Some personal comments on my dismissal as Leader of the Iona Community

“We encounter the Other differently and afresh after a period of silence.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
(“Wir begegnen dem Andren anders und neu nach einer Zeit des Schweigens.”)

The Iona Community’s Council dismissed me from my post as elected Leader of the Community in November 2017. I have refrained from any public statement until now, but I am still repeatedly being asked questions about what happened. With some distance, I now wish to offer some comment.

Bill Kennedy, a long-standing Member, repeatedly asked Council about my dismissal soon after it happened, but he says he did not receive any substantive replies. He then publicised amongst the Membership the questions he had asked Council, noting “Perhaps Trustees/Council will now give some indication why it is so difficult to reply to legitimate questions related to the process they claim was carried out [in dismissing the Leader].” Council still did not reply to his questions, but I now wish to do so, to the best of my ability.

1. What was the timeline for the disciplinary process? In particular timing of when the first warning, written warning, investigation, etc. happened? Unless details of this are released Members have no idea whether or not a proper process was adhered to.

On 7.10.17 I informed the Convener and Vice-Convener of Council that I had left my wife, having started a new relationship with a colleague on 19.9.17. I was told that evening that I was to take a week’s sick leave or face suspension; I opted for sick leave.
After the Community’s plenary in York the following weekend, I was informed Council had suspended me from duties. No warnings, oral or written, were ever given, and Council did not seek to meet with me. I was not sent details of any investigation nor was I asked to participate in one. I was suspended until I was dismissed by letter on 17.11., with my last day of service being 20.11.17.

2. Related to 1 at what stage in the process was Michael, or the person he was in relationship with, interviewed by Council and asked for their account of the events?

On 9.10. Marlene Finlayson requested I meet with a Member she had approached (John Harvey), threatening possible suspension if I did not do so. I protested to both Marlene and John that I felt the parameters of this meeting (investigative? pastoral? other?) were vague, and that I had no time to arrange for accompaniment, but I wanted to avoid suspension and so I complied with her request. I met him on 11.10., read out a statement and answered some questions, but I do not know what he may or may not have communicated to Marlene.
No other interview or questioning took place.

3. Related to the above when was Michael given details and witness statements of the charges against him?

I was not provided with any of this information before I was dismissed, though I asked for it repeatedly (letters on 17., 20., 27. October, 3., 6. November).

4. As you (Marlene) were Michael’s line-manager what was your contact with Michael during the period in question?

One of the terms of the suspension letter was that I was not permitted to contact any member of Council or staff apart from Marlene Finlayson (Convener of Council). I adhered to this throughout the process, apart from when Angus Mathieson (Vice-Convener of Council) wrote to me and I replied (just regarding the payment of expenses I was due). Marlene Finlayson did not make telephone or personal contact at any point after I was suspended.

5. Related to 4 what was your involvement with Trustees/Council meetings – i.e. who chaired the meetings when decisions were made?

This questions follows on from 4., and is directed to Marlene Finlayson. I am not in a position to answer this question; it is for her to do so.

6. At what stage was it decided to dismiss Michael? Also what was the investigation for this based on?

Of course I appealed the dismissal, and was eventually sent, via my solicitor, documents relating to the appeal. These were received on Friday 1.12. at lunchtime, with the appeal on Monday 4.12.; as I was away for much of the weekend I was unable to respond in detail to the allegations that had by that stage been compiled. However, in this package was an extract from Council records:

“Summary of decisions taken at a closed meeting of Council in York
13-14th October 2017-10-26 [sic]

Those present: John Dale, Isabel Sarle, Carla Roth, Simon Barrow, Angus Mathieson, Caro Smyth, Marlene Finlayson, and in attendance Benedicte Scholefield. Attending by skype for part of the meeting: Alison Adam. Apologies: Richard Sharples, Mary Duncanson and Jan Maasen.
1) It was established early on that the mind of the meeting was that the Leader must be dismissed. Legal advice needed to be sought, and pending this we decided unanimously to suspend MM. MF was to inform the absent Trustees of the decision and ask whether or not they agreed. They were also to be sent copies of the statement read to members at Plenary on Saturday morning”

Marlene Finlayson noted in her statement to the appeal: “Subsequent to the meeting I telephoned Richard Sharples, Mary Duncanson and Jan Maasen. I outlined to them what Council had heard and the decision taken. Each individually supported the above decision.”

The decision to dismiss me therefore took place in mid-October, exactly one week after I had informed Council of my changed circumstances – though I was not informed of this fact until 1.12.17, i.e. many weeks later, and indeed well after being dismissed.
Perhaps the basis of Council’s October decision was a letter sent by the estranged husband of my then-colleague to the Business Director in the week beginning 8.10. (with a follow-up meeting with Council representatives), which contained erroneous conjecture that was not checked with either of us?

I hope these comments help to shed some light on what has happened. I wish to add that I have known most members of Council for many years, and in some cases for decades, and have worked closely with some for long periods of time. It is a source of considerable disappointment and disillusionment that at no point did any of them appear to ask whether the fanciful allegations that were compiled against me for the appeal actually merited proper investigation, or were at all plausible given all that they knew about me.

I cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer above. Throughout my adult life, Bonhoeffer’s model of community, of living together, of Christian fellowship, has been an inspiration and a blessing. I close with another comment of his:
“Christian fellowship is not an ideal that we are to make real. Rather, it is a reality created by God in Christ, in which we are permitted to take part.” (“Christliche Bruderschaft ist nicht ein Ideal, das wir zu verwirklichen hätten, sondern es ist eine von Gott in Christus geschaffene Wirklichkeit, an der wir teilhaben dürfen.”)
That is a message that all of us seeking to live in community would do well to heed.


Brexit: a depressing day

Today is a depressing day for those of us who believe in European integration.

In marking the day, I posted six photos on Instagram from a visit last week to the northern European city of Schwerin, where trade, religion and art from all across northern Europe has characterised the city and the people. All six are reposted below.

The Westminster government is putting all such connections for the UK at risk, and whilst parliaments/assemblies in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff may yet help their people retain those connections, in England, there are few such prospects, it seems to me.

You may wish to follow me on Instagram.

Iona Community Leadership

Iona Community

Forgive the very personal nature of this blog posting, but…

Today marks a significant change in the direction my life is taking: for a while now, I thought I was basically an academic, who did other things alongside that.

Today I have been elected as the ninth Leader of the Iona Community. Now everything else will happen alongside that.

I knew last year that I had to stand in this election – this was a ‘calling’ and a bit like the Jonah-and-the-whale story, I could not find a way of evading it. I did not feel called to be the Leader, but I did very much feel called to stand as a candidate for the Leadership. From there I had to rely on the wisdom and prayers and insights of the Members.

The Iona Community has just over 260 full Members, and is a tremendously – and at times terrifyingly! – talented community of engaged and wonderful people from all walks of life, in Scotland, the wider UK, and around the world. And to my astonishment, from a choice of inspiring and wonderful candidates, they have elected me.

For now I continue working at the Iona Community where I have been doing a temporary nine-month job since October last year. In the summer I take over from Rev. Peter MacDonald, who has been Leader since 2009. That is a tough act to follow!

The Member overseeing the election has been tremendously supportive, and a few days ago sent this to all the candidates, by Richard Rohr:

In the eternal scheme of things, we discover that all God wants from you is you.

It’s just so humbling, because it always feels like not enough, doesn’t it?

“All I want is to be like Saint Francis,” I said to my spiritual director, over and over…

Finally, one day he said, “Hey Richard, you’re not, and you’re never going to be, Francis of Assisi. You’re not even close, all right? You’re ‘unfortunately’ Richard Rohr from Kansas.” I said to myself, This doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic or exciting.

Except when I realised: all God wants is Richard from Kansas.

But that’s what I don’t know how to give you, God!

It feels so insignificant, and yet this is the liberating secret: I am precisely the gift God wants—in full and humble surrender. There is unity between the path taken and the destination where we finally arrive. Saints are not uniform but are each unique creations of grace according to the journey God has led them through.

I’m still just me. And being the Iona Community’s Leader will still make me just me – but I know that the point behind it being a community is that I am one of many, and together we can do great things! For now, I’m honoured, humbled, excited, and intimidated – and looking forward to the next seven years. As we pray in the Community:

In work and worship – God is with us.
Gathered and scattered – God is with us.
Now and always – God is with us.

Alasdair Codona and Scottish homelessness

Feasgar math h-uile duine – that’s the Gaelic for “good evening everyone”. The first Gaelic speaker I ever met was a music student at Aberdeen called Alasdair Codona. A warm and engaging individual, I shared a flat with Alasdair for a while, before moving closer to the university. We saw each other regularly as we were both involved in the Student Christian Movement, but after I graduated, I lost touch with him. Perhaps, subconsciously, my efforts to try and learn Gaelic now have their origins in my encounter with Alasdair.

A few years ago, however, I saw him completely by chance late one night on BBC Alba, as I was channel-hopping. I don’t now remember what he was singing, but there are some clips available online, for example:

and this one with Jenna Cumming:

and another song with her:

Here he is singing one of his own compositions about Calum Cille (Saint Columba of Iona):

Do take a few minutes to listen to these if you don’t know Alasdair’s music already. Also, if you’ve ever sung ‘Forgiveness is your gift’ in church (no. 361 in the Church Hymnary, 4th Edition, 2005), you’ll see it’s a Skye folk melody arranged by Alasdair.

I wrote to BBC Alba after seeing him on TV, seeking to get in touch with Alasdair, but he never heard from them. And then two evenings ago a friend, Déirdre Ní Mhathúna, not realising that I knew Alasdair, contacted me on Facebook with her page about him: he is on hunger strike, protesting homelessness legislation. The Daily Record newspaper has already run stories about him, but I had missed these: 23.12. and 24.12.

I went to Edinburgh today to meet him, and spent two hours sitting outside the Parliament chatting – we reconnected immediately, and spent some time reminiscing about Aberdeen days, and he then described some of what he has been trying to do. Having experienced homelessness, he has tried to lobby Members of the Scottish Parliament and councillors to change key parts of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, which define who is homeless and give enormous leeway to officials to block people from accessing services to which they would otherwise be entitled. In particular, not having a fixed address of course hinders all kinds of access to services, even to basic ones such as the Post Office Card Account (ironically, run by JP Morgan!). Alasdair feels that he now has no choice but to seek to pressure the Scottish Government to address these issues through his own body, hence the hunger strike, now into the third week.

How you can help

If you live in Scotland, do contact one of your MSPs, especially if you have a connection to one of them or you see that they are on e.g. the Local Government and Communities Committee, or the Social Security Committee. You might ask if they will meet with Alasdair – he is quite literally on their doorstep! – and address the concerns he has. Given the nature of his action, this is obviously urgent. It appears parliament is only in session again from 10.1. – but some MSPs may well be around the Parliament before then.

Wherever you live, a suggestion is emerging about setting up a Scottish Parliamentary petition and anyone can sign such petitions, whether they live in Scotland or not. Do join Déirdre’s Facebook page and follow the updates there for news and possible actions that might be taken.

Finally, if you are in Edinburgh, maybe go and visit Alasdair and offer your encouragement and support – though be aware he is weakening all the time, and you may not be able to stay for long.

Judy Murray and her tennis proposal at Park of Keir

Judy Murray has helped her sons to become world stars in tennis, and is keen to support others who might want to play too. This is very understandable.

She wants to push through a proposal to create a tennis centre at Park of Keir near Dunblane. Unfortunately for her, locals are strongly opposed to the proposal, as the BBC reported: “There were more than 1,000 objections to the scheme and only 45 in support.” Stirling Council refused planning permission for her scheme.

She and her financial backers decided to ignore the views of local people and the Council’s planning committee, and have taken their case to the Scottish government.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, that’s because you may be thinking: “didn’t Donald Trump do the same thing at Menie in Aberdeenshire?” – and, of course, the answer is that yes, he did.

Ms Murray does not like this comparison, as a Twitter exchange with her today shows. It began when I added a comment to a tweet from Andy Wightman MSP (click the images to see the original tweets):

Andy Wightman tweets about Judy Murray

Andy Wightman tweets about Judy Murray

My tweet, with Judy Murray’s reply:

My tweet, with Judy Murray's reply

I did, of course, respond, with the BBC link above:

My reply to Judy Murray

My reply to Judy Murray

I have had no reply. I understand that she might not like being compared to Donald Trump, but as Andy Wightman notes, she really is pursuing similar tactics.For more information from the local campaign group opposing her plans, see Protect Park of Keir, who say:

What this decision is definitely not about is whether Scotland would benefit from a new tennis centre. Of course the country would benefit from this. But to sacrifice Park of Keir for this purpose is to suggest it is the only place available. Of course it isn’t. There are countless brown field sites that could be used. But there is only one Park of Keir. It has stood here undeveloped since the last ice age. Once it has gone it will be gone forever.

Dropbox – a complete breakdown in trust (and what you can do about it)

A while ago I wrote about data security on my academic site. I believe data security to be of huge significance in academia and beyond: protecting significant quantities of sensitive data about ourselves and others is – or should be – an important part of what we all do now.

Collaborative tools like Dropbox can be very helpful in our work with others. Dropbox appears to offer reasonably secure ways of sharing specific folders or files with different people, and provided good passwords are used, most people will assume their data is pretty secure, somewhere “up there in the cloud” (actually, very much down on earth, on Dropbox’s computers…). Of course, if you use any kind of online service these days you may expect there to be data leaks. Dropbox, for example, “lost” 68 million user details in 2012, and recently asked users to change passwords as a result. So if you changed your password, all should be well and you can carry on using Dropbox, yes…?

No. Looking into it in more detail, I see that not only does Dropbox not encrypt data with keys that you create before sending your files to their computers (I gather this is why Edward Snowden advised against using Dropbox), if you have their desktop version installed on your Apple Mac, you are opening your computer to all kinds of vulnerabilities. This is because Dropbox installs itself as a permanent rootkit in your computer without telling you it is doing so. I was alerted to this a couple of days ago by a couple of tweets (1, 2) and then began to see a lot more (maybe Dropbox do this on Windows and other systems too but nobody’s found out about it yet, who knows?)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, any number of searches on the Dropbox help pages failed to give more information on all this.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, any number of searches on the Dropbox help pages failed to give more information on all this.

Even if you trust Dropbox not to take control of your computer (and I don’t see why you should, given they tricked you into giving them that possibility!), anyone who discovers or creates a vulnerability in Dropbox’s software now appears to have an open door to your computer – and if Dropbox can lose 68 million user details, why would you assume they’re particularly good at security? Anything and everything you do on your computer could be at risk. For details on this problem, I recommend the following two postings (and many of the comments are worth reading too):

  1. 28. July 2016: revealing Dropbox’s dirty little security hack
  2. 29. August 2016: discovering how Dropbox hacks your mac

Even if talk of hashtags and algorithms sends you to sleep, the key thing to note is Dropbox’s “explanation” for their actions; it is also highlighted on the second of these two links. Dropbox claim they:

need to request all the permissions we need or even may need in the future.

The problem is, they never ask their users if they could have permission to control all these permissions now and in perpetuity. Instead, Dropbox appear to have tricked users by using inappropriate dialogue boxes to gain this access, making it look as if users were giving their permission for something else.

In my book, this is an unforgivable breach of trust. I find myself asking why I should trust Dropbox with anything, if they deceive me into giving them control over my system?

What to do?

I’d suggest uninstalling Dropbox as soon as possible, and if you must still use it (for sharing with colleagues, for example), then just do so via the web interface. It is very simple to remove it from your Mac:

  1. move any files you want to take off Dropbox to somewhere on your computer
  2. follow the instructions on the Dropbox website to uninstall their desktop interface
  3. if your level of trust in Dropbox is the same as mine after reading all this, you might also want to remove permission for links to your Dropbox data, and then also delete the Dropbox apps on your tablet/mobile.

Then you might want to start looking for secure alternatives to Dropbox

Why I Probably Won’t be Watching the Paralympics

My friend Ruth Murran posted this text on her Facebook page. I offered to make it more widely available here, and she kindly agreed. Ruth is a teacher in the south of England.

Paralympic Games

Paralympic Games

Am I glad that the Paralympics are happening? I think I might be but I absolutely have to hesitate a bit.

Because for me they kind of feel like what some people do to make themselves feel better about a ‘problem’; they are like buying The Big Issue from the quite clean and smart homeless person (the one who is making a real effort to change their life).

Because I don’t think that I will want to watch until I know that I can catch a bus to my workplace and won’t risk lateness because there was a pushchair and, to be honest, a working wheelchair-user is a bit of a novelty.

I don’t want to watch until advertised ‘accessibility’ is pretty much always what it claims to be; until, in fact, somebody has actually tried it out with a wheelchair, until I am not ‘too disabled’ for more places than I care to mention but ‘not disabled enough’ for a viewing platform in Hyde Park because I choose not to claim benefits and I might be ‘pretending’ to get a better seat.

I don’t want to watch until the toilet into which I might manage to fit is as clean as all the others and I don’t have to share it with toddlers and the nappy bin.

Because, the reality is, that I can watch performances in which I would not be able to participate in my chair, that passers-by often look at me in surprise if I happen to be cheerful and laughing and this surprise tends to increase if, on the pavement, I don’t ‘give way’ to every ‘walker’.

In the past few years, I have met with huge amounts of kindness and consideration, with many lovely individuals but, to be honest, it is very often ‘ the kindness of strangers’ on which I have to rely because infrastructure tells me on most days that I really ought to be grateful for what has been provided and, if it is a little ‘hit or miss’, then ‘at least we tried’.

I can’t shake off the uncomfortable feeling that young, fit, often mostly whole (or at least used to be) striving Paralympians are ‘normal enough’ to be acceptable.

So I think that I will be kind of relieved when they are over and I can stop feeling ever so slightly less happy and lucky than usual.