Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Life in the midst of death

Death is so present at the moment. Covid-19 deaths in the UK (and other countries) are sky-rocketing, in quite scary ways. Within our church communities, we know a number of people who have lost loved ones recently. 

And yet there is always a tension between death and life. There is death in life, and life in death. I have no firm belief about what an afterlife might look like, but I find comfort in traditional Christian imagery around the life to come, even if it seems more like poetry than prose to me. Indeed, I think such words and images exist to comfort the grieving rather than to provide anything like a model of the nature of the universe. Certainly I learnt much more about the words of Brahms' Requiem "What then do I hope for? my hope is in thee" after I said goodbye to a colleague who shortly afterwards died; and I learnt more about the statement in Revelation 21:4 that "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more" when I read it at my father's funeral.

And these words are especially encapsulated in music for me. In John Rutter's Requiem, there is a wonderful setting of the Agnus Dei, the traditional words from the Requiem Mass in Latin, that read "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace" (Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem). Those words are given to the high voices, who sing in a hopeful, but tense and anxious way. At the same time, the low voices sing under them words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: "In the midst of life, we are in death". 

And the combination is breathtaking, and achingly hopeful and sad at once. There is death in life, and there is life in death. 

Image: American Society for Cybernetics
This combination was one of the many themes found in the writing of the anthropologist and systems thinker Mary Catherine Bateson, who died a week ago on 2nd January 2021 at the age of 81. I was very fond of her work - in my book Systems Thinkers (with Karen Shipp), we wrote of her "strong respect for the individual with an awareness of wider forces to which they relate" and described her as "an individual who has taken systems ideas so deeply into herself that they influence all of her thinking and writing, and who has written at length about that process". 

Since her death I have been reading a lovely piece she wrote in 1993 entitled 'Into the Trees' (written for an anthology which can be found online, but also republished in her excellent collection Willing to Learn). She writes at length about forests as embodiments of this tension between death and life: 
Walking through the woods, I am reminded that there is as much death here as life. It is a mistake to think the word forest refers only to the living, for equally it refers to the incessant dying. It is mistake to speak of preserving forests as preventing the death of trees. Forests live out of the deaths of toppled giants across the decades, as well as the incessant dying of microscopic being. Without death, the forest would die. Ultimately, it is only the removal of trees that can deplete the forest. ... Death is apparently not a failure of life, but a mode of functioning as intrinsic to life as reproduction. To see life without seeing death is like believing that the earth is flat and matter solid - a convenient blindness.
Mary Catherine Bateson was a committed member of the (American) Episcopal Church, so she would have known the old Book of Common Prayer, and I see in her words their insight that in the midst of life, we are in death. One of her much-loved articles discusses the death of her father, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, under the evocative title 'Six Days of Dying'. In a marvellous interview for the podcast On Being, originally recorded in 2015 but rebroadcast just days before her death, she said about her insight from writing about her father's death:
death is a very important part of life that we shouldn’t deny, that in spite of our terrible hubris and greed and competitiveness, that we can learn to see ourselves in proportion and realize that we’re small and temporary and don’t understand as much as we need to. And we live in a time of real urgency, where we have to mine the insights of the past.

Mary Catherine Bateson wrote extensively about life - perhaps her most widely-read book (and the theme of the much of the On Being interview) was entitled Composing a Life, on how we learn to live as a form of improvisation, and progressively find meaning in our lives as we go. Eventually life ends, but that brings me to one last piece of her wisdom from her memoir of her parents, With a Daughter's Eye, p.269 (thanks to my colleague Kevin Collins for finding the reference - there's a searchable version on Amazon):

The timing of death, like the ending of a story, gives a changed meaning to what preceded it.

I appreciate that wisdom as a historian of people with ideas, whose ideas can only really be understood once we them in full after their death (and sadly I've often understood systems thinkers best through their obituary and memorial articles in journals). But I also appreciate that wisdom as a person, still coming to terms with the death of my father just over a year ago, as we all need to take time to reflect on the lives of those we have known and those we have loved. Even if their stories have ended, our reading of those stories goes on for a long time to come.

In the midst of life, we are in death. But hope can be found in life, and hope can be found after death.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

All are welcome at the feast: a sermon on food and inclusion

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church on 11th October 2020. Texts: Isaiah 25:4-8; Luke 14:15-24.

All the passages we’ve heard today – from Psalm 23, from Isaiah, and from Luke – are to do with feasting. The word feast is perhaps a little old-fashioned now. It conjures up images of Oxford colleges or medieval banquets, it belongs to the world of Henry VIII or Hogwarts. Indeed, there are many memorable feasts in the Harry Potter books. Here’s how JK Rowling writes about the first one that Harry encounters, fresh from his unhappy cupboard under the stairs:

"Harry’s mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled with food. He had never seen so many things he liked to eat on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs."

Harry’s reaction is an important one, because although he was never starved at his terrible aunt and uncle’s house, he never had quite enough and never got the nicest things. In the same way, in a poor society where people are just scraping by, feasting on special occasions, every now and then, becomes really important. It’s a time to put away your everyday poverty and go wild for a brief time. 

Image: The Peasant Wedding by Pieter Brueghel, via

Let’s talk about food poverty in the world today for a moment, to put this in context. According to the most recent estimates, more than 800 million people across the world, roughly 1 in 9 of the world’s population, are undernourished – they don’t have enough food to live a normal active everyday life. This figure had been declining as a result of many international efforts, but it’s started to rise again in the past few years. 

As you might have heard, the United Nations’ World Food Programme has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. They give direct assistance to the very poorest people in the world, more than 100 million people, and their work has been all the more important during the coronavirus pandemic. Food and hunger really matter. The World Food Programme’s director, David Beazley, said the following after the announcement of the prize:

"Where there is conflict, there is hunger. And where there is hunger, there is often conflict. Today is a reminder that food security, peace and stability go together. Without peace, we cannot achieve our global goal of zero hunger; and while there is hunger, we will never have a peaceful world."

Nor is this just a problem of so-called less developed countries elsewhere in the world. In our own rich country, according to Oxfam, more than two million people are undernourished, and half a million people are reliant on food parcels. This is a national and a global scandal. Helping individuals such as happens here with the food bank is really important, but ultimately we need deep changes to the systems which allow so many people to go hungry.

Returning to the world of ancient Israel, they lived in an agricultural society where many people were only one harvest away from starvation. The wider middle eastern area from Iraq to Egypt, including Israel, was known as the Fertile Crescent for its benign climate for growing crops, compared to many other areas, but there were frequent famines and disasters. In that world,  feasting took on a deeper symbolism. It was a rare and special event. You couldn’t rely on it, and it felt like a gift from God. 

As a result, many societies have ritualised such feasts, built them into religious traditions of all sorts, and ancient Israel had plenty of those. It also had a deeper significance, in that feasting was a key image of what they looked forward to when God brought about a better world in the future, in the end times. Thus the prophets are full of accounts of the future time when God will make a great feast, a banquet of rich foods and fine wines, in the way that we saw from Isaiah. There’s no sense of this being a different place – this is a new earth rather than heaven – but it’s a world transformed, a world of justice and peace, a world where everyone is welcome and everyone is fed. 

And it’s that sort of feast that Jesus was talking about in his parable of the great banquet. It’s quite a complex story, of people being invited and refusing and then others put in their place. I have to confess that I’m not using the version of the parable that’s in the lectionary for today. We should be hearing the parable from the gospel of Matthew, which tells roughly the same story but adds layers of violence, exclusion and pretty blatant anti-semitism. Luke’s version is neater, has fewer layers, and is a lot less problematic. But there’s still a lot going on. 

Image: Jesus Mafa, via Vanderbilt University

Now it’s not obvious from the text, but invitations in the time of Jesus were quite unlike in our time. Today when you’re invited to a dinner or a celebration, you’re told the time and place. In Jesus’ time, the guests were invited well in advance, agreed to come, and only later would they be told when the celebration was actually happening. So those excuses are partly because something else had come up in the mean time, those people who’d bought land or oxen, or who’d just got married. They’re partly to do with the time that had elapsed between the initial invitation and getting the details. I’ve done that myself at work – said I was free for a meeting on a range of dates, then had some of those dates fill up. It’s not necessarily that you don’t want to make the date, but it’s certainly a matter of priorities. The people invited simply don’t find the dinner as important as the other things they’ve got on. Now this parable has often been read allegorically, with lots of different groups reckoned to be the various people who reject the invitation, but I suggest that a simpler reading is easier: some people were invited to the feast, but they couldn’t make it any more because they had more important things to do.

And understandably, this would be pretty hurtful to the person giving the feast. They’d put in lots of effort and money planning this feast, and their guests don’t want to come. That’s a pretty horrible feeling. I’ve organised various events, in churches or at work or socially, and the start time was approaching, and people weren’t turning up, and my heart began to sink. 

So I can readily imagine how the organiser of the feast might have felt by all those rejections. I think we can assume that he was a person of some high standing, so that all those rejections would have impacted on his social status as well, made him look less important. 

He begins to sound pretty angry about the whole thing. “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” and then later when that’s not enough, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled”. There’s a fair amount of grumpiness in that, but also a great deal of generosity. If we reckon that this man is rich, and was expecting lots of important guests at the feast, then it’s quite a shift to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. In a typical large social event of the time, those are the people who’d be at the far end of the table from the host, perhaps with less good food, if they got an invitation at all. But immediately before this parable, Jesus instructs those holding a feast to invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame rather than relatives or rich neighbours, as those people can’t repay you through a return invitation. And the treatment of people like these who the Hebrew prophets constantly held up as the example of justice in society – doing God’s work is to care for widows, orphans, refugees and the disabled. It turns a typical middle eastern banquet for the privileged into what one commentator, Leith Fisher, called “the rugged folk’s banquet”.

Image: The Additional Needs Blogfather

So I think this parable is a call to generosity for those who have power and money and privilege, both individuals and society, to consider first those people who are disadvantaged. Stronger than that, it’s a statement that this is the way of the kingdom of God, to welcome all and to include all. The kingdom of God upends the structures of society. The rich, the leaders, the privileged in private jets and expensive houses – they come last; the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalised – they come first in God’s kingdom.  

It’s a call to the church as well, to be a place of inclusion rather than exclusion. The hymn we heard before the sermon says that ‘all are welcome in this place’. It’s so wrong, indeed it’s breaking the clear word of Jesus in this parable, when churches turn away from their doors those who are disabled, or young children, or old people, or gay people, or people with autism, or transgender people, or people who don’t live locally, or people who aren’t enough like those in the existing congregation. The last hymn we’ll hear today begins “come all you vagabonds, come all you ‘don’t belongs’” and it was written based on this parable. Because that’s what the church is, or at least that’s what the church should be – the home of those who don’t belong, the home of the marginalised and the excluded.

And to me that’s a message of great hope. Because these are really rubbish times for a lot of people, but in those times that signs of hope are needed, and where messages like the feasts shown by Isaiah and by Jesus are so important. But they say: if you’re marginalised, if you’re on the edge of society in whatever way – then YOU are welcome at the table of the Lord. YOU are the invited guest at the great banquet. And YOU are beloved by God, in this time and in the world to come. 


Sunday, 13 September 2020

Forgiving others, as we are forgiven

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 13/9/2020. Text: Matthew 18:21-35.

In the past couple of months, we’ve been mildly obsessed as a family with the musical Hamilton, the big-ticket show in New York and London which was released in a filmed version on Disney Plus this summer. We’ve watched it three times and listened many times to the music. For those who don’t know, it’s a mostly historically accurate portrayal of Alexander Hamilton, a key figure in the American revolution and the founding of the United States as an independent nation. It’s full of brilliant music and lyrics, and some very powerful moments. One of the most emotional scenes is concerned with forgiveness, so it’s directly relevant to this passage.

In a terrible series of events, Hamilton had an affair when he was a prominent politician and his wife Eliza was away. He was subsequently blackmailed by the husband of the woman he’d had the affair with, which for complicated reasons left him open to charges of public embezzlement. To clear his name of those charges, he wrote a public pamphlet confessing to the affair, ruining his reputation and breaking his wife’s heart. His young adult son was then killed in a duel defending Hamilton’s honour, leading to a huge rift between Hamilton and Eliza.

In a beautiful song, Eliza burns all of Hamilton’s letters, writing herself out of his future narrative. And then they move together to a quiet part of New York, where they grieve and Hamilton sings how sorry he is, and where eventually Eliza is able to forgive him – and as Hamilton weeps, the chorus sing the word “forgiveness” over and over again. Another character refers to Eliza’s forgiveness as “a grace too powerful to name”.

Because that’s the thing about forgiveness. It’s really hard - really really hard. It takes time and it takes real work to forgive someone who’s done you wrong. Seventy-seven times, or seven times seventy times, as Jesus puts it. And for the one that gets forgiven, it’s experienced as an act of supreme grace. 

Forgiveness is a central theme in Jesus’ ministry, from start to end. He came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When he healed, he often told people that their sins were forgiven. And as he died, according to the gospel of Luke, he said “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. 

Jesus also taught about forgiveness in two important places in Matthew’s gospel. This is one, but the other we’ve spoken already in this service – the Lord’s Prayer, where he said the disciples should pray “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” ['forgive us our debts' in the Gospel], or “trespasses” as it’s often prayed in English churches, and went on after the prayer to say: “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins”. That’s his only commentary on the Lord’s Prayer – forgiveness is literally the most important part of the prayer according to Jesus.

The Unforgiving Servant by James Janknegt 

And so to the parable. It’s really quite complicated with its different servants. First thing to say is that it’s full of hyperbole, with details that are made deliberately stronger than they need to be. The amount the first servant is said to owe is so large to be impossible – in our money today it would be perhaps £4 billion. That’s the national debt of a small country. But it shows the sort of person the servant would have to be – someone huge and powerful in a life of the kind of hierarchical society pictured in the parable. That would make him a great lord, owing many obligations to his king but in turn owed many obligations by those in the many layers of the pyramid beneath him. And if the king forgave the debts of someone at the top of the pyramid, all the people below him also had their debts forgiven. So in refusing to forgive this much smaller debt – roughly worth £7000 in today’s money – the rich servant was not being mean and selfish, he was actively going against the whole point of forgiveness. By having his own debts forgiven, he was supposed to have forgiven those of others; he was breaking the rules, not passing on the good thing he had received. And debt is precisely the word found in the Lord’s Prayer, still said in Scotland as “forgive us our debts”, but as sins or trespasses here.

And it’s not hard to see why Jesus tells this story, why he links it to the life of the church community. Because forgiveness really matters in keeping any sort of community going. Consider conflict within churches. Conflict can simmer and remain around for many years, because people stay in the same churches for many years, even sometimes generations. I was part of a church once, in a town far from here, where thirty years earlier there’d been a big argument over the use of the building, a group of people had left to worship in another part of town, and progressively the people who had left got old and died off, with just a small number of them remaining. But the rift hadn’t healed. And it was still a hurt that people didn’t want to talk about. They really needed to forgive one another, but they simply couldn’t do so.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a man who has dedicated much of his ministry to forgiveness. In South Africa after the end of apartheid, he chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which enabled an entire society of people to forgive those who had done unbelievable harm to them. Tutu has spoken and written at great length about the necessity and the power of forgiveness. He wrote that “without forgiveness, there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations”.

We’ve all done so many things that we need to ask others to be forgiven, and many of us have had things done to us that are so hard to forgive. This is a subject that’s pretty difficult to confront. For some people, there are things that are too hard to forgive, or which take a very long time. It’s simply wrong to tell abuse victims, or families of those murdered, or people who have persecuted and hurt by institutions, that it’s their duty to forgive. One of the nasty and insidious ways that this passage has been used has to be try to force victims to come to terms with those who have hurt them, suggesting that otherwise they’re not fulfilling God’s will. Nobody should tell someone who’s been terribly wronged that they have to forgive.

And yet there are so many amazing stories of people who are willing to forgive those who have done them terrible harm. Desmond Tutu’s daughter, Mpho Tutu van Furth, herself an ordained priest, has written extensively of her experience in forgiving someone who murdered a person close to her. I heard her speak about this once, at the Greenbelt festival. She says that there is no one who cannot be forgiven – nobody is beyond forgiveness. Moreover, it is possible to forgive someone even if they show no remorse, and indeed by not forgiving someone you allow the one who injured you to dictate who you are. Forgiveness releases you to let go of the hurt and to move on. Or it might do so eventually.

Image: The Other Press

Nor is forgiveness just an individual thing. As a society we have committed so many acts that require forgiveness. The wealth of this nation for so many centuries was built on colonialism and on the slave trade, the exploitation of other people’s bodies to enrich people here. We can cast Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, and quite right too, but our whole nation requires forgiveness. 

Right now, we are damaging our planet on a level that is wholly unsustainable, through the profligacy of our lifestyle, with its pollution and its destruction of natural resources. We need to seek forgiveness from the earth, but just as much we need to seek forgiveness from future generations, those who are young right now like the school strikers, but also those generations as yet unborn whose lives may never have the same richness of the natural world that all of us here currently enjoy. This is an individual matter – we could all drive less, fly less, use less plastic, eat more sustainably and so on; but more so it’s a collective matter, and we need to change it collectively. 

And I could go on about things we do, individually and collectively, that require forgiveness. I’m sure everyone here can think of many such things. But we have Jesus’ example to follow, in the forgiveness he gave to so many people through his teaching and through his life. The parable presents the negative side, of what happens if we don’t forgive. But Jesus offered forgiveness to so many, and continue to offer forgiveness to us today. God through Jesus forgives us of all our sins, however terrible; it’s simply asked of us to do likewise. In the Iona Community’s prayer of confession in their daily liturgy, the words of forgiveness read:

May God forgive you, Christ renew you, and the Spirit enable you to grow in love.

May it be so for all of us today, and may we find that forgiveness reflected in the way we forgive others. Amen.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Reflecting on twenty years at the Open University

Twenty years ago today, I started work at the Open University, and I haven't stopped there since. This seems like a long time - as I'll be 50 in a few months, it's just over 40% of my life, a much higher proportion of my adult life. There's been times I've been very fed up with the OU or various of its aspects, but I've always been proud to work there. So to mark the occasion I've been reflecting a bit, on what I've done and what I might still do there.

The OU is amazing in the way it touches people's lives - giving the opportunity for higher education to those who have missed out in one way or another. It was set up with an explicit intent for social justice, and despite ups and downs has always retained that. I'm constantly struck by how much colleagues buy into the mission of the university, and especially this goal for social justice - as much as anything else, this is what has kept me at the OU all this time. Years ago I remember speaking at Quakers' Britain Yearly Meeting in a session about social action, with lots of people talking about brilliant work they were carrying out, feeling quite inadequate, but realising that working at the OU was its own form of social action - and I still feel that way.

In addition: I like the many people I've worked with at the OU, uniformly creative and caring; I like the fact that I'm basically paid to be a writer of high-quality teaching texts; I like the amount of freedom that my job allows, in what I do and when I do it; I like the way that around us academics is a huge infrastructure of people to turn our draft materials into really polished collections of learning resources (whether on paper or online); I like the caring nature of the organisational culture; and indeed I like working in Milton Keynes (even if I'm not sure when I'll next be there in person). 
My office door for the past 20 years

I also like having had the freedom to change my academic interests and affiliations over time. I've had the same office and the same job title for twenty years, but institutional changes have meant that I've been in three different faculties and four different departments, each with a somewhat different scope. When I joined, I was in the Systems Discipline, part of the Centre for Complexity and Change (still the best department title ever) in the Faculty of Technology; today I'm in the School of Computing & Communications in the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. Some of that's a merging process - we have much larger departments and faculties than 20 years ago, and I'm not sure that's all for the best - but quite a bit of it is to do with boundary shifting. 

Like most academics, my brain is wired to think of my work in the three categories of teaching, research and administration, so I'll write a bit in those categories.


The bulk of everyone's work at the OU has always involved teaching, and really good teaching at that. This sets us apart in the sense that a lot of universities (especially the more high-status ones) look down on teaching. In my twenty years I've written significant amounts of teaching materials for eight separate modules (which used to be called courses when I first arrived). These have the codes (the only way OU insiders refer to them) of T205, T853, T810, T215, T219, TM353, TM255, TB872; and they cover topics of systems thinking (in various forms), information systems, information & communications technology, and environmental management. 

Each of these modules/courses took a team of several academics (smallest was just me, largest over a dozen) around 2-3 years of intensive work of generating ideas, writing and rewriting, along with lots of media specialists to edit and make it look nice, at an investment of over £1m for the university. And each one (apart from one) has lasted around 8 years, with hundreds of students and a series of ongoing tasks of writing assessments, modifying materials, dealing with the tutors who teach our stuff directly, and many more. 
View from my office window in springtime

I've chaired four of these modules, three of them in 'production' (of a new module, including T810 which never quite got off the ground but begat the very successful Systems Thinking in Practice postgraduate programme), and three of them in 'presentation' (i.e. the actual study and management of the module over several years). For all these modules, the commitment has been multi-year and involved building an ongoing relationship with a team of academics and others. At any one time, I've only usually been working on a couple of modules (though I've been on various exam boards for other modules at the same time), but almost always have been writing for one module or another. 

None of this is especially unique - all OU academics have a similar story of teaching. I'm moved around somewhat in the subjects I've taught, more than some people, less than others (I know people who have written on both electronics and music, as just one example). But it's a very distinctive way of teaching, that non-OU people don't always realise. 


My research interests have also changed over time. By many academics' standards, my research career at the OU has been somewhat low-key, even weak. I've had no significant large-scale projects and no external grants (I've seldom seen the need, though occasionally I've applied for grants). I've published 3 books, 7 journal articles, 6 book chapters, and 7 good conference papers - not hugely many. But some of my research work I'm immensely proud of. 

Two areas to mention specifically:
  • Systems Thinkers: this is the biggest and best thing I've done. Back in 2002, Karen Shipp and I hatched a plan to take up one of the Systems Discipline's unfinished project, to write about the lives and work of the key people in systems thinking. After 2.5 years of a reading group with colleagues, and almost 5 years of intensive writing (and huge amounts of reading), this became our book Systems Thinkers (2009), which discusses 30 amazing people in loving detail through a series of 2500 word essays pinpointing their ideas and their lives accompanied by extracts from their work. Ten years later, Karen and I went through the 30 authors again, re-read our chapters, I read everything new I could find by or about our authors, and rewrote each chapter in the light of this, to produce our second edition (2020). I felt a real sense of passion for every single one of those 30 people as I wrote about them, a real urge to tell their story and link their ideas to the body of systems work; and I continue to be really pleased when I meet people who've found the book helpful. To date, chapters from the book have been downloaded more than 90,000 times.
  • DTMD: my other big research work at the OU, this time with David Chapman. In 2007 we co-organised an internal workshop to look at the way different academic disciplines gave a prominent role to information as a concept, but treated it in very different ways. This led to an edited book, two more workshops in Milton Keynes but with an international reach and some excellent speakers; and then three more workshops at other people's conferences. Many of the events ran under the label 'DTMD', The Difference That Makes a Difference, from Gregory Bateson's celebrated definition of information. We brought together a lot of interesting people and really managed to contribute to the burgeoning field of information studies (and even had a research group for a time under the DTMD label). Latterly, with other OU colleagues, we moved the work in a more critical direction, looking at the social, political, racial and gender impact of information and refocusing it under the banner of 'critical information studies'.
In addition to these, I've written more on online communications and collaboration, a topic which was really niche when I did my PhD in the mid-90s, still not that popular when we produced a book-length reader for T215, but now extremely mainstream. I've supervised two PhD students to completion, and I'm supporting a third at present. And I edited the long-standing journal Kybernetes for four years (with three other OU colleagues), which was exciting and high-profile but a huge amount of work and eventually just too much (especially publishing around 100 papers a year). So not too small an amount of research!


And lastly to the member of the academic trio that we all profess to hate. The OU does have an extraordinary amount of bureaucracy, stifling processes, growing hierarchy and form-filling. But it's all done in the cause of high-quality education and social justice, so it's still just about tolerable. And we still have vestiges of a collaborative approach to governance and self-management which I really appreciated when I first arrived, and some of which we still see today. 

So as well as the module chairing, I've regularly attended department and faculty meetings every few weeks or months - when I was first at the OU, monthly Systems Discipline meetings and quarterly Senate meetings (originally open to all) felt like really special and important occasions. I've been on a series of departmental committees, occasionally participated in organisational reviews and restructurings, and sat on various teaching committees. 

Since 2014, two admin roles have increasingly defined my working life at the OU. 

First, I've been an elected member of Senate for six years, participated in its quarterly meetings, written reports on each meeting, had numerous pre-meetings and side meetings, and participated in various attempts to work through Senate to lessen the damage of a series of really foolish attempts at organisational change (which ultimately led to the vice-chancellor being forced from office). 

Second, I've been part of the department's work on gender equality, first as a member and later as chair of the self-assessment team for the Athena SWAN scheme. I profoundly believe in gender equality, and the field of computing and communications which bounds my current department is discriminatory against women in all sorts of ways. So it's satisfying work, although also very very procedural and bureaucratic, with action plans and accreditation scheme. It's also drawn me into university-level gender equality work. 

All this admin takes a lot of time, and I sometimes doubt my usefulness to it. But it also contributes to the ongoing building of the OU.

The future

Who knows? People stay at the OU for a long time. I've thought about leaving more than once, and actively tried to go elsewhere a few times, but those didn't work out. For now, the variety, the commitments to social justice and high-quality teaching, and the chance to continue reading and writing, keep me there. Working with systems thinking again in the past couple of years is especially pleasing. I've been proud to be at the OU for 20 years, and I'm certainly not bored of it yet!

Friday, 3 July 2020

Sojourning in silence and systems

100 days into Covid-19 lockdown, and many people’s lives have changed. In lots of cases these are for the worse, but also things have become possible which were not previously seen as possible. Some have tried new patterns (as well as having new patterns forced upon them) – in my case I’ve also been returning to old patterns.

Here are two changed patterns.

I was a Quaker for fifteen years, a time of deep spiritual nurture, strong sense of shared values, and close community. I learnt hugely through my time as a Quaker, made many friends, served the Religious Society of Friends on several committees, and met and married my lovely wife Becky. I owe Friends (Quakers are the Religious Society of Friends) a great deal. Yet in time Becky and I chose to leave Friends, for both personal and theological reasons, and joined the United Reformed Church which is close cousin of the Church of Scotland where I grew up. We’ve been active in the URC for ten years now. 

But in lockdown I’ve returned to Quaker worship, which has entirely shifted online through Zoom. For the first few weeks of lockdown I attended online URC services in a variety of places (our own local church’s leadership refused to organise online worship) but found them slightly dissatisfying and passive. For a change, I attended my first Quaker meeting for worship in years, through a large gathering at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre. It was anonymous enough not to feel visible (though I recognised some names among the 150 people on Zoom), but I had a strong sense of rightness about the experience. Quakers sit together in silence, praying or meditating, until someone feels called to speak. There was a worshipfulness in the silence, strong ministry among those who spoke, and I had a sense of returning to something very familiar and loved – even though it was online and those 150 people were scattered through their own homes around the UK and beyond.

After a few weeks of attending worship at Woodbrooke, I thought it was time to make links with local Quakers. So I asked the clerk of Northampton meeting (where Becky and I were members for a few years) if I could have the link for the local Zoom meeting, and have been worshipping there every Sunday for a bit less than two months. Early days. And given that I didn’t leave Quakers entirely happily before, I’ve got quite a lot to process. But I feel a real rightness about being in the meeting for worship. 

Now these are extraordinary times for us all – times of transition, times between times, times when we’re all forced into new places. Quakers use the word sojourning for those Friends who are living away from their home meeting for a limited period of time, and who join in the active life of the meeting where they’re currently living. Sojourning Friends are full members of their current meeting, but only on a temporary basis. 

This is roughly how it feels for me to be attending Quaker worship at present. I honestly can’t say how things will feel after lockdown and face-to-face worship returns. I may return to the local URC, and to the lay preaching in other churches that has given me a lot of satisfaction over the past eight years. Or I may stay with Quaker worship, and consider rejoining the Religious Society of Friends (if they’ll have me). Of course this affects others in my family, and so it’s not just my decision alone. And of course there’s other context – our minister at my local URC has recently retired so the church is in vacancy, which can be a very fruitful or very challenging time for churches; and it’s still only nine months since my father died, which I’m still coming to terms with (and because he was deeply involved in churches, my feelings are inevitably affected by his death). 

A second story. This autumn I’ll be marking 20 years of employment at The Open University. I joined the Systems Department, and enthusiastically worked on systems courses for years, perhaps most fruitfully writing my book Systems Thinkers (written with Karen Shipp), which we published in 2009. I learnt hugely from people in the department, and learnt how to do good systems work. For various reasons – frustration with some of the department’s ways of working, a faculty and departmental restructuring, and keenness to work with others – I drifted away from the Systems Department. When our temporary department was split in two in 2014, I went with my colleagues in the ICT group and joined a new Computing & Communications department, and left the Systems people completely (who all joined the Engineering & Innovation department). I designed and led a new module with a strong Systems component (and drawing in some of the Systems group) but didn’t consider myself part of the residual Systems group – though I did edit a journal of cybernetics and given the work I was doing on information theory, was never far from the Systems world in research terms. 

Gradually wounds closed and I was persuaded to work on a second edition of Systems Thinkers, to support a rewrite of the successful Masters programme in Systemic Thinking in Practice which made use of the book. I had a really great time doing this last year, and realised in the process how much I missed working directly with the Systems group and on explicitly Systems courses. So I asked whether I could work on Masters programme, and agreed a block in a module on Managing Change which needed attention (with due permission from my head of department to allow for the complexities of OU inter-departmental politics and costings). 

It’s been a pleasing and strange experience to return to the Systems group, to return to the lineage of ideas and techniques which predated my arrival at the OU by more than 25 years, and to resume work with the people who I’ve known throughout my time at the OU. I’ve been a bit slow to get my head around approaches to systems in the material I’ve been given to revise, that are somewhat different to my own, but that’s no bad thing as a challenge. So my head is full of communities of practice and social learning, the theme of the block I’m writing/revising.

And I’ve made new connections. Prior to the lockdown I went to a workshop in Bristol on systemic leadership, run by the National Leadership Centre, along with two people from the Systems group. And since the lockdown began, I’ve spoken to my co-author on the Masters module weekly, Ray Ison, and attended a weekly online meeting with the Systems group. Through that weekly meeting, I agreed to co-facilitate an online workshop with a small charity to help them develop communities of practice, along with a Systems group colleague, Natalie Foster, who has joined the group in recent years and who I’ve only met in person a couple of times. Running that workshop was also a challenge but again really interesting.

So in many ways I’m also sojourning with the Systems group. I’m quite an active participant at present, in terms of teaching and research but also of group affiliation. It’s a bit of a different experience from my Quaker sojourning. The nature of departmental ties means that, because we’re in different departments, it would be a bit of a struggle to carry on like this for a long time – but not impossible. And I have other ties (teaching, research and administrative) that continue with people in Computing & Communications. 

But for now I’m happily sitting with part of my academic life back within the Systems group, just as I’m sitting with part of my spiritual life back within Quakers. Sojourning in each, who knows for how long? For the present, it’s a good place to be.

“For my journey was not solitary, but one undertaken with my friends as we moved towards each other and together travelled inwards.” – George Gorman, 1973 (Quaker Faith & Practice, 2.03)

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Mary and Martha – a dichotomy or an invitation?

Sermon preached at Duston United Reformed Church, 21 July 2019. Text: Luke 10:38-42.

This is a well-known passage that has sometimes been badly used to attack women, to present a never-good-enough situation where every option is wrong. So it’s a passage with danger in it. Yet to me it’s also a passage that’s got plenty of hope and encouragement. And first of all I want to say that I think it’s a mistake to treat this story as simply one about the domestic sphere. We’ll touch on that on and off, but ultimately it’s a story about discipleship and what it means to be a disciple, and it’s a story about hospitality, and what it means to offer hospitality. But ultimately I think it’s really important not to see it as putting two different ways of living in conflict with each other. The answer to Martha and Mary is one of both/and, rather than either/or.
Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer
By this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus has quite an entourage. In the previous chapter, which we read in the lectionary two weeks ago, he sent out seventy disciples to do his work, and then they returned to him. This story only mentions him going alone to Martha’s village, but he could well have had others with him. I think this explains some of Martha’s anxiety, that she was going to have to look after a large number of people.

It’s important to notice that this was Martha’s house that Jesus entered. Not Martha’s husband or brother or father’s house. She was the householder. If you know John’s account of the death of Lazarus, Martha and Mary are described there as his sisters, but here in Luke no such link is made, and this story about Martha and Mary is only found in Luke. These events were taking place in a deeply patriarchical society, but there were women who owned property, and it was often those women who provided great amounts of practical support to Jesus in his ministry. So she was the host both in terms of her work around the house and in terms of the invitation.

There's a crucial word in the Greek where Martha complains about Mary not helping her. It's often translated as service or serving, but the Greek word is diakonia, and it's the root of our English word deacon. That's a specific  ministry in many church traditions. In some of the congregational churches which became URC, the people we now call elders, who run the church both spiritually and practically, were called deacons. The church of England ordains its clergy as deacons before they become priests. And in the church where I grew up, we had both deacons to do practical leadership and elders to do spiritual leadership. But in all these traditions, the role of a deacon is a distinct form of ministry which involves practical service.

So when Martha is rushing around doing things, she's deaconing, she’s doing the work of a deacon, an act of ministry. We often think she’s simply doing domestic chores, preparing food or bringing guests drinks or whatever, and that may well have been part of it, but the text doesn’t actually say this. It’s equally possible she’s doing wider work in supporting these travelling preachers, Jesus and his disciples, of finding them accommodation or working out routes or warning of dangerous places along the way or seeking out money for them. Jesus told his followers not to carry a bag or sandals, and that only worked if there were people like Martha to welcome them and care for their needs.

So it’s little wonder that Martha was distracted by all that she has to do. The Greek word that is translated as distracted is really strong. It means she was close to breaking point, and is the root of our word spasm. Martha was not just some flighty woman having a bit of a moan, as she’s all too frequently been described. Martha was a strong woman carrying out an important ministry, and was driven practically to despair by the amount she had to do. Now maybe she’d taken on too much but maybe it was just the nature of the work. It continues today. I’ve been reading a book [Invisible Women] by the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, and she observes if you look at both paid and unpaid work, including household and caring work as well as formal employment, then women today work longer hours than men in almost every part of the world, and it has significant effect on their physical and mental health.

One more thing to say about Martha’s work. As I’ve said earlier, hospitality really mattered in that society, a message that’s emphasised through the Old Testament, and she was the one that was showing hospitality to others. Indeed, the story of Martha and Mary immediately follows the parable of the Good Samaritan, that tale of a man who helped others, and the closing words from Jesus to that parable are “Go and do likewise”.

This is all really important, because there’s a common reading of the story which is to downplay all this practical work of Martha. The closing phrase that “Mary has chosen the better part” has often been used to suggest that women’s work matters less, and especially that women’s domestic work matters less. I don’t know how many people have read or seen The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Attwood’s dystopia about a fundamentalist totalitarian society that places women into strictly policed roles. The domestic servants in that book are called Marthas, after this story, and in the TV adaptation they’re constantly shown in these very drab olive green dresses, and always working and working. But it’s really unfair to our Martha here, as I’ve shown already, and it’s really unfair to those who do domestic work, and especially women. Because the meals need to be cooked, the disciples need to be fed, the laundry needs to be done.

I’ve spoken quite a lot in support of Martha, so let’s turn to Mary. She’s also a really interesting figure. Because she was acting in a deeply counter-cultural role here, was really challenging her patriarchal society by engaging so actively with Jesus, in a way that was really uncommon for women. This phrase about sitting at his feet, as illustrated by Vermeer, can perhaps be taken literally, but it’s not just about gazing up at him adoringly. To sit at the feet of a teacher was to listen to them actively, to be their direct student, to absorb not just their words and messages but also their lifestyle, their way of talking and thinking. It was learning through observation, very much like being an apprentice. And of course the name for that kind of student was a disciple. Mary was actively being a disciple of Jesus. And it’s clear she was really listening, really absorbed in Jesus’ teaching.

There’s an interesting observation in one of the commentaries [by Richard Swanson] I read this week. The Jewish tradition of studying Torah is that it’s always carried out in dialogue with others. You need a study buddy. It’s not a matter of reading it and finding the right interpretation by yourself. Everything is open to discussion, debate, and there are no final conclusions. Jewish texts such as the Talmud are full of alternative interpretations and debates between scholars. And we can think of Jesus and Mary in this light, discussing the meaning and implications of a particular text or set of ideas. But then Mary is carrying out a vital service to Jesus, in discussing and debating with him, in enabling him to share and develop his ideas. Mary is showing hospitality to Jesus, in a different way from Martha, but a way that is just as important.

Because I think it’s quite wrong to put Mary and Martha in opposition to each other. Neither is better than the other. Both are necessary ways of being. And both are open to all of us. Jesus is clearly in favour of people showing hospitality, and he’s in favour of all people being able to learn and engage with important subjects. We all need to do both of these. “Are you a Martha or a Mary?” goes the question, and it’s the wrong question. The only good answer is “both of these, at different times of life”. The theologian Richard Rohr talks about the way that at one time in our life, we’re active in the world, rushing around, driven by success; and at other times we’re slower, quieter, more contemplative. He links it to different stages of life, younger and older people, but it’s also possible for us to live in these different ways at any time of our live. In other words, sometimes we’re Martha and sometimes we’re Mary.

And so when Jesus says “Martha, Martha”, he’s not criticising her or condemning her lifestyle or way of acting in the world. He’s offering her an invitation, that she too could exhibit the kind of discipleship that Mary was living, in addition to her own form of discipleship and ministry.

And he offers us the same invitation, the same opportunity to live in a different way. Even if we spend our time rushing around madly distracted by our many tasks, we’re invited to sit at Jesus’ feet and absorb his message. And likewise, if our place is to contemplate and read and discuss and think, then that needs to be tempered by action and caring work for the needs of others. Because it’s not about being either Martha or Mary. It’s about being both. And in that way we’re enabled to live in the fullness that Jesus promised to his disciples, and also to enable others to live in that fullness. Amen.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

New commandment, new creation

Sermon preached at The Headlands United Reformed Church, 19 May 2019. Texts: John 13:31-35, Revelation 21:1-6.

Image: Trinity Toledo Episcopal Church
We’ve heard two passages this morning about things that are new. We have a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation, and a new commandment in the gospel of John. For me, spring often feels like a time of new growth, of new life. And we are still in the season of Easter, and the readings are still on the theme of new life after death. In my view these two different things that are new are very closely linked. So we’ll talk first about the new heaven and new earth, and move on to the new commandment.

First thing to be said about the passage from Revelation, as ever with any reading of that strange book, is that nothing in it should be taken as prediction or at face value. It belongs to the category of apocalyptic literature and like all such work, it’s mostly a deep social commentary upon the world of its time, full of symbolism and strange imagery. It’s a book that’s often seen as rather threatening in mainstream churches, but I spent a month a couple of year ago reading my way through the book before the start of Advent and blogging about it, chapter by chapter, and I ended up with a strong respect for Revelation. 

So what’s this about? It’s not so much about the end-times as about the nature of the kingdom of God. It’s about bringing together heaven and earth into one, and building it on earth. Because although most translations talk about a new heaven and earth, there’s apparently a good case in the Greek for the word ‘new’ to be understood not so much as ‘brand new’ but as ‘renewed’, as recreated. Some special places in the world are sometimes described as thin places, a phrase I first heard to describe the island of Iona. In these places the gap between heaven and earth is said to be less than elsewhere. Well in this new Jerusalem, there is no gap at all between heaven and earth. God has come to live with his people here and now. And I do believe that the author of Revelation means this as a model for the present time, not just for the future, just as Jesus said ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’.

If God is present among us in this new Jerusalem, then all the bad things of the world will be at an end. Because the other thing about Revelation is that it was written at a time of great persecution, and written to people who knew all about death and mourning and pain. This is why the words are of such comfort, and why they’re often read today at funerals and have been set to beautiful music. My favourite setting is by Karl Jenkins, in his mass for peace in times of war, The Armed Man. As an idea it’s also the basis of CS Lewis’ vision of the eternal future in his final book in the Narnia series, where after the end of the world of Narnia he talks of the ‘real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here’. The new earth is the same as the current earth, only more real and better than the current earth.

But if it’s true that this is an image of the kingdom of God now rather than just in the future, if it fits with the words of the Lord’s Prayer that “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”, then how is this to happen? Well, I think for that we need to look to our other text for today. And as a link I want to share with you a hymn from the Iona Community, written by John Bell, which reads:
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
Beginning with you and starting today.
Behold, behold, I make all things new,
My promise is true, for I am Christ the way.
So let’s turn to the new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples. It’s the same word for new in the Greek as the new heaven & new earth, so there’s a clear link there, along with the same sense of renewal. It’s a strange thing to call new in some ways, the idea of loving one another. If we just see that in terms of love within the group of believers, just as love for fellow Christians, then that’s not new at all. The idea of loving one’s neighbour is in the book of Deuteronomy, and it was described by Jesus as summing up the whole of the law, along with loving God. But when asked who he meant by neighbour, he offered the amazing parable of the Good Samaritan, full of images of outsiders and crossing of boundaries. And throughout his ministry he warns that simply loving those who love us is insufficient, and that we must love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us, even seventy-seven times. So already in the gospels we see Jesus presenting love for others as being something expansive and costly.

Yet in this passage we see a still more costly love being presented as a model. Context is always important in understanding scripture, and although the lectionary presents this as the gospel reading four Sundays after Easter, it occurs in the narrative at the Last Supper. Shortly before this passage, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, giving them his model of leadership and love through sacrifice – what is sometimes called servant leadership; and he explicitly says that the disciples should wash each other’s feet. Then we have Jesus’ prediction that one of the disciples will betray him, and he makes it clear through his actions that he’s talking about Judas Iscariot, who leaves the room. There’s a quality like a film script to all this, and the passage we heard begins with the words “when we had gone out”, meaning Judas on his way to betray Jesus. And immediately after the passage we heard, the camera turns to Peter, who is usual impetuous way says he’ll lay down his life for Jesus, and Jesus says that in fact he’ll deny even knowing Jesus before the next morning.

I say all this because it all goes to show what Jesus means when he says “that you love one another as I have loved you”. This is the love Jesus has shown to his disciples. It’s one of sacrifice, one of putting them first before himself, one of encouragement and care. It’s an self-denying love, not expecting something back and not holding anything back. Now that kind of love is hard. When others hate you, love them. When others call you names, love them. When others deny that you can be a Christian because you don’t conform to their narrow pattern of Christianity, love them. Jesus doesn’t say anything about liking these people, but he does say a lot about loving them. And the context matters because he’s saying it midway between betrayal by one disciple and being cut off by another disciple.

Indeed the context matters so much that we named the entire day after this saying. Because in Latin, ‘new commandment’ is ‘mandatum novum’, and from that word mandatum, we get our name Maundy Thursday for the day before Jesus died, the day that he washed feet, the day that he gave this commandment. The new commandment is the most important thing that happened on that day. In essence, it’s Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples.

Jesus also links this commandment to this rather complex saying about the son of Man (i.e. Jesus himself) being glorified, and God being glorified in him. Now that word glorified, and glory more generally, is not really one that we see used in modern English outside of a church context. It’s around in lots of church language, plenty of times in the Bible and in hymns and prayers, but hardly ever outside of the church. The word in Greek, doxa, also means thought or appearance, but came to be used as a Greek version of a Hebrew word kavod, which refers to the presence of God but also to a sense of honour or respect. So perhaps we might say that God has been given honour by Jesus’ actions, that by the way Jesus behaves and lives, God’s presence has been felt and greater honour has been given to God. Some of this will come in the manner of Jesus’ death, but the sense of glorification must been seen first of all through the life of Jesus, and through the way he has been interacting with others in the self-giving love we have already seen.

This self-giving love from Jesus, in both his life and his death, fit alongside a Jewish idea of commandment always being linked to covenant relationships. The Ten Commandments were given at Sinai after a covenant was reached between Moses and God. And these covenants required a guarantee, often to do with sacrifice and blood – and the twin forms of self-giving love from Jesus form precisely this kind of guarantee. So we see love and sacrifice linked in the backdrop and support for this new commandment.

Now that’s a whole lot of theology. It’s quite dense stuff. But if we want to be part of bringing about a new heaven and a new earth, we have to start by loving one another, in the self-giving way that Jesus demonstrated, the kind of love I described earlier in the lives of Jean Valjean and Rachel Held Evans. And I believe strongly that this kind of love is intended as the precursor of the new Jerusalem, the new heaven and the new earth. There’s no way that it can be confined to love between Christians, or within a particular church or denomination. It must stretch to love for the whole world. Yet love within churches and within the Christian family is surely the start. Jesus says that the world will see that we’re his disciples through our love for each other.

It’s therefore not just a tragedy but a direct disobedience of the one we call Lord and Messiah that the church has proved really really awful at loving each other over the centuries of Christianity. Heresy trials, schisms, excommunication of Christian by Christian, the inquisition, the crusades. The list goes on and on, century after century. It goes on today, to our shame. There are those who profess to follow Christ who refuse to call another their brother or sister because that person is gay, or because they believe something different about the nature of God, or because they have different politics. It’s a disgrace. If Jesus should have taught us anything, it’s to love those around us. The theologian Tom Wright puts it like this:
As we read verse 35 we are bound to cringe with shame at the way in which professing Christians have treated each other down the years. We have turned the gospel into a weapon of our own various cultures. We have hit each other over the head with it, burnt each other at the stake with it. We have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are’.” (John for Everyone Part 2, p.56)
But let’s return to the positive. Jesus presents us with a mighty challenge, to love one another according to his self-giving example. But he promises such a rich outcome from this love, that who would not want to follow it? Jesus calls us to love as he has loved, and this new commandment will lead us to the model of the new heaven and the new earth, and love will come over all the earth, and God will come to make his home among mortals, and death and mourning will be no more. Amen.

Life in the midst of death

Death is so present at the moment. Covid-19 deaths in the UK (and other countries) are sky-rocketing, in quite scary ways. Within our church...