Monday, July 21, 2014

Setting the agenda? My Presbyterian Herald article reflecting on June's Presbyterian General Assembly #pciga14

I wrote a piece for the Presbyterian Herald magazine offering some personal reflections on June's General Assembly. It's reproduced below, along with a few extra sentences that missed the final version due to (already generous) word count restrictions!

Your comments and feedback welcomed.

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What kind of a General Assembly was it when Presbyterians returned to the comfortable air-conditioned Assembly Buildings in Belfast after their sojourn in Derry’s Millennium Forum 12 months ago?

The opening night started strongly. Dr Barry called on the church to “look not only on your own interests but also to the interests of others” and speaking out against civic rioting and those “who would attack verbally or physically people they do not like”. He contrasted the tendency to say “come and listen to us” with Jesus’ command to “go into all the world”. Overnight this message was picked up by the front page of the News Letter and for once the denomination was there for the right reason. But did PCI continue to be so challenging throughout the rest of the week’s business?

Despite the nearly equal numbers of ministers and elders who can register to attend the General Assembly, there was an overwhelming clericalism. Apart from the singers and musicians – and a cameo appearance by moderatorial runner-up Rev Liz Hughes – the opening night was once again dominated by men wearing clerical shirts. Does this really epitomise how we want Presbyterian democracy and governance to be seen and heard?

For the first time I heard complaints about a queue forming for the women’s toilets during the breaks in business. Given the tiny minority of women ministers (remember less than 40 have been ordained by PCI in the last 40 years) and the vast majority of male elders, this was a significant and long overdue queue.

We should welcome the small increase in the number of elders speaking in Assembly debates. However, despite their vote being equal, non-clerical voices were very much still in the minority. The Clerk and Moderator might consider encouraging the full participation of all those ‘in the house’ during every session and not just at the introduction to Assembly business on the first morning.

Since its inception in 2007, the SPUD (Speaking, Participating, Understanding, Deciding) youth initiative has been as much about “listening to the views of others and to the rest of the church” as it has been about making the voice of young people heard in the General Assembly.

SPUD neatly summed up their contribution: 1 report, 5 speeches, 3 resolutions, 150 bacon/sausage butties, over 500 cups of tea/coffee, 500 tray bakes, serving God and blessing the Church.

Their focus was on relationships and networking, making the vacant Familybooks unit into a space for prayer, a haven of hospitality, an acoustic café late on Wednesday evening, and over Thursday lunchtime a venue for a discussion about sharing our faith and how to be a people of service and outreach. Our denomination should celebrate the example of the 12 SPUD delegates: listening, relating, serving, feeding and challenging.

The week of General Assembly is an odd mix of a Christian worship festival, a theology symposium, a corporate Annual General Meeting of shareholders, and a trade union rules revision conference. In behind the scenes, an army of office staff, building managers, clerks, stewards, IT support, sound and video engineers, not to mention the caterers and those who look after delegates visiting from other denominations and countries, invisibly hold the Assembly together.

This year it was impossible not to compare and contrast this year’s General Assembly with the experience from twelve months ago up in Derry’s Millennium Forum.

A majority of delegates in 2013 were residential, spending 72 hours living, eating, socialising, worshipping and debating together up in the north west. The relaxed atmosphere included the chance to walk around the walls to First Derry for communion, showing off the City of Culture’s heritage in the fabulous weather. Ministers and elders who normally only pop into General Assembly for a day stayed for the duration. There were lots of new faces at the opening night and Wednesday rally.

Back in the mothership of Assembly Buildings in Belfast, fewer people needed to stay over and were around to let their hair down in the evenings. In familiar surroundings, delegates sat in their favourite corners again. Some of the business was familiar too, with multi-year debates continuing on the restructuring of the denomination’s boards, ministerial pay progression, and another report on the theological considerations of congregations wishing to install baptisteries.

While Jesus sometimes seemed to get lost in the administrative minutiae and reporting, the work of the Board of Social Witness stood out again this year playing its part in the ‘Big Society’, directly impacting the lives thousands of vulnerable adults. The Board reported that many congregations are running or supporting local foodbanks.

At times, significant business that perhaps deserved debate and wider discussion was rushed through. Many larger boards failed to squeeze their resolutions into the allotted times, and lapsed business mounted up alarmingly. By Thursday afternoon, there was a mixture of leftover resolutions and overtures to complete before the Assembly could close. Extending back into Friday morning must surely now be considered to give Assembly business the scrutiny that it deserves.

An amendment that might have delayed the restructuring of boards into councils for another year of review was discussed at length. When it failed the original plans sailed through with very little resistance to the shape of the new leaner organisation. With a smaller number of people being appointed to the new councils, Presbyteries will need to intentional about the need to promote a diversity of age, experience and gender in their nominations.

The substitution of “God-given right” for “inalienable right” in the revised Standards of The Church merited considerable deliberation. An attempt to reverse the change was blocked. Yet at no stage did anyone stand up and clearly explain and justify the moral and legal nuances that “inalienable” conveys in the original text.

Minutes later another important nuance was accepted without comment when no one pointed out that the ordination and installation service liturgy had been subtly amended. Ministers will no longer agree that the Word of God is “set forth” in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, but instead will agree that they believe those Scriptures “to be” the Word of God. Quite a theological change buried in the pages and pages of overtures in the blue book, and a change inconsistent with the wording elsewhere in the Code.

Excitement mounted on the third afternoon when a vote was finally close enough that a simple oral Aye/No followed by up a standing vote (counted visually by tellers) were insufficient and members were asked to place their voting cards in the boxes passed around. After a long wait the result was announced … a tie! 106 votes to 106.

Amazing that out of 616 ministers, 472 elders, 47 Assembly Elders, conveners and nominees of the Business Board, only 212 people voted on the issue of the Central Ministry Fund Bonus! The Assembly will return to the matter next year.

As the Assembly rose to sing a final hymn on Thursday, from my vantage point up in the gallery I wondered what the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan Rev Peter Gai Lual made of the business? Based in a three year old country that is tearing itself apart in a brutal conflict, with massive displacement of families, little food and many people living in camps for shelter, his denomination is barely able to function.

How would it change the way we do our business if the whole traumatised Assembly took place in the context of this wider perspective.

Have we got into the habit of following the agenda rather than setting it? Our radical gospel seems subdued. Across our denomination there are surely opportunities for the church to speak out on issues that matter to people. Issues of justice and equality. Issues that could impact poverty and stamp out discrimination.

Has the General Assembly heeded the wise words of Prof Donald Macleod who addressed a January conference on ‘The Church in the Public Square’ from the same spot on the stage where the Moderator sat during Assembly?
“… our calling as Christians, as the church in the public square [is] to bring warmth into civic life. Not higher standards first and foremost, not law and order, not discipline, but warmth. Individuals and formal governance which are compassionate, which bring hope which bring love, which bring affirmation. You bear God’s image, you matter to God and you matter to us.”

As followers of Jesus, our denomination and its General Assembly should be among the first to challenge the status quo in society and in public and political institutions. We should be the first to defend the rights of those we don’t naturally agree with. We should bring warmth and grace into homes and businesses and hearts across the island, whether they are Presbyterian or not. That’s the kind of General Assembly I’d love to see.

Alan Meban blogs online as Alan in Belfast and sits on the Board of Finance & Personnel … at least for the next six months (until it is restructured out of existence!)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Finally visiting Titanic Belfast, twenty-seven months after it opened!

Oddly until today I’d never set foot in the exhibition halls of Titanic Belfast. More than two years after its opening in the centenary year of the ship’s launch, I’ve been up in the top floor conference venue more times that I can recollect, but had never made it as far as the displays downstairs.

Titanic Belfast certainly goes out of its way to set 1912 Belfast in context, with early galleries introducing visitors to the linen industry, the local political situation and the scale and technology behind Belfast’s ship-building tradition. It is clear that the museum and the city are celebrating more than one single boat.

The short themepark ride was a welcome chance to take the weight of our legs and flew us through the noisy shipyard. Later there was footage of the Titanic’s launch and detail about its intricate fit out.

The ship’s sinking is handled sensitively and is not sensational. Morse code transmissions and survivor statements provide glimpses into the horror of that April night. Where the exhibition is at its weakest is in telling the stories of the passengers and crew, whether lost in the accident or survivors.

Touch screens tucked into a corner offer access to the passenger and crew lists, allowing them to be sorted by age, gender, class/crew role, port of embarkation and whether they survived. However, detail about individual passengers was scant with a only few static displays dotted around the building’s galleries picking out particular stories. As a local visitor I wanted to be told about the men from off the Newtownards Road who didn’t return, to place their names and their stories in the local community.

And I really wanted to be overwhelmed by the human scale of the tragedy: maybe to have had to walk through a dark tunnel with the surnames being randomly projected at angles onto the walls and ceilings. Somehow I didn’t want to be allowed to so easily stand back and opt out of any emotion.

While there’s a gallery dedicated to the US and UK inquiries that followed the sinking and some audio-visual reconstructions of key exchanges, the information is high-level and there is no access to more detail. While even the hour-long Titanic Inquiry docudrama by the Hole in the Wall Gang doesn’t do full justice to the questions around SS Californian’s lack of curiosity about the nearby shipping firing distress rockets, there is little room on the walls of Titanic Belfast to explore these events without recourse to a local titanorak or a guided tour.

Perhaps hiring an audio guide unit would have filled in a lot more of this detail and told alternative stories? I’ve just discovered that the reason some visitors seemed glued to earpieces plugged into their iPhones and iPads was the £1.49 audio app for Titanic Belfast (available in six languages). It’s a shame this isn’t more prominently advertised throughout the building (which has seemed to have excellent wifi in every nook and cranny).

Titanic Belfast is certainly attracting tourists with a multitude of languages heard and overseas visitors seen walking around the building this afternoon. The staff crew are a major asset and the galleries seem to be organised so you’ll have to you’ll walk past a member of staff every half hour or so. They were all bubbly, approachable, but not pushy or nosey: a credit to the attraction and a major part of its success.

Like all museums and visitor attractions, some screens were dead and some lights/buttons were no longer working or missing (eg, the morse code keys in an early gallery). Attention to detail and rapid maintenance is often the sign of truly world-class venues.

Every now and again it was a delight to find a corner of a gallery or a balcony overlooking the atrium with no atmospheric sound effects in which to rest and get a break from the auditory turmoil.

Compared with other touristy attractions I’ve visited in Europe over recent summers, the Titanic Belfast souvenir shop doesn’t seem to be too overpriced. (It was good to see that there’s been no tea-bag price inflation since 2012 with the price of Thomson's Titanic tea steady at £2.99, not far above the supermarket retail price).

Overall, we spent two and a half hours wandering through the galleries. It was well worth a visit – particularly now that the centenary hype has calmed down. Maybe sometime I’ll return with a headset on – or a knowledgeable expert at my side – and soak in a little more of the story of which Belfast is no longer ashamed.

Bricks, Belfast and July ... no not a deterioration in community relations, but the Brick City exhibition in Titanic Belfast!

Bricks, Belfast and July usually refers to a deterioration in community relations around the Twelfth. This year, everything was more positive – if not quite awesome – as The Brick City LEGO exhibition continued its residency it Titanic Belfast.

Today we worshipped at the temple of LEGO, its last day. The scale of some of the pieces was extraordinary. But the ingenious use of pieces bricks from one genre of set to pull off an effect in a completely different creation was pretty cunning too. And the penguins (no photo!) were so cute.

I chatted to the two master builders who created the glued together the LEGO model of Titanic Belfast in Victoria Square in the run up to the exhibition opening back in May.

The finished model was a great replica.

Though it was a shame the timelapse video of the build and interviews playing in the background behind the model had the sound muted.

The Westminster Abbey model was good, but pride of place in the show was definitely Warren Elsmore’s St Pancras railway station which just needed some train sounds and a flickering departure board to complete it.

The Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks Rio had been modified to portray a LEGO man rather than Jesus. Since Western Christians depict Jesus as a blond haired white man in church stained glass windows, why shouldn’t Brick City use their own familiar shape?

A couple of screens played stop/go animations using LEGO. Hopefully they’ll motivate some local movie-makers to produce and upload some more.

One downside of the exhibition was the spotlighting of the displays, which was making everyone’s photography very difficult. Flat shiny surfaces and bright spotlights in an otherwise dull room weren’t a great combination.

You can read more about many of the models on display in Warren Elsmore’s books Brick City and Brick Wonders.

Did you visit Brick City while it was in Belfast? What did you think? Did it inspire you to dig your old LEGO out of your roofspace? Was it worth the entrance fee?

Friday, July 11, 2014

It’s Behind You: the making of a computer game (Bob Pape)

Those of us of a certain age grew up in “the home computer generation”. Hours were spent playing games on our ZX Spectrums: first Breakout (which came on Sinclair’s original tape and was easy to re-programme), Jet Pac, Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy, the Live Aid compendium tape ... These and many other titles filled our portable TV screens and taught us to use double-deck tape recorders until we grew up and longed to programme BBC Micros with their built in assembler and floppy drives to write more efficient and faster running machine code.

The wizards of those days wrote games. While many of wrote adventure games in BASIC and typed in listings from magazines, the read nerds overcame the limitations of these tiny computers with a mere 48 KB of memory – about the same your SIM card has to store 250 contacts! – to shoe horn craft amazing games that seemed to cram more and more into the black lump of plastic.

Their trick was to write the code and compile it on other machines – TRS-80s and PCs – and then squirt the finished product down a serial cable to the ZX Spectrum to play and test before mastering on a tape and getting them duplicated.

Over the last 25 years, software has become bloatware, growing in size with each new release of word processor, spreadsheet or internet browser. Even the arrival of smartphones with their more modest on-board memory hasn’t quite nipped the swollen codebase problem in the bud.

But back in the days of 8-bit computers, ingenuity and cunning had to be employed to squeeze games into the limited memory. Everything was compressed and reused; code was self-modifying to make room for extra features and sound tracks.

Bob Pape has recently written up his account of working in the software industry in the 1980s. It’s Behind You is freely available for Kindle as well as PDF and can be enjoyably read in a day. Bob wasn’t a Matthew Smith (programmer behind Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy … though not the sequel JSW II). He didn’t earn megabucks. But despite being underpaid and underappreciated, he did push the early 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer to its limit, and went on to write games for a number of other platforms.

In the book he describes his route from mainframe programmer to creating Rampage (an arcade conversion) and later R-Type. There are a few typos throughout the book – much like my blog posts – but they don’t distract from the personal and technical tale.

It’s a first person account of talent combined with a determination to complete, exploitation by seedy managers and an unreliable web of companies, sleeping on the floor of software offices across Wales and England, and the less than transparent computer magazine industry. Sadly, it’s one tale of many, and the poor pay and conditions of the 1980s will have been common place.
… again like most of the others it was mainly a rewrite of the instructions that came with the game and a couple of sentences of observation thrown in to personalise it a little

… one more ‘review’ that for all intents and purposes just reprinted the instruction manual.

As teenagers all we knew about the computer industry was what we read in computer magazines, and that was terribly sanitised. It’s only know that accounts are available from survivors like Bob Pape that we realise that magazine reviews were being written before games were complete, often publishing early artwork and giving usability scores based on demos rather than full versions.

Battling his way through the 8-level arcade game conversion onto the ZX Spectrum – using a video of the arcade version being played along with a few hours of looking at the real thing – Bob produced a better-than-expected reproduction that was well received by the industry and players alike.
… and another quote guaranteed to increase sales – “This game blows away almost every other shoot-em-up on the Spectrum to date.” To paraphrase the American journalists H.L. Mencken: “no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the British computer game magazine buying public” …

Frustratingly, Bob discovered – through a reader’s letter in a magazine – that the Spectrum version of R-Type that went on sale got stuck at the end of level 7, meaning that his final level and congratulatory scrolling message were not seen by players until later releases.

I’m really glad Bob Pape took the time to write up his recollections and experiences. It’s reminded me of the addiction of writing programmes that I oddly shook off at some point ten or fifteen years ago, and the satisfaction of overcoming limited technical resources through guile and slyness to construct pleasing solutions and useful or fun programmes. And it’s provided new insights into an industry that I was too young to appreciate or doubt … and demonstrated that software testing was as bad back then as it continues to be in some teams today.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Belfast Book Festival (9-15 June) #belfastbook

Can you ever have too many books? Whether fact or fiction, paper or electronic format, written in your mother tongue or translated from another culture, books and the many literary variations are wondrous.

Belfast Book Festival is back this week. And not a mention of football!

If you’re fast – and live next door to the Crescent Arts Centre where many of the events are being hosted – you’ve still got time to catch the end of the first of the nine events I’ve highlighted from the eighty or more sessions in the week-long festival programme. Lots of lunchtime as well as evening events.

Monday 9 June at 9pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Bankruptcy Collapse Meltdown. Mitch Feierstein (a successful hedge fund manager who has acted as a disaster and contingency planning consultant for a number of governments) will read from and talk about his latest book Planet Ponzi before being joined in discussion by Stacy Herbert (markets and finance broadcaster) and Max Keiser (an outrageous pundit and stock exchange software creator). These three figures from the world of journalism, finance and the global economy. £10.

Tuesday 10 June at 8.30pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Talking Myself Home. Ian McMillan is poet-in-residence for Barnsley Football Club and The Academy of Urbanism, and a frequent broadcaster. £8.

Wednesday 11 June at 6.30pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Sorry For Your Troubles. You may have caught Pádraig Ó Tuama’s lyrical tones delivering Thought for the Day on Radio Ulster over the past few years. He’s a striking poet and his 2013 collection comes out of his work in reconciliation, telling stories of people who have lived through personal and political conflict. £5.

Thursday 12 June at 7pm. Public Records Office NI (PRONI), Titanic Quarter. Aces On Tour: A Showcase Of Up & Coming Literary Voices. Six rising literary starts – who’ve all been awarded grants from Arts Council of NI will be performing: Pauline Burgess (children and adult fiction); Jan Carson (writer); Kenneth Gregory (fantasy novelist); Matt Kirkham (poet); Nathaniel Joseph McAuley (poet); Anthony Quinn (writer and journalist). Free.

Friday 13 June at 1pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Randall Stephen Hall: Lunchtime Songs. Spend a distracted lunch break in the company of poetry, interactive songs, projected illustrations and stories … all with a local feel. Free.

Friday 13 June from 3-4pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Mixed Up Fairy Tales. A fun-packed workshop using drama-based games to allow children to create brand new angles on classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Ages 6 to 8. Free.

Saturday 14 June at 6pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Writing On Motherhood. Three writers speak about the tensions between family life and creativity: Sinead Morrissey (inaugural Belfast Poet Laureate); Debi Gliori (children’s writer and illustrator) and Carolyn Jess-Cooke (poet and novelist). £6.

Sunday 15 June at 1pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Alan Johnson: This Boy. Stephen Walker will be in conversation with Labour politician, former shadow-Chancellor and former Home Secretary (amongst other cabinet positions) about his childhood memoire and upbringing in the slums of 1950s Notting Hill Gate. £8.

Sunday 15 June at 8pm. Crescent Arts Centre. Ann Widdecombe. The Conservative politician and Strictly Come Dancing veteran will be in conversation with Noel Thompson about her family life in Singapore, student life in Birmingham and Oxford, life in Westminster, her conversation to Catholicism in 1993 and her fulsome lifestyle. £8.

While the festival technically finishes on the 15 June, a number of other later events are worth noting.

Alessandra Celesia’s superb film The Bookseller of Belfast is being screened in the Crescent Arts Centre at 6.30pm on Monday 16 and Thursday 19 June. John Clancy was a second hand bookseller whose love of literature far outlasted his physical bookshop in Smithfield. This award-winning documentary examines the literary character along with the lives of some of those he touched in his local community. John sadly passed away in January 2014. It’s great to see the film getting a couple of local screenings. Strongly recommended. £3.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

A superb trilogy of Chilean drama in The MAC (until 14 June) #Chilogy

Three superb pieces of theatre running in The MAC at the moment. All looking at the political and social history of Chile and holding up a mirror to the issues we face on this island. You can read extended reviews on Slugger O'Toole.

It is estimated that over 3,000 Chileans went missing or were killed in the aftermath of the 11 September 1973 coup. As the audience loiter in the ruined concrete shell of the Tejas Verdes torture centre, leaning against concrete pillars, they hear the disturbing testimony of six women who explain their involvement in the disappearance of one young Chilean woman, Colorina. Over an hour, a series of monologues unravel the horror of the physical torture the “leftish revolutionary” endured. A military doctor tries to explain away the scurrilous rumours of abuse. A friends admits the circumstances in which she grassed on Colorina. A gravedigger relives the consequences of showing some humanity. The final scene is breath taking.

At the performance of Villa, the audience seated around an amphitheatre looking down at a circular table with three Chilean women who had been singled out to decide on how to transform the former Villa Grimaldi secret torture centre. Beginning with a vote and it quickly becomes apparent that there are no obvious answers to the question of what to do with the now-demolished site. What will be most powerful? Reconstruct the villa and recreate the atmosphere of the barbaric torture centre? Or build a “big white box of a museum” on the site?

After the intermission, the desk and chairs are gone, replaced with a red carpet and a lectern for the second play, Discurso. Out strides President Michelle Bachelet to deliver an imagined bitter-sweet farewell speech at the close of her 2006-2010 presidency of Chile. Abandoning her prepared notes, the off-the-cuff reflection covers her journey through torture (“or not”) to power to change and now to “the centre of guilt”. She regrets - and questions - much.

The upstairs and downstairs theatres in the MAC have been reconfigured for the performances, making intimate and novel spaces for audiences to engage with the Chilean plays. Ciaran Bagnall set and lighting design amplify the performances.

A set of plays by Prime Cut which convey the horror that even one barbaric act produces. And the extended tragedy when the cover-up of the truth persists long beyond the lives of those directly affected. Forty years after the 1973 coup, Chile is telling its story. As we approach the fortieth and fiftieth anniversaries of events on this island, are we ready to face the truths about our situation?

Well worth a trip to The MAC to see the shows before the run finishes on 14 June. And if you fancy a binge, all three plays are running back to back on Saturday 7 and 14.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Mapping Alternative Ulster - Garrett Carr's exhibition of maps running in Ulster Museum until 22 June

On Saturday afternoon Garrett Carr gave a guided tour around his Mapping Alternative Ulster exhibition which is running hanging in the Ulster Museum’s Belfast Room. (In the main door, sharp right down the corridor and it’s in the room at the bottom on the left, looking out over Stranmillis Road.)

Like books, we ‘read’ maps. Like books, maps are full of stories, particularly the ones that have been curated for this exhibition.

On the walls, we looked at maps that had been drawn to preserve the names of a local area including a sample from an enormous collection of A3 drawings that Johnny McKeagney cut and paste together (with the help of a photocopier) to capture the style of buildings, the wildlife and the features of a 25 square mile area around the cartographer’s home. A couple of Garrett’s own maps are included: one which documents otherwise unmapped, unofficial border crossings; and another which maps places which exist only in fiction onto a real-world map of Ulster.

Some maps were more political. A photowalk discussed the chances of a pregnant women finding toilets to use in the centre of Belfast; and the Forum for Alternative Belfast’s map of unused/wasted space in Belfast.

Perhaps the most visually striking map faces visitors as they enter the exhibition. A solid orange circle with a jagged line around its circumference. Realising that Belfast was a largely hub and spoke city where everyone – assisted by the Metro bus routes – travels in from the suburbs towards the city centre before heading back out again, a group of artists attempted to walk around the edge of Belfast. Taking a one mile radius from Queen Street, they plotted their route along roads and paths, sometimes making long diversions to find a bridge to cross the Lagan. The map proves how badly connected many of the neighbourhoods of Belfast are, and how must arterial roads have sliced communities in two.

The highlight has got to John Carson’s ‘friend map’. Created in 1976 long before the friendship graphs of Facebook and other social network tools, he stuck photographs of his artistic friends to an Ordinance Survey map of Carrickfergus and the surrounding area. He drew lines from his house to their homes. And then he drew lines between people he thought knew each other. Despite being in the middle of the Troubles, friendships and visits within the artistic community crossed barriers, geographical, cultural and political.

At the conclusion of the tour, Garrett spoke to me about the exhibition and the maps he had chosen to display. You can keep up to date with Garrett Carr’s cartographical exploration on his New Maps of Ulster blog.

Worth a visit to the Ulster Museum to wander around the exhibition, gaze at the maps, and read the nearby illuminating legends. The exhibition closes on 22 June.

A number of free events are running alongside the exhibition. See the Ulster Museum website for booking details.

And if you’ve time, head upstairs to see the Art of the Troubles collection.

Monday, June 02, 2014

"When I attack another person, whether physically or verbally or emotionally, I am attacking one who bears the image of God"

Presbyterian Moderators – like Methodist Presidents – only stay in office for 12 months. Tonight – as the first Monday evening in June – was the handover from Derry-based Dr Rob Craig to Dr Michael Barry, minister of Sandys Street in Newry who was elected back in February. (You can listen to an interview with him as he looked to the year ahead.)

As well as speaking about his time in Rwanda in 2013, Dr Rob Craig mentioned visits to the Storehouse foodbank which is supported by many different denominations. He also referenced his twitter followers and the immediacy it allowed him to react to events and connect with the church.

In his formal address to the packed hall, he recalled attending the visit of President Obama to the Waterfront Hall last June. [Listen back]

Before his arrival the young people present started a Mexican wave. Political, civic and religious leaders – we all joined in. And somewhere in that moment of Transformation in my heart the words of Van Morrison echo about “days like this”.

In April of this year I found myself as a guest at the Reception in Windsor Castle – mingling with all kinds of people from our society, North and South. The visit of President Higgins mirroring the visit of the Queen to Ireland in 2011. Again, in that moment of Transformation, I hear Van Morrison singing about “days like this”.

But, in between and surrounding those two events we also experienced; over the summer, violence erupting on the streets of North Belfast; before Christmas, many of the hopes of agreement at the Haass talks evaporating over the New Year; and as the year unfolds an increase in race related attacks and stalemate over Welfare Reform. “Days like this” – The generosity of spirit, the glimpses of grace and Transformation have at times been overshadowed.

And what we may have witnessed in our public life, I suspect, will also have been true both in our personal and congregational lives together. Moments of Transformation when, with the wind in your back, you are longing for more days like this. And then, when the goodwill disappears and you feel a gale force wind in your face.

In such moments we are all confronted with two very real and powerful temptations. On the one hand, we can be tempted into that kind of individualism which is in the air that we breathe; the individualism which insists that life is just about me and what I can get out of it. On the other hand, in face of such intractable problems we can be tempted into a paralysing despair that nothing is ever going to change. That, in the words of the expression, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Throughout the past year I have been privileged to speak week by week on the theme of Transformation and in particular on the Church as a place of Transformation. For this reason, let me take you to one sentence, comprising only five words. “I am making everything new.”

In all my years as a minister I have had the foolhardy courage to read these words and the passage of Scripture in which they are found at every funeral which I conduct; standing at an open grave, immediately prior to the words of committal, like all my colleagues I affirm to the grieving family and all who grieve with them these words “I am making everything new”.

In the face of death, this word of promise and hope from the risen Lord has inspired one generation after another, transforming them, their faith and their outlook on life. As we, personally, as a church, as a society journey on through life, may these same words be our inspiration – not least in those moments when we are tempted to think only of ourselves, or when despair in face of trials would paralyse us.

Let me highlight for you briefly two facets of this word of Transformation, I am making everything new.

First, the book of the Revelation is full of colourful images and pictures which stay in the heart and mind long after we have read the book or heard the sermon. One of the most significant is the image of a throne – not just any throne and certainly not an earthly throne. It is the throne of heaven. John the Exile shared with his generation this Revelation, this picture which has sustained many subsequent generations of faithful Christian people through the darkest of days – that life, which is often out of our control, is never out of God’s control. When you and I are tempted to believe that the forces of evil are winning, when we are tempted to hide away in our own personal worlds or to give up in despair let us remind ourselves that it is the One who is seated on the Throne who is making everything new.

Every Saturday night during the football season the TV news reporter will give us the well known warning “If you don’t want to know the score, look away now.” In my experience, they never give you time to change channel or turn the TV off. Through all of its pictures and images the Revelation of John paints for us a theme found throughout the Scriptures – that God is the King; He is in charge – we know the final score.

Secondly, at the rise of sounding very pedantic, please notice the tense – what we call present continuous. The voice from the throne does not say “one day I will make everything new”. The voice says, “I am making everything new.” This making things new, this work of transformation to which we have been called is already under way.

Jesus’ first sermon was to announce that the Kingdom had come; His parables illustrate how His kingdom works, in His death he was the king crucified and by His resurrection He is the all-conquering king. The message of his words to us is to resist all temptation to turn in on ourselves, to resist all temptation to give up in despair, it is to enter his kingdom, to pray for His kingdom and to do the work of His kingdom.

Earlier this year, one of our daughters invested in a new car. Until she bought her car I don’t think I had ever noticed how many of the same make and model are on the road. I had been blind; my eyes were closed to them. Now I see them everywhere.

In that experience I have come to understand how it can be with God’s word of Transformation both in and through our lives. We can be blind to it and not recognise what He is doing and how He is working around us.

In conclusion, one final image – it is that of the BBC broadcasting to the occupied peoples of Europe during the Second World War. Their broadcasts began with a drumbeat thumping out three short beats followed by a longer beat – signalling on a drum the Morse code letter V, for Victory. Tonight I offer you not 4 drumbeats but 5 words. “I am making everything new”. They don't come from the Moderator; they come from the throne; they come from our Lord and our God. And as we leave a service like this, and return to your world and my world, to your congregation and my congregation, to our society that is still in need of transformation, let us go out with these words in heart and mind, may they be our inspiration.
“I am making everything new”.

The incoming moderator Dr Michael Barry picked up on the theme of the danger of individualism and how it overshadows the transformation in his address that outlined the denomination’s strapline for the coming 12 months: “a people of service and outreach”. [Listen back]
A few weeks ago the congregation of Sandys Street in Newry presented me with these Moderatorial robes. We had a congregation made up of members and former members and friends from across the community. There were a number of elected representatives from some of the political parties, and at the end of the service, and following a few speeches, one of the MLAs – who is neither a Presbyterian nor a unionist said, “There is one thing about you Presbyterians – you can sing and you can talk”.

I think that tonight we have proved him right. I always enjoy Opening Night at the General Assembly – I have missed very few over the years. I usually sit to the left, on the front row so that I can stretch my legs. Tonight you have provided me with an even more comfortable seat, although part of me wishes I was sitting in my usual place.

But the singing has been wonderful. Rob’s speaking has been a blessing. We are almost finished, but not quite. I have the responsibility of painting in broad strokes, and briefly, a picture of our theme for the next twelve months.

Our Church is following a five-year plan under the heading Fit for Purpose – becoming the church Christ wants us to be. This year we will think of the church as “a people of service and outreach” – people who can make all the difference in the world.”

This is a theme I am happy to endorse and throughout this year will take the opportunity to promote these twin elements of Church membership.

You will learn more about this theme during the week. At worship on Wednesday and Thursday my Chaplains will direct our thinking and on Wednesday night at the Assembly Rally. That will be a less formal occasion and those who will be taking part will give you a flavour of what we will be emphasising in the coming year.

How can the Church do what it is called to do in the best possible way? How can she be effective in her mission in the world? How can we make a difference to the world in which we live?

Tonight as we begin this theme I want to step back slightly. Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi calls on his readers, and on us - “in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

“Consider others better than yourselves.” What radical thinking that is for our day. We live in the age of the celebrity, indeed the cult of the celebrity, where we see people, some of whom have talent, others with no talent, being worshipped by their fans who ensure they are lifted up on their pedestals.

And to stay on that pedestal they have to indulge in self-promotion. These words of Paul are so alien to those who must put themselves first so as not to be overtaken by the myriad wannabes waiting in the wings.

But lest we concentrate exclusively on the cult of the celebrity, let me remind you that Paul is not writing to the celebrities of his day who are engaged in self-promotion; he is not writing to the business tycoons who trample all before them to build their empire; he is not writing to the politicians who promise the world for a boxful of votes.

Paul is writing to ordinary church members like you and me. This is a message directed to every member of the church.

But I must protest Paul. I would never act “out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”. I would never do anything by “complaining or arguing”. And yet Paul found it necessary to write those words to the believers at Philippi. Why? Because that is how they were living – ‘me first’.

Of course we shouldn’t expect anything else for that was the very attitude which led Adam and Eve into such catastrophic circumstances in the Garden of Eden. They fell for the lie of the devil: “When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” What is that but self-promotion – “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”

But ‘me first’ comes at the expense of someone else. It is not a neutral activity. ‘me first’ always has a victim.

Do we not see ‘me first’ all around us. When people demand their rights are they not demanding their way? There are those who demand the right to march and those who demand the right to protest. But where does such behaviour take us when there is no respect for the other person? We saw the answer to that last year in the rioting that blotted this city – behaviour that must not be repeated this year.

We see ‘me first’ in the attacks on people who are perceived to be different in some way. The Honorary Consul for Poland lives in Newry and he has expressed his concern to me about the attacks on Polish people. And of course it is not just people from Poland, and it is not just because of a person’s nationality. All such attacks are an affront to us as a democratic and civilized country. That is behaviour that must stop immediately.

It is against this ‘me first’ mentality that the apostle is writing. Of course I wouldn’t engage in such behaviour, but I wonder do I harbour any kind of superior attitude in my heart towards anyone who is different from me. Am I better than others because I am white and they are not? Am I better than others because I am Protestant and they are not? Am I better than others because I am heterosexual and they are not?

The answer is a clear ‘No’ and we must never do or say anything that would give the slightest comfort to those who would attack verbally or physically people they do not like.

One thing I have been discovering in the last few months is how difficult it is to speak – and to be understood correctly. Words can be interpreted in a way we never intended. We can be misunderstood so easily. And of course there will always be those who will deny us the right to speak if they disagree with us, claiming that our words are inflammatory.

Yes we must be careful what we say and we must be careful to say it in a clear and gracious manner. But we must also be allowed to state our case even when others disagree with us.

The Bible is very clear that we are to be loving and caring to all people. Throughout the Old Testament the people of God are called on to look after the needy both within their own community and also those who are sojourners – those foreigners who reside in their community. Indeed the language is unambiguous. In a section on social justice God says to the people “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt”. And again in Deuteronomy, “Love the sojourner”.

And that teaching is carried into the New Testament. When Jesus wanted to emphasise the standard of judgment he would use at the last great Day, he did so in terms of social justice – “’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me”.

And in case you think that we should only show kindness to other believers the Lord Jesus told his followers to love their neighbour, and showed that our neighbour is everyone, not just our own folk. He said “You have heard it said, ‘love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I say to you ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

But why should we have any regard for other people at all? Why care for them? And why should we care about those with whom we disagree? Why care for those who are our enemies?

The Bible is very clear, and I take the Bible literally when it says, “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. We are to treat all people with respect and dignity because they have been created in the image of God. So when I attack another person, whether physically or verbally or emotionally, I am attacking one who bears the image of God.

Rather than attacking such people we are to be their servants. Why? Because of the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what Paul is saying here in Philippians 2. This is a passage that many Christians know, but we do not always appreciate the implications of its teaching.

This is a passage which proclaims in the clearest terms that Jesus is none other than God. He is fully divine as well as being fully human. But that is not the main thrust of Paul’s teaching. What he is saying is “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”

Paul goes on in his letter to show what was behind Jesus’ love, and how we can follow his example.

The first thing we notice is that he humbled himself. Who is Jesus? The Bible tells us that he is no ordinary man and the evidence supports this claim. Many who examined his life have reached the same conclusion. Jesus is in nature God. He is eternal; he is the Creator of all things, and indeed all things were made for him. He ruled with God in glorious splendour, accepting the praise of all that he had made. Yet, says Paul, he made himself nothing. That is very difficult for us to take in. We might well show signs of humility, but so often it is not very strong, and perhaps it is even false humility.

We need to guard against false humility for it is all too easy to think of ourselves as being humble. But the humility of Jesus was not false in any way. We know it was genuine because it was not simply a verbal profession. Jesus showed his humility in the way he lived. He took the very nature of a servant.

We cannot appreciate the full significance of that statement. We think of a servant in terms of Downton Abbey with Mr Carson or Mrs Patmore or Daisy. Or some of you might just remember the hiring fairs around Ireland 70 years ago.

But the life of a servant 2000 years ago was very different. The servant may have been a slave, a person not free to do his own bidding. Or he could have been a volunteer who chose to do someone else’s bidding.

But the humility of Jesus went even further than being a servant. Although he is God, he became obedient to death. Even though he is the Creator and Ruler of the universe, he did not insist on holding on to his rights. We hear much about rights today. People are demanding their rights. If anyone had rights, it was Jesus. But he was willing to set them aside because he loved us. He became obedient even to the point of death.

That is what we should be like. That is what we must be like if we are to care deeply for other people. We can act humbly, without being humble. But true humility must begin in our minds, and the only way to live a truly humble life is to have the mind of Christ.

Do you remember what Jesus did for his disciples the night before he was crucified? Much to their chagrin he washed their feet. This was not just an example of humble service, but a picture of the cross and its cleansing power. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, said “We would gladly wash the feet of our Divine Lord; but He disconcertingly insists on washing ours, and bids us wash our neighbour’s feet.”

But what does it mean for us to wash one another’s feet? It means that we are constantly watching out for the opportunity to serve other people. We should be aware of their need, and we must be willing to adopt any position in order to meet it. We must be willing to sacrifice whatever we have or whatever we are in order to help them.

To serve in this way is to care deeply for people. As the family of God that starts in the congregation. Do you care for the marginalized who seldom come? Do you care for those who hold strange ideas? Do you care for the minister and his family?

This was brought home to me just over a year ago. We were looking forward to a visit from the then Moderator Dr Roy Patton. One of our fathers was explaining to his children that the Moderator was going to be at church the next Sunday. “What is a Moderator, Daddy?” his daughter asked.

And he tried to explain to her that the Moderator is a very important minister in our church. “In fact, he’s the most important minister in the church. He’s even more important than Michael.” She thought for a minute, then with all the seriousness a seven year old could muster, she said, “Daddy don’t tell Michael that. He does his best.”

Now at first I laughed. Someone recognised my capabilities. But as I thought about her words, I wondered how many seven year olds, or seventeen year olds, or seventy year olds cared so much about their minister? I was humbled and touched that a child cared so much about me that she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. Do you care about your minister as much as that?

We are to be people of service. But our theme is to be a people of service and outreach. Jesus gave us the command to go into all the world making disciples. And here Paul calls on us to “shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life”. The early church that we read about in the book of Acts was a church that held out the word of life to all those around it as it proclaimed the gospel – the good news about the Lord Jesus Christ.

Isn’t it interesting that Paul uses this phrase – ‘the word of life’. This is a message that brings life to those who are spiritually dead. We are to live lives of service in the world but that must not stop at being good neighbours.

Jesus calls on us to be salt and light. If salt and light are to be effective they must act. The light must permeate the darkness and the salt must permeate the meat. So the followers of Christ must get out into the world. We must show the people outside that we love them more than we love ourselves.

And we cannot discriminate. We must not choose who we are going to love, who we are going to reach out to. The light goes to all the darkness. The salt goes to every part of the meat. “Shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life”.

In the past our church has tended to say to the world, “Come and listen to us” whereas Jesus said “Go into all the world”. So let us reach out with the word of life to all the people who are separated from God.

Parody account @pres_church hang up their smart phones hours before Presbyterian General Assembly 2014 begins #pciga14

This afternoon, the team behind the @pres_church parody twitter account hung up their smart phones and retired.

They issued a statement in which they outlined their motivation for starting the account, as well as the thought processes behind their observations and parodying campaigns.

As the group say "parody is very effective" ... though it can also really needle people and wobble all over the line of what's deemed to be "decent and in order". That's the risk with parody. Real people have certainly been hurt and offended by some of the content, and not everyone has seen the funny side ... or appreciated the critical eye being cast over the denominations foibles.

On balance, I mourn @pres_church's passing and the end of their input and critique.

The group explain:
We are continually disappointed, dismayed and frustrated at the lack of authenticity in PCI ... Let's be honest, we know what the church should be because Jesus gave us a very specific blueprint in Acts. But PCI today in many parts is very far from that.
They also reflect on church leaders often being "silent" about issues of injustice. While statements take time to draft and agree, PCI could be a much more powerful voice and witness in the news cycle of some relevant stories if it spoke 48 hours earlier than it tends to manage.

After some near misses, attempts to interview one or more of the group behind @pres_church ultimately failed. (And the attempts were on both sides.)

@pres_church's farewell address is worth a read, even if you think you'll disagree with their means or their dissenting voice. After all, Presbyterians have a long - and proud - history of dissent ... The message over the last 18 months from @pres_church may not have been comfortable, but it is one that needs to be grappled with.

It reminds me of a piece I was asked to write for the News Letter around the time of General Assembly a couple of years ago. I can still stand over what I said and reproduce it below.

Later on tonight, the outgoing moderator Dr Rob Craig and the incoming moderator Dr Michael Barry will both address the Opening Night of this year's General Assembly. You can listen to them on Radio Ulster 1341 Medium Wave - or watch it streamed from the PCI website. I trust that the folks behind @pres_church will like what they hear about the church needing to be "a people of service and outreach" and our need to be servant-like in our attitudes to others, both in and outside of the Church. Though I'll understand that actions over the next year will speak louder than words.

(And following on from some observations last June, I'll be watching to see if there is a greater diversity of engagement at this year's General Assembly sessions.)

- - -

People Matter to God

When Rev Dr Alastair Dunlop became Presbyterian Moderator in June 2001 he chose “People Matter to God” as his theme. Ten years later and the familiar strapline that encapsulates the heart of the Gospel still reverberates around congregations.

General Assembly is dominated by internal denominational administration, reports from boards and committees, appointments, messages from sister denominations around the world and a lot of strong tea and coffee.

This week of introspection will be reported in the press as long debates on money (strategies to maximise congregational giving), sex (discussions around homosexuality and same-sex marriage are never far away) and maybe even the length of ministers’ annual leave.

Is that what I as a Presbyterian want to be known for? No.

I want Presbyterians to be known for loving the poor: the poor in health, poor in wealth, poor in spirit, poor in self-esteem, poor in literacy and numeracy. Jesus’ ministry was dominated by his interaction with the poor, reaching out his hand to walk with those who were less fortunate.

Whether in Derry, Dublin, Delhi or Durban, Presbyterians should be known for their habit of looking beyond themselves and their own comfort and making a positive difference right round the world.

I want Presbyterians to be more inclusive. Irish history shows that Presbyterians tend to turn up on both sides of a fight. Not all Presbyterians signed the Ulster Covenant. Presbyterians haven’t been universally loyal to the British monarch.

While the default perception is that most Presbyterians are unionist – and the more liberal ones vote Alliance – this assumption must be broken. People with diverse opinions on border, identity or language issues need to be given space and indeed welcomed. And there needs to be a constant reminder that it is the Presbyterian Church of all Ireland.

I want Presbyterians to be more aware of their own hang-ups and sinfulness and less condemnatory of others. Presbyterians should prop their doors wide open and be known more for our grace than our judgmentalism.

The very point at which parents take the initiative and approach a minister to ask for their infant to be blessed should be a chance to welcome people into the setting of a loving congregation, rather than an opportunity to get out a checklist and see if they qualify for God’s blessing.

I want Presbyterians to have the freedom and power to challenge structures which perpetrate injustice: politicians who fail to stand up for the rights of all; businesses and corporations which discriminate and exploit.

Bill Hybels said: “We never lock eyes with someone who doesn't matter to God”.

Presbyterians should lock eyes with greater numbers of people, and let their eyes search our souls. That should be the mark of Presbyterians in the months and years ahead.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Ulster Orchestra's principal conductor JoAnn Falletta sets down her baton (and interview with a couple of players)

I interviewed JoAnn Falletta during the interval of the Ulster Orchestra’s opening concert of their 2013/14 season … back in September.

I’m sure other bloggers carry a similar sense of guilt about events or ideas that they meant to post about but didn’t. Some things have a sell-buy date: delay a couple of days and they’re pointless to talk about. Other times family and work – and indeed other thing you’re blogging about – take over and once you fall behind, good intentions slip off the bottom of the list. But not out of your mind. No, I carry with me countless books, films and events that I wanted to share.

The opening night of the Ulster Orchestra season was one of those moments.

Given a ticket for a seat in the back corner of the Ulster Hall, I’d listened to the pre-concert talk by JoAnn Falletta, explaining the background to Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture (a work composed as a begrudging thank you for an honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Breslau which contains a “potpourri of student drinking songs”!) and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 which was to be performed by Barry Douglas.

I enjoyed the concert and recorded interviews with a couple of players as well as the conductor, planning to splice it all together into an audio piece. But it wasn’t to be.

Fast forward eight months. On Friday evening (16 May) after three years in charge, JoAnn Falletta conducted her last concert as principal conductor of the Belfast-based orchestra. The Belfast Telegraph published a recent interview with her by Alf McCreary. As well as discovering Belfast’s hospitability very early on in her tenure, she holds the Ulster Orchestra in high regard. Here’s what she told me back in September.

They’re quite an amazing orchestra in terms of the speed in which they learn music and they absorb it . Their rhythmic sense is impeccable. Their sense of understanding music, their intelligence is really amazing …

Very few orchestras in the world could play music so quickly so well as they do. And in this [Ulster Hall] they have a very special quality, a very special sound that they get, a depth of richness that’s really lovely to be in the middle of … This is a jewel of a hall and they are a very special orchestra.
World-class conductors like JoAnn Falletta work with many orchestras. During May she’ll conduct 12 concerts with four different orchestras. And in June, Falletta will direct Buffalo Philharmonic three times as well as the Virginia Symphony and the Detroit Symphony.

And Friday night doesn’t mark the end of Falletta’s relationship with the Ulster Orchestra. She’ll be back on 1 May 2015 to guest conduct a programme of Mussorgsky, Taverner and Mendelssohn.

It’s been an eventful year of change for the Ulster Orchestra. On the management side, their chief executive Rosa Solinas departed. And on stage they announce that Rafael Payare would be their new Chief Conductor, and Jac van Steen has recently been appointed as the new Principal Guest Conductor.

Back in September, first violist Thomas Jackson and trumpeter Patrick McCarthy spoke to me about how playing in an orchestra was an inspiration and an unbelievable privilege as well as discussing some of the orchestra’s outreach work with schools and new audiences.

"What inspires me? Such great music." (Thomas Jackson)

"If it didn’t still excite me then I ought to go and do something else. What we do – we’re unbelievably privileged in that we get paid to go this brilliant thing and share all this fantastic music. If someone’s looking at us and thinking “they’re not really loving this, they’re not really pouring themselves absolutely into it then why have I bothered coming out of the house, turning the TV off and taking the trouble to get into town”. And that’s what I always think when I come to a concert. I want to see people really tucking into their instrument and really giving their all. I think we owe it to an audience to behave like that in every single concert that we do ...

When this hall is full, there’s nothing quite like it. And the orchestra definitely responds to a full audience. The Ulster Hall, despite its size, is quite an intimate hall. The lights are always on, a lot of the audience are quite present on the stage – the sides of the auditorium come right around the stage – and so there’s a real feeling of intimacy and of sharing this music with people. When you can see the whites of their eyes ... it’s quite nice to look out and actually deliver it to one person as well as the thousand people who are there as well.

With the orchestra for Belfast and for Northern Ireland we have to offer something to absolutely everyone who would ever consider coming to a concert and people who haven’t even considered coming to a concert before. So that’s while you’ll see the film music, why The Snowman’s always there, lots of other education work we do, and family friendly concerts. As well as the core repertoire which again is open to anyone. This is just the world’s most fantastic music. It’s not about being elitist: it’s music that’s there for everyone." (Patrick McCarthy)

If you want an aural taster of the Ulster Orchestra, why not try their £6, hour-long lunchtime concert. The next one is on Wednesday 4 June at 1.05pm in the Ulster Hall: Robert Houlihan conducts Borodin, Prokofiev and Debussy with a solo performance by the orchestra’s associate leader Ioana Petcu-Colan.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Church as a Catalyst for Change in a Post Conflict Society (Methodist President Rev Dr Heather Morris)

The University of Ulster joint chaplaincy team hosted a lecture by the Methodist President Rev Dr Heather Morris last night in the Belfast campus. Her address is well worth a listen. Introduced by Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof Alastair Adair  and looked at the subject of:
The Church as a Catalyst for Change in a Post Conflict Society

Dr Morris reflected on the church's changing position in the public square ... echoing a little of Prof Donald Macleod's lecture at a Presbyterian event earlier this year.
"I long for the day we [church & Christians] work for the rights of others as much as we work for the rights of ourselves."

She added that churches needed "a desire for the common good ... for the good of all, and not just for the good of mine".

She reasoned that one of the reasons that churches and denominations hesitate to speak theologically in the public square was because theology had been misused to demean and inappropriately judge in the past.
"The public discourse will be impoverished if we do not speak theologically using words like forgiveness, love and justice."

There were references to last year's relaunch of For God and his Glory Alone by Contemporary Christianity/ECONI.

In her year as president, Dr Morris has found no shortage of individuals asking how they can become personally involved and contribute to changing society. An interdenominational group have been looking at principles for a better society and Dr Morris shared their high level thinking.

She went on to press for the need for the individuals and institutions to give concrete examples of how society can be different - being 21st century prophets - and cited the example of Glenn Jordan and the Skainos project's vision for the transformation of Inner East Belfast.

A practical theologian by trade, Dr Morris suggested that theological reflection must lead to action. Churches should make space to listen, including to those from whom they differ and disagree. While churches were involved in many community initiatives (including job clubs, toddler groups and food banks), the key question to be answered was:
"Would your community miss you if you shut your doors?"

It was a really interesting lecture and the Q&A afterwards touched on the role of chaplaincy - Dr Morris described it as partially "loitering with intent" - within the university as well as the wider community, with reference to their positive influence and action in the Holy Lands (South Belfast student housing area) during recent St Patrick's Day celebrations.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Paym launches in UK ... as cheques edge towards retirement

The bill arrived in Pizza Express and I noticed a message on the curled up roll of paper mentioning that it could be settled via their app. Sure enough, I could type in a code to the app, log in to Paypal and the bill was cleared …

Except that the process still requires the waiter to walk back to the till to confirm that it had been processed and we weren’t about to walk out of the restaurant having pretended to pay the bill! A handheld device that updates the table’s bill status in real time must be the next development.

Another electronic payment innovation launches today.

Paym allows the transfer money between people with a minimum fuss. It relies on you registering your mobile phone number against a bank account. Then rather than juggling sort codes and account numbers you simply enter a friend’s mobile number into your bank’s app (or select it from your contacts), specify the amount (up to a daily maximum of £250) and press send. It works between banks so should be fairly flexible as support widens.

Nine UK banks launched their support for Paym this morning: Danske Bank (that's their personal banking director Tony Wilcox with finance minister Simon Hamilton in the photo), Barclays, Halifax, HSBC, Lloyds Bank, Santander, TSB, Bank of Scotland and Cumberland Building Society. Locally, the Ulster Bank are expected to support Paym later this year; Nationwide Building Society in early 2015.

Paym is the next step in the move from cash and cheques towards a cashless society.

At the moment Paym is intended to be used for payments between individuals. Informal splitting a bill between friends, paying babysitters and tradespeople. But you could imagine a demand for it to be extended over time to schools allowing dinner money (and the myriad of other ad hoc charges) to be paid by parents without having to hunt through the house for the correct change or a cheque book. (The ability to add a simple message to the payment should allow the pupil and the purpose of the payment to be identified.)

Paym is also part of banks reinforcing that the smartphone in your pocket and computer on your desk are taking over many of the facilities that used to be solely offered by physical bank branches and hole-in-the-wall machines. Be in no doubt that Paym is as much about the banking industry introducing efficiencies (ie, cost savings) at the same time as offering innovative customer service.

Cheques are 350 years old. But as they head to retirement, perhaps one of the remaining use cases that hasn’t yet been adequately replaced is the ability to scribble a cheque and put it inside a birthday card without having to run out to buy an store giftcard. Maybe in the future, banks will give us books of blank prepaid debit cards that we can tear out, top up online and hand out to celebrating family members! Or maybe the art of present-buying will have to return ...