Sunday, February 27, 2005

Another boring weather post

It really goes against the grain to a) talk about the same thing two posts running and b) talk about the weather at all. But it is comment-worthy - I don't think we've had this much snow in the last decade where we live.

It is snowing again today - heavy snow showers, with the temperature back close to freezing. We were caught in a snow shower on the way home from church, which obscured all the car number plates with a coating of a centimetre of snow in five minutes or so.

With the exception of a few hours of drizzle yesterday, the only precipitation we've had all week has been snow. It almost becomes as though the weather has forgotten how to rain.

Friday, February 25, 2005


Where we are, it has been snowing all week. That sounds melodramatic, and isn't quite literally true. But there have been days when it has snowed pretty much continuously all the time there has been daylight. It is pretty unusual where we live to have snow at all, let alone snow on five successive days. It has been interesting to see the different varieties of snow "in action". The snow yesterday was really soggy - I saw a child pick up a large snowball he'd just made, which was dribbling water all over his trousers. This wet snow turned to ice overnight, which meant that this morning's dusting of snow made everywhere into something like an ice rink. On the first day, it was perfect snowball snow - cold, light but sticky. In terms of its delivery, we've had grains of snow and small snowflakes, but no really decent blizzards with drifting to confine us to the house.

The wet snow was a bit miserable, but the effect on the light of having the ground covered in white is a great cure for SAD.

Nobody has yet blamed global warming, but I'm sure it's only a matter of time.

Ambushed by children's books
I went into a bookshop to try and find books for my children, and looked through some of them to choose a suitable one. It's very dangerous. I'm not sure if it's just saudades for a lost time (if such a thing is permissible, even in Portuguese), or if the books genuinely connect with who we are as human beings rather than being sentimental. However, I end up unable to buy the truly beautiful and well-written ones, because I know I couldn't read them to my children without ending up in tears.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Letting-go songs

For no particularly good reason, in no particular order, and probably not particularly comprehensive, here's a list of "letting-go" songs that I have found particularly moving over the years.

Kite - U2 (All you can't leave behind)
Walk like a man - Bruce Springsteen (Tunnel of Love)
The Drugs don't work - The Verve (Urban Hymns)
September Blue - Chris Rea (Dancing with Strangers)
Mandolin Rain - Bruce Hornsby & the Range (The Way it is)
The River Runs Low - Bruce Hornsby & the Range (The Way it is)
One Tree Hill - U2 (Joshua Tree)

If you are feeling maudlin, make them into a playlist and weep for a week.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Being a school governor

When my first child started school, I thought there was no better way to be involved in education than to be a school governor - and in terms of getting to know the staff at the school, being welcome in the school and so on and so forth, it has been excellent. But the various authorities are conspiring to make the role completely unworkable.

You need to first understand that, although schools are pretty autonomous, they are actually answerable to a whole raft of organisations. There's the Local Education Authority, the Department for Education and Skills, the diocesan authority (if it is a church school), and Ofsted. All of these organisations - doubtless worthy in their own right - have to produce a continual stream of initiatives, policies, papers to justify their own existence. It is the governing body that is left to field all of these - a group of people who are doing this role in their spare time.

The budget for the coming year arrives late, is amended throughout the year according to the political whim of the Secretary of State or the rest of the government, and we are lucky compared to most schools in that we have survived so far without having to make difficult cutting decisions. For Voluntary Aided schools, any capital expenditure has to be 10% funded by the foundation authority - which means the diocese, for church schools - which means (since dioceses don't actually have money these days) the governing body - which means (much to their resentment - "Isn't education supposed to be free??") the parents. Some schools don't seem to have understood the implication of this - we heard of one which had debts to the diocesan authority of the order of £100000 (for a school with a turnover of the order of £400000 p.y.).

At the meeting last night, we looked at standing orders - no, not the bank sort, the sort of instructions that tell you how to conduct your affairs. This was an eight page document that we were expected to accept. Note that this is in addition to the Guide to the Law, a large manual that actually tells you the legal framework, and is replaced every couple of years, and terms of reference that each committee and the whole governing body are supposed to have, and the trust deed, which was why the school was originally founded (that few people ever know where it is). We were also given a list of 67 activities that the governing body undertakes, and asked to specify at what level the activities were taken - head teacher, single governor, committee or whole governing body. Inevitably, around 10% of these contained guidance that was not accurate with relation to the Guide to the Law.

The meeting last night was unusual in that there were no new policies that we needed to accept. Typically, we get a new one to look at each meeting - and we also have to keep under review all the existing policies on a regular (generally annual) basis. The number of policies that the school has is probably around 30. They are rarely as little as 2 sides of A4.

None of this is really related to anything actually happening at the school - even if every policy was totally spick and span, there is no guarantee that you are actually running the school in accordance with them. There are a couple of much more important documents. The first is the School Development Plan - which is the document in which areas for development in the school are identified, and strategies for development are set out and tracked. The second is the School Self-Evaluation scheme. This is a document which shows how everything that the school says and does will be reviewed on a regular basis, so that things that ought to go into the Development Plan can be identified. This is what most of us became governors for - to help make the school better.

Don't get me wrong. If you care about your children's education, by all means become a governor - it is an important role. Just expect to end up feeling gloomy about how this country's education system works.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Privileged Planet

A quick review of this book, which was trailed briefly below.

The authors make the point that there is a very high correlation between a habitable environment and an environment which permits observation of the universe. This is the case on all scales - planetary, solar system, galaxy, cosmic era and universe. It is not an intuitively necessary connection.

This observation also runs counter to the so-called "Copernican" principle or "Principle of mediocrity" - which says there is nothing special about where we are - we "just happen" to be here. On every scale, the authors demonstrate that, were our environment slightly different, not only would we not know so much about the cosmos, but it would be a lot harder for us to survive.

They argue that the closeness of this correlation suggests that the universe is designed. If we were simply talking about a habitable environment, you could argue that this was simply necessary given that we are here. But the fact that we can also observe the rest of the universe, deduce its nature, and conclude that not only are habitable environments not the norm, but neither are environments in which we would be able to make the same observations of the universe - these facts together argue for intelligent design.

A meaty, provocative book - apparently there is a video that goes with it, available in the US from the Discovery Institute and in the UK from Penfold Books - and a tie-in website. If you liked Just Six Numbers, you should enjoy this.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Financial advice for tax returns

Let nobody say that you don't get a variety of topics in this blog ....

Are you a UK tax payer? Do you fill in a tax return? Do you get a rebate? If so, the UK Inland Revenue will ask you whether you wish to donate the rebate to charity.


Supposing your rebate is for £100. If the Inland Revenue gives this money to your nominated charity, they will get £100. Nice.

However, if you pay your rebate of £100 into your bank account, and then give £100 of your taxed income to the same charity, accompanied by a Gift Aid form, they will get £128.20. If you are a higher rate tax payer, you will also get a rebate the following year of (I think) £23. The net effect of the payment on your bank account when the charity gets your money is identical. The gross effect once the tax dust has settled is very non-identical - rather than costing you £100 and giving the charity £100, it costs you £100 (or £77 if you pay 40% tax) and gives the charity £128. Nicer.

Give money from your taxed income - not from a refund of tax that you have already paid. You know it makes sense.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

In Pursuit of the Truth

Book by Derek Bigg, Dewcroft Publications, £5.00, 270pp.
ISBN 1-873166-34-6

Review first published in Evangelicals Now - copy for sale at academicbooktrade - or leave a comment, and I'll get in touch!

For some decades now, reformed evangelical churches in the UK have been moving in the direction of what is called “biblical” theology. It is accepted that the name is not satisfactory; it implies that other forms of theology aren't biblical. The distinction that is made between systematic and biblical theology is that whereas the former seeks to present “a thematic arrangement of biblical truth in the form of basic Christian doctrine”, the latter “traces the historical development of God's purposes from Genesis to Revelation.” (p.7) Theology is something that we understand as God reveals it, rather than as humans arrange it.

There is no shortage of excellent literature that traces out the structure of biblical theology – from Geerhardus Vos' “Biblical Theology” through Graham Goldsworthy's books right up to Tim Chester's recently published “From Creation to New Creation.” The problem up to now is that there has been little to tell us how this theological approach ought to be applied – how we should live in the light of God's unfolding revelation.

“In Pursuit of the Truth” is the first book that I have come across which seeks to correct this omission. The first, and shorter, part of the book is used by Derek Bigg to explain the basics of biblical theology. Although the books mentioned above do the same, the “principles of interpretation” that Derek uses to talk about God's unfolding plan were new and helpful. However, the real focus of Derek's book is the second part. This consists of a series of case studies, taking the principles that have been set out, and applying them to issues that face Christians. The areas which are investigated are: guidance; the role of the law and more specifically the ten commandments; and Christian attitudes to work and money. In many cases, the author argues, despite our stated commitment to sola scriptura,our behaviour as Christians has been shaped not so much by God's Word as by our culture, our traditions, at times even by the songs that we sing! Books that we read are often not informed by a consistent biblical theology, he argues, and he is not afraid to challenge inconsistency from respected teachers, where that is appropriate. So the conclusions that are drawn in this study are at times surprising and biblically radical.

I was entirely happy with these conclusions – though it ought to be said that this theological approach has had a direct impact on my Christian life for some years, so I am likely to be a willing reader! My only reservation about the book is that the helpful illustrations of how biblical theology works take on a life of their own in the book. It is hard to remember at times that the illustrations are derived from the Bible, rather than being ideas that are being imposed on the Bible by the author. This is an important distinction; if the illustrations are man-made, then they are just another way of looking at the text. If the illustrations are genuine reflections of the nature of the Bible (as I believe they are), then they are in a sense the correct way to look at the text.

In a post-script, the author is happy to acknowledge the provisional nature of his conclusions, and invite further discussion. He is raising these issues out of a desire to see ongoing reformation within the church. A growing seriousness about the content of God's Word and its impact on our lives and the lives of our churches is something that we all ought to be looking for. If the author's approach to interpreting the Bible is correct, then this book ought to have a major impact even within evangelical churches committed to the idea of ongoing reform, let alone in less Bible-based congregations. Whether this is so or not, the author's hope – and mine also, having read his book! - is that this book should be a starting point for further serious discussion about the impact of the Bible in the life of Christians.

The author has applied biblical theology to a limited number of areas of Christian life. It is natural to ask what would happen when the same principles are applied to other areas – the nature of the church; the nature of mission; baptism; church leadership; music. All sorts of areas of Christian life have the potential for reformation on the basis of a consistent understanding of God's communication with his people. I look forward to other books with the same theological foundation.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Compensation for delays

The European Union has decreed (see for example Times Online) that passengers on flights that are late are entitled to compensation. Cue much rejoicing that consumers have triumphed.

Or have they? Where is this compensation going to come from? Well, obviously, in the first case, from the airline - a flight is late, and the passengers all collect their hundreds of Euros compensation. But where does the airline get the money from? Well, ultimately, the airline's revenue comes from the consumer - in the form of ticket prices, or cargo charges. So if an airline ends up experiencing penalties of (say) 5% of its revenues, then it will need to put up ticket prices by 5% to recoup its costs. It's not as though airlines are making pots of money for fatcats, and these claims will mean that a few fatcats have to lose weight a bit - the margins in the airline industry are probably the tightest of any industry, and many airlines have lost more money than they have made in their entire history.

So what happens is that "the few" end up getting (literally, in some cases) a "free lunch" at the expense of "the many".

This is typical of what happens in a culture which has become obsessed with "compensation", thanks especially to programmes like "Watchdog", and changes in the law that have permitted "no-win, no-fee" legal representation. Of course, if things genuinely go wrong, people ought to be entitled to proper recourse, but we have gone too far the other way - the whole thing has become a gravy train.

It has happened in the financial services industry as well. The mis-selling of pensions was without doubt a scandal - but the effect of all the compensation claims has been to have a measurable impact on bottom line of the pensions providers - which ultimately means that as well as the shareholders losing out, so did the other people who invested their money in good faith. "The few" - those people who successfully claimed they were mis-sold to (not necessarily the same as the set of people who were mis-sold to!) - get a fat cheque - the many see their investments gradually falling in value.

There will be one group of definite gainers from this airline compensation scheme. Those people the cost of whose tickets are bought for them (i.e. they don't experience the cost) - but who will get to collect the compensation (i.e. they get the benefit). Nice little earner there! Oddly enough, an example of people in this group would be MEP's. I don't suppose they ever proposed to compensate the person who actually paid for the ticket - or to link compensation to the amount paid for the ticket.

Oh, one more thing. A lot of stuff is going to have to go through the courts. So there will be one other group who will definitely gain. Lawyers.

Nice one, Brussels!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Church schools

I am hoping that having titled this post, I will be able to remember what I wanted to say for long enough to finish it. The thought has been floating around my mind for a while, but it keeps flitting out of reach when I sit down at a computer, leaving me thinking to myself, "Now what was it I wanted to write about?"

There are quite a few C of E schools around - in fact, I am the governor of one. But one of the things that really rattles my cage is the admissions issue. Typically, church schools expect regular attendance at one of their approved churches. This may be a local Church of England church, or it may be a Churches Together church. Typically, "regular attendance" is considered to be once a month.

However, typically, it doesn't matter what involvement you might have with a "non-approved" church; if you are committed to a "non-approved" church, you might just as well be a complete pagan for all the good it will do you in terms of school admission. So the facts that: I am a deacon and church treasurer at one church; I'm helping with youth work and lay preaching at another church; and our family would aim to be present not only at both Sunday morning and evening services but also midweek meetings - none of these facts count for anything in terms of admission to these foundation schools.

OK. Well, that comes across as absurd to most of the population, who are frankly shocked that "committed Christians" should effectively be discriminated against in this way. But it at least has some logic - because this sounds as though the effect ought to be to steer people towards the "approved" churches. Doesn't say much for Christian unity, or the universal church, but at least it encourages churchgoing.

However, what is happening - and people in the "approved" churches must be aware of this - is that a fair proportion of people do what they have to, to secure a place for their children at these schools. So if they are expected to be there once a month, they will go once a month. They will go and speak to the minister and get him/her to write a letter on their behalf to confirm their regular attendance - and having secured the place, they stop going. Their contribution to the life of the church is negligible. In other words, the sort of "practising Christian" that this produces bears absolutely no resemblance to the Biblical model of Christianity.

Now, surely the diocesan authorities must be aware that people are manipulating the system to get their children into schools. And yet they are prepared to allow it to continue. Is it because it is preventing the total collapse in size of many basically dead congregations, I wonder?!

More seriously, many of the Churches Together churches are no longer preaching the gospel. So people are being put under social pressure to attend churches where they won't hear the gospel - in some cases, people choose to attend these churches over gospel-proclaiming churches simply because of the fact that it will allow them to get their children into a faith school. Do leaders of these churches understand that the blood of these members of the congregation is on their head??!

Monday, February 07, 2005

Here's an interesting/spooky thought ...

The surface of the planet earth is the only place in the solar system where a total solar eclipse can be seen - allowing the chromosphere of the sun to be observed.

Furthermore, using geological timescales, in 250 million years' time, due to the fact that the moon is gradually receding from the earth and the sun is gradually expanding, it will no longer be possible to observe total solar eclipses from the surface of the earth.

So we are in the one place in the solar system where a total solar eclipse can be seen, in a window of about 5% of the earth's geological history during which total solar eclipses can be seen.

Is earth just another planet? Maybe not, after all ....