Monday, 29 October 2007

Talking faith

Two of the WCC's former youth interns Naveen Qayyum from Pakistan and Gustavo Bonato from Brazil work together to promote Naveen's film called Talking Faith.
It's a really interesting project seeking to speak about interreligious dialogue in a non western way. thanks to the technology of the internet it's a global project too, a really brilliant example of a new practical ecumenism.
The film's next screening was due to be at the Kara Film festival in Pakistan during November. The festival has now been postponed as a mark of respect to over 130 people who lost their lives in the recent bomb attack in Pakistan. However, you can view or download the film yourselves and get involved in talking faith and talking about faith, showing that despite attempts to stifle political debate dialogue really is possible.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Changing the clocks

Today the clocks moved back. I'm so glad that the whole EU now does this at the end of October. When we first moved to France in 1991 winter time began at the end of September and I found it really depressing to begin winter time so early in the autumn.
By going to the National Maritime Museum's website I discovered that summer time in Britain began during the first world war as a result of Germany bringing in daylight saving time. changing the clocks seems to provoke quite some controvery. In Denmark there's an association that campaigns against summer time. A few years ago the then French primeminister Alain Juppé floated the idea of staying with central european time throughout the year, meaning that France would only be one hour ahead of solar time - in fact France only moved away from Greenwich meantime during the Second World War following the German occupation. I'm glad this didn't go through as we'd have become time travellers every time we crossed the border into Switzerland, 500 metres away and an hour ahead of us. I dare say that you can get used to working in two time zones but early mornings might be more of a struggle.
Meanwhile today I feel refreshed after an extra hour's sleep and shall ponder verses from Ecclesiastes as I wander around in the autumn leaves and sunshine, "To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun." Time is precious.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Passing thoughts...

In my office at home things are marginally tidier than in my office at work - but then it is twice the size. Along with Ikea shelving I have a huge old family piece of furniture designed by a great, great grandfather who was the city architect of what is now Wroclaw in Poland and was then Breslau. It took three visits from the removal people to finally get it upstairs through our bedroom window.
The glass cupboards at either end house some Stranz family archives - letters between my grandparents and their children when they first arrived as refugees in London and were living on opposite sides of London; letters going back to the 1850s in old German script; fragments of family trees; photos and bits and pieces including family passports with J stamped on them. I must one day sort through it all before giving it to the Wiener library in London.
The shelves in the middle hold old war time books, English and German classics and lots of old raggedy Penguins and Pelicans which smell of second hand book shops. And the drawers hide away my terrible tendancy to not be able to go past an art supplier or stationery shop without having to buy something. This evening I've just found some lovely cards I bought ages ago with wonderful quotations on them. There are lots of them because I always think it would be good and nice to write and never do - in fact I can't remember the last time I wrote a personal letter to anyone - what a terrible admission. So tonight I am going to write to my Mum and my Aunt so no more blogging for now but this quote from François Mauriac, written in a time before inclusive language had been thought of (in France that could mean last week actually!) - "L'empreinte d'un homme sur un autre est éternelle, aucun destin n'a traversé le nôtre impunément."

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Poetry and management - finding a vision

"We shall not cease from exploration.
And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time." T.S Eliot

On our last day in Rome 10 days ago we had two really interesting lectures from Jim Urquhart and Christine Anderson. I've only just begun to revist what we did that day - the little black book I took notes in was posted back to me yesterday, the course was in English but I took my notes in French and lent my scribbling to one of the francophones. It's good to go over it again now after a while and particularly to look again at the line from T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding. I think the idea behind using poetry as a starting point in looking at management was to try and find a new door into, a new inspiration for a problem or issue. Using a new way in can also help in developing a vision for the way into and through the problems.
When I was a child my mother was teaching T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets to her A level class at school. I seem to remember that she struggled to understand what Eliot might mean and I can see why. Yet he is eminently quotable and these small phrases from his verse somehow make real sense.
Anyway it was fascinating to use poetry as a way into, and introduction to, rather more prosaic and jargonistic management terminology - even if in the past I've said I think concentration on poetry might sometimes be theologically suspect. However the density of poetic language sometimes says things so much better than prose.

Management and spirituality or management and theology?

One of the pluses to having a spouse currently lost somewhere at a meeting in Trinidad is that we finally get around to discussing key philosophical questions of our time, like what is the difference between spirituality and theology and what differentiates management and spirituality from management and theology. I bet you can all hardly wait for the results!
One interesting article I've found suggests that management and spirituality can only be understood through paradox. Haven't read it in depth yet.
I have noticed there are lots of references to "management spirituality" suggesting the two concepts have become one new idea. In my rather doubting way I just think this is a new way to try and make the energy and charisma of work, leadership and management sound mysterious and sexy. No doubt I am being unfair. The other term I came across on the web was "management theology" which surprised me rather and seems often to be a new way of using the word theology to mean dogma, guiding principle, set way of doing things or maybe mission statement which was of course all the rage in organisations a few years ago. When used in a sermon then the term is used in a rather different way. And I'm desperate to know what "operational management theology" is, though I suspect it may be something for software geeks.
I'm interested in both spirituality, the faith of the heart, and in theology, the faith of the intellect. Praying, feeling, celebrating and laughing all help balance my highly rational, and often rather angry mind. When I say that I think management is a profoundly theological task I don't think I could hear myself saying the same thing about management being a deeply spirtual task. I suppose it just sounds a bit dodgey and wierd to me. But without having gone far into either area so far I think management and theology is about the essential link between what we believe and what we do. For me spirituality is how I deal in private reflection, or in public worship, with the reality that making that link between belief and action is always imperfect and open to misunderstanding.
Hope Mr Brown will be satisfied by this.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Do you want life to make sense or have meaning?

The French word "sens" usually needs to be translated in texts I get to deal with as "meaning", and I translate "faire du sens" often as "to have meaning" although the translation forums don't all agree with me!. Anyway I was pondering this in a translation today, then on the bus home I got to wonder about what it was I wanted - do I want life to make sense or have meaning? Of course in the end, as a not always very convincing or convinced professional Christian I do choose meaning, but I am still left wishing that life could ocasionally make a bit more sense...

Sunday, 21 October 2007

More writing, less blogging

One of the reasons I've been blogging less is because of trying to assimilate the course I started in Rome last weekend. I have to keep a log book as part of the ongoing work and that means there's less time to blog - and for obvious reasons of confidentiality I can't put my log book online!
The course helps international teams look at management and spirituality in a holistic way. In my application form I wrote something like, "I believe management is a theological task". There's a surprising amount of stuff out there on management and spirituality, some of it interesting some of it less so. It seems as though because spirituality is the new buzz word it's being used to repackage some management concepts, but perhaps that's just me being cynical. What I actually find interesting is that this push for a different, less confrontational style of management seems to be led by management practioners and academics and not by the churches or religions. There seems to a lot of emphasis in what I've seen so far on spirituality not being like religion, strange that spirituality is seen as being more acceptable than religion - more warm and fuzzy perhaps in the general imagination. That's a little difficult for me to engage with as I tend to see my own spirituality as angry, joyful, weeping, frustrated and nourished by intellect, but who knows maybe I'm warmer and fuzzier than I think!

Beautiful, blustery days

That strange Genevan speciality "la bise" has been blowing these past few days. The skies have been clear and blue and the sunshine still strong but I still don't understand why this icy wind is called the kiss when its strong, cold blast is more like a slap in the face. And I've still not quite worked out the difference between la bise noire and the ordinary seemingly colourless bise. But I like the idea of giving local winds names - even if le mistral and the sirrocco are sometimes used to package fast forms of transport or overpriced technology.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Feeling enriched on the world day for the eradication of poverty

Yesterday one of my colleagues at work sent the email and links at the bottom of this post as we were marking the UN day for the eradicaiton of poverty. We had a "stand up against poverty" worship at the beginning of the day with great singing and later in the morning colleagues and campaigners from beyond the WCC spoke with great passion about some of their experiences.
Going to the global rich list website and doing the test really brought me up short. Like in any organisation it's easy at work to sometimes get into a spiral of dissatisfaction. Discovering that most of us working in the ecumenical centre will be in the top one or two percent of the world's population in terms of earnings really brought home the reality of my privilege. And that sense of privilege should not instill guilt but responsibility and the idea that I can help to change things.
So take responsibility and do the test yourselves!
This website ( allows you to find out what your position is in a sort of global list of rich people. It's a very interesting exercise; what to do afterwards is up to you.
You might also want to take a look at this map (, that shows where the money (actually: the purchasing power) is. A bit out of date, but still useful.
This is one of the many websites ( where you can sign up the online petition for the
International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.
And here ( you can see one of the reasons why we are where we are (it takes a while to download, but it's worth the waiting).

Stand Up & Speak Out!

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Management and spirituality in Rome

The reason I went to Rome was not only because of the food or of staying with the wonderful Giorgio and Luca. I started a two year course run by the Craighead Institute for members of international leadership teams. The three days of seminars, input and praxis sessions were really stimulating and gave me much food for thought. I can see how it builds on study I did previously at the Open University Business School but is more consciously rooted in faith-based analysis rather than purely in secular analysis of non-profit making organisations.
The sessions are organised to allow for reflective and meditative space as well as more intellectual and praxis orientated input. This is also helped by the lovely small courtyard garden off our meeting room, it has glorious palm trees reaching up into the (mainly) blue skies. Wandering around drinking a cup of tea there was quite a restorative experience.
I'll try and say more about the course over days and weeks to come. It's energised my thinking and helped me feel I still have a brain. It's also been a very steep learning curve about Roman Catholic congregations. I was the only Protestant there and the only person not in religious life - though as a minister I do feel I have a vocation. I'm still not quite sure I understand what the difference between superiors, generals and provincials is but I'm trying.
On the way home in the train and since coming back I've been pondering many things.
How to link spirituality and management with some kind of integrity -there are so many ways in which we spiritualise away real difficulties we encounter at work and in life. Rather than entering into painful places our spirituality often remains paddling about in the shallows. Frightened of too much emotion we somehow lose the visceral anger, joy, glee, grief and depression you can find in the psalms.
My friend Janet who is a speech therapist and also ordained, remarked to me once that the language of our liturgies just isn't right for many people, too removed from down to earth feelings - too focussed on poetry and heaven maybe. It's important people at funerals for instance feel the words say something they can relate to. John Bell from the Iona community has written some good things but much of our formal spirituality, in the West avoids, poetises or uses platitudes. One of the things the course challenged me to revisit is on how strong feelings affect and are part of decisions we take.
The need to find a new language to talk about religious life, matters spiritual and ecclesisatical was also a recurring theme. I suppose it goes with my job to find myself thinking repeatedly about language and justice. The rise and rise of global English, like a tower of Babel. Yet if we want to communicate the gospel or any faith values, we'll need to relearn some of the better missionary linguistic practice from the past. Translation and interpretation are essential disciplines and paradigms when talking about faith. Being in Rome I was forced back to my very poor school Latin while in the town, though all of our teaching sessions were in English. By the time I left I said occasional phrases of something that could perhaps be described as Italoglish - by which I mean that at least I was able to order an espresso with aplomb!

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Eating my way around Rome

One reason I took the night train was to be able to have some chance of just wandering around Rome in the daylight and just drinking it all in. It was only my second visit and my first was just in January so I still have lots to discover - like the fact that I will of course never come out of the metro station where I think I should and so get lost and that it seems almost impossible to get a bus map.
I've been walking past the Colisseum and Forum twice a day, literally going past thousands of years of history. This enormous human endeavour from the past is both beautiful and very humbling. Going early to my course meant that there were fewer people around.
However no trip to Italy would be right with out culinary discoveries. Giorgio and Luca had friends over on Thursday evening, a young woman minister in the Protestant church and her partner and child, Giorgio cooked the most amazing minced beaf and spinach roulade which we ate with the sweetest, ripest vine tomatoes; last night we had seafood at a wonderful Sardinian restaurant - including not only pasta con vongole but vongole with fish roe. Quite divine. The previous evening at Giorgio's sister we ate Sicilian specialities, anchovies wrapped in lettuce and utterly amazing almond pasties. So far my favourite discovery is flat bread filled with spinach and mozarella, served hot. A little place near where my course takes place in the via Luchesi serves one that's delicious and there's just time to eat it in the lunch hour, together with hundreds of other tourists who are staring at the Trevi fountain.
However I have yet to find a good cup of tea, delicious as the coffee is!

This is the night train...

Crossing the border... (And yes in case you're wondering the poem is by W:H: Auden and not by Betjeman.
So late on Wednesday evening I got on board the night train to Rome and awoke the next morning after a not too broken night's sleep at Roma Termini which made me think of a strange crime novel linking the Vatican and the ecumenical centre in Geneva.
Giorgio met me at the station which was reallz kind of him, he then put me in a taxi having given the taxi driver extensive instructions about how to reach their house. The driver gave every sign of understanding completely while Giorgio was speaking and then as soon as we set off he handed me the map and started speaking to me in Italian. Hmm ... a little local difficulty with transport has been a minior subplot to this stay in Rome. Just trying to buy a ticket was a challenge - today at last I bought three and then walked all the way back because there were no buses! It's not that I have not sense of direction just that I can't quite read maps ... and it really wasn't my fault that there was a demo by neo fascists in the centre of Rome yesterday closing down the transport.
So tonight I shall take the night train back acorss the border to Geneva - sometimes called the Protestant Rome. I don't quite see it myself but I suppose Calvin's idea of civil and religious government could perhaps be equated with Papal authority in the eternal city.
Anyway the best bit about the night train was waking up to sunrise over the Tuscan countryside and lying on my bed drinking coffee while watching the countryside go by.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

An evening of feminist theology with Lytta Basset

On Tuesday evening our small Geneva feminist theology group hosted Lytta Basset. Our 2007-2008 programme focuses on the parables and Lytta spoke to us about the so-called parable of the prodigal son. She gave a bravura performance, using her own translation from the Greek to back up a deep spiritual and personal understanding of the story. I think all of us could have gone on listening to her for hours. As well as being being a professor of theology in Neuchâtel she also has a real commitment to communicating with people of the church. From the very beginning she encouraged us to use this parable to go on writing our own parables, a parable is never a neatly tied up story, it always continues beyond the story we know.
As always several translation questions she raised really stuck with me. When the younger son asks for his inheritance the Greek word is oussia (sorry no Greek Bible with me here and no idea how to get Greek on the blog for the time being either) which really means more "give me my share of existence", my share of being, perhaps even the right to exist. When later he is starving and working with the pigs the word asotos is used, which she translated (into French) as "désespéré" or disparing rather than disippated. The link here is to salvation - sotos being the root for soteriology. His longing was not only for food but for meaning, his emptiness was not merely physical. It is this longing that drives him back home from his self-imposed exile.
What Lytta said about the older son spoke to me particularly - it is only at the very end of the parable that he finally begins to say anything about his own desires, his own existence, his own wants.
It's really good that Lytta's work is beginning to be translated into English - but it is also a privilege to have her working locally as well as on a wider stage. She has also just brought out a new book in French based on writing she did following the suicide of her son five years ago. As I listened to her speaking about the three men in the parable and their roles, about how complex relationships in families are I knew she spoke from deep and painful experience. Yet her acceptance of others saying what the parable had awakened in them was just as profound. Much food for thought as we go on to prove that parable goes on for ever.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Un sens à ta vie - A meaning to your life

Yesterday I took a big step and went back to doing something I used to do when I was the minister of the local church here in Ferney. Together with Bernard Millet, my successor in the parish, I taught "KT". KT is French shorthand for catéchisme or confirmation class or perhaps just youth work.
The material we're using is called "un sens à ta vie" and it's really well done. However we're taking a rather post-modern approach and beginning with chapter eight which is called "appeler à devenir" - called to become. We tried to encourage the young people to dream dreams both for themselves and for humanity. You never really know whether anything you say is actually going in. It was interesting though that in the final session where they each had to choose a verse from a list of some sayings of Jesus in the gospels they all seemed to quietly settle to making their choice and then writing it on a big sheet of paper - Words of life.
Later standing with them in the Temple for a short time of prayer I realised that I felt quite at home back there even though I hadn't been back since I left five years ago. No worse a curse than having the previous minister sitting in the pews every Sunday.
Being more involved locally again will I hope help my reflections on the daily ecumenical work I'm involved in.
Anyway KT was fun, we're fortunate in having a great group of young people and I'm looking forward to next month's class. It helps give meaning to my life too.

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves

Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.
‘I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’ I sought him, but found him not.
Song of Songs 3. 1-2

We went to church this morning at St Gervais in the centre of Geneva. It was like re-integrating normal life after the writing of the PhD. Sundays in recent months have been spent writing, proof-reading and checking references. Unexpectedly we also met quite a number of people we knew at the service, including people from Versoix where we normally go.
This morning's service was very beautiful, based around music written by Dietrich Buxtehude for words from the Song of Songs, which is one of my favourite books in the Bible. Perhaps appropriately one of the violinists was even called Erös! The music - apart from some dreadful congregational singing of a horrid Genevan setting of Psalm 63 - was very lovely. And every word that Francine Carillo said was almost perfect, the meditation was extremely poetic but also had a profound message about searching for God in emptiness.
The wonderful thing about going to church and not having any responsibilities for worship is being able to let go, to think, to pray, to enjoy, to listen. After five years of not being in pastoral charge I still love receiving from worship others have put effort into.
I did wonder of course afterwards - how much does poetry actually speak to us? How earthed is poetic language? Especially as the Song of Songs is a very earthy book, or at the very least a celebration of sensuality. Janet Morley in Bread of Tomorrow tries to confront the northern tendancy for poetry in liturgy with more concrete liturgies from the global south, resurrection in the south is real, in the north the only way we seem to find of talking about it is poetically.
Listening to the very beautifully crafted words of this morning's meditation I also remembered the first sermon I preached on this text which was in German and certainly less beautifully crafted. I preached it in former East Germany in front of students like me studying for the ministry. Several of them came up to me afterwards and said they had enjoyed the sermon but they didn't think that such a sermon would be possible in for them because of the historico-critical method in biblical interpretation, perhaps this hadn't yet reached England? Nothing like being told it was a great sermon but useless exegesis - especially when you've sweated for hours over all that German grammar. Should a feminist theologian who is trying to translate the English thought "God is our lover" use the German Liebhaber (male lover) or Liebhaberin (female lover)? Not surprisingly I never did get around to telling my professors in Oxford of this particular humiliation!

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

It is written, printed bound, posted and delivered

Stephen has now completed his doctoral thesis and on 1 October sent it to Reading university.
The real question now is what do we do with all of those free weekends? Is there meaning in life after writing your doctorate?
It may be possible, I'll keep you posted.
I know one thing though I will not be studying for one myself just now!

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

A cycle of prayer

In the ecumenical centre chapel we try to follow week by week the ecumenical prayer cycle, which the WCC instituted. Both the United Reformed Church and The French Protestant Federation also try to follow this in the devotional material they prepare nationally for local congregations. Perhaps because I more or less grew up with it I tend to find the focus of particular countries useful both for my personal reflection and often for sermon writing too.
This week the prayer cycle invites us to pray for Armenia and Georgia and Azerbaijan, in weeks to come Afghanistan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Srilanka and Rwanda are among the countries the prayer cycle focuses on in weeks to come. And of course every country even the most prosperous, has its history of tragedies as well as joys to celebrate. Intercession and thanksgiving are linked in the way the prayer cycle is constructed, celebrating resistance and success and praying for those in need.
Maybe the importance of this turning global perspective is a little bit too obvious for people like me who work in international organisations. The strength of the prayer cycle really lies in its local application - think global, pray local. Today more than ever we realise just how intertwined all of our lives are.