August so far has seen holiday, the birth of my first grandson and not a lot of blogging. A slip of the tongue on the Chris Evans Show (BBC Radio 2) last Monday had me claiming ten ‘weeks’ holiday instead of ten ‘days’. Time to get working again, I guess.

I have been musing recently on the debates and discussions provoked by Anne Rice’s recent well-publicised rejection of Christianity. Rice is OK with Jesus, but not with Christians. Not surprisingly, she has drawn a lot of sympathy – from within the churches as well as from the usual suspects outside. Follow-up articles have been interesting for exposing some of the thinking behind rejection of an institution whilst trying to hold on to the essence of the faith the institution claims to represent. Some of the thinking is interesting; some is surprisingly weak. Can you keep Christ and give up being a Christian? asks  Must Christian life involve religion? ponders Shirley Lancaster. Staying in the fold is tough, confesses Rebecca Jenkins. We must escape the institutions, argues Theo Hobson.

The first thing to say is that the reaction of Anne Rice to horrible Christians is understandable – as is the sympathy of those who wrestle with their own relationship to and involvement in the institutions of the church. All of us have to take our own responsibility for our belonging (with all that comes with it), departing or rejection of the church in any of its forms. Anyone with a conscience will find living within the church a delicate business: there will always be stuff that we or I think is wrong, misguided, wicked or unChristlike. And, inevitably, for some people I will be the object of their anger or suspicion, the one who is wrong, misguided, wicked or unChristlike.

What is interesting about the responses to Anne Rice’s decision is the emphasis respondents place on what I will summarise in two specific words: individual and spirituality. The suggestion seems to be that we can take Jesus seriously as an individual with a personal (private?) faith while staying outside of any corporate engagement (institution). Shirley Lancaster states that we really are only interested these days in doing the deep and personal spiritual ‘interior journey’ and then begs a series of obvious questions. This is what she says:

Every age has to redefine what is the essence of Christianity. Asking the question, can you follow Christ and give up being a Christian, strikes a chord with those of us who do take Christ seriously but don’t want to be branded with other people’s ideas of how a ‘Christian’ is defined: we earn a ticket to heaven if we are nice to everyone and don’t enjoy ourselves too much – the dull and life-denying being a prerogative of good Christian faith.

Really? Every age might have to rediscover the essence of Christianity, but ‘re-define’ it? According to which (or whose) criteria? Christianity cannot be self-defining in the same way Marxism cannot be self-defining. If I shape my notion of Marxism in ways that essentially negate the essence of Marxism, I haven’t re-defined it at all – I have abandoned it. Lancaster’s ‘ticket to heaven’ statement is a parody of Christian faith.

I am reminded of the Muslim who pleaded with us thirty years ago to judge Islam by the best of Muslim examples and not by the worst – just as Marxists wish to be judged by their best examples and not the worst parodies or excesses. Why do we so easily judge Christianity by the worst examples of hypocrisy and failure rather than by the best examples? (Shirley Lancaster later acknowledges these.)

However, Lancaster goes on to say:

The question being asked by many of those stepping back from organised religion is perhaps more radical. Is Christian life essentially a religion at all? Jesus was critical of formal religion that was only for show. St Paul’s passionate teaching, following his conversion, is centred on a personal relationship with Christ – we take on ‘the mind of Christ’ not a dress code or rule book. For centuries the Christian mystical tradition has mapped the interior journey as a way to uncover the ‘inward eye’ that Jesus insisted we need in order to perceive his truth.

Again, I am sympathetic to the charge until I begin to think about the assumptions behind it. Jesus was an observant Jew who engaged fully with ‘formal religion’. Not all formal religion is ‘for show’. St Paul’s teaching involves the ‘personal relationship with Christ’ and then spills huge amounts of ink working away at how the ‘personal’ is to be related to the ‘common’ (or ‘corporate’) life of the committed community. He knows no possibility of a privatised faith set loose from relationships in, with and through a community called ‘church’. (And Paul, rather embarrassingly for the argument, says quite alot about dress codes and rules.)

I guess I can sympathise with the emotion behind Shirley Lancaster’s statements, but she cannot base them on such an obviously flimsy foundation. Theo Hobson, in an interesting reflection on the matter, repeats his oft-made assertion that the institution is awful and should be abandoned whilst hanging on to the essence at its heart. Yet the same individualism and notion of self-defining spirituality are there again:

… Christianity is so overwhelmingly dominated by institutionalism that it is difficult to lay claim to a non-institutional Christian identity. There is no recognized position of “non-institutional Christian”. But there ought to be one – and Rice is in a position to start the ball rolling.

My question to Theo Hobson is one I have posed before. Christianity knows no possibility of institution-free existence, so what would it mean to be a ‘non-institutional Christian’? You’d have to leave out the ‘Christian’ bit because, as I observed above, it is not possible to read Jesus (or Paul) and conclude that it is possible to be a ‘spiritual’ Christian isolated from any obligation to others both within and without the church. You can only hold this position if you leave Jesus out of the picture – or re-shape him into someone more convenient to our individualistic preferences, but divorced from the character in the Gospels and emptied of anything he said.

I agree with Hobson about needing a “corrective to the tired assumptions of the God debate”. he makes an interesting point when he goes on to say:

Our whole discourse about religion is far too dominated by philosophical framing. Maybe we should learn to see religion as a special sort of artistic tradition. And maybe this is the way in which a non-institutional Christian identity can gain traction. Though images are central to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, they actually have a powerful anarchic energy: they quietly imply that the essence of religion lies here, in the magic of representation, and not in rules and priestcraft.

Yes, jesus taught in pictures and stories which, once given are lost. That is to say that (for example) Jesus never offered a three-line definition of ‘the Kingdom of God’ and then demand that we all sign up to it; rather, he said repeatedly, ‘the Kingdom of God is like…’ and told a story or described an image. Then he left it to his hearers to work it out, using imagination as well as reason based on experience. A risky way to teach, maybe, because the image might be re-described in a distorted way or misinterpreted – or the story might be mis-remembered, half-told, twisted at important points, and so on. So, I get Theo Hobson’s point about ‘anarchic energy’ (even if I think his language overstates the case).

But, what would his desired ‘non-institutional’ Christianity look like? Where are these people – apparently motivated by Jesus – organising at huge personal and corporate cost service to a local community? Or feeding the hungry in inner-urban parishes? Or advocating for rural communities where the children can no longer afford to live near their parents? Take the ‘institutional church’ out of our communities and see what you are left with. ‘Individual’ or ‘personal’ does not seem a million miles away from ‘selfish’ and ‘self-referential’.

The problem with this is as old as humanity itself. Dismantle an institution and you are not left ‘institution-free’, but with a new form of relating or belonging… a new ‘institution’. The individuals, if they are to take Jesus seriously and make some impact on a beautiful-yet-mucky world, will have to converse somehow, relate somehow, organise somehow, set up organisations somehow, finance them, and so on. And within ten seconds of starting this we will already be involved in politics, power play, competing priorities, and all the other ‘institutional’ stuff we all want to reject.

I am open to learn, but I need that question to be addressed first.

The Guardian has now closed responses to Theo Hobson’s Face to Faith article. He started a very interesting debate and I, for one, am grateful. Most responses were intelligent and respectful. I do not think that Theo’s responses do him justice, but he will have to tackle that himself. (I have posted earlier on this.)

However, one respondent (called bannercross) made three very good observations and I am pasting them below. (I hope that is acceptable – not sure of etiquette in these things.)

First, what do we mean by ‘liberal’? Simply going along with the world’s current consensus? Sure, that saves us embarrassment and conflict, but is hardly what Christians are called to. To take a recent example, one reason the bankers got away with so much for so long is that the whole of society was on a credit binge. As long as we felt better off, no-one wanted to question ‘greed is good’ – certainly not the average politician! If Christians had had more balls we’d have been translating our unease into prophetic warnings.

Secondly, didn’t most of the splintered denominations in Christianity start off trying to get away from the corrupt institution they thought the Church had become? And didnt most end up just as institutionalised, whether individual churches labelled ‘Free Evangelical where the atmosphere is anything but free, or whole groups like the Quakers who have a stronger sense of denominational identity and ‘what we do and dont do around here than the Anglicans! Do your ‘free liberal’ thing long enough and make it attractive enough and start your own denomination?

Thirdly, the church I just about hang in with has a huge mission to the marginalised – kids’ clubs in rough parts of the city, soup runs, work with kids dropping out of education, advice on debt, a fellowship that gets the homeless back off the streets and learning skills – I could go on. The point is not to say ‘what a marvellous institution we are’. The point is that working with the vulnerable cant be done on a Generation X ‘turn up when you feel like it basis. These folks have been let down repeatedly; they need to know that people will be there each week for them. This requires organisation, time, money – and a wider community into which they can be welcomed. I may not like many aspects of ‘church but Im struggling to find a better model for organising followers of Jesus to manage this. And as far as I can see from Jesus’ own track record, if were not there for the poor and oppressed we may as well all go home!

It is his/her third point that is most powerful. Take away the ‘institutional’ elements of the Church and you lose a lot more than you gain. For example, the ability to organise effectively for being present and engaged in places and communities that would otherwise be abandoned. Self-selecting ‘alternative churches’ run the risk of meeting the needs of those who belong, but ignoring the needs of those who are challenging. Narcissism is not a Christian virtue.

There are some really interesting comments following Theo Hobson’s Face to Faith article in the Guardian. My response to his response to me can be seen here.

There is a serious problem here in relation to ‘church schools’ which are not the same as ‘faith schools’. Put briefly, a church school offers a Christian context in which children and staff can learn together, but it does not intend to ‘indoctrinate’. Based on a concept of service, it is part of the Church of England’s commitment to the common good in society, rooted in the ethos of the parish system. It is often forgotten that education in this country was often promoted by the Church of England in some of our poorest communities for very good reason.

I might do another post on the ethos and values of a church school another time. But it would help in the meantime if antagonists read some history and tried not to misrepresent phenomena they find ideologically inconvenient.

theohobsonpicture-full3binit_Theo Hobson has an interesting piece in today’s Guardian newspaper. I have met Theo only once – doing a joint interview with the Today programme at the beginning of the Lambeth Conference in July 2008 – and I liked him. I have read some of his writing, but wondered at him being profiled as a ‘theologian’. He comments on religious (particularly Christian) culture, but the theological critique does not seem always to be consistent. Given his claim to liberalism, I am sure he won’t mind me questioning a series of statements he makes in today’s Face to Faith piece.

Right at the beginning, and without any supporting evidence or illustration, he makes this unequivocal statement: ‘…churches seem to gravitate to authoritarianism, and they seem unable to grasp that secular liberalism is a good thing.’ Does ‘authoritarianism’ mean ‘the wrongful imposition of authority/power in order to control’ – or does it really mean ‘churches believe things that are not always fluid and won’t change them to suit me’? Secondly, what is it about ‘secular liberalism’ (undefined) that is unarguably ‘good’ and that churches cannot grasp? Thirdly, does he not see the illiberal irony of categorising all churches as monolithic, centralised and monocultural? And we are still only on the third sentence of the first paragraph. So, let’s press on…

‘We dislike the fact that Christianity is assumed to take institutional form. If you are a Christian, the assumption is, then you will be in favour of policies that defend the interests of these institutions, the churches, which run Christian culture. This ties Christianity to illiberalism in a way we can’t accept.’ Theo, please explain the logic behind these assumptions. It seems to me it is you (not ‘the churches’ as institutions) who is setting up the churches in a way I don’t recognise as being universally true. Just take the Church of England (as just one of, and uniquely different from, thousands of other manifestations of Christian ‘institution’): aren’t the current debates in the Church happening precisely because your statement is false and your assumptions awry? If you were right, the ‘institutional church’ would have slapped down its internal ‘heretics’ and prevented other denominations or ‘churches’ from setting themselves up in the first place. (In South London new churches – mainly, but not exclusively, black majority or ethnically defined – are being established almost every week.)

And please explain how a ‘Christian church’ can define itself in a way it pleases, even if it departs from the nature of the one whose name it bears. The call for a ‘church made in my own image’ is like asking for Marxism without the dictatorship of the proletariat, the common ownership of the means of production or an uncritical acceptance of the Hegelian dialectic.

The then goes on to cite ‘faith schools’ to support his complaint. But he can only do so by caricaturing ‘faith schools’, ignoring the rationale behind them, avoiding any cognisance of how (for example) Church of England schools behave and actually understand their role. Has he ever been into one? (Come to Croydon and I’ll arrange meetings with headteachers…) Or is this just the simplistic reflex we have become used to in the schools debate where the basis of ‘church’ schools is either misunderstood or ignored because it is inconvenient?  ‘But some of us Christians are deeply uneasy about the way in which churches use education to bolster their power, and encourage phoney church attendance among pushy parents. This is horribly at odds with the sort of Christian culture we want to see.’ Not a shred of evidence: just propagation of a tired but unassailable myth.

‘The loudest voices, almost the only voices, seem to belong to atheists on one hand, and conservative church leaders on the other… People now face a starker choice of identity between “secular liberal” and “institutional Christian”. Really? So, why all the complaints from elsewhere that church spokespeople are too liberal or wishy-washy? It is clearly nonsense to say that only particular voices are heard in the public discourse – perhaps this is just the common complaint most bishops face: ‘If you didn’t write it in headlines in the newspaper I read, then you are not saying anything at all.’

Theo goes on to ‘demand’ (!) a new and alternative sort of ‘church’ capable of engaging with liberal culture. He maintains that the established (and other) churches cannot do this. Claiming (without evidence or support) that ‘all churches itch for social control’, he states that ‘a new sort of Christian culture must be attempted, away from the churches’ before admitting that he has no idea what this might look like. He also seems ignorant of the huge numbers of Christian communities now meeting outside of church buildings and opening up contexts in which Christians of all sorts of complexions engage openly with ‘liberal’ (and every other sort of) culture.

And so to Theo’s conclusion – a rallying cry to those who share his muddled ignorance and personal fed-up-ness.  ‘What do we want? We demand a new way of proclaiming Jesus Christ, one that feels authentic, contemporary. We hope that, by accepting the truth of secular freedom, Christianity can enter a new phase, in which communication with liberal people is possible, and new cultural forms emerge. Maybe, with such a new direction, this religion can recapture the imagination of the culture.’ I am speechless. Get out more and see what churches are already doing.

I hope that this article might lead to a greater debate – not about ‘institutional’ churches (what other sort can there be?), but about why the Theo Hobsons of this world are so illiberal and irrational in the assumptions they make and claims they state.

If I as a bishop made such claims – even in a newspaper article of limited length and space – without evidence or further reference – I would be castigated as arrogant, unthinking and arbitrary. So, what is it that allows others to write such unsubstantiated stuff without hearing that same charge?