Category Archives: Blog

images

Mind the Conflict

Recently I introduced a brief session on mindfulness, meditation and relaxation to the routine of Chaplaincy based activities here at the University of Sussex. It is run in the University’s Meeting House Chapel once a week. It is designed for a wider audience and breaks the usual pattern of praying the office of Morning Prayer. The aim is to provide an opportunity for students and staff to center them selves at the beginning of the busy day. But I realize this statement of aim is rather banal compared to the confirmed benefits of Mindful practice. (By the way, for those unfamiliar with the concept, Mindfulness refers to practices that help us to become deeply of one self, others and what is going on in around us. Usually this will involve a structured practice of ‘meditation’ of some sort. A ‘flavour of the month’ in some ways but touting strategies with roots in ancient wisdom.)

In their book, Mindfulness: A practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams and Danny Penman cite several pieces of research highlighting Mindful practice’s positive benefit to mental and physical wellbeing and its potential for changing the physical structure of the brain. They highlight its impact on people suffering from depression, stress and excessive anxiety and the habits of thought with which these are associated.

To that extent approaches like ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy’ (MBCT), etc. might be complimented with approaches to CR training: a Mindfulness Based Conflict Engagement model or MDCE to give it acronym – or something like that. People tend to mind conflict terribly. It is uncomfortable, dangerous and often evokes primitive experiences where conflict has been experienced in deeply negative and painful ways.

Marsha Lucas in her book Rewiring your Brain for Love: Creating Vibrant Relationships Using the Science of Mindfulness, echoing Williams and Penman, proffers a cogent case for Mindful practice as a strategy for rewiring the brain and changing habitual ways of doing relationship that have proved to be dysfunctional and destructive. The potential for enabling new strategies for relating across conflict situations is enormous.

Mindful practices with their millennia old stocks of wisdom provide a strategy for laying down stores of energy out which we might live both profoundly and effectively. Motives for the practice will vary from religious contexts – Buddhist, Christian and other faith-based meditative strategies, humanist based therapies like MBCT or simply as practical strategies for relaxing. In the context of conflict resolution the motives may also be nuanced depending on whether you are someone who simply wants to ‘do conflict’ along more positive lines, build resilient self awareness or on the delivery end of peace building or training.

But MBCE ☺ – oh, why not?! – may provide an important framework that in the best sense of the phrase enables us to mind conflict, to mind it very much and very effectively.

Toxicity

Toxicity: Systems that get us Down

While I firmly believe in the mediation process – whether in workplace, community or international contexts – there are times, especially at the micro-level, when I fear it can amount to a mere sticky plaster placed over a sore. This is particularly the case where conflict is rooted in deep systems of communication, structure and processes that underlay the conflict. While these remain intact and unchallenged, mediation – even if successful at a certain level – can be just a moment in the recurring cycle. Like a perverse Jesus, the conflict will rise again. Interpersonal spats over different styles of communication, varying perspectives and misunderstanding can effectively be addressed by mediation. But when these spats are surface indicators of something unhealthy built into ‘the way it is done here’, then something more may be needed than addressing interpersonal concerns: at the very least an effective mediation process must include space for addressing systemic change.

Speaking to the working environment, the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work defines stress this way: ‘Work-related stress is experienced when the demands of the work environment exceed the employees’ ability to cope with (or control) them.’

The various demands on workers become toxic at that point where the worker’s wellbeing is significantly undermined. Some different toxicities that mediation may need to address include:

1. Poor systems of internal communication: a lack of direct and clear communication, often substituted by emails, or even expectations that ‘they should know this’. Of course much of workplace communication sometimes lacks mutuality – effective feedback systems from workers to management. Rather there are directives or ‘non-sultation’ rather than consultation around decisions that have an impact on the whole workforce. Sometimes just being consulted and having a view heard or valued is sufficient to relieve stress, even when decisions are made that fall short of an employee’s ideal.

2. Target cultures that focus on performance against targets at the expense of realistic capacities of individuals to deliver. One friend of mine was presented with a list of annual targets for his work. These had been developed independent of any conversation with him. He said ‘I will deliver these but it is going to hurt my health and home life! I don’t want to be seen to be failing.’

3. Equally unwholesome discourses about success. The comment from my friend ‘ I don’t want to be seen as a failure’ says much. Do we esteem ourselves as valuable because we are judged so against what may be unrealizable targets? This is not to say that we should not be stretched at work. Of course we should be! Work, at its best, contributes to our development and growth. But when expectations run counter to the wellbeing of a given worker because they are based on targets agreed in an ivory tower or without conversation with those responsible for delivering the work.

The list above certainly does not exhaust the potential toxicities thriving in work environments. But when these toxic features are not addressed at their roots and displaced by more wholesome narratives the potential for conflict remains high – as does the potential for health threatening stress levels leading to burn-out, sick leave, and debilitating lace of morale.

One other toxicity worth mention is the worker’s own narrative regarding their power to provoke change. Another individual I know was increasingly depressed at the lack of support from her managers, their sometime dismissive – if not downright patronizing – style of communication, and the lack of transparency regarding decision-making. This feeling was widely shared within the office to the detriment of morale and commitment to work. Many of her colleagues simply succumbed to ‘the way things work here’ and contented themselves with unhappy mumbles, not caring too much about the quality of their work and, as opportunity permitted, looking for work elsewhere.

Rather than succumb to the negative energy she took the bull by the horns and directly raised these issues with her own line manager. She did this a number of times, always clear but also empathetic with the pressures on managers. Gradually a different style of communication coming from management emerged. It was not perfect but tended more in the direction of respect, consultation and even affirmation. Some of the unwholesome metanarratives affecting the working environment, beyond the control of local managers to effect, certainly remained as background music. (Other interventions are called for at that level) But my friend was able to take power in her own hands and shape, however minimally’ a more humane working relationship with managers.

While it is the larger metanarratives that often contribute toxins into the workplace, in the immediate context we can assert power for positive change in some of those systems that get us down.

Non Anxious Presence 1

Something ‘Touchy-Feely’ for the Office: The Non-Anxious Presence

I have written previously about planks in a preventive approach to workplace conflict. Shortly I will be writing about the costs of allowing conflict to escalate and the costs and benefits of soft processes like mediation. But now for something ‘touchy feely’. (I know how well that stuff goes down with managers!)

Many of the conflicts in which I have been invited to intervene have entailed massive degrees of reactivity on the parts of key players. This has often proceeded from insecurities and anxiety around role clarity, status and perceived threats to a sense of self-esteema and competence. Within this cocktail of reactivity it may take only one player to have the capacity to stand back, take stock and bring a different quality of presence to the situation. Managers may be effective key persons modelling this kind of ‘non-anxious presence’ amid office or workplace battles.

The phrase ‘non-anxious presence’ is a phrase used to connote the quality of this connection with others. This kind of presence is, ideally, free of pre-occupations with our own anxieties (e.g. about what to say next, etc), distracting trends of thought that call us away from the present moment, or crippling resonances of past experience evoked by the present situation or self-interested agendas. Of course anxieties are augmented all the more in situations of conflict, especially when they entail a perceived threat to one’s power, status or sense of competence.

While a ‘non-anxious presence’ is not overcome by any of the above-mentioned dynamics, it is still mindful of them, as they will make up the sometimes very loud background music. We remain mindful of their dynamics and power for disruption. In a word, to be ‘non-anxiously’ present is to allow the intention to be present to others to override any inner turmoil that may be around. This may be immensely challenging in a conflict situation, especially for the parties involved. A key building block enabling this ability to bracket turmoil, while remaining mindful of it’s stirring, is emotional maturity. The capacity for a non anxious presence rooted in emotional maturity serves all of us well, especially in people management roles or as third parties supporting individuals in the heat of conflict.

The development and nurture of emotional maturity has been a key plank in my own work with people over the years. Whether as a trainer or mediator, I have sought to assist the growth of self-awareness alongside technical skills for engaging with conflict. Emotional maturity in the sense I understand it is a capacity to be deeply aware of and name one’s feelings and connect with one’s own thoughts and body. It entails a capability for being earthed in the present moment. Perhaps emotional maturity should by definition comprise part of the person spec for anyone in a ‘people management’ role along side other competencies.

Louise Gold writes about the healing dimension of mediation and proposes ‘presence’ as an integral quality of the mediator. She defines ‘presence’ in terms of centeredness, a conscious connection to one’s deepest values and beliefs, connectedness to the other’s humanity and being congruent, i.e. doing what you are and being what you do. Where this quality of presence obtains, there is also a commitment to our own and the other person’s wellbeing, the mindful awareness of what is going on for both of us while disentangling our own baggage from what belongs to someone else and an ability to sit in the storm of a conflict without losing connection with the calm centre.

The more we cultivate this kind of self-awareness, the more we will be able to bring that quality of presence to the full repertoire of interactions with those around us, friend, family and ‘foe’ alike. Also there is a difference between ‘non-anxious’ presence and being free of anxiety. As a friend recently put it, it is ‘to be anxious but not be anxious about being anxious’. Here anxiousness becomes part of the mindful energy that helps us contribute to the wellbeing of our social worlds.

This may all sound touch feely but I believe that the development of this ‘soft skill’ for managers – and any employee – can prevent some hard consequences both in human and financial costs.

Pig

Lessons from a Pig

You may have come across this story before:

Two drivers are careening down a country lane from opposite directions. The winding road is narrow and bounded on each side by hedgerows, affording little space for manoeuvre. One of the drivers, a gentleman, was focused on the road and thinking about his destination. Suddenly, from the opposite direction, a car appears, driving at speed. The two cars just manage to scrape pass each other without damaging the cars. The woman driving the other car shouts ‘Pig!’ as she passes by. The man quickly lowers his own window screen and yells back, ‘Cow!.

As he rounds the next bend he ploughs into a pig standing in the middle of the road.

There often lay behind conflict various assumptions we make about one another. I have often found this to be the case in work based conflicts and neighbourhood disputes. Individuals assume what the other one intends or thinks. ‘‘He is deliberately winding me up with his radio playing.” “She is trying to undermine my work.” “He is a racist!” “They are anti-social and do not care one bit for the wellbeing of others’. ‘He knows how I feel about that!” Etc. The problems then escalate in proportion to the lack of communication between individuals. Sometimes people are just too worked up to attempt direct communication, imagine that they can’t speak to the other person for whatever reasons or simply because the default position of talking about the other person rather than to them is so deeply rooted.

In the absence of direct communication between individuals, caricatures develop and issues multiply and become inflated. The enemy image that is nurtured regarding the other tends to lend weight to one’s own sense of righteousness and being hard-done by. It colours our perception of their every word and action. Where there is a power differential between individuals (e.g. one person has line management responsibilities in relation to the other) the prospects for distortion are immense.

I have often had the experience as a third party mediator of a palpable release of tension as individuals communicate with each other clearly and honestly, very often discovering facts about each other that were, up till then, unknown. Previous perceptions are put into a very different context of understanding we light is shed on them through actually listening to one another. On one memorable occasion, two neighbours who had loathed each other because of an on-going conflict over noise issues not only came to view each other in a manner stripped of previous assumptions but came to an amicable agreement and then shared the cost of a taxi home. I discovered sometime later that when one of the women was widowed shortly thereafter, the neighbour with whom she had been in conflict became a major source of support for her.

But conflicts do not necessarily have to be resolved by third party mediation. We CAN talk to each other. Sometimes, because of habit, we may need someone to coach us along the way. In workplace situations management can help by helping to create an atmosphere of wholesome communication and providing support, from outside if needs be, when communication breaks down. Conflict resolution, empathetic listening and communication training are an investment in people and workforce well worth making.

Where there is a habit and culture of open and honest communication assumptions can be tested before they become hardened into ‘truths’ about one another and conflict processed in a way that is healthy and promotes wellbeing.

So the next time someone shouts ‘Pig!’ in your direction you may wish to consider your assumptions about what they mean. And do drive carefully.

human labour

Conflict ‘Provention’ in the Workplace

Some years ago, John Burton in his book, Conflict: Resolution and Provention’ addresses intractable conflicts on the international stage. He coined the term ‘conflict provention’, which he proposes as an approach to conflict resolution that is based on human needs theory. He noted the broad failure of traditional techniques of social control and enforced resolutions to provoke significant change in arenas of conflict. By ‘provention’ Burton means proactively addressing through structural and dialogical means, the bedrock human needs that remain unsatisfied in the conflict situation, with a view to preventing conflicts from arising.

There is also learning here for conflict resolution in the work place. I was talking to a friend a few days ago who was describing some of the targets that had been set for him regarding a project he was managing. He commented that the targets were highly impractical in terms of the projected time frame and had clearly been determined by funding and local authority agendas. They reflected perfectly the ethos of ‘Performance Management’, which focuses on targets more than the worker delivering the service. The targets are often designed without any reference to the wellbeing of the worker, however worthwhile those targets might be. (Who would not want to see a major children’s event come off successfully, or a range of supportive services delivered in deprived areas of a community?) But where the targets, in their cumulative form, are out of sync with the ‘human resources’ for delivering them, we set the workers up for failure and burnout and generate conditions for workplace conflict. (By the way, I dislike the term ‘human resources’. There is something cold in it that reduces the human worker to a factor of production or a cog in the machine.)

One important ‘proventive’ factor that might usefully be built into a company, agency or business’s approach to work includes a more humane way of setting targets for the workforce. Teachers, social workers and professionals across statutory and private sectors lose many good people through burnout and stress and no doubt often create conditions rife with conflict. (My friend tells me he will deliver the targets but at the cost of his own wellbeing and, perhaps, the wellbeing of his household. He does not want to be seen as ‘a failure’.)

Of course a realistic regard for one’s market and the ‘mission’ of one’s business or agency are important factors in a larger business plan. I am not suggesting that we disregard these but only that something else is needed to humanise the equation. Setting targets should include an evaluation of market concerns, service delivery and the potential impact on the wellbeing of those delivering the service. This will entail a culture shift for many organisations. It also requires, in some context, collaboration – not to mention, creativity – at many levels: local delivery services, local authorities, and central government – and, for third sector agencies, private trust fund bodies. In the private sphere there will also be a number of stakeholders who need to be engaged in a ‘proventive’ strategy for approaching service delivery. This becomes more urgent especially in an atmosphere where cuts are being made and workers are required to pick up the slack in a reduced workforce.

Whether such a shift is likely in what is more and more a buyers’ market characterised by zero hour contracts, big bonuses for those profiting from increasing surplus value on labour, and workers desperate to keep or find jobs remains to be seen. But I suspect that when individual workers feel valued and have a stake in setting targets and agendas for their work they will have more energy, a sense of meaning and good will that will pay dividends in levels of productivity and morale.

Work place conflict 2

Stopping Founder Fallouts from turning into Start-up Failure: Emotional Intelligence

Earlier I briefly outlines a few ideas for getting clarity with regards to some issues that might emerge among founders of start-ups: documented processes for dealing with questions of decision making, what happens when the partnership is dissolved, who gets what and also for resolving disputes. Leaving these matters to an ad hoc approach will likely prove disastrous.

Whatever structures and documented processes are put in place, interpersonal competencies are still significant factors enabling the kind of positive relationships that can weather the challenges of a new venture. There is no substitute for a capacity to engage with differences in an emotionally mature manner. These not only serve husbands, wives, partners and friends well but also contribute to the wellbeing professional relationships. The double bind in one situation where I work was the utter lack of documented processes for addressing conflict but also a corresponding lack of emotional intelligence on the part of key individuals.

As noted before, conflict is cool and potentially enriching when we have the wherewithal to work with it in a constructive way. Where there is a recognised lack of competency in the area of interpersonal communication, founders and those bodies supporting them might consider training and other strategies for developing them early on. A few skills bases that may go some distance in enabling co-founders and their start-ups to flourish -all things being equal: you know your market, have the stamina to bear the pressure of a new start-up and have the capital, etc. – include:

An ability to step back and listen: bracketing your views, personal issues, impulses to say what you cannot take back, etc. and giving space to your colleague to express their views is important. It this can be done with empathy and some acknowledgement of the strengths of your colleagues’ take on things before offering your perspective can change the energy of a conflict. When individuals feel that that they have been listened to they also have the space to listen. This will also allow space for manoeuvre and change as needed for both partners. Being able to maintain a non-judgmental stance and not rush to judgment before coming to a verdict on your colleague before fully hearing them out will diminish the risk of coming to grief on the shoal of misunderstanding.

An ability to respond to sound argument: One of my philosophy professors use to encourage us, however convinced we might be about an issue, to be ready to say, ‘but I could be wrong’. In connection with this he would add that he is not one iota interested in our opinions but in our argument. Being willing to consider the possibilities that another view may have more weight than our own can make the difference in making a good decision or going with a seriously wrong idea simply because ‘it’s my idea!’ Stella Fayman, in the article referred to in the last blog, commented on the importance of being ‘data led’. (http://ways4ward.co.uk/stopping-founder-fallout-from-turning-into-start-up-failure/www.forbes.com/sites/stellafayman/2013/04/19/what-happens-when-startup-founders-disagree/) Our readiness to respond to genuinely sound reasoning from a colleague will be informed by the aforementioned ability to step back and listen.

An ability to trust one another: One of my favourite films is ‘The Shawshank Redemption’. Early on in the story Andy Dufresne, innocently convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, narrowly avoids a serious butt-kicking from the sadistic captain of the prison guard Clancy Brown when he asks ‘Do you trust your wife?’ Before getting dumped off the roof he quickly explains the practical significance of the question for avoiding paying taxes. He is saved and finds a lucrative niche for his professional services among prison staff that, in the end, also enables him to provide for his own security upon escape in the future. Trust is a key ingredient for any positive relationship. At the best of times co-co-founders may know each other quite well and substantial trust will already exist. At other times it is a commodity that will need to be nurtured. But trust in the other person’s integrity, motivations and skills are crucial to a successful partnership. It is best at the beginning of a start-up to ask the question: do I trust this person.

In a word, alongside practical structures ensuring a sound basis to the relationship among founders, emotional intelligence will amply compliment whatever business savvy is brought to the adventure of a new start-up.

Work place conflict

Stopping Founder Fallout from Turning into Start-up Failure: Supporting Structures

The statistical failure for new start-up companies is disheartening. Depending how you define ‘failure’ in this context it is estimated anywhere between 70% – 90%. The shear stress involved in starting up a business, inadequate appreciation of who the potential buyers are and, basically, running out of capital are often cited as major reasons for failure.

But another contributor to the failure of start-ups, particularly those involving two or more entrepreneurs, is fallout among the founders. Stella Fayman suggests conflict between founders early on in the process of establishing new companies is a major factor in start-up failure. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/stellafayman/2013/04/19/what-happens-when-startup-founders-disagree/) (accessed 30/07/2013)

The ability to work with conflict should rank alongside those skills essential to successful running of a business. I would suggest that these skills need to be complimented by some practical structural factors at the beginning of any new venture.

Attitude is fundamentally important. In my workshops on conflict resolution I often refer to the two characters that combine to make the Chinese word for ‘crisis’. Ji and Wei respectively refer to ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Like ‘crisis’ conflict provides not only a dissonant moment in a relationship but also an opportunity for growth and learning. As Fayman comments in the above article, ‘conflict is good’. A positive orientation toward conflict – along with the realistic expectation that you will have it – may go a long way in providing the positive energy for weathering those early differences you may experience with your business partner(s). Of course attitudes around respect and the ability to listen is equally important. I will talk more fully about these and a particular skills set that will contribute to the success of a start-up in another blog.

Here I want to say a few things about the importance of basic structures incorporated into a business early on. Awhile back I was working with staff involved in a newly launched business providing an alternative education. The enterprise was actually in its second year when I was invited to work with staff and founders in regards to a conflict threatening to bring the business to an end. What surprised me was to discover that no solid policies had been in place regarding conflict resolution and disciplinary procedure. All power devolved to the founders (a married couple) and they were (absurdly) the arbiters in disputes between themselves and their staff. The situation was made more delicate by the relationship between the founders. Short of a mature capacity to bracket personal interests and listen to others’ concerns – which was much in lack – a foundation of clear policy defining procedures for resolving disputes would have provided a solid base for engaging with differences whether among founders or between founders and staff members.

At the very outset of a start-up it would be helpful in the long term if partners could agree on basic policy covering eventualities of differences between them or between them and other workers they employ. The document might identify a third party process for resolving differences and also cover some of the critical co-founder questions posed by Dhamesh Shah: how should shares be divided? How will decisions get made? What happens when a partner leaves the company? Can a partner be fired? By whom? And for what reason? Etc.. (see http://onstartups.com/tabid/3339/bid/99/, accessed 31/07/2013)

Clearly written policy documents outlining processes and procedures or addressing difference will go far in placing a start-up on a more secure footing in a venture that holds enough challenges without conflict between founders.

Bridging differences 1

Bridging Extreme Differences: is it possible?

I recently attended a conference hosted by BIMA (Belief in Mediation and Arbitration) at St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. The venue itself is a powerful symbol: a twelfth century church in the city of London significantly destroyed by an IRA bomb in the early nineties, it now exists to host events themed around peace and ideologue between different groups.

The focus of the conference was ‘bridging extreme differences’ and featured some awesome panellists at least one of whom journeyed from the posture of an actively committed jihadist to a wider place of engagement and a commitment to pursuing understanding across religious and ideological divides. All of the panellists carried first-hand experiences of life amid political and religious extremists bogged down in mutually reinforcing demonization of one another. Needless to say, with apparent intractable conflict raging in Egypt and elsewhere and polarised conversations about same-sex marriage and (in the Church of England) female bishops filling the news, the conference was particularly resonant.

It is difficult enough bridging differences with a neighbour over building work on their property never mind some of the issues mentioned above. I left the conference in a ponderous mood yet somehow inspired. After all, ‘what exists is possible.’ We can take experiences of bridge building in South Africa, Northern Ireland and other places (however much a work in progress some of these situations remain) as hopeful signs. Some of the common factors around successful bridge building in extreme conflict situations have been:

1. Trust building: the process of trust building takes time. In South Africa conversations between the ANC and the white minority government had been going on for many years. Thabo Mbeke led the ANC delegation meeting secretly with the South African government from 1985. It was touching to hear Henry Brown, a barrister from South Africa, relay a story from this period. The head of the security services for the South African government, who took part in these early talks, was asked by his superiors whether Mbeke could be trusted. He commented, ‘I would trust him with my life.’ It took a long time to get to this place. But it bore fruit in the end when transition to a majority led government happened without the horrible bloodshed many had anticipated.

2. Patience: this quality enables people to stick with long processes of trust building, cycles of rehashing old ground and the ‘two steps forward, several steps backward’ that may happen at stages in the process. Senator Mitchell commented on the challenge he faced chairing the talks leading to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland and participants returned over and over again to their sense of being wronged over the long history of the troubles and their outrage at one another. It took enormous patience to stay with that energy while it expended itself and much wisdom in gradually redirecting the focus so that progress can be made. Today Northern Ireland is a very different place than it was at the end of the last century, however much work remains to be accomplished.

3. A will to engage in positive ways and resolve the conflict: Participants themselves must ultimately take responsibility for the conflict and find ways of processing the memories of hurt and overcome these with gestures of toward peace and reconciliation. In the wake of the recent grisly murder of a serving member of the armed services in North Woolwich, the right wing EDL (English Defence League) organised marches on mosques (which clearly framed the issue in terms of religion rather than political extremism). These were potentially violent and volatile situations for all involved. At one mosque in Harrow, the young Imam, Ajmal Masroor, told the congregation not to react. Instead they adopted the risky strategy of opening up the mosque to visitors. Ajmal went out and met the leader of the mob gathering outside and invited him into the mosque to talk. He said ‘I will bring you in, protect and hug you, feed you and we can talk.’ The EDL leader said, ‘Give me five minutes’, left and did not return. The gesture was not wasted even if the invitation was not taken up. (At another mosque the congregation and leaders came out with tea and biscuits and a massive conversation opened up with protesters.) One is also reminded of the gestures offered by Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi that eventually wore down the moral will of their opposition and created space for dialogue and change.

4. Finally, reframing conflict situations may also help to bridge extreme differences: In the story above there were those attempting to wrongly frame a conflict in terms of ‘Islam vs. Everyone else’ rather than in terms of ideological extremism. But even here a further step must be taken to reframe conflicts in terms of human well-being in order to heighten the possibilities for common ground to emerge. (Other issues do not go away but by enlarging the human space where people can be heard with some compassion, they may be engaged with more fruitfully.) Ajmal attempted such a reframing at the mosque in Harrow.
I do not intend to reduce the daunting prospect of bridging extreme differences to a formula .What I have written just a hint in the direction of tools and qualities required for such a task. All of us share responsibility for bridge building in our own situations regardless of whether we regard ourselves as the aggrieved or the perpetrator. The conflicts in our communities, workplaces or homes may not be extreme cases. But change is possible.
We were asked at the end of the conference to write down one thing that we would be willing to do to make a difference. The cumulative energy of that will to make a difference can be an awesome force. While I cannot take responsibility for what others may or may not do, Gandhi’s words resonate for me: ‘You must be the change you want to see in the world.’

Job Queue

Lessons from the Job Queue

It is good news to hear that unemployment has fallen, especially in the private sector. Apparently it is the sharpest quarterly drop in decade. It is also good news that more full time jobs are now in the offing for job seekers. At the moment it is news I savour from a distance. Ten months on and I am still looking for work. After several interviews and short-listings garnered from the 60+ applications submitted over those months, it is tempting to give in to despair and self-pity. No income or benefits coming in to help with the bills, just the occasional paid service I am able to render to the Church as a priest. So far my account has kept just a hair’s breadth ahead of the pack of wolves in hot pursuit. (Even for those in employment the costs of living continue to outstrip salaries – unless one is a CEO or works in the world of finance.)  But I remain hopeful – and happy.

Paring down wants and consumption habits has had a salubrious effect at one level. I realise I can live well enough on the reduced expenditure incumbent on me at the moment. (Though it is a bug-a-bear when something goes wrong with the heating system in this cold weather and one slips more into credit having to sort it out, etc..) Mind you, it is not that I don’t occasionally indulge in a reverie of wistfulness about acquiring a new Apple laptop. But I now find that a cup of coffee at my local café while reading a book or writing in between job searching is a real joy. The glint of pristine sunlight also surprises me with its radiant laughter in a way that is somehow more emphatic these days.

Also, I am even more attentive to people walking along the high road and side streets: I notice their expressions, the worn looks some of them carry, the distracted airs and happy preoccupations. Increasingly I also pass individuals drawing courage and fortitude from cans of strong beer, carrying belongings in a supermarket cart,  bloodshot eyes, resigned to the idea that life will bring nothing more their way. Their ‘Underverse’ is a secret presence beneath the indifferent rhythms of our own daily routines.   In contrast I feel a pang of sadness at the bombardment from advertising and media promoting the idea that life is for the trim and the beautiful and wholly subsisiting in what you can buy. The Christmas story of hope and joy is reduced to a vision of brightly lit lorries with fairy lights and images of Santa delivering ample supplies of Coca Cola for the holidays. Magic!  I am aware of an enhanced sense of bad taste the clichéd commercialising of Christmas leaves with me.

I do want to be in a better position to provide for my family and I have no otherworldly illusions about the darker realities of the bread queue: but the experience of the last 10 months has been gift to me in many ways. It has helped make me a better human being and, consequently, a better priest.

Above all, I am more aware that the best present we can bring to someone else is our own authentic and attentive ‘presence’. And you can’t buy that at John Lewis.

I guess that Apple laptop can wait.

Adam and Eve

Religion, like sex….

Why are jokes about religion or sex funny? It is possibly because they are serious subjects that touch upon the deepest parts of our being. Both have the power for ennobling human life and relationships. Both have the power to –if you will excuse the expression – screw us up good and proper. Sexual expression can enrich a loving relationship; where it becomes a tool for exploitation in can scar and ruin a life. Religion can build orphanages, serve the poor, produce marvellous art, express the pinnacle of the human spirit’s quest for transcendence; it can also bomb abortion clinics, send suicide bombers into crowds of innocent people, produce neurosis and fly aircraft into buildings.

The recent statistics about the rise and fall of formal religious affiliation in England and Wales were interesting. Speaking only to the data regarding Christianity, there were approximately 4 million fewer people identifying themselves as ‘Christian’ than there were in 2001. Also the numbers of those claiming no religion has increased from 15% in 2001 to 25% in 2011. One reading of this may be that people are a bit more authentic and less likely to identify a religious affiliation that is not meaningful. E.g. being baptised in the Church of England may not mean a lot to an individual for whom church attendance ended on the day of their christening. In the past they may well have ticked ‘Christian’ on the census form but it may feel far more genuine to say ‘no religion’ in this case.

More authentic or not, the statistics still give pause for the wider Church to ask itself why they are failing to connect with and increasing number of people outside the Church. Again, it is not the mission of the Church to increase its numbers so much as to be faithful to its calling to be an extension of Christ’s presence in the world. But still one must wonder to what extent the parochial pre-occupations, addictions to patterns that have long proved dysfunctional, and – in the Church of England’s case – a cultural alliance with state power and the class system have to do with ‘being Christ for the world’.

One of the positive emphases in the document ‘Transforming Presence’, now under consideration among churches in my own Diocese of Chelmsford, is the cultivation of spirituality. This is different than the cultivation of religion, narrowly understood. Spiritual practice aims deeper and focuses on enlarging personal engagement with faith’s underlying values. Practices like meditation and other disciplines aim to connect us one another, the world and ultimate reality, Holy Mystery, God or whatever term one prefers as a reference to a larger meaning-giving framework. They help to reify the core values of love, compassion and wisdom which, by the way, resonate across many religious traditions.

Love, compassion, authenticity: these characteristics, when vital realities in the Church’s life, may also make it a more attractive option for people seeking to explore life more deeply.