Being out and about in parishes, deaneries, meetings with individual clergy and meeting with meetings, there isn’t much headspace or time for thinking or blogging.

So, being pointed to something that promises to be interesting and stimulating always helps.

Following last year’s BBC Radio 4 A History of the World in 100 Objects, there is now a project in Oxford called A History of Christianity in 15 Objects. I guess the discrepancy in the numbers is relevant only insofar as it reflects the respective budgets and commitment of employees to the task. The series is being run by a parish church (and just how imaginative is that?) in association with the Faculty of Theology at Oxford University. The series takes place on a Monday night and runs for the current academic year. All the talks are being streamed live, and there’s a shorter podcast version available too. There are some impressive speakers, too.

There is a short audio introduction here.

I was listening to Bruce Cockburn in the car while on my way to visit one of my clergy this morning. The first track on his last album, Small Source of Comfort, is called ‘The Iris of the World’ and one verse calls into question the ability of certain people to ‘get the disconnect’ between perception and reality.

I had just been musing on two pieces of news: (a) the refusal of some prominent atheists to debate publicly with William Lane Craig – not on personalities or assertions, but arguments and evidence, and (b) the furore over the mere suggestion that people considering abortions should be offered counselling before they go ahead with the termination. It reminded me of the response to the most detailed research into the nature of childhood – the Good Childhood report by the Children’s Society – when many commentators, unable to criticise the research, decided that the conclusions were inconvenient to their chosen values, choices or lifestyle and, therefore, rejected them.

The common denominator here is a prevalence in our society to start with conclusions and then try to find evidence to support them. In the absence of evidence, assertion will suffice. The problem here is that those doing the asserting are also the same people who constantly demand from everybody else ‘rational evidence’ for their position.

Take the first issue first. An fellow Oxford atheist philosopher, Dr Daniel Came, has written to Richard Dawkins accusing him of cowardice for refusing to debate with Professor William Lane Craig. Dawkins is not alone: Polly Toynbee and AC Grayling have also declined to debate and it is hard not to conclude that this unwillingness is born of fear rather than rationality. I am still waiting for a response to David Bentley Hart’s The Atheist Delusions and the substantive philosophical and historical refutation of the lazy and unargued-for assertions of the so-called New Atheists he offers. Is it fear that the evidence won’t back up the assertions that puts them off? If not, then what?

David Bentley Hart’s argument – backed up with copious historical analysis and evidence – is essentially that the pre-Christian world actually saw human life as expendable and cheap. What he terms ‘the Christian revolution’ brought about a ‘universal’ valuing of human life, of mercy and justice that did not hold sway beforehand. He then questions whether, in the post-Christendom world, the assumption of universal human niceness can honestly be held if the Christian worldview and associated praxis are removed. In other words, who says that the ‘neutral’ or natural default of human beings is to be nice to each other, to love justice and mercy, to protect the weak and vulnerable, etc? History would seem to demonstrate that such an assumption can not only not be taken for granted, but is actually called into question by the evidence.

Now, this comes to mind because we now live in a culture in which many people think it is OK to have abortion on demand as a sort of right (or routine method of birth control) and for life to be ended where there appears to be any suffering. In other words, we live in a culture which appears to wish to make decisions about the ethics of living and dying in isolation from a common understanding of the worldviews underlying such a position, or the implications of adopting it. Such discussion needs to go deeper and longer than a simple case-by-case judgement on the sentiments and sensibilities of personal circumstances as we go along.

I am not and have never been opposed to abortion per se. But, when you step back a bit and ask what our culture is shaping and on what philosophical basis the moves are being made, there must be cause for genuine concern. Abortion is not trivial; it is not like taking an aspirin for a headache.

That’s why I am wondering: why the outcry about the suggestion that people be asked to think before opting for an abortion? What’s the problem? Yes, there is a massive pastoral issue in supporting people – whatever decision they ultimately make. Yes, there are circumstances where such decisions are enormously complicated. Yes, the ethical responsibilities are not always clear. But, so are the deeper cultural questions that relate to what sort of a culture we are both losing and creating. Even if we don’t agree with the rationale behind the current proposals, that doesn’t let us off the hook of asking the question.

There is a question here for anyone interested in how cultures are shaped and what makes civilisations come and go. I am compelled to agree with David Bentley Hart – with his excoriating judgement on the post-Enlightenment twentieth century state’s proclivity for enormous and technologically organised violence – that we are in danger of glancing along the surface of time, making ad hoc decisions about life and death, but in the absence of any ‘deep’ analysis or rational thought about essential values. It cannot be taken for granted that, left alone and de-religionised (or de-christianised), human beings will ‘naturally’ tend towards goodness, kindness and mercy. Christianity was, in one sense, a response to the evidenced absence of such a corporate nature.

So, what is the philosophical case for assuming that we can do what we want to do simply because we can? And who is to decide what is, or is not, acceptable? And to whom?

I leave the country for less than 48 hours and interesting things happen back home. Coincidence?

I was in Germany to speak at the launch of a new initiative by the EKD aimed at getting clergy and their churches to make use of resources for reminding people of or nurturing them in the Christian faith. As here in England (and probably everywhere else), many people reject Christian faith when they are younger, but then never bring to it the questions an adult ought to have. Thus the faith of a child is still being rejected by an adult whose questioning might not have grown up with him or her.

In my parish experience this was often the case. Parents would ask about baptism for their child and, during a pastoral visit, would say that they don’t necesssarily know what it was they had left behind. Baptism preparation (lay-led and over three or four meetings in their own home) gave them the opportunity to look at Christian faith as an adult.

That is what Kurse zum Glauben is aimed at doing in Germany. The launch in Osnabrück was excellent, creative and involved lunchtime cabaret as well as a fantastic (Gospel) choir and food. I was the keynote speaker and still managed to get Liverpool and Bradford as well as Croydon into the occasion.

And while I was away? Andy Coulson resigned as David Cameron’s Director of Communications – something that was inevitable in the light of the phone-hacking haunting of his old employer. What I never understood about Coulson’s defence of his role in the News of the World phone hacking scandal was his contention that he knew nothing of what was going on. If that was so, he was an incompetent editor, boss and manager (which begs the question about why Cameron hired him); if not, then he was being economical with the truth. The truth is, he has done an excellent job for Cameron and will surely be missed – just as Ed Balls comes in (for Alan Johnson) to harrass George Osborne and a tough Communications Director is needed by the Tories.

The second thing that happened while I was away extolling the value and virtue of Kurse zum Glauben? Liverpool beat Wolves 3:0 away from home and Kenny Dalglish was spotted laughing. Mind you, Torres looked happy and the gloom over Liverpool appeared to thin out a little. Glorious. But there’s a long way to go from here.

Anyway, back to Croydon to continue the ‘ending’ while trying to get my head into what lies ahead in Bradford when we move north in April. It’s all giving me a headache and taking away the creative impetus for writing this blog. I’ll try to get more space soon.

The world was clearly shocked recently to hear that Lauren Booth, sister of Cherie (wife of Tony Blair) has become a Muslim. The news unleashed a storm of criticism and abuse on Booth.

Or did it? And from whom?

My guess is that most of the world read it and moved on to the sport pages. The people who got stroppy about it were simply the usual suspects who spotted a good source of a few more ranty words for their newspaper columns… and a pile of vituperative islamophobes who are characterised by their staggering ignorance and sheer nastiness. There are two elements of the story that I find interesting: (a) media coverage of it, and (b) the reasons for Booth’s conversion.

In today’s Mail on Sunday Lauren Booth gives her side of the story. Credit to the Mail for giving her the space, but it is set amidst the usual xenophobic content we have come to expect. The headline speaks volumes: ‘Why I love Islam: Lauren Booth defiantly explains why she is becoming a Muslim’. I defy you to read what Booth actually writes and call it ‘defiant’. ‘Defiant’ suggests stubbornness, arrogance or deliberate contrariness; yet, she writes calmly, clearly and honestly to explain why she has converted. She doesn’t pretend to know more than she does and she doesn’t overstate her case.

However, she does give an account of how prejudiced she (and other Western) hacks can be when reporting or commenting on Islamic matters. Try this, for instance:

But it makes more sense to go back to January 2005, when I arrived alone in the West Bank to cover the elections there for The Mail on Sunday. It is safe to say that before that visit I had never spent any time with Arabs, or Muslims. The whole experience was a shock, but not for the reasons I might have expected. So much of what we know about this part of the world and the people who follow Mohammed the Prophet is based on ­disturbing – some would say biased – news bulletins. So, as I flew towards the Middle East, my mind was full of the usual 10pm buzz­words: radical extremists, fanatics, forced marriages, suicide bombers and jihad. Not much of a travel brochure. My very first experience, though, could hardly have been more positive…

You’ll have to read the article to see the experience of generous hospitality that impressed her. And it is this that provides the most interesting element of the story.

The factors in her conversion were: (a) unexpected generosity from a stranger; (b) experience of hospitality and community; (c) an intense spiritual experience. Interestingly, she is only now learning to read the Qur’an and understand the faith that has grasped her. Didn’t someone once speak of ‘faith seeking understanding’? And someone else of ‘believing before belonging’? The message is meaningless without a community in which to see it lived.

Now, some of the usual suspects are going to take her admitted ‘life crises’ (current divorce, move of home from France to England, emotional vulnerability and questions of existential identity) and smugly conclude that she has simply found a crutch with which to limp unthinkingly through life. Let them – they’re becoming tedious. But consider the challenge her experience offers to the fragmented society the Mail bitterly complains about (and promotes?) -  a culture dominated by loneliness, idolatry of celebrity, xenophobia and judgmentalism.

Christians find that conversion rarely begins with intellectual conviction, but, rather, with experience of God (spirituality), community (people who love you and care for you regardless of who you are or where you come from) and generosity (self-giving in expectation of no reward or reciprocity). I am sad that Lauren Booth has not found a Christian community that provides this – which is decidedly not the same as saying that such is not to be found.

I can point you to hundreds of Christian churches of all complexions where people have become followers of Jesus (and reflectors of the Jesus we read about in the Gospels) because of their experience of loving, giving, sacrificial and celebratory communities of faithful Christ-ians.

Just as Islam is fragmented and contains a spectrum of ‘believers’ – from the mad to the wonderfully wonderful – so is Christianity. Just as I want Christianity to be judged by the best examples of Christian expression and community, so I want the same for Muslims. I wonder if the Mail plans to give any thought to, consideration of or coverage of good Christian stories that speak for themselves – or are Christians only useful if they are pitted against ‘the others’. Certainly, to depict Christians as white, Anglo-Saxon victims of persecution in the UK is ridiculous… but it sells well.

This evening we had a reception for those being ordained as Deacons and Priests in the Diocese of Southwark next Sunday, 4 June. They are a mixed bunch of people – evidence that God doesn’t call clones and honours the flawed humanity we bring to the party. As I left I wondered what the future will hold for these people who have given up much in order to respond the call of God on their lives. Where will they be (and what will they be like) in ten or twenty years from now?

No idea. Not a clue. I have given up trying to imagine people’s future trajectories – experience has taught me to be open to surprise. But it has also taught me to be open to hope. I was reminded of Jürgen Moltmann‘s wisdom:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

These people soon to be ordained will need to discover (if they haven’t done already) the need for hope to be a wide space and not narrowed down by their own prejudices or theological/ideological straitjackets. Experience (as well as our reading of the Bible) tells us that God will not be pinned down to suit our own comforts; we must beware of trying to shape God in our own image.

Tomorrow I will be leading a Quiet Day for clergy at Worth Abbey and will be basing my addresses on the story of Jonah from the Old Testament. Many people think it is a kiddy’s story about a weird bloke being sicked out of a whale’s stomach; it isn’t. It is about a man discovering (but not very well or willingly) that God’s love and mercy cannot be limited by our own limitations or desire for God only to behave well to the people of whom we happen to approve. God has a habit of never sticking to our moral formulae – which can sometimes be embarrassing.

I recently read the book about Anglicanism and the future, called The Hope of Things to Come. Like most edited books, it is a mixed bag. The first two chapters by Dr Charlotte Methuen are very interesting, but spoiled by lack of proofreading by an editor: there are loads of typos and words transposed. But, these chapters and the book as a whole repay careful consideration as they address a generally Christian and specifically Anglican approach to tradition and change in both world and church. Charlotte Methuen quotes Sir Thomas More (1478-1535):

Tradition is not holding onto the ashes but passing on the flame.

However, the flame of hope – indeed, of confidence – can only be passed on if it has first been received and held. And that confidence has to be rooted not in a particular tradition, but in the person of the God whose character and activity the tradition is supposed to be about.

My own hope for these ordinands is that their experience of the church will blow oxygen onto the flame and make it dance… and not let the flame die out in order to preserve and honour the wick. I hope they will play like Brazil against Chile (full of flair, creativity, enjoyment and imagination) and not like England against Germany (er… you know what I mean…).

The job of the bishop is to fan the flames, keep the fire burning, feed the embers when they are in danger of dying. In the words of the great Bruce Cockburn song/prayer (sort of):

Love that fires the sun keep them burning.

It would be hard not to draw attention to the unsurprising but embarrassing outcome of the YouGov poll commissioned by the Exploring Islam Foundation. Apparently, 58% of respondents linked Islam with extremism while 69% believed it encouraged the repression of women. 40% disagreed that Muslims had a positive impact on British society.

Not really suprising, though. Islam is represented negatively in the media and with an ignorance that would be deemed embarrasing in any other discipline. See Bishop Alan Wilson’s blog today for just one example – and it doesn’t even come from the nightmare Daily Mail. Alan remind sus of the ninth Commandment:

You will not bear false witness against (lie about/misrepresent) your neighbour…

However, this is simply a symptom of a wider religious illiteracy in our society… and perpetuated in the media (with some exceptions). Perhaps it isn’t coincidental that yesterday saw a further report of the ineffectiveness of some Religious Education teaching in British schools. According to this research, the problem lies with teachers who don’t understand Christianity in particular and can (for example) tell the Nativity story, but can’t say what it means.

The response in some quarters was predictable. For them the problem lies with the requirement to teach anything religious in the first place. But, that misses the point completely. This is not about believing or defending the content of any particular faith (which would demand commitment of some sort), but, at the very least, understanding it.

This harks back to a long discussion last year about the (then) Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s argument that people need to understand the Bible if they are to stand any chance of understanding art, literature or music. He was not saying that people have to believe it or live by it, but simply to be familiar with it and understand something of it.

The same goes for religion in general. Whether the secularists or so-called New Atheists (they are hardly new…) like it or not, religion is a phenomenon without which politics, economics and culture cannot be understood.

  • If, as they attest, religion is purely dangerous fantasy, then it needs to be understood if only to be countered.
  • If, as they attest, religion is a loaded worldview whose followers sit somewhere up the loony scale (away from their assumed ‘neutral’ space), then it is all the more vital that it be explored in order to be rubbished intelligently.

It is shocking to encounter some of the popular ignorance in the media and government. All religious groups are lumped into a single misleading category called ‘faith’ and seen as a minority interest for inadequates. Ignorance of finance, business economics, etc on such a scale would not be tolerated and would be a source of some shame. But, when it comes to religion in general – and Christianity in particular – the usual informed, intelligent and curious mind turns to incomprehending blancmange.

I don’t believe for one moment that Hindus have got it right, but I do need to understand Hinduism if I am to understand the politics, culture and societal shapes of countries where Hinduism shapes not only what a large number of people believe, but also how they live, vote, fight, etc.

Islam needs to be taught with integrity (as seen through the eyes of a good Muslim). Christianity needs to be taught with integrity (as seen through the eyes of a good Christian). And the truth claims of these faiths need to be taught – not as commanding inevitable allegiance, of course, but in order that people know (a) what they are dealing with and (b) how such believers are to be understood.

This is an appeal for intelligent and informed understanding – prior to any thought of commitment. The appeal to commitment is the job of the church – those Christians who can do no other than commend and defend their faith. The church has to be evangelistic; schools should be informative. And the media should pay attention to reporting religion accurately and intelligently – unlike the examples given by Alan Wilson and a myriad of others across recent years.

During an interview last Saturday one of the candidates quoted someone as saying

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Unfortunately, we should care (deeply) how much we all know – shoddy understanding, reporting or commentary simply means we don’t care a toss about those with whom we are trying to communicate.

Which is also why I keep urging my clergy and churches to renew their commitment to learning, understanding and growing in confidence in the content of the Bible and Christian faith… which we don’t usually learn by means of (what I like to call) liturgical osmosis.

Well, it’s actually more rocky than bluesy. But while listening to the three main party leaders repeating their mantras last night I recalled Bruce Cockburn’s song from the 1998 album Big Circumstance, ‘Shipwrecked at the Stable Door’. The chorus goes like this:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom that the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love and those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth may their gene pool increase
I just thought it is a good lyric to have floating over the sound of electoral rhetoric.

I’m a bit rushed, but Bishop Alan Wilson (the original and best blogging bishop) has posted some excellent stuff in the last week or so. I just want to link them so they get a (hopefully) wider audience:

On Good Friday as well as quoting a poem he posed some questions about how we think of the Jesus who was crucified.

On Saturday he reviewed Philip Pullman’s new book under the title The Goodman Philip and the Scoundrel Pullman? In this post he takes seriously Pullman’s challenge to the institutional Church, but refuses to let the writer get away with easy correlations – commenting up as follows:

This is, culturally, a rather “C of E” style of ecclesiology. The Church is anything but perfect, but always in need of necessary reformation. This comes from its interaction with the society it serves, not some infallible magisterium. Its teaching is found to be authoritative insofar as it is authentic and recognizably transmits the story and values of Jesus as fully as possible. The Church is authentic insofar as it allows its every activity to be judged by the Carpenter of Nazareth. Infallibilism, along with other fundamentalisms, neutralizes this discipline to vanishing point, weakens accountability, and thus becomes compelling but dangerous fantasy — a mere playing at Church-by-numbers.

Then on Monday he posted a wonderful reflection on what needs to be termed ‘Dead Horse Theology‘ – bringing together questions about the institution of the Church in the light of Easter and the real Jesus for whom Pullman is waving a flag.

Today he has gone further and quoted chunks of the conversation on Start the Week between Pullman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, David Baddiel and Mona Siddiqui. Holding it up as a great example of intelligent discussion, he picks up the particular question of how the Jesus of the ‘Story’ can survive the ‘institution’ – precisely the point Pullman is questioning in his new book. He concludes:

The measure of its success is not that it swells into a mighty institutional empire, but that it is still possible, even after all the refractive and corrupting influence of the human beings who make up the transmission chain, to distinguish Jesus’ message from its original context, and to attempt to live it in another. The story continues to judge the medium through which it is transmitted. This is the key insight of the Reformation, and the essence a Reformed Catholic Church, to hold that the Church is always accountable to the Word and its original founder.

I make no further comment other than to commend these posts for your perusal.

There seems to be no end to the hyperbole about Christians in this country being ‘persecuted’. I pointed the other day to George Pitcher’s demolition of the notion and felt better for it. Then I keep reading newspapers, emails and letters repeating the same old hysterical claim. Am I wrong to think that

  • being told not to wear jewellery (however stupid a thing to order) is not ‘persecution’.
  • being given a verbal hard time because of your faith is not ‘persecution’.
  • having to negotiate a place for a Christian voice amid the cacophany of other ‘voices’ in the marketplace is not ‘persecution’.
  • being asked to justify our views and practices is not ‘persecution’.

Today (Maundy Thursday) Christians remember Jesus re-signifying the Exodus (from real persecution) and opening himself up to betrayal, denial and unjust execution. Now, that begins to sound more like ‘persecution’; but even Jesus himself didn’t complain about that. Tomorrow (Good Friday) we remember that blood got shed and a body got broken – and we note that in some parts of the world Christians are really getting their bodies broken and their blood spilled on account of their faith: that sounds like ‘persecution’.

Isn’t it odd  how these things are seen from the outside? In a mixed-bag of a book called Christ and Culture (Canterbury Studies in Anglicanism), one striking contribution comes from the pen of the The Rt Revd Saw John Wilme, Bishop of Taungoo in the Church of the Province of Myanmar (Burma). He describes what it is like to be the church in a country dominated by Buddhists in which there are restrictions on how Christians can proclaim their faith and do evangelism. He describes well the multifaith context and explains how the Christians fulfil their vocation in mission. Then he says this:

However, I was surprised to hear from foreigners that some believe we Christians of the Church in Myanmar are ‘persecuted’, because we truly are not. While we have suffered occasional discrimination and harassment because of our faith, we do officially enjoy freedom of worship.

Now, that is getting things in perspective. Tom Wright, in his contribution on ‘living under Scripture’, makes the point that cheap ‘victim’ language simply exposes how we have been shaped by the very culture we now claim is hurting us. In relation to relativism (not persecution) he describes “a world where the only apparent moral argument is the volume of the victim’s scream” and goes on to observe:

Genuine screams of genuine victims matter enormously, of course, and are all taken up into the cry of dereliction from the cross. But they are to be addressed, not with more screams, still less competing ones, but with healing, biblical wisdom.

He was addressing a different matter, but his expression is equally applicable here where hierarchies of victimhood are invoked and language gets cheapened.

If being subject to muddled bureaucratic and religiously-illiterate edicts from public authorities counts as ‘persecution’, then what word do we reserve for Anglicans in Harare, Christians in parts of Pakistan or the Congo – or all the other victims of brutality, injustice and innocent suffering?

Russia is reeling from the suicide bombings in Moscow, bringing back awful memories of the attacks on London on 7 July 2005. This puts into fresh perspective some of the other nonsense going on in the world and claiming our attention. Interesting to see that tonight’s online Pravda puts this story alongside the problems going on in Gaza and Obama’s nightime visit to Afghanistan. The juxtaposition itself is interesting, but it also says that the local has to be understood in the context of the global – however powerful the local story, it isn’t the only important one. And no mention (at least that I could see) of the ‘chancellors debate’ on UK telly this evening…

I wonder if such debates do anything to change people’s minds ahead of an election. Or is it just another beauty parade in which the ‘star quality’ outweighs argument? I wonder if people listen to the arguments or take their steer from the interpretations offered by the observers online, in broadcast media or in newspapers.

What I did find interesting today was Charles Moore’s review in the Daily Telegraph of Peter Hitchens’ new book about God and his brother (Christopher). In The Rage Against God he takes issue with his brother’s loud atheism and particularly the assumption that to be religious you must be stupid – a mistake made by many of the new atheists. I just thought Moore’s piece was measured, wise and interesting – which is why I thought it welcomed a discussion that generated light rather than heat. Take this, for example:

Surely any dispassionate observation would suggest that utterly brilliant people can be believers, as they can be agnostics or atheists. The Church has not proved the most durable of all the institutions in the history of the world by being stupid. But it is also a key part of Christian understanding that truth is not necessarily discerned by an intellectual elite alone. Christianity’s radical and paradoxical message is that weakness is strength, poverty is wealth, giving is receiving, dying brings life. In the story of the Passion, commemorated this week, the most intelligent person, apart from Jesus himself, is Pontius Pilate. His brain power does not lead him to make the right decisions.

Peter Hitchens’s case is that militant atheists dimly sense this truth, and this is what makes them so angry. If God does not exist, after all, why the rage against him? God’s really unforgivable characteristic is that he is alive and well and quite impervious to the assaults even of people as brilliant as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

Nuff said.

(But, as I read after posting this, read George Pitcher for more light on a ‘cross’ issue.)

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