A few feature stories I’ve written for print…
Feature (Church Times)
New guidelines have been issued on the treatment of guests at church weddings. Nick White asks if they are necessary.
IT is the wedding season, and tens of thousands of guests have dusted off last summer’s fascinator, selected the fourth-cheapest gift on the present list, and plotted the journey time on Google maps.
Few of them will know that the Church of England has been making its own preparations. The experience and opinions of both wedding guests and clergy have been canvassed, scrutinised, and studied over the past year, as part of the Archbishops’ Council’s Wedding Project.
The conclusion is that if the Church wants to compete with castles, hotels, and registry offices, it needs to address both its image, and its treatment of wedding guests.
In response to its findings, a set of guidelines, “Seven Heavenly Ways to Welcome Wedding Guests”, were recently sent out to the clergy about the way in which wedding guests are to be treated. They contain advice such as “introduce yourself with a smile” and “encourage everyone to make themselves at home”.
So, this summer, a trial sample of 135,000 wedding guests should all receive a warm welcome, and a card to help them to pray for the couple after the service. It reads: “Dear God, pour out the abundance of your blessing on them. Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts and a crown upon their heads. Bless them in their work and in their companionship; awake and asleep, in joy and in sorrow, in life and in death. Amen.”
Next year, the guest cards will be launched nationally.
When my wife and I married at St Anne’s, Burntwood, in Staffordshire, last December, I was too nervous to focus much on the wedding-guest experience. But I vaguely remember the Vicar, the Revd Vivienne Hatton, welcoming everybody at the start, asking people to turn off their mobile phones, and putting parents with young children at their ease.
Wedding guests with children often view church weddings as a trial. So, to know that children were allowed to make a noise, and move around as part of a family celebration, was a good thing.
I was barely even conscious of the guests behind me; so the Vicar’s conduct was extremely important: the love and support of our friends and family was vital to us, and their experience mattered.
But I had forgotten how uncomfortable guests can feel at church weddings.
Despite a warm welcome from a priest, some wedding guests will always feel uncomfortable in a church. At my wedding, my brother and best man, Adam White, says he still felt like an outsider: “They do seem like they’re local clubs.”
Fiona Sorotos, who has two young children, says: “No matter how much vicars say that it’s OK, you feel you are letting the couple down if the children are noisy. I don’t think there is anything vicars can really do. If there are more children, though, there is less of ‘It’s my child making a noise.’”
Emma Jankovskis-Owen went to a church wedding recently where she says she felt intimidated by the building. “It was quite grand, and we had the little ones with us; so we were desperately trying to keep them quiet. For a parent, it was a stressful occasion. “The Vicar was old, very blunt, and a bit scary. I think wedding services could be improved by having a wider selection of musical instruments for hymns. And they could flow a little better, as the Vicar seemed preoccupied with making sure all the pomp and ceremony was adhered to without personalising the occasion.”
Graham Hughes, one of my wedding guests, agrees. “Some churches can be rude. Most want everything how they want it to be, rather than thinking how it should be for the couple getting married. “[But] that’s what they should be putting first, because — from a purely business point of view — they’re the clientele: they’re using the church for their wedding.”
Other wedding guests may find different church traditions off-putting. Chris Packham, who has been a guest at a number of church weddings, says: “If it’s high-church, you know what to expect, or the order of service is familiar.With more Evangelical churches, although they are following the same service, they are likely to be more unpredictable with music and participation, which some people like, but it can be a bit scary for people not familiar with church.”
At one wedding I attended last year, the priest was less than welcoming towards guests. While the bride and groom stood waiting at the front, he told everyone to “switch off mobile phones”. After that, he reeled off a list of rules: “No photography, no confetti, no videos,” before pointing out that the collection was at the back.
Joanne Hughes — who identifies herself as “somebody who only really goes to church for weddings, funerals, and possibly Christmas” — thinks that the guidelines are a good idea, as she has found some churches less than welcoming. “It’s almost like going back to school with teacher at the front. You feel like you’re a naughty child, and have to sit there and be really quiet. Some vicars don’t really look very welcoming.”
Others, however, question the wisdom of issuing a set of guidelines. Angela Buckley, whose daughter was married in church last year, believes that treating guests well should be automatic. And she is not sure about the prayer cards for guests. “I’m not sure about the wording. I’m trying to think of someone who doesn’t go to church, and I think they might find the language strange. I think it should be simpler.”
Jayne Sharples, who is a non-churchgoer, thinks that receiving a card asking guests to pray for a couple could seem intrusive, unless a couple have spent time with the priest previously — perhaps as part of marriage preparation. “When the vicar appears to know the couple and has spent time beforehand with them, it feels as though they are part of the ceremony, and with that you feel welcome and perhaps excuse their rules and regulations.”
Statistics suggest that, on average, most people go to one wedding a year. But Lucy Williams has been to seven weddings since last summer. “I’m not sure that guidelines encouraging vicars to smile and be polite are needed. I’ve not encountered any sad or impolite vicars.”
But she believes that churches should celebrate some of the flexibility that the guidelines can offer. “I think that church weddings, and, more precisely, the ceremony, offer something that registrars of civil ceremonies arguably can’t, or often don’t: the opportunity to make the ceremony personal. Civil ceremonies often emphasise the administrative and legal side of marriage, which can be dull and impersonal. You want to make the most of this difference, so that everyone has a positive experience of celebrating a couple’s marriage.”
THE word ‘Ramadan’ in Arabic means ‘intense scorching heat’. Many Muslims believe the fast of Ramadan has this name because it burns away sins from their hearts like the sun scorches the ground. Around 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide will observe the fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days. But during this time millions of Christians will be praying for them and with them.
30 Days International is a global prayer movement whose supporters have a heart for Muslims. It all began in 1992 when a handful of Christian leaders were praying about the Islamic world during a meeting in the Middle East. They believed God had put a burden on their hearts to call as many Christians as possible to pray for Muslims. This heart-call grew and snowballed into a prayer event which now involves millions of Christians across the world.
30 Days describe themselves as ‘a group of people who have a passionate love for those they serve’. Every year they distribute a prayer guide in over 42 languages for Christians to use during Ramadan. They encourage prayer for Muslims during this time (although they don’t promote the strict fasting regime which most Muslims observe).
These prayers are well-researched and specific. They are prayers for breakthroughs for the gospel among Muslims, for more missionaries to work in Islamic countries and that more Christians would pray with them.
But how are Muslims’ hearts changed? 30 Days claim that over a quarter of Muslim background believers (MBB’s) surveyed say that dreams and visions were key in their decisions to become Christians. As there are many dangers for MBB’s after conversion, it often takes something out of the ordinary to change them. EM’s story is one example.
EM is a Muslim background believer who now works as an evangelist in India. His father was a Muslim leader living in Kerala.
“I was born to Muslim parents in 1975,” he said, “but God wanted me to be his child so he talked to my parents. It happened in a marvellous way.”
Not long after EM was born, his father became extremely ill with an unknown disease. EM’s family tried everything to help – medicine, prayer to Allah, offerings at famous mosques and even black magic. But nothing worked.
“It was then that we were visited by a pastor from a neighbourhood church who shared the love of Christ with my father.”
The church prayed and fasted for his father’s healing and something happened. His father recovered.
“It was a wonderful miracle in the land and he was completely healed. My mother was very stubborn in the Islamic faith, but his miracle touched her too and she accepted the Lord.”
The healing convinced EM’s parents to become Christians and they were baptised. But this offended the rest of his Muslim family. His parents were thrown out of the family home and left to wander from village to village, carrying EM on their shoulders.
“We had faith and faith alone. No-one accepted us and they treated us as outcasts.”
Eventually they gained sanctuary at a Christian orphanage where his mother found work. From this safe place, his father was able to join a Bible school.
Knowing his parent’s story EM grew up and believed in Jesus himself. He trained to be an evangelist and decided he would serve and pray for the Muslims around him, despite the opposition.
“I would say Christians should pray especially for Muslims so that they may know the truth and truth shall set them free. They are the sheep that are not in the fold. It is a Christian’s responsibility to bring them back to the fold. God’s heart is that no Muslim should perish but all should have eternal life.”
EM’s answer to how Muslims’ hearts can be changed is simple:
“Prayer, prayer, prayer. Share the gospel and wait for the Holy Spirit to convince them.”
Ramadan this year begins on 11 August and ends on 9 September. In the Islamic calendar it is now the year 1431.
To find out more about 30 Days International, visit their website at www.30-days.net.
“ARE you a player or a spectator?” reads the Christians in Politics’ promotional poster. “No matter how much you shout from the sidelines of a football match, the course of play is mainly determined by the players on the pitch. It’s the same in politics.”
CIP are a cross-party governmental group who aim to get more British churchgoers involved in party politics. This includes trying to get ordinary Christians to join political parties and even run for parliament.
They began their campaign back in 2002, trying to teach Christians why and how to participate in Government and the political process. They believe that Christians should consider entering politics as an expression of love for their neighbours and they encourage Christians to pray for Westminster.
Premier Christian Radio, Christian Aid and a host of other church-based organisations support them. CIP is jointly owned by the three main political parties’ Christian organisations. These are Labour’s ‘Christian Socialist Movement’, the ‘Conservative Christian Fellowship’ and the ‘Liberal Democrat Christian Forum’.
CIP chairperson David Canning said: “Our message to anybody is that you need to look at the political parties and what they stand for. You need to join the one that really is closest to where you are at. We won’t say that one political party has a monopoly on Christian values but we do say you must join the one that is closest to you. It may not be a perfect fit but if its closest to you, you should join that one, you should work within it and serve within that party and seek to progress from there.”
“Our view is that the only practical way in which a Christian can actually productively be involved in a democratic process in this country is by joining a political party. They can do it in other ways, they can join organisations like Make Poverty History or Christian Aid and get involved in their campaigns – that’s politics as well. But fundamentally the only way we’re going to change the nation is for Christians to be engaged in party politics.”
CIP regularly attend festivals like Greenbelt and Spring Harvest, hosting seminars, which try to recruit churchgoers into the political arena. At the moment they are looking to expand their work by reaching out to more churches. They have had hundreds of responses to their campaign and CIP representatives have visited many churches. Ultimately they want Christians to run for election either in local politics or at a national level.
Mr Canning said: “The Church wants to affect social change. You can do it through social action but at the end of the day it comes down to making decisions in positions of power. We believe that if society is going to change, people have to serve in political parties, seek elective office through that and through no other means and by virtue of that get into positions of influence of the decision-making power. Then they can introduce through party structures and through the decisions that they make a Christian value system.”
It is clear that some Christian MPs regard Westminster as their mission field. There are some semi-formal Christian groups there where Christians will attend a monthly early morning communion service at nearby St Margaret’s church.
And there is even more prayer among politicians at each sitting when both the Lords and the Commons begin the day with a formal prayer. In the commons, attendance is voluntary and MPs have to stand facing the wall behind them (a tradition thought to be based on the difficulty of praying while kneeling and carrying a sword).
The actual prayer read out by the speaker’s chaplain is: ‘Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to members of parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals, but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed, Amen.’
Is this yet another unanswered prayer?
Christians in Politics events also include a ‘politics Sunday’ every June and a Westminster carol service. They offer churches a speaker panel service and materials to try to recruit churchgoers.
It seems as if CIP are convinced that the only way Christians can make a difference or ‘love their neighbour’ is by joining a political party.
And clearly there are a lot of issues which politicians and Christians both care a lot about. Issues like euthanasia, termination, the human fertilisation and embryology bill, trade justice, Afghanistan, Iraq, poverty, nuclear power, gun/knife crime and faith schools. The list seems almost endless.
Perhaps Britain has a long way to go before becoming like America where Christians are positively groomed into entering politics. But CIP are certainly aiming to get more British believers politically active and they show no signs of stopping their campaign.
Feature (Underground Magazine)
YOU only have to look around to see that there is still a big problem with poverty in the UK. But how much of a problem is it? And how often do the media report on it?
It is an irony that those the politicians are supposed to be helping most, are often the ones furthest outside the political bubble. The closest that most poor people will get to politicians is through their television screens. For a homeless person it may be a television screen in a shop window.
John Elder, 39, is well below the government defined ‘poverty line’. He has been homeless and in and out of prison for most of his life. After finally finding accommodation, he was waiting to move into his new one bedroom council flat. I found him begging and preparing to sleep rough with his friends Rob and Maria in Birmingham’s main pub/club district, Broad Street on a Saturday night.
Maria Wouters, 41, who had been evicted two days earlier, said: “We get £42 a week. If you are homeless that money’s gone anyway. You need to buy food.”
She claims job-seekers allowance and has to go without basic necessities like clothing and washing facilities. Health problems go hand in hand with poverty. And if you fall below the poverty line you are likely to regularly have to do without the basics. You are also likely to be in debt, stigmatized and isolated.
John blames government bureaucracy for what he sees as an increase in poverty in the UK since New Labour came to power. “They’re putting in the begging rules even harder these days. The situation is getting worse day by day because of rules. There are more people struggling, people can’t handle the mortgage and debt. The rules are coming in that heavy that people can’t handle it, so they think, ‘I’ll go on the streets and I don’t need pay nothing then’”.
Poverty is one of those home(less) truths New Labour acknowledges but rarely seems to do much about. Britain has one of the highest levels of family and child poverty in Europe and the developed world. And there are still stark contrasts in most UK cities and towns between the rich and the poor. Families, and inevitably, children regularly go without the things they need.
Labour admits that child poverty is a ‘scar on the soul of Britain’ and the government is very keen to point out its achievements so far. Since their first term, and largely as an indirect result of the minimum wage, Labour claim to have lifted over one million children above the poverty line. The TUC is pushing for the minimum wage to be increased to between £5 and £5.50 per hour by 2004 and this would likely help cut poverty even more. But there is still clearly a problem which the government is failing to address. Martin Barnes, director of Child Poverty Action Group said: “There remains a widely held view that poverty is not a serious problem and this needs to be challenged”.
Birmingham, like the rest of the country, has its share of poor people. In the West Midlands, according to government statistics, 21,490 households have been accepted as homeless. Birmingham also has the third highest rate of unemployment in any major city in Britain. Government figures reveal that unemployment in this city is the worst in the West Midlands. According to the statistics there are 46,000 people looking for work – twice the national rate. In July 1998, 40 percent of unemployed men had been looking for work for over a year and over one third of the work age population were receiving income support (compared to one quarter nationally). The proportion of children in Birmingham who are dependant on income support is also two thirds higher than the proportion for England. In fact, throughout the UK, one quarter of our senior citizens fall below the poverty line. Two thirds of these are women – a figure which is double that of Taiwan. Poverty, it seems, does not discriminate.
Magazines like the Big Issue are bound to have a gritty interest in poverty. So why don’t most of the national media focus on it?
Clearly the biggest offender in this is the BBC. BBC News 24 will report on the grinding poverty in third world countries but they rarely report on the problem in Britain. Poverty in other countries is important, but often the UK media will focus on extreme poverty in other countries at the expense of poverty in the UK.
Other national news organisations are also guilty of this. For example, in April, during the war in Iraq, The Sun launched a campaign titled ‘Give a quid for an Iraqi kid’. The campaign was aimed at helping hungry, homeless and injured children in Iraq. At exactly the same time the Child Poverty Action Group was among a number of charities involved in a campaign called ‘Quids for kids’ – a one year campaign designed to ensure low-income families in England and Wales claim the benefits and new government tax credits which they are entitled to.
So while poverty in the UK remains a priority for most British people, much of the media seem more concerned with the extremes of poverty in other countries. The media should, of course, highlight poverty in both the UK and abroad. But poverty in the UK should come first with Britain’s media.
The politicians are worse. Tony Blair, always keen to be seen as a world statesman and a saviour of whichever country will have him, often appears to be more concerned about poverty in Africa than here in Britain. From his most recent political speeches you could be forgiven for thinking that he thinks poverty in this country is a distraction to his concern for needs in other countries. He even seems to be getting confused about his role – is he a president or a prime minister?
Similarly Clare Short, who up until recently was the International Development Secretary, may find more time to tackle poverty in her Birmingham constituency of Ladywood now that she is no longer in the cabinet. Ladywood has high unemployment, families on low incomes and problems with homelessness. If she hadn’t noticed already, she will find that 46 per cent of school leavers in her constituency do not continue in full-time education (this compares with 43 percent as the national average). Similarly, more than one-quarter of households in Ladywood receive council tax benefits. On the poverty scale, Birmingham has ten of the 30 worst wards in England.
Labour say they will dramatically reduce child poverty in 10 years and eradicate it completely in a generation. They say they are helping more people with the new ‘working families tax credits’ and that poverty is becoming less of a problem.
John Elder disagrees. “They avoid the issue as much as they can,” he said, “They’re not interested in us except in punishing us. At the end of the day, the British Government are so bothered with Europe, that they’re ignoring their own country. If the homeless were to have a protest march I think they’d take notice because there are that many homeless. Once I get my things sorted in my flat I will start one up. You’ll see how many homeless there are then.”
He thinks that the government could do much more to help people like him by building hostels and buying up old buildings. But he is cynical about the chances of politicians ever making poverty a priority.
“Say there were a lot of politician’s relations and sons on the streets – you’d see everything done for the homeless than. But they’ve got the money and all that. They’ve got the fancy jobs. They may get the sack, but they’ve still got good money to live on. They aren’t going to be homeless, do you know what I mean?”
It seems that poverty will remain a problem in the UK until the government make it a genuine priority and the media start to focus on it more. Until then, people like John and Maria may continue to be outsiders to the political world, even though the decisions politicians make are the ones which affect them most.