Down the Market.

 

I’ve always been a fan of the Bullring Market in Birmingham, it’s one of the last places in the city centre where it’s possible to get a tiny glimpse of how Birmingham used to be, and it attracts people from all walks of life, from well known restaurant owners to the towns most eccentric characters. On weekday mornings, nice old fashioned brummie retireds come into town for shopping, and stay on for lunch at one of the market cafés, him in a shirt and tie, and her with immaculate permed hair. The market also has a large West Indian following, with one or two places selling the right sorts of spices, bread and fish, and it’s through talking to members of the congregation that I’ve found the best places to shop.

Unfortunately many of the family run fishmongers and butchers are disappearing fast, and are being replaced by traders who don’t seem to have much idea about what they are selling.

My favourite fishmonger is W Satchwell. The current Mr. Satchwell comes from a long line, I believe that the business was started by his great grandfather. Satchwell sells a very small selection of very high quality fish, most of which has only been out of the water for a day or two, and many of the offerings are line caught. The salmon, monkfish and trout are always delicious.

Many famous restaurants buy shell fish from George Smiths which was founded it 1874. I love their large oysters which come from fresh from Colchester every other day. Before this is cited as further evidence of the extravagant lifestyle enjoyed at the vicarage, they cost ninety pence each! They also sell lovely dressed crab and a whole host of other weird and wonderful Crustacea.

Red meat is best procured from Doherty’s who sell everything from steak to calves liver. Expect a bit of banter, and if you become a regular they will cut you some magnificent deals, particularly if it is the end of the day.

Mr. Fish are the only stall with a game licence. They sell a range of game in season including birds that need plucking and preparing if you are brave enough. Good quality quails eggs are available all year round.

Outdoors it is possible to buy fruit and vegetables, which in my experience, are often nearing the end. It is worth looking out for the stall that sells cheese though. There is always a large selection and it is so cheap.

The Wholesale Market is being demolished which is a real shame. It has been really convenient to be able to buy flowers for Corpus Christi and Easter and then take them home on the Number 16.

 

 

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Smoke and mirrors.

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My family have some neighbours who have become friends over the years. There house is essentially a holiday home, used at the weekends and for a few weeks over the summer. Always well kept and tended, the house has always given the impression that it was lived in on a permanent basis, up until last Autumn when a sudden family bereavement meant that it would be locked up, curtains closed, shut down. From being a lively place full of life, it now exudes sadness. Perhaps in a few months, or even years, new owners  will breath new life into it.

I wonder what the place in which we live says about us?  Some might argue that such things are irrelevant, and indeed many people simply do not have an aesthetic sense, looking for utility and convenience in their surroundings rather than what they look like. Unfortunately I do have an aesthetic sense, though I sometimes wonder whether life might be a lot easier if there wasn’t so much polishing and arranging to be done. These days it’s possible to buy a whole room in IKEA, complete with contents. No thought process or imagination necessary. This isn’t actually an original concept. In the 18th and 19th centuries furniture makers had illustrated catalogues of their wares. Even church furnishers had catalogues of mass produced stained glass windows, silverware and brass.

At Christmas time we erected a scaffolding tower in the church  which was draped with yards and yards of black fabric, as the basis for the nativity scene.Symbolically we placed plumes of Palm branches in the crib, pointing towards the fact that the Jesus was born to die. At Easter this structure was transformed into the open tomb and easter garden, complete with a fountain and goldfish pond. Soon the structure will become the upper room for Pentecost. Not quite sure how we will achieve toungues of fire yet. Peoples reactions to these excessive displays vary, from complete indifference to appreciation for an inspirational and symbolic addition to the church building. I do enjoy putting together these displays, and over the last few years others have enjoyed playing a part too. The primary motivation for these extravagant displays though is very simple. After so many years of neglect and decay, they point to the fact that we can enjoy the church building, and that in itself it can point us towards greater truths. That’s the joy of the catholic tradition, that sensory experiences can draw us ever closer to God.

I would love to be a able to step back in time to see what the church looked like in decades gone by. From Victorian glory to the decay of the 1970s and 80’s. All places go through seasons, we pray the in the next few years summertime might start to dawn.

Silence in the midst of chaos.

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In common with countless other churches in the Catholic Tradition, after our Maunday Thursday Mass at St. Michaels this evening, there will be an opportunity to retire to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel to keep watch with The Lord in the garden of Gethsemane.

When I was growing up, our rather eccentric and flamboyant parish priest would conclude the watch at midnight by throwing thirty ten pence pieces down the aisle (I guess to represent the thirty pieces of silver, though I never asked).

The Blessed Sacrament chapel at St. Michaels is a very special place, it was here that the sacrament was first reserved in secret, in fact the chapel is a converted church porch. It is extraordinarily quiet, despite the fact that we are on one of the busiest thoroughfares into Birmingham you can hear a pin drop thanks to the colossal stone walls. I always feel there is something very powerful about praying in a stillness that is in the midst of the busyness. Outside the church life goes on while we keep watch, bringing before The Lord the needs of the world around us.

invariably my mind will wander at some points. I will remember the people and places I have had an association with all around the country, keeping watch with us, friends and colleagues, a countless number of faithful friends who no longer worship at any altar on earth, but in the silent cloud of witnesses. There is something incredibly moving about taking part in a act which at the very deepest level exists outside of time and space.

shooting up outside a church near you.

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An un-comprehensive reflection on ‘drugs,’ no clever ideas. Be great to hear your comments, feel free to add to the conversation.

‘It’s all caused by the drugs,’ with a sigh and slight shrug of the shoulders.

‘The drugs’ is a common mantra today. The root source of every social evil, from litter on the streets, to the antisocial behaviour of young people. It all seems to be caused by ‘the drugs.’ I’ve frequently found myself blaming some social ill or other on ‘the drugs’. But what are ‘the drugs’, this Phenomena which has been given a ubiquitous, evil, all powerful, almost otherworldly attribute. Are ‘the drugs’ really this powerful and are they responsible for every ill in contemporary society?

Actually, ‘drugs’ are not a new phenomena, in the 19th century it was possible to buy cocaine, morphine, opiates, and arsenic from high street chemist shops, no questions asked. In the countryside, travelling hawkers made these substances available. Unsurprisingly, use of cocaine grew amoungst the working classes during the industrial revolution, a period of rampant social change and unease, but use of cocaine was widespread in then 19th century anyway, and right across the social divide. It was only in 1868 that restrictions were put in place to control the sale of dangerous substances, and it was around this time that contemporary literature makes mention of the East End Opium dens in London. In the 19th century drug use was thought of in terms of habit rather than addiction. Indeed in the original novels, the crime hero Sherlock Homes would ‘shoot up’ in his spare time to stimulate his senses.

it was in the early 20th century that many of these substances were outlawed, but it is only in recent decades that the use of mind changing prescription drugs has become much more restricted. In the early 1980’s when my mother was left widowed with a toddler, she was prescribed as much valuim as she wanted. Now it’s modern day equivalent, diazepam wouldn’t be prescribed in any shape or form in similar circumstances. I’ve seen addicts of this particular drug suffer, it’s hideous to watch, we think we’ve got a handle on addiction now, but very few people ever truly recover from drug addiction without relapsing. Addiction is a very complex thing, and what works for one person might not work for another.

I could reflect on the contemporary global drugs trade, and how it funds crime and corruption, or how drug use has been a part of the life of every prison I’ve ever worked in, where people who have never considered using drugs, become addicted during their ‘rehabilitation’ process. Instead I want to think about drug use in my context, that’s to say the inner city’s of the UK, and what impact and influence drugs have in places like Handsworth. The caveat is that the urban myth about drugs being everywhere is partially true.

Early on in prison ministry, I once had a conversation with a women who had been in and out of rehab for years. Upon one of her many releases from prison she went to a place in rural Devon, near to a small town outside Exeter that I am well acquainted with. I asked whether the distance from bad influences and the seeming lack of available drugs in this very quiet backwater had helped her?

She explained that it is possible to find drugs anywhere. It took her twenty minutes to score even in this town that only just manages to maintain a sad excuse of a mini supermarket let alone anything else. It’s all a case of looking out for certain kinds of people, pubs that have that look about them…

There is no question that drug use is a major issue issue here. The number of needles I collect from the church grounds makes that abundantly clear. I was reflecting only last weekend how busy my street is with drug dealers buying and selling. It’s a quiet backwater alongside one of the major thoroughfares into Birmingham city centre so it’s hardly surprising. Consignments are dropped off here for street dealers to sell on. Money exchanges hands, drugs are sold on the street corners, and meetings take place in the back of terribly expensive cars. I’m on speaking terms with some of the street dealers. They never ply their trade in the church grounds, and on occasions have alerted me to suspicious activity around the church. On a personal level, one of the dangers with all of this is that it starts to become the norm. That said, a few months ago a very smart asian man, dressed immaculately, complete with a prayer hat, and groomed beard was buying a quantity of illicit substances opposite the church gate. This did catch me by surprise. The other strange thing is when trade seems to be most brisk. Sunday mornings are very busy from 9am onwards for some reason.

It is clear that drugs mean big money. A seizure of heroin made in South Birmingham in 2013 was valued at more than 300 million pounds. Cash changes hands below the radar, organised crime is fuelled as a result, and then we see guns and knifes on our streets. Telling young men that crime doesn’t pay is a nonsense. When you see your older brother driving sixty thousand pounds worth of car, the arguments put forward in school assemblies about the dangers of drugs and crime are just annoying background noise.

Challenging the sale of drugs on our streets can be a dangerous business. I had the privilege of working with the brilliant Father Paul Hackwood for a time, when he was Vicar of St.Margarets Thornbury in Bradford.  He now heads up the Church Urban Fund.  I remember Paul challenging dealers selling drugs outside our local school, which nearly caused a violent backlash. On a few occasions we spotted a grandmother selling drugs from the back of a pushchair with a child in it. In Bradford at that time, People identified as having reported drug dealers had there windows smashed. Well do I remember a parishioner being shown a handgun through a car window for the same reason. Big money at stake.

Nothing much has changed in the inner cities. From industrial boom, which brought about squalor and discord for the working classes who used illicit substances to make life more bearable, to the post industrial hinterland which still exhibits poverty, hopelessness and desperation. It’s all here, and drugs are still a means of temporary escape from it.

But what of our national cry, ‘it’s the drugs.’ What is the validity of our claim that they are responsible for every one of our social ills?

I think it’s certainly possible that ‘the drugs’ contribute, but perhaps many of the problems we face in the UK today have a background a little closer to home than any of us might care to admit. A cursory glance through social discourse from the earliest times will reveal that social ills and discord in society has always existed, although it is certainly true there have been periods of relative harmony. In today’s world however, we have reached the pinnacle of a disconnect. Interdependence is in danger of being lost. An example is that we pay taxes (in part) to help fund the existence of those who are not able to support themselves for whatever reason. Yet why should my money support people I don’t know, don’t care about? Vilifying them makes me feel better, more superior, especially in the belief that I am right to look after myself and my family whilst the needs of others should come second, or do I mean they are immaterial?

It was fascinating that after the field day the press had with Channel Fours Benefits Street, with MP’s jumping on the bandwagon to fuel the fire, a more analytical process came into play. Doubt was cast upon the journalistic integrity of the editing  of the footage broadcast, and after one live television debate many more followed. We began to learn more about the characters on Benefits Street, and why they were on benefits and in the particular situation they were in. A lot more debate followed, and then the many stories about ordinary families who had lost there jobs and homes during the recession, ending up destitute, sleeping in cars and on garage floors, stuck on benefits. A little bit close to home?

Yes, we have lost a lot of our inter connectedness, our common humanity. The expectation that we share/help others, and can expect that same in return?

Anybody could become addicted given the right circumstances. Drug use is fuelled by social isolation and desperation. We can all of us play a part in connecting with those around us, building community and bringing some humanity back into our world, through our churches and the other networks we are a part of.

In the inner city, drugs fuel a lack of connectedness between people of very different cultures, who tend to exist only within there own communities, because drugs attract crime and deprivation, making already fragile communities unsafe and fragmented. The inner city is home to vulnerable and isolated people. It’s no surprise that statistics reveal that in areas like this, hospital admissions as a result of substance misuse are at some of the highest rates in the UK.

 

 

The inside track.

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This weekend sees the official launch of Gas Street Church, a multi million pound project which will be based in a converted gas works which has been turned into a church centre. This is a joint venture between Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the Diocese of Birmingham. It has been developed on the premise that Birmingham has one of the youngest populations in the UK.  Essentially Gas Street is a resourcing church which it is hoped will build a base of young disciples who will be equipped to enable mission in our parishes. In addition a team of youth workers or missioners have been employed to help support a select group of parishes who can afford them.

Nobody could disagree that it is important that our Diocese has a mission strategy, and engaging with our young people seems to be an excellent approach to mission on many different levels.

Growing Younger / Gas Street Church has not been universally popular amongst the clergy, with some being concerned that young people will be attracted away from their churches and towards the fantastic facilities, music and well resourced social activities that are sure to be rolled out. Constructive criticism is largely made behind closed doors.

In truth this project isn’t going touch us here in Handsworth. It is unlikely that anybody from the resourcing church is going to want to come here, and we can’t afford to pay the expenses of one of the youth workers on offer. A percentage of our common fund contributions will fund the project, even though we can’t access any of the benefits. You can understand  why this is just a little perplexing.

A senior colleague from another Diocese suggested some time ago that the development of the HTB model of church in Birmingham will eventually mean that there is no place for those of us from the Catholic tradition.  I hope this is not true, although the HTB model seems to be white, middle class and affluent, nothing like ‘doing church’ in Handsworth.

We are developing our own mission strategy at the moment. This place is ripe for community engagement because of its location. I was promised a great deal of resources and support when I first arrived, alas they have never materialised. When I have occasionally asked for support, I have been very politely reminded that it’s ultimately my responsibility, if indeed a response has been forthcoming at all. Get on with it. This is fair enough on one level, but really frustrating when you have a vision, but none of the resources to make it happen, when you know a small catalyst could make the difference between success and failure.

Thankfully my vocation has never been dented, but it’s been a lonely and disempowering journey, and just occasionally soul destroying, probably because I care. But I still do believe in what I am doing, for the time being at least.

No, I’m afraid that we don’t tick many boxes, ‘inner city’ ‘catholic tradition’ ‘deprivation index’ etc etc. Only time will tell if there is any future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bile Bean anybody?

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I was brought up in the small market town of Newton Abbot in Devon. In truth most people have just about heard of it, because in decades gone by, when Midlander’s holidayed on the English Riviera, a change of trains was often inevitable at Newton Abbot. The town really developed because of the coming of the railway in the mid 1800’s. When I was growing up the old town began to fade into mediocrity like most other small towns in the mid 1980’s. One place that has always stuck in my mind was the wonderful old chemist shop called Bibbin’s on the high street. When I was growing up I was fascinated by the brightly coloured bottles, and the vast number of tiny mahogany drawers with glass labels inscribed with strange Latin names. As a teenager I collected old Victorian chemist shop bottles (which had to have their original contents), and tins and vials of various Victorian potions. When Bibbin’s eventually closed, I was able to buy all sorts of bits and pieces from the shop, including bottles moulded into the shape of a coffin lid to warn Victorian householders (who lived in dimly lit conditions) that the bottle contained a poison. I was, and still am fascinated by the claims made by quacks in the Victorian era, and I still possess a number of Victorian wonder potions that claim to cure a mind numbing number of conditions.

Later, among a number of weird and wonderful jobs I did as a student, I worked in the laboratory of a well known (though now defunct) cosmetics company. Naturally I found this fascinating, and I gained quite a considerable insight into the world of lotions and potions. The long and short of it, is that face creams, shampoos or bars of soap might bear the name of a high end fashion house or designer, but they are all made in a factory somewhere. Whether something costs a pound or one hundred pounds, the industrial process is the same. Raw chemical ingredients arrive at the factory in metal drums or large plastic containers, or in an oil tanker. However expensive a product might be, shampoo for example, they are almost all (there are a few exceptions) made from the same chemical ingredients. The other interesting thing is that products that contain extracts of this or that, for example herbs or some kind of fruit or flower, actually contain only a vague trace of said ingredient, to the extent that it’s presence really makes no difference at all, apart from the marketing appeal it might have. Another myth is that a product is ‘new and improved.’ It is actually very difficult to improve the formula of most of the products that we buy. Last year a great deal of publicity surrounded research that suggested that the homeopathic remedies we spend millions on every year, are never likely to have any effect because the ‘active’ ingredients are so diluted. The placebo effect is a whole other thing.

Advertising and spin really took off in this country in the mid to late 19th century, the ‘age of advertising,’  And it has been developing ever since, and now encompasses almost every aspect of our lives. In the world in which we live, we are all of us only too aware of how media and communications are used to influence are thinking and the decisions we make, sometimes consciously other times unconsciously. From the things we choose to buy, to the newspapers we read to inform our thinking, there is no doubt that we are all influenced by advertising and the media. Whether we like it, care to admit it or not, we are surrounded by it, immersed in it. Almost everything we engage in, has in some way been touched by advertising or branding, which has influenced the way in which we will perceive it. More often than not to enhance reputation or the way in which it will be perceived. From politics to the charities we can be persuaded to give money to, all have been given one sort of media or communications treatment or other, to make us believe, make us buy, encourage us to follow.

Organised religion certainly hasn’t escaped this. Indeed within the Church of England there is a whole department dedicated to helping us “present the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in an ever changing communications environment.” I think it is right that we present ourselves in a manner in which the modern world finds accessible and engaging. Every Diocese now has a communications advisor, who can help with everything from website design to the make-up of a church notice board. We now know quite specifically what makes a church or activity appealing and what doesn’t.

To my knowledge though, there is no comprehensive national communications strategy for encouraging the general population to attend church or to engage with the possibility of following Jesus, or even perhaps to contemplate Christian faith. Before anybody corrects me, I know there is a national youth strategy, and of course every diocese must have a mission platform or mission tool, which all clergy must love and embrace without question. I wonder what a comprehensive national strategy would look like though? Part of our strategy would have to be creating disciples. Perhaps every Diocese would be required to mobilise a road show in every town and city in the country, giving out free bibles with a team of clergy to talk to passers by about faith. Of course that’s what our Muslim Brothers and Sisters do now with their literature, as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses, with a fair degree of success. Good for them.

How else might we engage the nation in thinking about Jesus? Social action would have to be on the agenda in some way or other. Actually the amount that churches and church based charities do for the poor and needy up and down the country is not to be underestimated, but in actual fact, we have the skills, manpower and resources to do a lot more. In Birmingham for example, we could eradicate homelessness on our city streets if we were really determined to do so. In truth The Church of England could mobilise free debt advice, hot meals for those in need, and a whole lot more in every town and city in the land. ‘By thy deeds thy will be known.’

We talk a lot. Church leaders, myself included, have opinions about contemporary issues and we are always keen to voice them. From childhood poverty to corporate tax avoidance, our voices join the ‘conversation’ as the debate is now called in social media. There is a subtle difference though. When our Bishops take a firm stance  on something, politicians and journalists sit up and take note, even if they immediately try and discredit what has been said, as ‘out of touch’ or ‘ideological.’ When Archbishop Justin has spoken out on contemporary issues over the last few years, more often than not, whoever decides to make a story newsworthy on the television or in newspapers runs with it, and there is debate.

The tabloids hope that when the Church speaks on an issue, it will take the stance of ‘right wing middle England’, indeed comment is often sought on that premise. When the church speaks out against this group or that group not being treated fairly, or about the plight of people who are financially disadvantaged, great dismay is voiced by those journalists who claim to speak ‘for the people.’

Maybe the church is now so media savvy that it knows how to work the system to make its voice heard? Or just perhaps, the voice of faith, however counter cultural or ‘out of touch’ (as it is so often portrayed), still has a very real resonance in modern Britain. Perhaps the voice of our faith leaders is perceived as worthy of consideration because it comes from the perspective of faith conviction and not spin, not particularly what people want to hear, but nevertheless carrying a moral thread that is difficult to ignore. I don’t know, but what I do know is that our voice can still be heard, unlike in most of Western Europe where religious opinion counts for less and less. As a church it is essential we engage with contemporary forms of communication, but we must have the courage and conviction to speak with a voice of faith and not spin, which hasn’t been worked over by communication and media consultants to make it more palatable. We must know the speak, and when to speak, and sometimes when to remain silent, empty platitudes help nobody, unless we are willing to really grapple with, and try to solve whatever issue is at stake.

 

 

Its human nature.

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John Faber I engraving. Mezzotint. Formerly in the collection of the hon. Christopher Lennox Boyd.

Around eleven years ago now, I met two people who really challenged my cynical view of human nature. I was working in a prison in Surrey at the time, and came across two women who had been caught bringing a large amount of drugs into the country via Gatwick Airport. They were very young, in their early twenties, and had up until that time lived ordinary lives in the Netherlands. Seemingly they had been taken on holiday by their new boyfriends, who had arranged ‘new luggage’ for them before they went on ahead from Brazil to London for a few days site seeing and shopping.

The inevitable happened. Never underestimate the significance of question at check in, “have you packed your bag yourself.”

The women were in prison for just under a year, until they went to trial. They found the experience of being in prison devastating. One of them had a young child back at home.

I arrived at work one day to find them outside the prison, waiting to collect their belongings, they were ecstatic.

They were innocent, and authorities in several countries had worked together to identity those responsible in several very sophisticated operations. The case against the women was dismissed in its entirety.

Sometimes it’s easy to assume somebody is guilty before they have had chance to prove their innocence, as this story shows. Meaningless phrases such as, ‘There’s no smoke without fire’ and ‘I told you so’ are unhelpful, and plainly not a Christian response to other people’s pain and misfortune.