One of the partnership links enjoyed by the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is that developed over thirty years with the dioceses of Sudan. The Bisho of Khartoum and Archbishop-elect of Sudan, Ezekiel Kondo – a wonderful, wise and brave man – has issued a statement about the death sentence passed under Sharia law on a Christian woman who is pregnant with her second child.

It is important that politicians, religious leaders and leading Muslims at home and abroad raise their voice in protest against this barbaric and illegal judgement. In the meantime, here is the statement issued in Khartoum:

Re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and Death Sentence by Court in Sudan

Introduction:

On Thursday 15th. May 2014 in Haj-Yousif Court, Mariam Yahya was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for changing from being Muslim to Christian and for commiting adultery because she is married to a Christian man.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag was born from a Christian mother (Ethiopian Orthodox) and a Muslim father. Her father left them when she was age 6, and she was raised by her mother as a Christian. Mariam is married to a Sudanese/American Christian husband. Mariam was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity simply because her father was a Muslim. The fact is that Mariam has been a Christian since as she was brought up by her mother who has been a Christian. According to the report, Mariam, the husband and their son were all arrested because they had changed their religon, but then, the husband was released, Mariam is sentenced to death and 100 lashed for her adultery because she accepted to marry a Christian man. Their marriage is revoked. Now, Mariam and her son are in prison until she gives birth, then she will be excuted.

1. According to the above, Mariam has never been a Muslim since her birth. The fact that she was born from a Muslim father, this does not make her a Muslim in any way because she was brought up by her mother as a Christian.

2. The verdict reached by the court on Mariam is a clear and direct perscution on Christians and the Church in the Sudan.

3. The verdict on Mariam Yahya is a Human Right and Religious violation against Christians in the Sudan.

4. This sentence is even against Sudan Constitution 2005 Article 38 on Freedom of Creed and Worship. “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance, subject to requirements of the law and public order, no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not voluntarily consent”.

5. There is again another court case going on right now in Kalakla, Khartoum, of a young man who has been accused of being converting from Muslim to Christian according the Almeghar News Paper of today 21st May 2014. This young man may face the same fate as Mariam did.

Episcopal Church of Sudan Internal Province hereby condemns this court decision and requests the Ministry of Justice to review the case of MariamYahya and release her immediately. She is free to believe in religion of her choice. Episcopal Church of Sudan also requests the authorities in Kalakla to free the young man. The last judgment on the faith should be left to God alone.

The spirit of dialogue, coexistence and love that the President of the Republic called upon should be upheld.

The Most Revd. Ezekiel Kondo

Archbishop-elect and Bishop of Khartoum

21st May 2014

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This is a bit of shameless publicity for someone else’s book.

Andrew Rumsey is a wordsmith. A published poet and musician, he is also Vicar of Christ Church Gipsy Hill, contributor to Third Way magazine and columnist for the inimitably funny ship-of-fools. He is a superb preacher and has the rare talent of never being anything less than interesting.

He has pulled together a series of Reflections on God, Life and Bric-a-Brac and got them published by Continuum under the title Strangely Warmed. The book is an excellent companion for Lent (Christmas is nearly over…) and has chapter titles that make you want to read into the book: ‘The mild man of Borneo’, ‘The pigeon of peace’, ‘Unoriginal sin’, and so on. Commendations come from Ian Hislop and Tom Wright and it is brilliant. (The cover pictured, left, is an early draft…)

The blurb says:

Strangely Warmed – short pieces for each day in Lent, designed to be read in the bathroom or on the train, as one would a magazine column. Each piece takes a wry look at the world and reflects on the questions of faith that arise from the everyday — the advertising slogan, the bus journey, the church jumble sale… Drawing on the ingredients of scripture, theology and philosophy, is a collection of Strangely Warmed serious doctrinal points with a lightness of touch, offering bitesized morsels to be enjoyably chewed over, in the hope that this will lead to a deeper reflection on, and appreciation of, Christian faith. 

I remember an academic friend of mine once telling me that correlations do not make for explanations. He was right and I have been cautious about statistical correlations (in particular) ever since. The phrase came to mind when I read just now an interesting article by Martin Beckford on the Telegraph website about new academic research due to be published in January by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Based on the results of 4,486 interviews conducted in the respected 2008 British Social Attitudes survey, it notes:

  • 50 per cent of respondents now call themselves Christian, down from 66 per cent in 1983.
  • the proportion of Britons who say they have “no religion” has increased from 31 per cent to 43 per cent. Non-Christians, including Muslims and Jews, now represent 7 per cent of the population, up from 2 per cent, 25 years ago.
  • The steepest fall was among those who say they worship in the established religion, the Church of England, down from 40 per cent of those who call themselves Christians to 23 per cent. (“Official Church attendance figures show that average Sunday attendance was 978,000 in 2007, compared with 1.2m in 1983.”)

It then draws several conclusions:

  • More and more people are ceasing to identify with a religion at all. “Indeed, the key distinction in Britain now is between religious involvement and indifference. We are thus concerned about differences in religiosity – the degree of religious commitment – at least as much as diversity of religious identity.”
  • “The declining Christian share is largely attributable to a drift away from the Church of England.”
  • The decline in faith is largely attributable to children no longer being brought up in a particular religion. (“The results suggest that institutional religion in Britain now has a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay… Two non-religious parents successfully transmit their lack of religion. Two religious parents have roughly a 50/50 chance of passing on the faith. One religious parent does only half as well as two together.”

Obviously, I haven’t read the report on which the article is based, but it appears to hold only one surprise… which I will come to later.

The statistical problem is simply that different surveys cover different periods of time, ask different questions and use different criteria. So it is difficult to draw conclusions that might show any degree of consistency from the various studies done. The Christian Research data of a couple of years ago was a case study in seriously questionable conclusions being drawn from selective data and based on assumptions that were questionable (for example the use of flat-line projections that assume nothing will change in the next thirty years).

But why should anyone be surprised that people who no longer belong to a church also no longer feel they should use a church’s label to describe their (lack of) allegiance? It is no surprise that the biggest loss should be recorded for the Church of England as it is the only church that does not simply count as its ‘members’ those who consciously commit to attending the church on a committed basis. Clarity in terms of specific commitment is bound to reduce the numbers, but we need to ask what story the particular statistical dynamic is telling – which might not be the obvious one.

However, as Lynda Barley says (at the end of the article):

Statistical comparisons over a long period have the drawback of ignoring recent trends.The Church of England has been carefully monitoring Christian affiliation and churchgoing following the 2001 government census result that 7 in 10 people regard themselves as Christian. Independent surveys continue to show that 7 in 10 people are Christian and approaching half are Anglican in contrast to the British Social Attitudes Survey findings which focus on religious membership.

Local church counts of worshippers throughout October for the last nine years record 1.7 million individual Church of England worshippers each month in each year. At the same time, it has been ordaining some 500 new clergy each year.

The Church of England doesn’t really ‘do’ membership. Signing up to the Electoral Roll can say various things about the commitment or ‘belonging’ of someone. Even paying regularly by Gift Aid doesn’t really tell us a great deal about belief or commitment. It is notoriously difficult to say who is and who isn’t a ‘member’ of the Church of England’; all we can say is that the Church is there for everyone who wants it – a unique vocation of service to the whole community.

The surprise is simply that Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, is still being consulted for a view on such research. He said:

Last week at a gathering of faith leaders at Downing Street, the Prime Minister said that Christian values were ‘at the heart of national life’. This research shows that this is simply not true. This report shows more clearly than ever that Britain is a post-religious society and policy should reflect that.

Two responses: (a) Mr Sanderson would say this regardless of the ‘evidence’ put to him. If you said the sky was blue he would claim this as evidence of the death of Christianity in Britain. (b) ‘Christian values’ are not the same category as ‘membership’ or ‘commitment’ – which makes his statement a good example of a non sequitur. Even if the conclusion were to be right, you couldn’t draw it from this evidence or the Prime Minister’s statement about ‘Christian values’. Is his ideological prejudice so powerful that it blinds him to anything good about Christian (or other religious) contributions to society?

And, in the light of other discussions going on on this blog, just to confirm that this appears to me to be a good example of good reporting – summarising and bringing to the attention of a wider audience some research that is worth discussing and doing so in a clear and comprehensible way.

(17 December addition: See excellent comment from George Pitcher, too, at www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/georgepitcher/6830892/The-lost-Christians-have-found-new-homes.html)

Guy Fawkes anarchist posterThis is a weird time of year. I remember Ned Sherrin on BBC Radio 4 welcoming Guy Fawkes Night (5 November – commemorating the attempt by Guido Fawkes and his mates to destroy Parliament in 1605) by saying that at least we had got past the spooks of Halloween and could now get back to the real business of burning Catholics. This, of course, was a response to the complaints by Christians about the commercial and cultural promotion of Halloween with its demons, devils and death. So, we have our bonfires and fireworks and forget what lies behind it.

Well, perhaps this year it is worth remembering. I heard this morning that the Vatican has warned against the dangers of Halloween and its association with all the spooky stuff. It might help if, instead of complaining, the Church worked positively at explaining that Halloween is a Christian festival that forces escapists to take seriously human mortality and questions of the meaning of death and beyond. Many churches will be celebrating ‘Bright Lights’ parties that hold together All Souls and All Saints and keeps the integrity of the two.

But, I think we can go one better. A couple of weeks ago the Pope very kindly offered to take some disaffected Anglicans into his fold. Today we would like to make a reciprocal offer to help his Church out over Halloween.

Miscellany 2006 018Today might be Halloween in the UK, but in Germany it is Reformation Day – the celebration of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in 1517 and setting off the Reformation in Europe. Three years ago I was in Wittenberg with the Archbishop of Canterbury and some others. The German Protestant Church (EKD) is going through a serious Reform Process which is intended to change the church and fit it (in the spirit of reformation) for the 500th anniversary of Luther’s action in 2017. I asked if the Roman Catholic Church would be involved in the celebrations in 2017 – and I didn’t get a clear answer. So, I wondered aloud if the RC Church would be celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood in 2007.

Er… no answer was forthcoming. Which was probably wise.

Schlosskirche Wittenberg 2006But it was a serious question – to do with how we cope with our histories and the bits we find uncomfortable. Do we just pretend they didn’t happen and wish they would go away? Just think of the damage such escapism or denial does in the life of an individual.

Anyway, I would like to offer the Vatican a way out of the Halloween conundrum. The German Pope Benedict could drive this with good reason and great credibility: celebrate Reformation Day, remember a difficult history and then link it all in to All Souls and All Saints.

I can’t see a downside.

Just walk into any pub and you’ll find people pontificating about everything under the sun with great authority. The same can happen at the General Synod of the Church of England – and I bet it happens in every boardroom, every other church and every other medium. We love to speak about things we don’t actually know about.

The General Synod brings together some fantastic people of vast and impressive experience. But there are times when the theme of a debate blanks some brians and brings to the microphone people who have no idea what they are talking about with such confidence. For example, whenever the General Synod debates something to do with the media, my heart sinks as speaker after speaker makes it evident they read the Daily Mail and have no idea what they are talking about.

Iron CrossToday in Blackburn was different. A German member of the Meissen Commission (which I am currently chairing) spoke with serious passion about his confrontation in East Germany with young neo-Nazis. This guy grew up in the Communist GDR and worked as a Christian pastor in a society that persecuted you for your Christian commitment (or lack of atheism). He now faces a society in which atheism is taken for granted and neo-Nazism is gaining ground eveyr day – even with demands for a return to Germany’s 1937 borders.

His question was put in the context of a discussion about the nature of truth and truth claims. If we have no conviction of the absolute truth claims of Jesus Christ, how (he asked) do we deal with the young person who says he wants to be a neo-Nazi? It is not enough to simply tell him he shouldn’t – without giving a cogent reason why not … one that is rooted in something more reasonable than wishful thinking.

My German friend’s point was that if you accept (uncritically) the common assumption that relativism is normal and any ‘truth’ is OK as long as it is ‘true for you’, you have nothing to say to the young neo-Nazi. He has chosen his path and you have no grounds for denying him whatever will make him feel fulfilled. On the contrary, he said, we have to have a grounded and consistent theology and anthropology for giving a cogent reason for not becoming a neo-Nazi.

In other words, the problem lies not in the neo-Nazism, but in the relativistic thinking that reduces our fundamental philosophical and ethical choices to mere consumer preferences. If you reject the need for a ‘truth claim’ that you believe is more true and more compelling than other truth claims, you have nothing to say and no grounds for saying it.

His point was that a Christian needs to be intellectually as well as culturally and pastorally sharp in addressing the real lives of young people in East Berlin. To neglect the seriousness of the philosophical/theological task is to vacate the space in which nasty cancers like neo-Nazism can fester and grow without coherent challenge. Simply mounting a demonstration to shout that ‘my preference is better than your preference’ is hopelessly inadequate and will achieve the opposite of what you hope to achieve.

NaziA coherent response to the neo-Nazi requires a clear understanding of and commitment to a view of the human person that is rooted in him having been created in the image of God (anthropology); in him being morally responsible in a way that regards some choices as more or less moral than others; in him assuming a view of society that involves mutual responsibilities; and in him committing himself to a way of life that sees power in a wooden cross and not in an Iron Cross.

This is challenging. In a liberal democracy the question might not be too urgent – yet. But in East Berlin this is the real challenge of today among young people who are given pride and certainty in political doctrines rooted in seriously dodgy anthropologies – but able to flourish in a society that has relativised its moral judgements to the level of ‘your choice is equally valid to mine and I can’t stand in judgement on your choices’. That way lies deep trouble – as Berlin discovered once before.

Berliner DomI have just launched myself into a series of five conferences (one ended today) which will keep me away until 2 October – though I hope to keep blogging. I leave early tomorrow morning for Rome and then Blackburn (!) followed by Kassel (Germany) – and end up preaching in Berlin Cathedral before returning for the final blast at Swanwick. Roll on October…

At the residential conference which ended today the recently-retired Bishop of Thetford, David Atkinson, shared his great wisdom with his usual quietly-spoken humility. While answering a question about the most pressing agenda for the Church of England at the moment, one of the things he identified was climate change. I have to confess that I am a bit worried about ‘climate fatigue’ setting in – there is so much being said and written about it that I think many people are beginning to glaze over instead of waking up. I hope I am wrong.

What woke me up was David asking: ‘Will we let future generations speak to us?’ In other words, will we have the imaginative courage to hear the blessings or cursings of our children’s and their children’s generations as they suffer the consequences of our refusal to change our costly lifestyle? Will we simply bequeathe to them a broken world with a broken climate because we are too greedy and selfish to hear their cry?

This struck me because it reminded me of a verse from the Old Testament book of Proverbs that says:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

An older version of this formed the title of a remarkable book I read years ago when studying German political history – particularly about the failure of the Church in relation to the Jews during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s: ‘Open thy mouth for the dumb.’ It is a potent demand.

Auschwitz gateThe prophetic challenge has always been that people who bear God’s name should see through God’s eyes and speak on behalf of those who have no voice. I have always simply assumed this could refer to those who have no voice in contemporary affairs – the poor and the marginalised. It had never occurred to me that it could be a challenge to listen to the voices of those as yet unborn who will one day – long after we have moved on – pay the price for our greed and complacency.

This also resonates with Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s understanding of the resurrection as the ‘proleptic invasion of the end in the present’. Big words, but a simple concept: the resurrection of Jesus by God is the ‘end’ being brought forward into ‘now’ and enabling us to live now in the light of the end. So, Christians live in the here-and-now in the light of having seen the promised end – resurrection. And this actually goes to the heart of Christian hope. For Christian hope is not wishful thinking and does not lie in an anticipated series of events taking place (all that ‘End Times’ nonsense from the USA). Rather, it lies in the person of God who raised Christ from the dead and thus invaded the now with his final word. We trust in God, not in heaven.

Now, I cite this bit of theology because there are those who think the climate change stuff needn’t bother us on the grounds that God will soon intervene and bring it all to a glorious end anyway. And it is precisely this sort of stupid theology that needs to be firmly knocked on the head.

earth_mainThe prophetic challenge mentioned earlier has always been dismissed by those who spiritualise themselves out of responsibility. But the simple equation cannot be avoided: our faith in God (as well as our theology) can only be seen in how we live now in the light of the future. And that means that our ethics now must be shaped by our imaginative and informed understanding of what future generations might be saying to us if only they could speak for themselves and if only we could hear them.