in The Tablet)