There's more to Easter than eggs, you know. Photo: Getty
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Street retreats, weird Passion plays and blessing Banderas on Loose Women

An Easter Notebook.

It’s great having advertising gurus in your congregation. Most churches run some kind of programme for the six weeks of Lent – reading or prayer groups, for instance, or a lecture series. Lent, which mirrors the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, is a season of fasting, prayer and study.

In that spirit, we organised trips to places that we might not otherwise have seen, to jolt us out of the “groupthink” that often afflicts churches. To this end, members of the congregation went to the public gallery of the Old Bailey, to a Hindu temple and to a television studio for a recording of a popular daytime show; and we encouraged people to take the time to look around them and see familiar environments differently. This was where the ad guys came in. To describe all of this – which is, in essence, hanging around and observing stuff – one of our congregation came up with the name “Loitering Within Lent”.

And it wasn’t any old TV studio we were in. My colleague took a group to see the ITV magazine programme Loose Women. She got hauled out of the audience by the warm-up guy, who declared that the show had never had a vicar in the crowd before. She gently refused, when pressed during one of the ad breaks, to “bless the desk” behind which the celebrity presenters were seated. By her own admission, she would probably rather have blessed Antonio Banderas, who came on shortly afterwards . . .

 

Confidence women

From Loose Women to Leading Women, a national development programme for female clergy that was founded about five years ago. We thought there was room for an intensive, 18-month course to help clergywomen develop their confidence, theological understanding and spiritual depth, alongside their financial literacy and strategic acumen. After seeing three cohorts through the programme, I attended my last residential scheme this Lent and was again struck by the variety of these women: their humour, their sense of camaraderie and, perhaps surprisingly, their reticence about their abilities and what they have to offer.

 

Veil threats

From there to a panel of Muslim and Christian women discussing gender equality. One woman spoke of her young daughter’s distress after her best friend at school (who is white) told her that she couldn’t be friends with her any more because her mother had told her that she might be a jihadi bride. Another story came from a woman whose veil was pulled by a “suited-and-booted white man” on the Tube, who called her “a f***ing jihadi bride”. These women, like our Leading Women, were articulate, angry and self-deprecating. They were critical of both the media, which seemed obsessed with Isis, and a Muslim leadership that wasn’t saying what they wanted it to say. I left the meeting energised and moved.

 

Street spirit

Lent rolls on and central London parish life is as mottled and mercurial as ever. One Saturday morning, we hosted a kind of urban retreat called “Street Wisdom” (streetwisdom.org). The facilitators encouraged us to walk the streets of Soho, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly and St James’s. We were urged to walk as slowly as we dared, to take a question to the streets and see what kind of answers we came up with.

The adventures and conversations that people had in their three hours alone were quite amazing. One had had a gun pointed at her; another became obsessed with a torn piece of plastic; others had had profound thoughts about the direction of their lives, just because they had stopped and changed the pace at which they normally lived.

The fire and the rose

Holy Week moves inevitably nearer and the word on the Church’s lips is “Passion”, in its original sense of suffering. A different kind of Passion is coming to our church – not the St John Passion or St Matthew Passion, familiar from the pen of J S Bach, but a new play, The Devil’s Passion, by Justin Butcher. Reminiscent of C S Lewis’s inspirational Screwtape Letters (in which an older devil writes letters to his young apprentice), this play shows Satan in hell, barricading the doors against the harrowing that he knows will come if the events of the week unfold as they must. He resists, rails and is appalled at the inexorable goodness that is advancing towards him.

The contemporary composer Gabriel Jackson also brought his Passion to us, scored not just for the usual strings and choir but also for alto sax, harp and a bewildering array of percussion. The soundscape (which Jackson confesses is “weird”) as the horrifying events of the torture and execution of Jesus were recounted reminded us of the apocalyptic flavour of the story. Unusually, Jackson used words from T S Eliot as well as scripture. The futuristic piece ended with Eliot’s astonishing observation that “the fire and the rose are one”.

And so, this Easter, I find my life full of passion stories; from Muslim women abused in public to the daily encounters we have here with men (mostly men) who are destitute, addicted and in their own circle of hell. We will be in the mix of it all, amid the turbulence and suffering of city-centre life, at dawn on Easter Day at Piccadilly Circus, lighting the fire, singing alleluia and renewing our hope that things don’t have to be as they are. And in the same fire, we will resolutely look for the outline of the rose: as beautiful a description of real life, not to mention Holy Week, as I have ever heard.

Rev Lucy Winkett is the rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London W1, where “The Devil’s Passion” will be performed on 31 March and 1 April (7pm). For tickets, visit: thedevilspassionstjames.bpt.me

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

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Sooner or later, a British university is going to go bankrupt

Theresa May's anti-immigration policies will have a big impact - and no-one is talking about it. 

The most effective way to regenerate somewhere? Build a university there. Of all the bits of the public sector, they have the most beneficial local effects – they create, near-instantly, a constellation of jobs, both directly and indirectly.

Don’t forget that the housing crisis in England’s great cities is the jobs crisis everywhere else: universities not only attract students but create graduate employment, both through directly working for the university or servicing its students and staff.

In the United Kingdom, when you look at the renaissance of England’s cities from the 1990s to the present day, universities are often unnoticed and uncelebrated but they are always at the heart of the picture.

And crucial to their funding: the high fees of overseas students. Thanks to the dominance of Oxford and Cambridge in television and film, the wide spread of English around the world, and the soft power of the BBC, particularly the World Service,  an education at a British university is highly prized around of the world. Add to that the fact that higher education is something that Britain does well and the conditions for financially secure development of regional centres of growth and jobs – supposedly the tentpole of Theresa May’s agenda – are all in place.

But at the Home Office, May did more to stop the flow of foreign students into higher education in Britain than any other minister since the Second World War. Under May, that department did its utmost to reduce the number of overseas students, despite opposition both from BIS, then responsible for higher education, and the Treasury, then supremely powerful under the leadership of George Osborne.

That’s the hidden story in today’s Office of National Statistics figures showing a drop in the number of international students. Even small falls in the number of international students has big repercussions for student funding. Take the University of Hull – one in six students are international students. But remove their contribution in fees and the University’s finances would instantly go from surplus into deficit. At Imperial, international students make up a third of the student population – but contribute 56 per cent of student fee income.

Bluntly – if May continues to reduce student numbers, the end result is going to be a university going bust, with massive knock-on effects, not only for research enterprise but for the local economies of the surrounding area.

And that’s the trajectory under David Cameron, when the Home Office’s instincts faced strong countervailing pressure from a powerful Treasury and a department for Business, Innovation and Skills that for most of his premiership hosted a vocal Liberal Democrat who needed to be mollified. There’s every reason to believe that the Cameron-era trajectory will accelerate, rather than decline, now that May is at the Treasury, the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy doesn’t even have responsibility for higher education anymore. (That’s back at the Department for Education, where the Secretary of State, Justine Greening, is a May loyalist.)

We talk about the pressures in the NHS or in care, and those, too, are warning lights in the British state. But watch out too, for a university that needs to be bailed out before long. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.