The battle of the narratives ….. (Part Two)



A month ago I wrote a blog piece here* about the importance of  how narratives become framed in the stories of our lives, our communities, and our nations, another month on and in the wake of yesterdays announcement from the Prime Minister to “Stay Alert” I’m feeling the need to return to the topic.

Stories are powerful, they convey truths, images, hopes and dreams that facts and figures simply cannot. Of course they can also speak into our fears an insecurities, offering us either challenge or comfort. Humanity has been framed by stories from the outset of what we might call “civilisation”, but I would imagine they were being shared long before that, they are perhaps a large part of what makes us human, and how we make sense of the world around us, it’s past, present and it’s future.

As a person of faith I know that our sacred stories have been told and retold, written down in our Bibles and other texts and are to us a revelation in stories of how we (and other generations) see and encounter God in the world, stories of how we see our relationship with God, and how we believe we should live in the world in our times. The “truths” are eternal, but the stories get re-told, and re-framed from age to age.

Just as we need to actively engage with those sacred stories as we reflect and grow in our spiritual journeys, so to should we engage with the political and societal stories that surround us and likewise question and reflect on what may lie behind them.

The UK is in a period of major narrative formation ….. the Brexit debate (remember that) has largely been dominated by it, and so too now is the Covid19 pandemic.

I was attending yet another zoom session last week, this one organised by Church Action on Poverty, we were discussing the power and importance of stories. One thing that struck me in those conversations was just how much of the current media coverage of the UK pandemic experience has been couched in terms of “heroes” and “victims”. NHS and Care Home workers, foodbank volunteers, and fundraiders are shown to us day after day “heroically” doing all kinds of things (and I’m not disputing that many are), but then there are the “victims”; the old people, the sick, the dying, the ones who are struggling with lockdown. Much of the narrative places you in one camp or another, whereas for many of us we sit between the two, neither hero or victim, just doing what we can to get by.

A second key narrative being pushed at the moment is a populist nationalist narrative,  which seeks to portray Britain as a “nation alone” with strong “martial” nation tradition at it’s heart. By that I mean a nation whose history and culture is one of military pride and victory, even in times of relative peace. So we see whole framing of “the battle” against Covid19 crisis is filled with stories of “heroism” “the frontline” and countless other military metaphors …. it is why Capt Tom Moore is so feted (not that I begrudge his effort) but we need to understand that he is feted, in part at least, because he is a “Captain” a “war hero” and fits the narrative.Other people, other senior citizens have raised thousands of pounds during this same period and have gone largely ignored. The Queen evokes memories from world wars as she (and the nation) celebrate the anniversary of VE Day, and a nation sings “We’ll Meet Again” in the midst of a public health lockdown.  Likewise, there are attempts (with varying degrees of success) to draw comparisons between Boris Johnson and a war time PM, Winston Churchill, and in the narrative our “finest hours” are re-run ….. and re-written.

Today I also read something that talked about another developing narrative, the piece by Jon Alexander** explains how the Governments revised strategy announced last night by Boris Johnson attempts to shift focus from a Government responsibility to protect people, to and individualisation of the responsibility to “stay alert” and basically look out for your own health.

There were signs of this earlier of course, when the Government slightly amended it’s fifth condition for easing the lockdown, from: “avoid a second peak” to “avoid a second peak that overwhelms the NHS”. A small difference in words, but as we now know more than 30,000 people in UK have died from Covid19 in this first wave and the NHS was not overwhelmed, therefore those simple words could allow for a further 30,000 to die and still be framed as sucessful by the Government. The infamous “herd immunity” is back on the stage, if in the shadows, and peoples need to use  “common sense” is re-emerging as the well worn phrase to mark that shift from public to private. So if you’re feeling a little confused right now …. you’re meant to be and it’s all your fault! Okay so maybe thats being overly harsh, but the narrative being framed is clear; Government has done it’s bit, now it’s over to you – use common sense, if others aren’t then blame them.

All this matters of course, not just because it risks putting more lives sat risk (as long as those numbers are manageable in the Government scenario), but also because it will help frame the world we emerge into beyond the pandemic. The narrative very much matters, now and into the future.


* The battle of the narratives …. (Part One)

** Jon Alexander blog

A week is a long time ….



It’s been a torrid week – from the impassioned pleas of Greta Thurnberg at the UN Climate Action Conference, the dismissive responses from a few (mainly) rich and powerful men. including the US President, Donald Trump; through to the crass and bitter words in Parliament (and notably the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson) following the Supreme Court judgement and the recall of Parliament. A torrid week, that has left me (and no doubt others) reeling and emotionally tired, weary, perplexed and full of questions about the weeks ahead, and our collective futures.

In the UK in particular the focus inevitably has been on the plan to withdraw from the EU – or Brexit! At times it feels like as a nation we’ve talked about little else for three years, talked and argued and yet resolved nothing. Throughout that time no shared ground or common purpose has been sought, and therefore unsurprisingly none has really emerged. We find ourselves it would seem deeper and deeper entrenched in our positions of Leave or Remain often with little purpose, but none the less with powerful embedded emotions attached. It has become an all consuming issue – and that feels like it will never end; but of course it will.

One way or another, one day the issue of Brexit will be done with, either by leaving (with or without a deal) or otherwise by deciding to remain in the EU afterall. If we do leave, we would no doubt survive any economic consequences even if we, “the ordinary people”, the 99% are the ones paying the price of the new found riches of the few.If we remained we would feel few economic consequences but the bitterness and division would not subside overnight, and the entrenched battles may continue still longer.

To be honest, my real concern has never been the benefits or otherwise of trade arrangements and the like, or whether or not we will be “better off” economically if we leave or remain. Instead my chief concern was, and is increasingly, the genuine worry about what kind of country, what kind of a people we are becoming in the process. I struugle for signs of hope in the current gloom, I see fear, hatred and division – I do not know how, or when, we will be able to come together in reconciliation afterwards.

I hope and pray for the sake of our children, and our grandchildren they find a future that is compassionate, that is fair, that seeks for a genuine peace amongst peoples and between humanity and creation.

I hope our children are better people, kinder people, gentler people than we have been.



Brussels, London or the Kingdom of God



It’s likely to be yet another tumultuous week in UK politics as yet another Brexit deadline looms. Far from the divisions that surfaced during the referendum of 2016 healing, the split with the nation seems as wide as ever, with people still encamped and identified as “Brexiteer” or “Remainer” years on from the vote. Both sides unable it seems to envisage any compromise. These lines seem fixed around identity, either those who yearn for, and identify as “English” “British” and “Nationalist”, and those who identify as “European”. Obviously I have my own views, I voted to remain in 2016, and there is too much in my upbringing and heritage that will ever allow myself to throw myself behind a nationalist agenda (especially one dominated by the likes of Rees-Mogg, Johnson, Farage & Yaxley-Lennon), however I fear that we need to move on beyond the arguments of the day that still feel overly concerned with economics and trade. So how, I ask myself, might my faith help inform the current division?

This week I have led a couple of explorations and reflections around the Temptations of Jesus, it’s a story that is contained in three of the four Gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke) with the latter two covering it in considerable more detail. The story is placed after Jesus baptism in the Jordan, but before his ministry and the calling of the first disciples. It could be said to represent the struggle Jesus goes through to get his head straight and achieve clarity about the style and approach he will take in his challenge to the powers and principalities of this world.

One of the temptations in particular seems most relevant to our current musings over Brexit and the future of the UK, in Matthews Gospel it reads like this:

“….the devil took Jesus up on a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms on earth and their power.  The devil said to him, “I will give all this to you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

 Jesus answered, “Go away Satan! The Scriptures say:

‘Worship the Lord your God
    and serve only him.’”

Then the devil left Jesus, and angels came to help him.” (Matthew 4. 8-11)

Now it seems to me that what Jesus in rejecting here (at least in part) is the temptation to look for power through earthly kingdoms, rejecting the route chosen certainly by some others, to take up arms or to replace one Empire and / or dynasty with his own. Such a route would no doubt have been available, as plenty of evidence shows the Jewish people of the period were only too ready to rise against the false gods and Empire that was Rome, but this was not the route chosen by Jesus. Not only does Jesus reject the violence of such an approach, but I suggest he also rejects the narrow cultural sectarianism of this approach.

Jesus time and again speaks out against Empire, he longs for community that reaches out through love and compassion, forgiveness and healing – not conflict and victory, and power over others. Jesus, through the call to the Kingdom of God continues the rejection he gave the devils temptation. The Brexit debate (I fear) still remains one that in most minds is focussed on siding with one “Empire” or another, that of either Brussels or London …. Jesus asks us to in effect reject both, to understand that actually the struggle that matters is the struggle for the hearts, minds and souls of all people (including our own). So rather than focussing our hearts on which Empire we side with, maybe we need to instead focus on the values we want to see across the communities we are part of – those same Kingdom values of:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Healing

These are the things I shall try to look for, try to speak out for, and try to exhibit myself this week and in the weeks to come, as we continue to put faith in the Kingdom that cam overcome all Empires.


POSTSCRIPT 9th April 2019

Today is the anniversary of the execution of Deitrich Bonhoeffer by the Nazis in 1945 – amongst all the tributes and quotes that people have posted today on various social media etc I came across this one which felt a highly apt addition to this article: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” (Life Together)



(The artwork in the photo is mine from the Prayer & Paint session held at Cross at Yew Lane – Sheffield this week)



Strangers and Foreigners



Last weekend I was privileged to be invited by YMCA White Rose (through my friend Jonathan) to join him on a trip to Budapest where we met folk from KIE (the YMCA in Hungary) and explore possible link projects back to our shared North Sheffield base.

Amongst our many conversations, there was one theme I seemed to keep coming back to – it was the very one that Erzsebet (local KIE leader) had offered for discussion at the Saturday  night youth group – that of “Strangers and Foreigners”. It is perhaps not strange that many of the young people wanted to question, and indeed understand, why the UK had recently voted to leave the EU. It was indeed news to them that whilst England and Wales had both voted in favour of “leave”, the North of Ireland and Scotland had voted “remain”. Indeed that the margins of the result, the divisive nature of the campaign itself, had left many of us with a feeling of not being sure who “we” are and what the future for us holds. I also suggested that in my experience, that the vote was not just about “nationalism”, and indeed any nationalism demonstrated in the victorious Brexit campaign was some particular form of English Nationalism rather than a UK or British Nationalism (regardless of how this was being portrayed within or beyond our boundaries).

These conversations have led me to once again return to the idea of identity, national and other, and to try and understand what part place and space might play in my personal identity (as well as that of my friends and neighbours).

I openly admit I struggle (and always have) to have any sense of what it means to be “English” – I can cope with some sense of being British, in that it is the place where I have spent my life. I acknowledge that the relative wealth I enjoy as a part of this nation (still around the 5th richest in the world) the result of years of imperial power and our part in the slave trade, and because of our status as a successful trading nation. But I cannot identify with being English – I don’t know what it means, I don’t feel an ownership. I’m not being (no matter what politicians and others might hint) unpatriotic in saying this, it just doesn’t feature as part of my identity.

I can say “I’m a Yorkshireman” (and a Northerner) – to me these identify characteristics that I do own. I can feel a pride at times in my “call a spade a spade” bluntness, I feel attached to a history of industrial heritage, of mill towns, coal and steel that I feel a has provided a sense of gritty resilence to many of us living in this part of the world. Indeed I can own a sense of Britishness, born out of a history that I and my family through generations have been a part of (one of my ancestors even sailed with Captain Cook to plant the British flag on “undiscovered” parts of the globe) – and even when these exploits do not bring me a sense of pride (for example the wealth we gained as a nation through systems of slavery and oppression) I still acknowledge it is a part of me. But, I have no concept of Englishness, and when confronted with Little Englander nationalism the more I start to feel a stranger in my own land.

The Bible tells me (Galatians 3.28): “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” my discipleship calls me to identify in this way above the labels the world would set for me. Our UK Prime Minister famously, and recently, said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” but that makes me really ask myself what this daughter of an Anglican Vicar also makes of Phillipians 3.20 “…we are citizens of heaven…”

All I can say is this, as I was invited and welcomed into Erzsebets home, as I spent Saturday evening with this group of young people in a cellar in Budapest, and as I sat in St Stephens Basilica on Sunday morning attending a Catholic Mass, in Hungarian and Latin (of which I confess to knowing little of either) I didn’t feel like a stranger and foreigner. As we shared food, sang songs together, and as the faithful shook hands and shared the peace, I knew I was home – a citizen of heaven, belonging and beloved.





Love Your Neighbour

Today is June 6th, 72 years ago “Allied” forces fought on the beaches of Northern France in the D-Day landings to start the liberation of Europe from the horrors of Nazism. Thankfully Europe has not seen war in its midst on such a scale since, although sadly it continues in other parts of the globe. Europe however, is facing it’s own very real crisis of identity and politics – the upcoming EU Referendum in Britain is but one part of this.
Whatever the result on the 23rd June the thing that now seems clearest is that from the 24th we will be left with a dis-United Kingdom. It is unlikely that either “side” will win a convincing majority, and  it is quite possible that Scotland, Wales, the North of Ireland will each vote differently to England. Whether #Brexit or #Bremain win the day it is  unlikely that we will have arrived at a view about what being a UK citizen in the 21st Century looks and feels like. The big questions the debate has helped open up will remain; “what do we  (UK) stand for” “who we are” as a nation will still be open to disagreement.
The debate on each side has been dominated by economics and immigration policy – and each side has used its share of negativity and “fear” projections. Each side has also contained its own progressive and reactionary elements within it, at times adding more confusion and haze and fog to an already unclear picture of the true direction of travel following whichever outcome triumphs.
A a Christian I believe that our voting on the day, and our reactions to the result and the re-forming process beyond should largely rest on two key commands (Mark 12. 30-31):
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ [and] ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Of course the question that underlies this command, and that any demands our prayerful thought before June 23rd, and constant consideration beyond is “who is [our] neighbour?” (Luke 10.29). Now clearly we live in a world where nowadays it obvious that there is a legitimacy in regarding every person from every nation as our neighbours, so we  need to dig deeper in our response to avoid well intended but essentially glib responses. In my life I’ve had many neighbours; some of them have been good friends, they’ve dropped round for a chat, they’ve helped out in times of need. I’ve also had bad neighbours, neighbours who were noisy, neighbours who have kicked down my door and even stolen from me.
Of course, the Bible tells us of Jesus response to the who is my neighbour question. It’s there in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – once again reminding us that we don’t pick and choose our neighbours, in the same way that good neighbours don’t pick and choose when to do the right thing.  Now of course, if we truly loved our neighbour (and they loved us) in or out would make no difference because the end result would be the same – Love  requires us to do what is best not just for ourselves but our neighbour too, as such love needs no treaty to ensure it is fulfilled.
Whatever the result is declared on 24th June will have a profound effect on the UK , it will undoubtedly effect our own domestic political landscape, it is likely to lead to further questions around the nature of Union and Devolution within the UK, and will also demand further examination of what “Britishness” and being a UK Citizen mean in the 21st century.  How we relate to each other within the UK, Europe and the rest of the world as good neighbours will all need examination following the referendum result, I hope that it is a challenge that Christians will be up to.