Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)

 

Having read Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I then read Tom Wright's Virtue Reborn yesterday and Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith today. Given that I might now move on to Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian next, I thought I would draw just a few threads briefly here. (This is not to inform the wider world, who probably know all this stuff anyway, but in order that I have a record not only of what I am reading, but also of the trains of thought that the reading set off in my not-very-sharp mind. I do, of course, realise that these writers might find my brief comments do not begin to do justice to their writings.)

Ethics can never be merely theoretical. Bonhoeffer wrestled with what it means to be human, good and Christian in the face of a massive personal dilemma: whether it was legitimate to kill Adolf Hitler. Tom Wright wants to get us away from a preoccupation with rules and back on to paying attention to the development of character – the purpose and end of virtue. Miroslav Volf explores the place of faith in the contemporary, pluralist world and echoes the emphasis of Wright that a developed Christian character would be unafraid of the modern world and be open to all that the world offers.

Try these brief quotes:

The practice and habit of virtue … is all about learning in advance the language of God's new world. (Wright, p.62)

Virtuous character matters more than moral knowledge… Faith idles when character shrivels. (Volf, p.13)

And, a propos of my last couple of posts about current work/welfare/politics/economics debates:

Is the purpose for which I work sufficient to sustain me over time not just as an 'economic animal', but as a human being? (Volf, p.32)

Despite addressing themselves to different specific ends – Schlingensiepen to explain Bonhoeffer's ethical thinking and development in the context of his particular experience, Wright to rescue ethics from mere rules and urge concentration by Christians on the development of Christian character, and Volf to set out how Christians should live faithfully in a pluralist world – all three writers agree that Christians have no alternative but (a) to love God and neighbour, (b) to develop Christian nature by attention over a lifetime to a world-loving discipleship, and (c) to take seriously the common good of all. All further agree that doing this is costly.

The other thing that might hold them together is, perhaps strangely, a notion of 'hope' that calls us from the future (Wolfhart Pannenberg is interesting on this, as is Jürgen Moltmann) and calls us into the future. Volf's observation is probably apt:

Western churches have a past they like to boast about, but a future they seem to dread. (p.77)

All three would seem to say that Christians, truly set free from fear and drawn by hope, have nothing to dread – whatever the future holds and however the world works, we find our true humanity in Christ, and this frees us to love regardless of whether that love is received and regardless of the cost.

 

Reading about the American Civil War, Leonard Cohen and the corruption of civilisation in Hitler's Final Solution – a corruption that enabled 'ordinary men' to do inhuman things to other people – might not sound like happy holiday reading. But, it is good holiday reading and, given the space to think and not just move on to the next appointment, it brings into focus the themes addressed by Tom Wright in his newly-published 'Creation, Power and Truth'… which I have just read today.

Wright's thesis is that, if “postmodernity has been a necessary protest against modernist arrogance,… it has not provided us with an alternative worldview capable of sustaining a new way of being human in our late-modern Western world” (p.72). Earlier he suggests that “postmodernity seems within the providence of God to have the role of preaching the doctrine of the Fall to arrogant modernity” (p.68).

You have to read these lectures in order to get his essential drift, but he articulates something that haunts the other books I have been reading. Perhaps it is something like this: we have successfully removed concepts such as 'evil' from our worldview (apart from when we need to express horror at people-not-like-us such as paedophiles), then found ourselves unable to address the world as it is in anything like sustainable moral terms.

The Americans fought over many things in the Civil War, but two of them were (a) visions of how the individual relates to the state (and one state to another) and (b) whether some people are more human – or to be defined in terms other than economic value – than others (black slaves, for example). The myth of progress that was supposed to have lain bleeding in the trenches of Europe after the 'war to end all wars' survived, in the absence of any alternative narrative, and fed the technological and bureaucratic machine that created the extermination camps of the Nazis.

If postmodern reality is proving disappointing – particularly in not offering a moral vocabulary that carries any weight other than that of (what I might call) pragmatic convenience, then where might we look for a new narrative? Tom Wright invites us to look back in order to look forward – to the narrative of createdness (and all that this assumes), the freedom to “speak truth to power” (especially the power of the 'empire'), and the creative confidence to live in communities of active love that offer the world a different way.

Those who have already written off the Christian narrative – often by prejudice and/or without examining it – will not be convinced that Christianity has anything to say about anything, especially politics. Notwithstanding this, and the aggression with which this bizarre (and irrational) rejection is often articulated, Christians must develop the confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ which, as Pontius Pilate discovered in his personal encounter with him, is rooted in a fundamental affirmation of creation and the real world, a freedom and courage to question and confront the empire (the powers that be), and to inhabit the life-giving truth about human nature and the future of the world.

Otherwise, we must ask on what basis we bring to bear any moral judgement on the ubiquitous experiences of systematic cruelty, the dehumanising of 'the other', or the abuse of truth in the pursuit of power.

(And now I am moving on to Abraham Lincoln…)

 

Here in Hannover the talk is all about change. The conference Kirchehochzwei not only has nearly 1200 people attending today and tomorrow, but also is a feat of imaginative organisation. I seem to do a lot of stuff in Germany, but this one has been hugely challenging, stimulating and educative.

The great thing about being out of one's own culture is that you get to look through the lens of another – and then look differently at your own. Perspective changes and new insights are gained – a bit like changing the camera angle or lighting on a film or stage set.

The conference is aimed at opening up German Christians' thinking about how to address necessary change in how the church shapes itself in a changing world. Learning from some of the Fresh Expressions experiences in England, they now want to work out what this might look like in a German context that is simultaneously both similar and very different. Yesterday I saw three superb presentations about initiatives in Austria, Aachen and Erfurt: two of these were Roman Catholic. And that into to the really interesting thing about the nature of the conference itself: it is put on by both the Evangelical (Protestant) and Roman Catholic Churches in Niedersachsen, sponsored by both the bishops.

What is interesting about this is that the ecumenical nature of the event both raises and lowers the guard as critical questions are asked from every possible direction in the exploration of how the 'church' is to change and what changes are legitimate. In my various inputs I have been stressing the importance of 'order' in new forms of church – a bit like the clarity and creativity made possible by painting white lines on a tennis court, without which no game is possible, no creative play is feasible and all you can do is bang a ball around.

Plenary sessions this morning gave way this afternoon to workshops and seminars – hundreds of them. It is amazing to watch it happen. I had been asked to attend a theological workshop on so-called 'liquid church' at which Thomas Söding, a Roman Catholic academic New Testament scholar, presented a brilliant paper in which he took three images from the New Testament of crises in boats. The opening paragraph of his notes (my quick translation) says:

The New Testament is not a model kit for the ship that is the church; rather, it is a log book that establishes the story of its early journeys, a fuel station which fills and empowers it, and a GPS satnav by which it can navigate.

The concluding observations in his notes state:

[This conference] is St Peter's little ship on a great journey. Without a general overhaul and a new crew it will go down like the Titanic. But which renovations are needed and which crew selection is the right one, if the ship is not to sail under the wrong flag and is safely to reach its destination with its freight intact, is the master question.

Not a bad question to pose at the end of the week in which Pope Benedict announced his retirement. And the has been a lot of questioning here about what might happen next in the Roman Catholic Church under a new Pope.

Following questions and discussion from the audience, I was asked to make a few observations on the question of how to change the church in ways that are creative, yet consistent with the New Testament. In reply I noted how one contributor yesterday had said of his 'fresh expression of church' in Aachen, “For me it is an experiment,” and added that in my view “the church itself is an experiment”. Picking up on Tom Wright's notion of biblical history as a five-act play in which we are still writing he fifth act, I suggested that however creatively and innovatively we develop the plot, it must always be consistent with what has gone on in the first four acts. Furthermore (and clearly mixing my metaphors here), although we might find ourselves responsible for steering a new and uncharted course in today's sea, we must not lose sight of what it actually means to be a 'ship' in the first place.

There was loads more. It was interesting later to listen to a moderated conversation between the Protestant Bishop Ralf Meister and his Roman Catholic counterpart Norbert Trelle. They didn't duck any questions either – including the 'challenge' to both churches of how to 'celebrate' in Wittenberg in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

In all this we have witnessed people changing the guards that protect them from discomfort or challenge. It is a very good thing.

Anyway, that's enough. I am giving the final address in the final plenary session tomorrow afternoon. I have been asked to inspire and encourage the thousand people there. No pressure there, then.

Then I go for dinner with friends before preaching (this time in English, fortunately) at an international service in Hannover on Sunday before catching a flight back to Bradford via Amsterdam.

 

The massive storm we have witnessed here in Philadelphia on the last day of our holiday is nothing compared to the storm of violence now raining down on Tripoli as the battle for freedom from Gaddafi’s rule enters it’s endgame. As with other similar struggles in the Middle East in the last six months, however, the question will soon move from ‘What do we want to be freed from?’ to ‘What have we been freed for?’

The distinction is important. It is easier to unite against a common enemy (or evil) than to unite for a common goal. It is easier (and more therapeutic) to pull down than it is to build up. Yet, we human beings seem to find it hard to learn the lessons of history that destruction is easier than construction.


Which is not to criticise the rebels in Libya – they have shown extraordinary courage, backed by NATO bombs, in challenging the regime’s brutality. A similar respect is due in Syria. But, the courage of the present will need to be re-energised and re-directed for building the post-conflict peace that lies ahead. If we are praying now, God knows we must pray even harder in the months and years to come – especially when our attention (and that of a hungry media) has moved on.

For the purposes of this post, however, the point is not primarily about uprisings; rather, it is about the distinction between ‘from’ and ‘for’. In fact, the thought was sparked by an excellent article by Bishop Tom Wright in today’s Spectator online magazine: http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/7174863/keep-the-faith.thtml.

Defending the Church of England against the uncritical media mantra of decline and extinction, he summarises the role of the Church as follows:

“It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.”

I have offered a summary elsewhere as: “The Church is called to look and feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. If we don’t, we are a fraud.”

But the key point in Tom’s piece (also picking up nicely on David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Atheist Delusions’, which I am reading here) is that “It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world”. A popular critique of the church is that it indulges itself in some otherworldly preoccupations while the real (material) world deals with the real business. Yet, the Incarnation itself is about God opting into the world and not exempting himself from it. You can’t get more material – or less superspiritual – than that.

Christians do not seek escape from the world and all it’s complexities, but commit consciously to engage with it in all it’s messy contradictoriness. It might not be comfortable, but neither was the cross.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

It’s not been a good week. Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid, but went out of Europe on the away goals rule. And now it looks as thought Benitez will go, leaving behind him a demoralised club with demoralised support. And it isn’t his fault.

Then I was embarrassed watching Gordon Brown being embarrassed into smiling penitence. Then I glanced at acres of newspaper and media response to the beauty contest that turned British politics into a policy-free, soundbite-rich, mantra-repetitive presidential-style personality show. The leaders’ debates have brought the election alive and engaged a new generation of voters (maybe) – but at the cost of policy scrutiny, accountability and detailed analysis?

OK, there has been plenty of analysis in various media, but the landscape is dominated by three personalities and their strengths/weaknesses. We are being asked to vote for Brown, Cameron or Clegg instead of Labour , Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. This shift – even in language – indicates something deeper is going on. And it is not a good shift.

It is now too late to go back on the debates, but how do we ensure that these complement and do not replace the interrogation by Paxman et al where we know the politicians won’t be able to get away with soundbites and mantras?

I had a chat with my local Tory candidate this morning and we agreed on at least one thing: whoever gets elected, the term of a Parliament should be fixed to five years and the freedom of a Prime Minister to choose the date should be removed. A recent report by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network entitled An analysis of Electoral reforms agreed to by parties to the GPA and the newly constituted Zimbabwe Electoral Commission concluded (among other things) that it is undemocratic for the President to call the tune on election timing – especially if he is a candidate in the ensuing election:

While the parties agreed on a number of issues, there were a number of issues that were not taken into account which include: the executive monopoly in stating dates of elections where he is a player which could be done by ZEC [Zimbabwe Election Commission] guided by the constitutional provisions. The president is a contestant as such may call for elections at a time he deems it favourable for his party which may not be democratic.

It goes on:

The timing of election in Zimbabwe is subject to the proclamation by the president of Zimbabwe who is also a contestant in those elections. ZEC lacks control on the timing of elections and is therefore reactive to the presidential proclamation. This situation has in the past meant that preparations for elections begin after the proclamation which does not give adequate time to ZEC. ZESN advocates that election time should be specified in the constitution and a calendar put in place.

So, if the President of Zimbabwe calls an election and we regard the calling of it as potentially undemocratic, shouldn’t we remove this in the UK, too?

Well, just for extras, my observations on the resignation of Tom Wright as Bishop of Durham and on the electoral campaign in the UK come together (sort of) in Tom’s lecture on 10 February this year on God and Government. Seriously worth a read.

The Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, today announced that he would be leaving his post on 31 August in order to return to academia. After nearly seven years in post he is to become Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Is he right to go at this point?

 According to the press notice, Tom said, ‘This has been the hardest decision of my life. It has been an indescribable privilege to be Bishop of the ancient Diocese of Durham, to work with a superb team of colleagues, to take part in the work of God’s kingdom here in the north-east, and to represent the region and its churches in the House of Lords and in General Synod. I have loved the people, the place, the heritage and the work. But my continuing vocation to be a writer, teacher and broadcaster, for the benefit (I hope) of the wider world and church, has been increasingly difficult to combine with the complex demands and duties of a diocesan bishop. I am very sad about this, but the choice has become increasingly clear.’

This is one of those announcements that makes you miserable and cheers you up in the same moment. He will be badly missed as a diocesan bishop and member of the General Synod and House of Lords – but he will now be able to produce more books, do more lecturing and broadcasting and continue to educate the rest of us whose brains aren’t big enough.

Tom published the superb The New Testament and the People of God in 1992, followed it up in 1996 with Jesus and the Victory of God, did a minor (800 page) diversion into The Resurrection of the Son of God in 2003… but has been promising another three volumes ever since. Given the nature of these first three books (of an intended five-part series which grew to six planned volumes), the Church needs the next three. Of course, since being Bishop of Durham, Tom has managed to write what seems like a book every week, numerous articles and papers, lecture around the world and pop up on the telly alot. His output and capacity for creative work is nothing short of remarkable.

It is perhaps sad that it is too difficult to combine being a diocesan bishop with academic work – he is not the first academic bishop to find the tension too great – but his choice means both a loss and a gain for the wider church. It is perhaps also evidence of the load carried by diocesan bishops in an increasingly demanding world and church – just consider the amount of legislation that now has to be embraced by the Church…

Tom will go with my prayers and gratitude. And a plea to get the remaining books written so I and others can continue to learn, be stimulated, encouraged and challenged.

The weather in London is awful, so it must be time for a summer holiday. We are going up north to a place where there is probably no wireless internet connection and poor mobile reception. So, I might be quiet for the next couple of weeks. The day after I get back, I fly to Zimbabwe for a week or so – and I am not planning on getting any blog posts out from there with any regularity.

But, if the rain is pouring in the real world, it is also pouring in the Anglican world. By deciding (and the bishops endorsing) to allow for the consecration of actively gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex relationships, the Episcopal Church in the USA has consciously decided to walk away from most of the rest of the Anglican Communion. That is their prerogative and one can understand the rationale behind their decision even if one profoundly disagrees with it. Furthermore, it is entirely within the remit of the polity to do such a thing. But, regardless of the content of the decision, the fact of it means that a line has been crossed from which there seems to be no going back.

In one sense, this is not a bad thing. After years of the phoney war, something has now happened and positions can be taken either with or over against it. That is life… and at least we all now know what we are dealing with. (Of course, real life is a bit more messy than this and TEC still contains clergy and people who strongly disagree with the General Convention decisions, but do not wish to leave their church.)

What isn’t true, however, is that the ‘Covenant is torn to shreds’ – as the Church of England Newspaper puts it in its front-page headline. TEC might well have decided not to engage with it, but that doesn’t mean it has no future or that TEC’s presence is crucial to its success. If anything, its imminence could be regarded as having forced the issue within TEC and the ground has now been cleared. I wonder why the CEN prints a misleading headline like that over a report that says no such thing. The Covenant – whatever one thinks of it – is not designed simply for TEC, but for the Communion.

Bishop of DurhamStill, we should be thankful for small mercies. Tom Wright’s letter to the CEN got printed. In it he challenges the CEN ‘to do better’ in its support of FCA and its lazy critique of English bishops:

Since when is there ‘a drift of appointment of bishops… who must be ‘politically correct’ … on all things from Islam to sexuality?’ I challenge you to publish a full list of diocesan bishops appointed under the present Archbishop and say which of them come into this category. It would be interesting to compare this with an equivalent list of those appointed under the previous Archbishop.

Monochrome? Hardly. If there is anything uniform about the appointments to dioceses over the last seven years, it is an energy for mission, a robust theological and ethical orthodoxy, and a willingness to articulate the challenge of God’s kingdom across this country in the face of secular, postmodern and relativist revisionism. Doesn’t fit the FCA mythology does it?

I am glad Tom wrote this. I was sorely tempted to do something similar, but am getting fed up with using energy fighting stupidities within the church instead of using energy for the work of mission and ministry. I wonder if such lists will be forthcoming – or if we will just continue to get this lazy and misleading unsubstantiated insinuation.

I won’t be holding my breath.