Good morning! In recent years most of my incursions into this pulpit have been at funerals to speak about the dead; so it’s a relief to be able to talk about the living this morning; and specifically about children, poor children, in our increasingly unequal society.
I want to begin with an excerpt from the diaries of Chris Mullin, the former Labour MP for Sunderland in England, not that far from Durham. I read his three volumes with pleasure as they came out; but one entry stabbed me with sadness and recognition. The film Billy Elliott is showing in one of the schools in his constituency, and as he waits to go in he muses on the plight of the hundreds of children standing beside him in the queue. He concludes the entry with these words: “I look at all the shiny, optimistic little faces waiting with their parents in the playground for the doors to open. And then I look at their parents and I can see at a glance who will prosper and who is doomed”.
Doomed is a strong word to use about a child’s future, yet it is the fate that waits in ambush for millions of poor children in Britain’s grossly unequal society; and until recently many of them would have come from a community not that far from where we are this morning. Here’s a public health snapshot of Raploch in Stirling from ten years ago. It was in the top 5% of areas of multiple deprivation in Scotland. 22% of the population experienced incidents of Scotland’s Big Three health scourges: chronic heart disease, stroke, and cancer. 20% claimed incapacity benefit. Only 22% of the population had qualifications beyond standard grade. Only 4% entered higher education or training. And one in every six children had a learning disability.
A survey in 2006 pointed out that adults with a learning disability are ten times more likely to be unemployed than the general population; while the Prison Reform Trust has reported that between 20% and 30% of the Scottish prison population has a significant learning disability. And we know from other surveys that over half of children in custody have been in the care of or involved with social services. That snapshot could be repeated in any number of communities in Scotland, where a third of our children live in poverty.
Well, things are changing in Raploch, but before explaining why I want to take another look at that word poverty, because it can be used in both an economic and a spiritual sense. It is possible to be economically poor and spiritually and culturally rich. Many communities in the 1930s were economically poor, yet they were culturally rich; and they often had strong musical traditions, such as the brass bands in the mining villages of Midlothian and Durham. The tragedy of deprived communities today is that they are poor in both senses; and the cause of their predicament is that they have never been taught how to use the one resource they have in abundance – empty time.
Time is a problem for any human who doesn’t know what to do with it. The very language we use about it reveals the danger it poses for those who lack the ability to use it well: ‘passing time’, ‘killing time’, ‘spending time’, ‘doing time’ , ‘redeeming time’ are all phrases that capture the problem of rational animals with time on their hands and no hunting or gathering or heavy labouring with which to fill it. What we did in the childhood of our species was to play. We painted on cave walls; we told ourselves stories; we whittled designs on spears; we drummed and sang and invented musical instruments; and in filling time in all those ways we created human culture; and from that rich complexity civilisation flowed.
The tragedy of our day is that in too many places that process has gone into reverse, and we have whole populations sitting round like characters in a Becket play waiting for something to happen because they no longer know how to play creatively.
Which brings me to Sistema Scotland, the movement founded eight years ago that is now well on the way to transforming Raploch and Govanhill in Glasgow and will start work this summer in Torry in Aberdeen. Following the model invented by a Venezuelan saint forty years ago, we get children playing again by placing them in orchestras that take a stronger hold on their lives than the surrounding community that would otherwise imprint them with its own emptiness and despair. We don’t argue about social policy or unemployment or drugs or neglect – though we confront those realities every day. We get the children playing music and we flood the community with beauty and purpose and hard work. Creative play is taxing. We work the children hard every day as well as throughout school holidays. But their achievement after seven years has given Raploch back its pride. A few summers ago on a wet June evening the young musicians of Raploch played alongside the famous Simon Bolivar Orchestra to a world audience, and the community has been bursting with pride ever since. A year ago we took fifty two children from the Raploch Big Noise Symphony Orchestra, ranging in age from 9 to 15, to play in Caracas, and they broke the hearts of the thousand Venezuelans who heard them play. And a Big Noise orchestra played at the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow last summer alongside Nicola Benedetti, whom our children call their big sister. 17 children from Raploch now play in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland and 13 in the National Youth Choir of Scotland, more than from any other postcode. All this in seven years!
But this is only the beginning. Sistema Scotland has plans to transform other communities across Scotland in the same way. Our work has proved to be influential globally, and more and more people from abroad are making pilgrimages to Raploch to find out how to do it. Here’s a wee story to prove it.
When we began establishing different sub-groups within Big Noise Raploch, in order to accommodate the different musical stages of the children, we decided to call our top ensemble the Rinconada Orchestra, in honour of a Centre in Caracas that has been a particular inspiration. So we were thrilled to hear that in New Zealand they have named their elite group the Raploch Orchestra, a move that caused even more rejoicing in Raploch.
So when Graham invited me to preach this morning, I said I’d be happy to come along if I could talk about our work. After all, the union of these two great choirs here today offers us the perfect moment to meditate on the redeeming power of music. If asked to sum up what we are trying to do in our intensive work with children in these communities, I quote the last of the Hebrew prophets, Karl Marx. The world for too many is a cruel, unequal place today; but it isn’t going to change any time soon. Marx said that transformation would come not from the weakening of the strong but from the strengthening of the weak. We are strengthening children to overcome the pressures that would otherwise destroy them. I quoted the prophet Marx, but the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading says it better. “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength…they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint”.
I live near some primary schools in Bruntsfield and when I go for my paper in the morning I see parents taking their children to school. The parents trudge along, head down – but the children skip! They skip because they are natural artists who turn a walk into a dance. In too many places that instinct to play has been suppressed by the weight of poverty and the death of aspiration; but with daring and imagination we can get children playing again with purpose and with joy. And not just children: too many of us end up trudging through life because we’ve forgotten how to dance.
The Gospel tells us that if we would be disciples of Jesus we must become like children: and the most characteristic thing children do when they are allowed to, is to play intently and joyfully. That too is what our movement is about: the recovery of play as central to an abundant and fulfilling life.
And maybe even dear, ponderous old Christianity might start skipping again!