Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Old Forge

Welcome to Nigel Coles, my regional minister/team leader colleague, from the West of England, who has just begun blogging at The Old Forge. Nigel's a great guy. He's passionate about missional leadership - as well as Liverpool FC - and I'm looking forward to his posts.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Orchestra conducted by robot

I read last week of an orchestra which had performed, conducted by a robot. The Detroit Symphony was led by Asimo, a 4ft 3in tall robot designed by car manufacturer Honda, as it performed 'The Impossible Dream'. Asimo was programmed to mimic the orchestra's education director as he conducted the piece in front of a pianist six months ago.

The performance wasn’t without a hitch as the robot is unable to respond to the musicians. So during early rehearsals, Asimo - which stands for Advanced Step In Innovative Mobility - slowed the tempo and robot and orchestra separated, something a human would have sensed and compensated for.

The musical director Leonard Slatkin commented, ‘It's not a communicative device; it simply is programmed to do a set of gestures.’ But bassist Larry Hutchinson said that while the movements were a little stiff, they were ‘very humanlike, much more fluid than I thought’.

I couldn't help wondering how many professional musicians, on hearing that an orchestra had been conducted by a robot thought, ‘So, what’s new?’ I suggest that it wasn’t a small number!

Friday, 16 May 2008

BBC Weekend and ‘the scandal of forgiveness’

On the Saturday evening of the Bromham Baptist Church weekend, I spoke about being a forgiven community but also a forgiving community, and I used a brilliant quote that I came across by Rowan Williams - thanks to Jason Goroncy on Hopeful Imagination - 'one of the oddest things in our culture is that we seem to be tolerant of all sorts of behaviour, yet are deeply unforgiving. The popular media mercilessly display the failings of politicians and celebrities; attitudes to prisoners and ex-prisoners are often harsh; people demand legal redress for human errors and oversights. We shouldn't be misled by an easy-going atmosphere in manners and morals; under the surface there is a hardness that ought to worry us. And this means that when the Church in the Creed and (we hope) in its practice points us to the possibility of forgiveness, it is being pretty counter-cultural'. (Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief). Rowan Williams speaks about the 'scandal of forgiveness', which is apt.

My observation of church life is that while some people find it hard to receive forgiveness, in countless ways we find it harder to forgive and simply won't let go of things. But then there are those who have been sinned against unimaginably, who do let go, and the gospel is illumined powerfully. I'm looking forward to exploring Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro' as a deep parable of forgiveness.

Communion on Sunday morning was profound as everyone stood in a huge circle and shared bread. One man, a new Christian whose experience of life has been tough, said 'This is the biggest gang I've belonged to.' And it was good to share this part of the weekend with the children and young people who played a full part.

To be away for the weekend and to return home only to go away again for National Settlement Team for three days wasn't great planning on my behalf, but from my perspective it was thoroughly worthwhile, especially to talk about the Church, which continues to be one of the passions in my life.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

BBC Weekend and ‘Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra’

At the Bromham Baptist Church weekend, with a focus on 'What is Church?', I did a session on the Body of Christ and used a musical example from Benjamin Britten's Young Persons' Guide to the Orchestra. I spoke about the genius of the orchestra because it plays as one, but is made up of the different families of instruments: strings, wind, brass and percussion; as well as the different instruments that constitute those families, for example, flute, piccolo, oboe, cor anglais, clarinet, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contra bassoon, and that's just the woodwind family!

Sometimes the question is asked 'What instrument is the most important?' Answers include the violins in the string family, the flute in the woodwind family, the trumpet in the brass family, and the timpani in the percussion family, but all of these would be heavily contested. There are almost as many answers as there are instruments. I had a friend who passionately argued that the timpani is the most musical instrument in the orchestra. No guesses what instrument he played, and although he is one of the finest timpani players in the country, his argument wasn't convincing.


However, it is true that some instruments have a more prominent role, while others less so. If you go to an opera, keep an eye on the orchestra pit and you will see the brass section disappear, sometimes for long periods of time. Actually every instrument within the score of a musical work is needed, and the most overlooked instrument can be absolutely crucial. Next time you listen to 'The Lark Ascending' imagine it without a triangle.


I played the fugue from the end of Young Person's Guide, and the effect was electric. In the space of less than three minutes, we heard each of the instruments introduced with their different characteristics; how they related to the next instrument once they'd made their entrance; and how Purcell's big tune at the end holds everything together even though it's radically different to all that's happening around it. This spoke powerfully of the unity and huge diversity in the Body of Christ. If you don't know this piece of music, it really is worth a listen and you can download just the final fugue for .79 pence at iTunes, although I'd recommend the piece in its entirety.


I'll share some more thoughts in the next post.

Monday, 12 May 2008

BBC Weekend and 'the confronted life'

No, it wasn't a weekend of tv or radio, but Bromham Baptist Church's (BBC) weekend at Hothorpe Hall. And it was a great weekend. The weather was glorious, and Hothorpe, which is a good venue at any time, set in lovely Leicestershire countryside, was glorious - I'm only sorry that I didn't make the bluebell walk.

Bromham is a lively, healthy church with a fine minister in Mark Hatto, and it was a pleasure to be with them. I enjoyed mealtimes, meeting with people and hearing their stories. And I enjoyed the overall sense of church being relaxed together, whether it was in the main sessions or the betwee times. People shared testimony on Sunday morning, and while in my experience this can be a mixed blessing, on this occasion is was meaningful and moving. There was an optional session on 'Godly Play', which I have blogged about on CBA Ministers – if you haven't encountered this concept it's well worth checking out. And a pampering room was made available offering foot spas, facials and the like, which was very popular. I didn't make this either!

The focus of the weekend was 'What is Church?' and as I spoke about 'the Church', I looked at a number of images. In one session I drew on Ronald Rolheiser, a North American Catholic priest, teacher and writer, who is a regular columnist on the Catholic Herald. For many years I've been struck with his emphasis upon the necessity to be real about the Church. He speaks with passion about what he terms, 'the confronted life'. His concern, and mine, is that the Christian life doesn't become a fantasy that I can share with a few well-chosen, like-minded individuals. He says, 'Few things stretch the heart as painfully as does church community. Conversely when we avoid the pain and mess of [church] encounter to walk a less painful private road or to gather with only persons of our own kind, the heart need not and generally does not stretch. Going to church is one of the better cardio-vascular spiritual exercises available.'

Rather than make this a long post, I'll share some other comments later.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Baptist Assembly

I'm enjoying reading the reflections of those who've been to the Baptist Assembly in Blackpool. I was there - it goes with the job - but I would have been there otherwise, honest! Overall, I think it was a good assembly, but here are my highlights.
The first was personal. Cazz and I last attended an Assembly together at Westminster Chapel, when I was still at theological college, i.e. a long time ago, so it was a delight to be with her, and our youngest son, both of whom enjoyed being there. Also, hearing of some of the experiences of colleagues with accommodation and food, ours was good.

We didn't arrive until later on the Friday evening, but the two occasions I heard Elaine Storkey, I wasn't disappointed. She gave inspiring, challenging, hype-less addresses, with great use of stories and photos from her experience as the President of Tear Fund.

Pat Took, the Regional Minister/Team Leader of the London Association, and a colleague I respect enormously, spoke at the Baptist Ministers' Fellowship, on the subject of 'In the Image of God'. She was marvellous. As a denomination we have ordained women since 1925. That would be impressive in the general scheme of things were it not for the fact that many of our churches are still resistant and closed to the ministry of women, especially in the role of minister. Pat explored this at depth, with seriousness as well as lightness of touch, eloquently, passionately, convincingly. I expect it to be available in The Journal, in due course.

Then, as Team Leaders, we put on a seminar, 'Women and Men in Leadership', addressing the same theme. This consisted of a number of contributions, including a superb Bible study from Viv O'Brien, and concluding with a panel for questions. Clearly I'm biased, but again I thought this was excellent. My only criticism would be that we were preaching to the converted, although a good number of them!

The other speaker who stood out for me was Vinoth Ramachandra, who spoke on the Saturday evening. My only regret was that when I ordered red wine with the meal, instead of the choice of a small or large one I automatically received the large one, a 250 ml glass. There are some occasions when I would have been extremely grateful for the effect, but moving towards the end of a long and full day, I could have done with being just a bit more alert!

Other predictable highlights were the presentation of Ministers - as an aside, Catriona, has made my day by giving me 10/10 as best turned out Regional Minister - the valediction of missionaries, (see photo) and the in memoriam, all of which move me intensely, and make me particularly glad to be part of this family.

I also appreciated meeting a large number of people, though I was frustrated by the lack of time to say more than 'Hi' to many of them. It was particularly good to have coffee (eventually) and sit with Andy and Norma. They live opposite the house we lived in when we got married, and Cazz stayed with them prior to our marriage. Back in 2001, I was delighted to hear that Andy, who had exercised leadership in the local church from his teens, upon taking early retirement as a deputy head at a secondary school in Leeds, was going to Spurgeon's as a church-based minister in training. He was ordained in 2004 and has just completed his period as a newly accredited minister, so he was one of the ministers being presented. Andy and Norma are excellent people and when for one reason or another I'm browned off with Christian people, I think of Andy and Norma as shining examples of christlikeness.

I would have liked to go to the Whitley Lecture, but am looking forward to reading Craig Gardiner's address, 'How can we sing the Lord's Song?: Worship in and out of the church'. And I'd like to have heard John Colwell too.

The Assembly takes a huge amount of work by a large number of people, so criticism must feel acute by them, especially as what we don't appreciate is often down to personality and taste. Last year's worship I found less than helpful, so by comparison, this year was good. Musically, I still feel that we've moved away from a style which had more breadth to something which is fairly narrow, and while I agree with Andy in his comments about the lack of confession, intercession, lament, crafted and thought-out prayer, and reading of Scripture, I think that this is a reflection of what is the norm in many of our churches, which is a bigger issue. In other words, what we have at the Assembly is our default. It was great to have an oboe and trumpet, but mostly, what is heard is a fairly standard soft-rock sound.

We did sing 'These are the day of Elijah', sorry Catriona, but although this is one of my favourite worst songs, we didn't sing, 'Above all powers', which must be very near the top! I'm relieved that I was spared the image of Christ as a rose trampled to the ground, taking the fall and thinking of me, above all. End of small rant. If this is your favourite song, forgive me; you may well hate my favourite songs.

Positively, we used an excellent song, and one that I can't remember singing before, although it's been around since 1988, 'What does the Lord require of you?' I've tried tracking it down, but it isn't in any of the hymn/song books I possess. Based on Micah 6.8 it was attractive with a good hook, singable, and said something enormously important.

It would be good if it didn't take three days to reach the stage where getting a coffee at the break is no longer a feat of human endurance, but hey ho! Overall, it was good to be in Blackpool, and appreciation to those who put in such a huge amount of work, locally and nationally. Also it was good to come home to the Indian curry we didn't have on Saturday night!

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Leadership and Jazz

A while back Andy blogged about a lecture that he had attended in relation to leadership in Baptist churches. This touched upon the image of leader as conductor of the orchestra. It sounded as if it was a fascinating exploration, but I commented at the time that I wasn't taken with it. It’s appealing until you look more closely at the role of the conductor.

While the conductor enables, and often brilliantly, he/she only enables the players to carry out his/her will to the best of their ability and artistry. Not so long ago, it was common practice to refer to the conductor as 'maestro' which is says it all in terms of the power that the conductor has. Essentially, the conductor metaphor is one of control - the 100th anniversary this year of the birth of Herbert von Karajan is a reminder of one striking example of such control. Among the great and wonderful conductors, many have been dictatorial, others more benevolent, but whatever their style, they are the interpreter of the music - essentially it is Karajan's Brahms, Sir Colin Davis' Berlioz, and Gergiev's Mahler.

Returning to jazz, and we have something that does work - Bishop Alan picked up on this in a response to a previous post. I came across this comment in something else I was reading on leadership and thought that it was very helpful. It's by Max De Pree, in his book, 'Leadership Jazz':

'Jazz-band leaders must choose the music, find the right musicians, and perform – in public. But the effect of the performance depends on so many things – the environment, the volunteers playing in the band, the need for everybody to perform as individuals and as a group, the absolute dependence of the leader on the members of the band, the need of the leader for the followers to play well. What a summary of an organization!

A Jazz band is an expression of servant leadership. The leader of a jazz band has the beautiful opportunity to draw the best out of the other musicians. We have much to learn from jazz-band leaders, for jazz, like leadership, combines the unpredictability of the future with the gifts of individuals.'

I think this is superb, and for me has far more resonance.

Incidentally, the pictures I've used on the last three blogs are all by Kandinsky, and are entitled ‘Improvisation’, followed by a number – he did loads of them!