Saturday, June 13th, 2009


So, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has suggested he thought of resigning along with James Purnell, but decided against it. Then he gets castigated or mocked in the press for having thought about it.

David-MilibandIs this the same press that wants politicians to be honest and tell the truth? Would they prefer it if he had lied and said that the thought of resignation had never crossed his mind?

If we want politicians to be honest and tell the truth and avoid spin, then we as consumers of ‘news’ will have to demand of the press a more mature way of thinking and commenting. If we get the politicians we deserve, surely the same is true of the press. Which isn’t very encouraging.

It is really irritating constantly to read lazy press reports of the demise of the church. Good news doesn’t sell, we are told, and that is clearly true. So here’s just one good news story from Croydon (and there are many more I could tell).

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Three years ago Holy Innocents Parish Church in South Norwood had an average congregation of 15. Today it has an average congregation of almost 80. How? The new vicar, Nicola Coleman, had the courage and the vision to get stuck in to a very complicated and demanding community and bring light into some dark places. I don’t want to say much more about that as it might compromise what is a superb ministry. Suffice it to say that this is an area of South London in which there are many asylum seekers and significant mental health issues.

south norwood flags 008south norwood flags 011In the last three years they have innovated community arts projects and the church has become once again part of the community and a sanctuary of hope for many people.

Today was the Portland Road Festival and the church decided to do the traditional Christian thing of nicking other people’s ideas and christianising them. They took the idea of Tibetan (Buddhist) prayer flags, invited people to write their own prayers on or in the flags and today they were hung outside the church. Loads of people made flags, talked about their lives and their hopes and simply saw the church as a vital part of their community. This was a brilliant case of meeting people where they are, giving them a creative voice for expressing their hopes and fears to God and ‘touching’ the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Which is exactly what the church is called to be.

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But this is just one example. Faithful clergy lead faithful people in the messy business of trying to be like Jesus in their own communities. I could have cited examples from Upper Norwood, Thornton Heath, central Croydon and further afield. So many stories to tell – so much light and hope in ordinary places where people live out the dramas of their lives.

Yesterday I had to go to the Kazakh Embassy in London to get my visa for a forthcoming trip. The embassy is over the road from the Victoria & Albert Museum and just down a bit from the Natural History Museum. I had never been to the Natural History Museum and thought it was time to put this right. Nobody needs to be reminded that this is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his revolutionary Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selectionor that this anniversary has spawned a plethora of radio and television programmes as well as exhibitions and dramas.

Charles Darwin (Natural History Museum)The exhibition at the NHM is excellent, but it doesn’t take long to discover evidence of the evolution of myths about his theory of evolution  and its reception by the Christian Church.

darwin_tree_lgThere is a fantastic representation of Darwin’s famous tree diagram on the ceiling of one of the halls. Tania Kovats has sectioned an oak tree and fixed it to the ceiling – sounds a bit odd, but certainly worth seeing. Unfortunately, in the freebie brochure that goes with it it says this:

Charles Darwin’s work had enormous impact not only on the biological science of the nineteenth century but also on its culture. His work caused the church and science to break apart, and his ideas made artists reconsider their view of landscape and nature…

That’s that then! Yet, this is nonsense. Yes, there were Christians who opposed Darwin’s theories on the grounds that they contradicted an apparent reading of the ‘plain meaning of Scripture’. But it appears from a study of the actual history (perish the though…) that the notion of a ‘breaking apart’ is nonsense. Indeed, for many Christians the new theories didn’t flap them at all; they merely represented a new development in what had always been seen as the Christian task of exploring the world as it is ans asking why it is the way it is. (I think it was GK Chesterton who said that if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true – it is not true because it is Christianity.)

I remember reading way back in 1989 a superb article by Professor Colin Russell (then Professor of History of Science and Technology at the Open University, England) on The Conflict Metaphor and its Social Origins in which he demonstrates that the ‘division’ between science and Christian faith has little to do with reality and much to with the agenda of some atheists who imposed on the world their particular prejudices. As a historian referring back to the nineteenth century debates, Russell claims that “science, like theology, was in a measure culturally determined, that its triumph was by no means inevitable, still less that its very existence owed much to the long tradition of Christian theology in the west.”

Thomas Henry HuxleyRussell goes on to examine Thomas Huxley, the X-Club and the attempts to “clothe science in the vestments of religion”. He concludes that if theologians or church people were stubborn in claiming an unjustifiable objectivity, then so were the ‘scientists’. It seems that we have not moved further in some respects as spurious claims to exclusive objectivity still abound.

The recent publication of Rescuing Darwin: God and evolution in Britain today by Theos tells this story succinctly and well. Most people in the church do not see any contradiction between science and faith – they address different questions and need each other. To perpetuate the myth that faith and science are in opposition is either mischievous or ignorant. And caricatures of either do not help us become wiser or (in the case of Christians) more biblically literate in the real world.

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