Tuesday, December 31, 2013

His Grace's predictions for 2014

His Grace has developed something of a reputation for being 100 per cent accurate in his New Year predictions. It is, supernaturally, one of the advantages of existing incorporeally in the ether. While His Grace does not quite know perfectly or see God face-to-face (though he did bump into Thomas More last week - just in from Purgatory), the dim reflections in dark mirrors are certainly fewer. In celebration of His Grace's astonishing prescience, he offers the following predictions for 2014:
The Coalition will survive another year.

The UK will remain a full and compliant member of the EU.

Ukip will do very, very well in the Euro Elections.

The UK will be visited by more than a few Romanians and Bulgarians.

There will be wars and rumours of war (especially in the Middle East).

Some Christians will leave the Middle East.

The eurozone will experience further turbulence (but the moon won’t turn red).

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will receive some bad press from The Times.

The Telegraph will prophesy division within the Church of England.

Pope Francis will satisfy some and disappoint others.

In England, some homosexuals and lesbians will get married (not to each other).

Scotland will vote 'No' in their referendum for independence.

Alex Salmond will declare victory for having secured further powers from Westminster. 

Ed Miliband will announce some new policies.

Islamists will make the pages of the Daily Mail.

Some brave British troops will sadly die in Afghanistan. 

There will be a Royal engagement (for a wedding, that is; not to attend a function).

Israel will continue to be portrayed as a pariah state.

Taxes will rise and people will die.

Some politicians will receive knighthoods.

So will some political donors. 

Jesus will not return, and the Government will remain upon David Cameron's shoulder.
His Grace thanks all of his readers and communicants for spending another year upon his august blog of religio-political discussion and erudite debate. He wishes you all a happy and blessed 2014.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thank God for Lucy Winkett and St James's 'Apartheid Wall'

There has been alarming confusion, jaw-dropping consternation and vehement condemnation of the 'Apartheid Wall' which has been erected in front of St James's Church, Piccadilly. It is part of 'Bethlehem Unwrapped', which encourages us to look beyond 'O little town of Bethlehem' to "the Barrier that affects every aspect of daily life". The church explains:
The wall in our courtyard is a replica segment of the wall that surrounds Bethlehem. It is 8 metres tall because the real wall is 8 metres. It obscures the view of this historic church because that is what has happened to Bethlehem’s holy sites and historic places.

In 2009, Patriarchs and Heads of Churches in Jerusalem issued a joint appeal to Christians throughout the world to understand and help to alleviate the desperate hardship the wall has caused. It is a daily disaster for ordinary Palestinian families.

In hosting this festival, St James’s Church joins the movement in Bethlehem known as “beautiful resistance”, celebrating the culture, music, food and humour of those who live behind the Wall. St James’s stands in solidarity with the universal call for a just and sustainable solution for both Palestinians and Israelis.

The stated aim of the wall at its inception in 2002 was to protect Israeli citizens from terrorism. St James’s Church opposes all forms of racism including anti-Semitism and supports the right of the State of Israel to exist with secure internationally recognised borders.

This wall is symbolic of walls all over the world that divide and confine peoples, restricting free movement and dominating the imagination of those who live behind them. We believe that bridges not walls are the only lasting foundation for peace. On Sunday 5 January, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany, the Wall installation will itself become a bridge accompanied by music and dance. We join with people of all faiths in praying for the day when the Wall will come down.
All net proceeds of the 'Bethlehem Unwrapped' festival are being donated to Amos Trust’s ‘Future Peacemakers’ Appeal, supporting the work of the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem. The organisers of emphasise their neutrality, and urge others to do the same:
“The most unhelpful thing you can do is be pro one side; it just adds to the conflict. We have to not only understand those people who are oppressing us, but try to walk in their shoes, and ultimately to really engage with what it means to love our enemies.”
His Grace thinks this is all quite marvellous. Honestly, he doesn't know what the fuss is about. The Rev'd Giles Fraser has heeded the exhortation to be neutral:
I know the familiar joke about the Anglican church sitting on the fence so much that it has splinters in its bum, but I admire the fact that places like St James's in Piccadilly are prepared to speak about the multiple injustices created by the wall without succumbing to some nonsense about whose side are you on. That's cheap sloganeering politics, too concerned with maintaining the purity of its own outrage.
But Melanie Phillips has condemned the festival as a "vicious stunt" which "incites hatred against Israel, spreads further stain of revived Jew-hatred in CofE". She writes in an open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury:
Although the church acknowledges in passing that the original purpose of this ‘wall’ was ‘to protect Israeli citizens from terrorism’, it suggests instead that its only result has been to oppress and harass innocent Palestinians. The inevitable effect of this wholly mendacious and malevolent travesty will be to incite hatred against Israel and all who support its defence against the war of extermination being perpetrated against it.
You see what happened there? That nice Guardian-reading (and contributing) Giles Fraser is doing what that nice Rector Lucy Winkett wanted - not taking sides. But that nasty Daily Mail-reading (and contributing) Melanie Phillips is doing exactly what she was asked not to do - being pro one side (and, incidentally, the wrong one), which, we were told, "just adds to the conflict".

She really ought to take up the violin or something, like that nice Mr Nigel Kennedy. The mellifluous melodies would sweeten her sour features and soothe her troubled spirit. She should be grateful - as should we all - for the nice Rector Lucy Winkett and all at St James's Church, Piccadilly, for highlighting this Christmas the appalling suffering of Palestinians behind Israel's 'Apartheid Wall' (as that nice Mr Kennedy terms it). The suffering of Palestinian Christians is especially harrowing, and, but for Lucy Winkett's 'separation wall', thousands would know nothing of their terrible plight.

Everyday life in Bethlehem and large parts of Judaea-Samaria is a daily siege. Palestinian protection rackets are rife, with $10,000s being extracted by Muslims from the dhimmi Christians, on pain of death and destruction of their property. The owner of the region's only Christian bookstore was recently abducted and murdered; Christian shops and schools are regularly firebombed; zealous Muslims picket colleges to intimidate Christian students into reading and studying the Qur'an. Others place their prayer rugs provocatively in Manger Square to intimidate pilgrims with a mighty show of Islam. There are regular beatings of Christians, and Muslim gangs routinely seize Christian-owned land while the security forces just stand by and watch.

The Christian population of Bethlehem - one of the oldest in the world - is dwindling. In 1947, Christians accounted for 85 per cent of the population. By 1998, their number was around 40 per cent. Today, Christians make up less than 20 per cent of the town. Those that dare to remain risk being taken hostage - including priests and nuns. Bibles are destroyed, churches set on fire and their coffers emptied. The former mayor of Bethlehem Hanna Nasser said bluntly, “There is no future for Christians.”

But none of this is due to Israel's 'Apartheid Wall': this is daily life for Christians under the Palestinian Authority.

The Western media usually ignore the plight of Christians under the PA: the focus is unrelentingly on the denunciation of Israel’s 'Apartheid Wall'.

But Christians are fleeing from Bethlehem for their lives: it is an exodus of biblical proportions.

And we must thank God that Rector Lucy Winkett and St James's Church, Piccadilly, have prophetically given the opportunity for His Grace to share with his readers that Palestinian Muslim terrorists have turned Bethlehem into a safe haven for suicide bombers. They desecrate Manger Square with their 'Allahu Akbars' and defile the Church of the Nativity with their murderous jihad against innocent Christians.

Certainly, we in the West must approach such matters with humility, for we are profoundly ignorant. But, for His Grace, it is not possible to be 'neutral' or pro any of this and still be Christian.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Times blasts the Archbishop of Canterbury

Photo: Katharine Welby (adoring her father)
The Very Rev'd Dr John Hall is the Dean of Westminster. His Christmas Eve sermon was a healthy portion of erudite soteriology. He preached about the evocative comfort and peace of St Luke's account; the inspiration of the Christmas story to artists and architects over the centuries; the spiritual significance of art; the historical significance of Mary; the divinity of the Christ-child; the prophecies of His coming; the salvation he brings through Resurrection; and His transformational, unfailing love.

The Times reported nothing of this - not one word of appreciation or praise.

Dr Hall's Christmas Day sermon - which was broadcast to the nation - was a nugget of preaching perfection. He spoke about God's apparent absence from the world; of the psalmist's despair in the darkness; of the false gods which offer no answers; of the prospering of the wicked; of theodicy - the justification of God; of teleology - the reason and purpose of order in the universe; of kerygma - the proclamation of good news; of the case for believing in God in the face of the existence of evil; and of Christ, born as a baby in Bethlehem, and yet the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Jesus was not God in disguise, but God as a human being - homooúsios - one substance with the Father, and yet destined to spend 30 years of his life banging nails into wood, then a few years preaching, and then dying on a cross for the sins of the world. And, again, Dr Hall illustrated this kenosis with art - God emptied and humbled himself to share his love: he suffered and died to redeem the world:
So, where is God? Is he really absent? No, he is with us in all the mess of our lives, in the pain and suffering, working his transformations for good from within. This great truth is what gives meaning and purpose to life and should give joy to the world this Christmas and throughout the years. God of God, Light of Light, lo! he abhors not the Virgin’s womb; Very God. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
The Times reported nothing of this - not one word of appreciation or praise.

But they did decide to blast the Archbishop of Canterbury: "Will Welby ever make the case for God?", asks Philip Collins, with Tim Montgomerie tweeting that the Archbishop is more obsessed with food banks than God, and lacks discipline.

The grandiose Times makes its high-and-mighty assertion that Archbishop Justin Welby is "undisciplined" in his preaching.

You can hear the pious and devout Tim Montgomerie now, shouting over the hills of Galilee, "Oi, Jesus mate! Cut the bread and fish a just preach the bloody gospel, mate! You've got one platform here, so use it!".

How dare the Archbishop of Canterbury refer to food banks in his Christmas sermon. How very dare he.

And yet, unlike the Dean's sermons, The Times devotes column inches to the Archbishop's homily - or rather to a crass BBC caricature of the sermon. And Tim Montgomerie tweets it out, with a pompous rebuke to the Archbishop for a lack of discipline.

The truth is that Justin Welby makes the case for God every single day - often more in deed than in word, though his words when they come are jewels of insight. But the contemptuous Times isn't interested in that, so it doesn't report it. The Archbishop makes the case for God in every sermon - often simply and straightforwardly in the vernacular. But the lofty Times prefers to carp about a passing allusion to food banks.

For those who wish to make up their own minds, here is the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon in full:
Isaiah looks forward to God rescuing His people, instantly recognisable, leading them in victory. Hebrews looks back at the great line of prophets and says this arrival is the climax to the whole of history. John starts with those words that send shudders up the spine, consciously echoing Genesis, "in the beginning..."

And what do we get? A few pounds of crying baby. Shepherds clump in and mutter approvingly at his size, or health, or shape of his nose, or whatever banal things we try and find to say when we meet a baby (Winston Churchill is reputed to have said when told that a grandchild looked like him "all babies look like me"). When God assumes flesh he does not take power, but vulnerability, need, dependence. God the baby is so small that he leaves room for all of us to ignore Him, to glance and pass on. The heart and origin of creation is easily overlooked. This is less Big Bang than faint cry. RS Thomas wrote:
"The moon is born
And a child is born,
lying among white clothes
as the moon among clouds.

They both shine, but
the light from the one
is abroad in the universe
as among broken glass."
God was born fully human. The witnesses are shepherds and magi, John the Baptist, the gospel writers and hosts of Christians through the centuries, in their lives and their deaths, in words and deeds. A witness of this birth is not like a witness of comet or an asteroid, which is seen and noted, but which has little or no effect on the one that sees it. If we respond, this small baby God that gives us so much space to ignore fills our whole world, changes what we see when we look, catches us up and takes us with him in life, through death and into all eternity. Belief, putting ourselves and trusting our lives into the power of this child, the man he became, the crucified saviour, the risen and ascended Christ, enables us to become children of God, our whole being changed.

God's way of being human shows us what being human means. According to the gospel of Jesus Christ to be human means being vulnerable, not safe. Our pride is humbled by God needing swaddling. Our wisdom is confounded by the foolishness of God's baby cries. Love is demonstrated not by grasping power but by lowering yourself so you can raise the fallen. The humility of God provokes us to seek to awaken what is best, in every person we meet, every group that we encounter.

God's vulnerability is seen in overwhelming self giving. When as individuals or societies we grab for power, compete for resources and neglect the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us we neglect Christ himself. Where people are measured in their worth only by what they can produce, what economic value they have, then Christ is denied and our own humanity corrupted.

The great icons of Christ for us are all those of vulnerability; a baby, a man dying abandoned on a cross, bread and wine that can be crushed and spilt. Yet from the vulnerability we get life complete, eternal.

The vulnerable God was born into a world that rejected him, and yet he loved it without limits. As we look around our world at injustice and conflict he calls us to His pattern of love: we see victims and perpetrators, and in loving them without limits we imitate Christ and challenge every injustice and any demeaning of human beings.

Today, singing of Bethlehem, we see injustices in Palestine and Israel, where land is taken or rockets are fired, and the innocent suffer.

We see injustice in the ever more seriously threatened Christian communities of the Middle East. The Prince of Wales highlighted their plight last week. Even this morning a church in Baghdad, where there have been Christians since the 1st century, was bombed and 15 more people testified to their faith with their lives. Christians in the region are attacked and massacred, driven into exile from an area in which their presence has always been central, undoubted, essential, richly contributing, faithful.

We see injustice in South Sudan, where political ambitions have led towards ethnic conflict. On Saturday I was speaking to a Bishop under siege, in a compound full of the dying. God's passionate love for the vulnerable is found in the baby in a manger in a country at war. If that was His home, today it must be our care.

We see injustices at home. Even in a recovering economy, Christians, the servants of a vulnerable and poor Saviour, need to act to serve and love the poor: they need also to challenge the causes of poverty. Prospect magazine had a poll this month that suggested the church is more trusted on politics than religion. But the two cannot be separated. Christ's birth is not politics, it is love expressed. Our response is not political, but love delivered in hope. The action of the churches in the last five years is extraordinary, reaching out in ways not seen since 1945. Yet no society can be content where misery and want exist, unless through our love collectively we also challenge the greed and selfishness behind it.

We will speak and act best when we are caught up in following the vulnerable God as His disciples in His way. Then His love fills us, His compassion drives us on, compassion for every person, at every point of life or wealth or power. When individual Christians and the church together believe, and act on that belief, every human attitude is challenged, especially about the poor, and the world changes.

We follow the God who is Saviour, whose word of love was found in action and word. We are called to act, whether at home or around the world, not just lament. Jesus rescues us from our brokenness and makes us carriers of life and light. He calls for that great line of witnesses that has swept down through the centuries to be continued today by a church that is confident in the message of God's love and truth. It will always be an untidy church because we are in a vulnerable, untidy, broken world. Yet when we see the fact of Christ's birth, hear the witnesses, receive the life he gives and respond in passionate discipleship then all our vulnerabilities, muddles and weaknesses are carried in His strength. The Christian meaning of Christmas is unconditional love received, love overflowing into a frequently love-lost world.
It isn't as polymathic as the Dean's, but it is about suffering, injustice, persecution, salvation and redemption. It is about poverty and need (about which Jesus preached occasionally). It is about the fundamental reason for believing in God (about which Jesus preached occasionally), with a call to respond (which Jesus did quite a lot). If all the pretentious Times can take from this sermon is 'food banks', then they plainly haven't read it or have purposely chosen to misrepresent it.

But at least they reported it and tweeted about it.

Carry on, Archbishop.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

“Christmas means that, through Jesus, God shows unconditionally that he loves us"

It is Christmas Eve, and the Archbishops of Canterbury and York are busy spreading the joy and peace of Christmas through the Church of England's #Christmasmeans social media campaign.

Congregations and clergy in all of the church's 12,000 parishes are being encouraged today and tomorrow to get out their mobile devices and complete the sentence: "Christmas means..."

Last year the CofE’s nifty and breviloquent Christmas hashtag #christmasstartswithchrist was seen by more than 9 million people in 24 hours. If it had been a little more succinct it may have been easier to spread. If the gospel of the risen Christ was foolishness to the Greeks (1Cor 1:23), a Twitter hashtag that takes up 25 units of precious homily space is utterly flapdoodle.

If Blogger is the new pulpit, Instagram is the stained glass window, Twitter is the Collect and Spotify the choir. The virtual church is growing and thriving: His Grace's cyber-cathedral reaches more parishioners every day than any of those made of stone: communion is virtual, but the leadership is sound and the fellowship is real.

In his #Christmasmeans message, His (present) Grace Archbishop Justin Welby says: “Christmas means that, through Jesus, God shows unconditionally that he loves us. I pray that he gives you a very blessed Christmas.”

For His (former) Grace, "Christmas means different things to different people, and Jesus is a rapidly-diminishing part of the festival. The Establishment is becoming increasingly secular under the guise of neutrality, and the public sphere is becoming intolerant of those who walk in spirit and in truth. But our churches are never more full than they at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, so don't cuss the burgeoning congregation for being once-a-year 'cultural Christians' or for their lack of regular communion because, quite frankly, there's not a lot worth getting out of bed for on a Sunday morning that can't be read in the pages of The Guardian or gleaned from Songs of Praise, except, of course, the 'Jesus' bit.

For many millions of Christians, Christmas still means the birth of Christ. And the life and death of Christ is still the way of salvation. And that salvation is hoped for and longed for - especially at the end. If postmodern believers in a post-Christian culture can find a bit of Jesus in tinsel and fairy lights, then we must appreciate their worship of the Son of God; encourage them to see beyond the kings and shepherds; help them to appreciate God's relationship to humanity; and nurture them beyond the idols of gold, silver and television.

Alternatively, you could play the Prodigal's older brother and self-righteously carp on about their spiritual ignorance and their woeful lack of worthiness to approach the altar.

Christmas happens in the heart.

Christmas means an encounter with wonder.

Christmas means a glimpse of joy and a taste of peace.

Christmas means close family, true friends, and the essential love of the Christ-child.

What does Christmas mean to you?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Church of England affirms M&S sharia checkouts

There has been something of a furore over Marks & Spencer's announcement that henceforth Muslim staff on their checkouts will be permitted to decline to serve M&S customers who purchase alcohol or pork. That is to say, M&S customers will either be asked to queue at a checkout where the employee does not object to serving kuffar (however much longer the queue), or they will have to wait while M&S find a member of staff who is prepared to serve you.

His Grace really wasn't going to write on this matter (it being the Season of Goodwill, and all), but the Church of England decided rather foolishly to tweet its commendation to M&S for "making reasonable accommodation for the religious beliefs of their workers", which really needs a response.

This policy appears to emanate from one incident:
At one of its stores in central London last week, customers waiting with goods that included pork or alcohol were told by a Muslim checkout worker to wait until another till became available. The assistant was extremely apologetic at having to ask customers to wait.

One customer, who declined to be named, said: “I had one bottle of champagne, and the lady, who was wearing a headscarf, was very apologetic but said she could not serve me. She told me to wait until another member of staff was available.

“I was taken aback. I was a bit surprised. I’ve never come across that before.”

Customers trying to buy alcoholic drinks for Christmas were also asked to wait.
And M&S have explained their policy:
“We recognise that some of our employees practise religions that restrict the food or drink they can handle, or that mean they cannot work at certain times. M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we will always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, whilst ensuring high levels of customer service.”
An environment free from discrimination? Have they considered that their customers don't wish to be discriminated against and made to feel morally deficient or 'unclean'? How is inconveniencing customers by forcing them to queue at non-Muslim checkouts consistent with "high levels of customer service"? 

The main problem with this is that it plays to a certain Muslim stereotype: it affirms an utterly myopic interpretation of sharia law and so perpetuates prejudice against all Muslims. The Qur'an exhorts Muslims not to eat pork products or drink alcohol: it does not say they may not handle glass bottles or pass a plastic packet of bacon over a scanner.

But, no matter. Some M&S equality aficionado has determined the orthodox tenets of each religion, and is prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate them: they have confirmed - in true anti-discrimination style - that Jewish employees are also permitted to decline to serve customers alcohol and pork, notwithstanding that no Jewish employee has ever refused to do this in the store's 129-year history.

But why stop at alcohol and pork?

Are they also permitted to decline to scan a packet of prawns? May they refuse to sell garments made of wool and cotton? Or meat mixed with dairy? Is a Muslim employee permitted to decline to sell you a bikini or a lipstick? And what about M&S finance? Is a Muslim employee who objects to charging interest on debt going to be permitted to administer an interest-free credit card?

And why restrict this to the point of sale? Don't these products require handling throughout the logistical chain? Are Muslim (and Jewish) employees going to be exempt from placing orders for certain products? Are they going to be exempt from handling certain boxes in the warehouse? 

Are Christians going to be permitted to decline to handle halal meat, since it has been "offered to idols" (1Cor 8)? Or has the M&S equality aficionado decreed that this is not a fundamental  requirement of the faith? If so, on what theological basis?

As far as His Grace is aware, M&S don't sell condoms. But if they did, would a Roman Catholic employee be permitted to decline to serve the customer, thereby compounding their embarrassment?

This is not " reasonable accommodation": it is not the same as permitting holy days off or the wearing of certain religious symbols over a uniform. It is manifestly unreasonable when customers are inconvenienced by i) having to queue at a non-sharia checkout, or ii) waiting for a member of staff to arrive who is prepared to serve you.

Not withstanding the Church of England's thoughtless tweet, it has previously spoken officially on the convoluted concept of 'reasonable accommodation':
Reasonable accommodation is being advanced as a possible means of dealing with the intractability of the issues raised by the cases cited. However, the concept is being defined in two very different ways. The duty of reasonable accommodation has a clear meaning in law, though we have argued that its introduction would do little to resolve the conflicts in the Ladele and McFarlane cases, and that it would bring a number of other practical problems. In the Commission’s own explanation of reasonable accommodation, it is clear that the concept is being defined in a much looser sense, as an aspect of good employment practice, which we would support, namely seeking conciliation and informal resolution of disputes in preference to litigation.

..we suspect that the concept of reasonable accommodation is likely to be either unnecessary (strong version) or ineffective (weak version). In either case, it is unlikely to be of much help in resolving the dilemmas surrounding religious rights and freedoms to which the Commission has rightly drawn attention.
The whole paper is worth reading. The litigation point is not immaterial in this context: if a Christian who desires to purchase wine or bacon felt discriminated against ("injury to feelings") in the provision of goods and services, M&S could be sued. The discrimination is indirect, but manifest nonetheless, and the law is clear.

His Grace doesn't favour boycotts, but M&S have woven their own tangled web. There is now a 'Boycott Marks & Spencer" Facebook campaign, which currently has 7,301 'likes'. That's a lot of irritated customers

On deciding to make all of their toys gender-neutral as of next spring, M&S say they "listened carefully to customer feedback".

Did anything like 7,000 customers demand the eradication of gender in the toy department?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Santa in the stable – a postmodern Nativity

It was reported in the Telegraph this week that 10% of British 25-34-year-olds think Father Christmas got a walk-on part at the Nativity: yes, Santa was there in the stable with the Wise Men and shepherds, down on his knees honouring the baby Jesus.

Let's throw in Batman, Darth Vader (or three), Bill and Ted, Commander Riker and Deanna Troi and a T-rex for good measure.

Well, why not? We're in an increasingly secularised era in which all religions are being systematically relativised and all beliefs equalised: Scientology is now a bone fide faith; Jesus is but one god in the Pantheon; and Christianity is just another myth.

Even 'Democratic Socialism' is now recognised by Employment Tribunal as a protected philosophical belief under the Equality Act 2010 (His Grace won't say he didn't warn you..).

Truth is as you perceive it: what you believe is true.

As His Grace wrote presciently almost four years ago, the moment the state begins to define ‘religion’, and then attempts to apportion rights and liberties under the guise of an enlightened tolerance of relativist equality, there is no logical end to the official recognition of all manner of weird cults, strange sects, spurious beliefs and pseudo-religions, all of which have to be equal under the law irrespective of the common good and irrelative to the inherent counterknowledge believed or propagated.

If you wish to believe that a carpenter from Nazareth can rise from the dead, you are free to do so. But in the age of ‘equality’ and ‘non-discrimination’, this is no different from believing that a middle-eastern illiterate warmonger had a direct line to Allah; that a man can walk around with the head of an elephant; that you should never cut your hair; that you may be cremated in the open air; that you believe that a mortal man may speak infallibly; and if you walk around Tesco in a hoodie carrying a light sabre, you are in harmony with ‘The Force’.

And if you want to worship Satan, that is perfectly cool. If you want to take Pagan holidays, that is accommodated. And if you want to believe in man-made global warming, the courts have already decreed that your devotion to such a philosophy is indeed the same as religious faith.

Of course, Santa at the Nativity is evidence of appalling religious illiteracy, but what do you expect when the RE syllabus has become a relativised mish-mash of undemanding multi-faith pap? The qualification has been dumbed-down over the decades to an astonishing degree: instead of studying one or two faiths in depth, most children now study all faiths (and none) with equal superficiality, and God help the RE teacher who advocates any notion of religious truth or seeks to use it to inculcate morality or values. Indeed, what is the meaning of sin in a society where morality is relative?

But don't be too hard on the children (or the 25-34-year-olds): if they want a Nativity scene with Santa, Darth Vader or T-rex, let them be free to imagine and learn.

It is for the believer to inhabit this world and to inculturate himself or herself in order that the truth may be preached and understood. This is linked acutely to the notion of incarnation. The mission of the Church is to be born anew in each context and culture, because the gospel is foreign to every culture. If the gospel is the story of God’s dealings with the world, it is a universal history, with significance for every person in the world. If Christians cannot communicate it in terms that are meaningful, then the gospel ceases to have meaning within that culture.

Christians should be a living testimony of God’s dealings with humanity, which in turn will raise the questions to which the gospel is the answer: In the words of Lesslie Newbigin:
If the Church which preaches the gospel is not living corporately a life which corresponds with it, is living a comfortable cohabitation with the powers of this age, is failing to challenge the powers of darkness and to manifest in its life the power of the living Lord to help and to heal, then by its life it closes the doors which its preaching would open. 
The Church has practised a limited understanding of mission throughout most of its history - where the gospel preached was primarily concerned with the conversion of souls, and the people's social, political and economic contexts were seen as unimportant: the missiological objective was primarily one of a future hope of redemption.

But salvation liberates people to rediscover their identity in this present world: it restores dignity and helps them discover meaning in the context of their own cultures and social histories.

If we now have to begin with Santa at the postmodern Nativity, so be it.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Mild He lays His glory by

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:
Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men       (Phil 2:5-7)
It is a curious thing for God to become man; for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us. We are about to celebrate the day when the Son of God was born a baby in Bethlehem; when Christ emptied Himself and laid His glory by; born that man no more may die. He surrendered aspects of His divinity to assume the mantle of humanity: as the ancient creeds remind us, He was fully man and yet fully God.

The Incarnation is complex theology wrapped in an unfathomable mystery, and here is not the place to unpack the nuances of kenotic doctrine. Those who wish to focus on the absurdity of human omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence miss the point: in both His human and divine natures, Jesus was and is perfect love, incomprehensible peace and unadulterated truth.

He spent nine months in Mary's womb, floating around in amniotic fluid. Now why would the only begotten Son God do that? Some say that He wasn't really God, but one who attained a sort of enlightenment, a bit like Buddha. Others are happy to believe that he was a prophet who foretold or forthtold the purposes of God; who showed his followers a better way, a bit like Mohammed. Still others are happy to believe the mystery of divine chimera; Jesus as a sort of Ganesh-like elephant man, strutting his stuff in the pantheon of gods.

But Jesus is also called 'Immanuel', meaning 'God with us'. If He was and is the same yesterday, today and forever, he is not merely enlightened, prophetic or mysterious; he is the Lord, the Creator, the Spirit, for the Three are One and of one substance.
These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee:
As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.
And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was.
I have manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.
Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of thee.
For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me.
I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.
And all mine are thine, and thine are mine; and I am glorified in them.
And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
(Jn 17:1-11)
God emptied Himself of His glory in order that we might be saved - and all who call on His name will be saved. John Calvin writes: "In order to exhort us to submission by His example, he shows, that when as God he might have displayed to the world the brightness of His glory, he gave up His right, and voluntarily emptied Himself; that he assumed the form of a servant, and, contented with that humble condition, suffered His divinity to be concealed under a veil of flesh."

Mild He lays His glory by, under the veil of flesh: Immanuel, God with us, veiled as a baby in the womb of a young girl called Mary. His creation glory has gone; his salvation suffering has begun; his resurrection glory is yet to come. In a way, Jesus was scourged and crucified in the womb.

God incarnate waiting to be born, waiting to suffer, waiting to die, waiting to be raised.

As we await the birth of the perfect baby boy, the advent of the Promise, let us reflect on the magnitude of the glory He laid by, that we no more may die.

Friday, December 20, 2013

"Season's Greetings from the University of Oxford"

This is the Christmas Season's greeting to the world from the staff of the world renowned University of Oxford. As entertaining and creative as it may be, there is not one mention of Jesus, or even of the word 'Christmas'. But it does include a Byzantine painting of St Peter and St Paul embracing, with St Paul saying, "I love you, man."

This is Oxford University - where degrees are still bestowed upon graduands Ad honorem Domini nostri Jesu Christi, et ad profectum Sarosanctae Matris Ecclesiae. As they kneel before the Vice-Chancellor, he touches each one upon the head with the New Testament, admitting them in nomine Domini, Patris, Filii et Spirutus Sancti.

This is Oxford University, which has produced around 12 saints of the Church and some 20 Archbishops of Canterbury. Amongst its stellar theological alumni rank the names of John Wycliffe, John Locke, William Tyndale, John Colet and John and Charles Wesley.

This is Oxford University, which was inspired by and founded upon the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. Eradicate that heritage, and you cease to understand the academic culture and spiritual values which spawned one of the greatest seats of learning in the world. At various points throughout history, when that faith has been imperiled, men arose to establish theological halls and houses to address disbelief. When the college chapels were faced with closure, these became a bulwark of orthodoxy and sound doctrine.

And now their staff can't even bring themselves to mention 'Christmas', or to make reference to the birth of Christ.

Instead we get 'Season's Greetings', and a purposeful allusion to homosexuality in the Early Church.  

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Prince Charles confronts Baroness Warsi over 'Political Islam'

While the Government's Minister for Faith and Communities Baroness Warsi insists that the persecution and eradication of Christians in the Middle East has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, the Prince of Wales has exposed the lie.

While the Noble Baroness asserts quite vehemently that such persecution is "mostly the work of extremists who do not follow any faith", Prince Charles tells it like it is: he terms them (somewhat tautologically) "fundamentalist Islamist militants". Certainly, the Islamist may not be the Baroness's preferred sort of Muslim expressing her preferred interpretation of Islam, but the Prince of Wales does not sweep the matter under the carpet, as the Baroness prefers to do, by seeking to divorce the systematic 'cleansing' of Christians in the Middle East from the virulent strain of Islamic theology which inspires and feeds it.

Prince Charles is clearly aware - while the Baroness apparently is not - that there is a vastly influential school of thought within Islam which believes that the only truly devout Muslim is a fundamentalist one. This particular strain - the Wahhabi-Salafist school which is spreading like a plague through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Egypt, infecting many hundreds of thousands, if not millions of the Baroness's co-religionists ("who do not follow any faith") - believes 'jihad' to be a struggle for the glory of Allah to the death against the apostate, blasphemer and non-believer - the kuffar - who are lower than pigs but not quite as low as the Jews.

Ruth Gledhill has the story for The Times. The sub-ed title is provocative (journalists rarely write their own, though they are invariably blamed for them): the Prince of Wales didn't quite say that Islam is to blame, but he did say:
“It seems to me that we cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately attacked by fundamentalist Islamist militants. Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ.

“For 20 years, I have tried to build bridges between Islam and Christianity and to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The point though, surely, is that we have now reached a crisis where the bridges are rapidly being deliberately destroyed by those with a vested interest in doing so, and this is achieved through intimidation, false accusation and organised persecution, including to Christian communities in the Middle East at the present time.”
Building bridges is a laudable objective: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." At this time of the year, it is right to acknowledge all those who work tirelessly for peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding, of which the Prince of Wales is a leading and increasingly influential figure.

We have often heard him speaking up on behalf of British Muslims, but here he is raising the profile of the appalling plight of Christians in the Middle East - his "brothers and sisters in Christ", as he calls them. And here is just one account of the horrific reality of their present suffering:
What happened in Sadad is the most serious and biggest massacre of Christians in Syria in the past two years and a half… 45 innocent civilians were martyred for no reason, and among them several women and children, many thrown into mass graves. Other civilians were threatened and terrorized. 30 were wounded and 10 are still missing. For one week, 1,500 families were held as hostages and human shields. Among them children, the elderly, the young, men and women…. All the houses of Sadad were robbed and property looted. The churches are damaged and desecrated, deprived of old books and precious furniture… What happened in Sadad is the largest massacre of Christians in Syria and the second in the Middle East, after the one in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Iraq, in 2010.
Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, pleads with us: “We have shouted aid to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers? I think of all those who are suffering today in mourning and discomfort: We ask everyone to pray for us.”

At least your brother the Prince of Wales has heard.

Ms Gledhill notes that Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, chief adviser for religious and cultural affairs and personal envoy of King Abdullah II of Jordan, acknowledged the Prince of Wales's record in defending Muslims, and now the need for reciprocity: “Since Muslims can generally live in dignity in Christian-majority countries, they must stand for the dignity of Christians in Muslim-majority countries.”

“Everywhere else in the Middle East Christians are wondering what the rise of these movements, and of politicised Islam in general, means for their future,” the Prince added.

Both Prince Charles and Prince Ghazi present Baroness Warsi with an unpalatable truth: 'Political Islam' is an undoubted expression of Islam, not an ideology of those "who do not follow any faith". Of course, all religions have their intolerant sects and extremists - both violent and peaceful - but fundamentalist zealotry is not overcome by turning a blind eye to theological distortion or by deflecting from the fons et origo of their evil acts.

'Political Islam' contends that Islam possesses a theory of politics and the state, and we see that this theory is somewhat at odds with modernity. It is unsurprising that Muslim political activism has become synonymous with terrorism when so little media attention is dedicated to those who seek to relate their religion to contemporary social concerns - ie to contextualise it in the light of modern sociopolitical notions of justice, human rights and liberal democracy. The Islamist tends to want the whole of society to revert to the Mecca of AD 610 or, more accurately, the Medina of 622: in this context, the rest of us simply become dhimis, while the practices and principles of 'the Prophet' regulate society with a distinct Muslim polity, including the struggle - jihad - for defence, survival and dominance.    

We must thank God that the Prince of Wales has taken up the cause of persecuted Christians across the Middle East: it is, quite literally, an answer to the prayers of millions, for when Prince Charles gets a bee in his bonnet about an issue, he tends to do more than make a few speeches of agitation. Thank God he is alive to the reality that many Muslim countries harbour extremists and intolerant fanatics who believe it is their duty (and the will of Allah after the example of Mohammed) to slaughter the infidel Christians. Of course, some of these Islamists now dwell among us: it is perhaps only a matter of time before we begin to taste some of this “organised persecution” ourselves - if, indeed, the infection is not already coursing through the arteries of our liberal, tolerant and accommodating multicultural relativism.

If, as the Prince of Wales asserts, the world is in danger of losing something “irreplaceably precious” - Christian communities in the Middle East which can trace their heritage back to the time of Jesus and the Apostles - then we, too, must pray daily for our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are the new wave of martyrs, crucified for Christ. Their suffering is ours; their mourning is ours; their grief is the agony of us all.  

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Eric Pickles marks "the importance of the birth of Christ"

His Grace looks forward every year to Eric Pickles' Christmas card: it is invariably Christian in both character and sentiment. This year it even features a church!

And there's an interesting DCLG response to a Parliamentary Question to accompany it:
Michael Dugher: To ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government how much his private ministerial office spent on sending Christmas cards in 2012. [168676]

Brandon Lewis: I refer the hon. Member to the answer by my hon. Friend, the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, of 20 December 2010, Official Report, Column 941W. That answer outlines that whereas the last Administration was spending £2,855 a year on departmental cards, Ministers in this Government have spent nothing; instead, we have produced in-house and sent an electronic Christmas card each year.

Notwithstanding, that answer also outlines this Government's support for celebrating Christmas and marking the importance of the birth of Christ. By contrast, as outlined in the answer of 10 December 2007, Official Report, column 116W, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr Pickles), the last Administration otherwise did nothing to support the public celebration of Christmas. Since I do not have access to papers of the last Administration, I am unable to ascertain whether this was because Labour Ministers were (a) Scrooges or (b) Grinches.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Global South response to Pilling Report shows missiological gulf

The Global South of the Anglican Communion Secretariat have issued a statement in response to the Pilling Report. Some will find it profoundly encouraging in its clear and prophetic expression of sound doctrine; others will be exasperated by its ungodly recalcitrance and loveless intransigence. It is reproduced in its entirety in case the pdf should disappear, but His Grace wants only to deal with the bold (his bold) in the third paragraph:
We are writing to express our serious concerns in regard to the Pilling Report. We know that the House of Bishops of the Church of England will be discussing this and we would like to assure them of our prayers so that the Holy Spirit would guide them to the right decisions.

First, we would like to say that we believe that the church of Christ should not in any way be homophobic or have any kind of phobia. We should follow in the steps of Jesus Christ who embraced all the marginalized of his society; having said that, we must say that we did not read of any homophobic statement from any bishop or clergy in the Church of England. It is sad that anyone who does not support the ministry of gay and lesbians, as well as same-sex marriages, is considered homophobic. Obviously there is a big difference between those who refuse to recognize the presence of homosexuals in the church, i.e. homophobic, and those who do support Lambeth 1998 Resolution 1.10 and do not support the ministry and ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbians, as well as same-sex marriages.

The Pilling Report raises an important question which requires an answer: will the Church of England conform to its context, i.e. will the Church of England allow the society to shape its faith and practice in such a way in order to be acceptable by the society, or will the Church of England recognize that its distinctive mission is to transform the society?

The Pilling Report suggests, that while the Church of England should not change its teaching, it should give a space to provide pastoral care to gay and lesbians such as doing same-sex blessing with unauthorized liturgies. It is similar to what some churches in North America called “a local option” and now has become a standard practice in these churches. In the pretext of providing pastoral care, the suggestion in a very subtle way, encourages the turning of a blind eye to a major alteration of the teaching of the church. This suggestion, of a local option, likewise ignores an historic Anglican approach to doctrine, namely lex orandi, lex credendi – what we pray is what we believe. A pastoral provision, while not officially changing the church’s teaching, does, in practice and in fact, change the church’s teaching. The Global South are resolutely opposed to this.

The Global South considers forward movement on the Pilling Report’s recommendations as equal to what the North American churches did ten years ago which caused much confusion in the Communion. This reminds us of Eli the High Priest who turned a blind eye to the wrongdoings of his sons which led to a period of spiritual dryness when the Spirit of God departed from the midst of His people (Ichabod).

The Church of England should not worry about the gap, or the principled tension, between the church and society, especially after the House of Lords and House of Commons accepted same-sex marriages. The Church should not allow the state to put pressure on it. Indeed, the Church needs to respond to the demands of the society, but not at the expense of its faith, practice, and unity. In fact, the Church needs to be the conscious (sic?) of the society, providing spiritual leadership and guidance. A faithful church will always have a principled tension between her and the society. This gap makes the church distinct as salt and light. Especially at this season of Advent, we need to repent and call people to repentance in order to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist was never “politically correct.” He never compromised the message he came to deliver. He risked, and even lost his life, to stay true to this message.

The Pilling Report correctly recognizes that the Church of England is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. It therefore obligates the Church of England to humbly consult and seek the counsel of sister Provinces on such a grave matter, in light of the spirit of the Windsor Report. There is an implication of this fact which is: if the Church of England wants to keep such unity, there must be wider consultation in order to avoid divisive decisions. Whatever decisions the Church of England will take will have an impact on its relation with the wider Anglican Communion, especially the Global South, and also the relation with its ecumenical partners and interfaith dialogues with other religions. It would be difficult to comprehend how we affirm our faith by saying the words of the Nicene Creed, “we believe in one , holy, catholic and apostolic church,” when we take unilateral actions that disrupt this oneness. Our hope and prayer is that the House of Bishops would give serious attention to the relation between the Church of England and the wider Communion, as well as other churches and other faith communities.

The Pilling Report recognizes that this issue is a divisive issue. It is astonishing that the Report makes the Church of England’s observations and recommendations without reference to the same practices by the North American churches in 2002 and 2003 that tore the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level, and continue to do so . It would be very sad, indeed, for the Church of England to follow in the steps of those in North America whose similar unilateral decisions led to further division and tore the fabric of the Communion at its deepest level.
Surely, after all the Primates meetings that have discussed the divisions in the Communion and provided ways forward, the Windsor Report, the absence of one-third of the Bishops at the 2008 Lambeth Conference and the absence of many Primates from 2011 Primates meetings, the Pilling Report does not acknowledge that extensive consultations in the Communion have already been done. We regret that greater attention to these reports and Primates statements did not provide more guidance in the recommendations of the Pilling Report as representing recent, existing consultations. Most of us in the Global South have already participated in the Listening Process. After more than 10 years of listening and conversation, we do not see a value of endless conversations and indabas.

We are clear on what the Bible teaches about sexual relationships outside of the marriage of one man and one woman, and the need for pastoral care for those who find themselves in relationships outside of this. The dissenting view written by the Bishop of Birkenhead captures well our position. For us in the Global South, his view is the majority view, and we hope the Church of England Bishops will recognize this. The Church of England needs to be cautious in taking decisions that will compromise faith and the position of the Church of England within the Anglican Communion as well as the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury who tries hard to heal the torn fabric of the Communion.

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be trans formed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will.”                                                               Romans 12:1-2

May the Lord bless you!

Yours in Christ,

+ Mouneer Egypt                                                      + +Ian Mauritius
The Most Revd Dr. Mouneer Hanna Anis                The Most Revd Ian Ernest
Chairman of the Global South                                                     Honorable General Secretary of the Global South of the Anglican Communion                                               of the Anglican Communion
What irritates His Grace most about this is that we are about to celebrate the birth of Christ, and this issue is a colossal diabolical distraction. Five centuries ago, Church of England bishops were burned at the stake for the gospel of salvation; now they meet over cheese and wine to discuss sexuality.

The paragraph in bold type evidences the missiological diversity that exists across the Anglican Communion, and it requires a little unpacking, for therein lies the taproot of division and a possible branch on which may sprout a degree of unity.   

The Church has always struggled with the tension between the affirmation and assimilation of culture, and the call of the gospel to confront and transform it. Richard Niebuhr outlined five possible relationships between the gospel and culture, which are the typical approaches taken throughout Christian history.

He identified Christ against culture; Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ with culture in paradox; and Christ the transformer of culture. Each generates different understandings of the mission of the Church, and each finds its expression in the broad church that is the Church of England – which incorporates Protestants, Evangelicals, conservatives, liberals, Anglo-Catholics and permutations of various fusions of these held ‘in tension’.

Some essentially view culture as antagonistic to the gospel, and adopt a confrontational approach. The model of contextualisation (if there is one) will be the translation model, challenging the culture with a direct presentation of the unchanging gospel. Those who see culture as being ‘on our side’ adopt the anthropological model of contextualisation, looking for ways in which God has revealed himself in culture and builds on those. Those who adopt the ‘Christ above culture’ model have a synthetic approach and adopt a mediating third way, keeping culture and faith in creative tension.

And for those - like our Global South brothers - who see Christ as the transformer of culture, adopt a critical contextualisation which by no means rejects culture, but is prepared to be critical both of the context and of the way we ourselves perceive the gospel and its meaning. Thus culture itself needs to be addressed by the gospel, not simply the individuals within it, and truth is mediated through cultural spectacles, including our own.

This model mitigates cultural arrogance or easy identification of the gospel with English culture. It also permits one to see how mission relates to every aspect of a culture in its political, economic and social dimensions. David Bosch is an advocate of mission that is as inclusive as possible. He says:
Mission is a multifaceted ministry, in respect of witness, service, justice, healing, reconciliation, liberation, peace, evangelism, fellowship, church planting, contextualisation, and much more... mission has to be multidimensional.
Such a model is demanded by the postmodern plurality which now presents the Church of England with a melting pot of cultures and ideas to which it needs to respond in different ways: there cannot be one model of mission which is inflexible and unresponsive; each situation must be met on its merits and the response must be appropriate. Essentially, the context of each region of the Communion, and each diocese within each region, and each parish within each diocese must make them sift, test, reformulate and transform mission in order that the response can be relevant and dynamic for those who are being lost.

According to Lesslie Newbigin, ‘there is not and cannot be a gospel which is not culturally embodied.’ He maintains that the missionary task is to challenge the ‘reigning plausibility structure’ by examining it in light of the revealed purposes of God contained in the biblical narrative. He advocates a scepticism which enables one to take part in the life of society without being deluded by its own beliefs about itself.

The distinctive mission of the Church of England, while based upon the principle of inculturation, cannot endorse uncritical acceptance of the totality of English culture. And yet it operates a territorial ‘church in community’ type of ecclesiology which works with the state to define its worship, and through dioceses, parishes and chaplaincies to effect its pastoral care and compassionate service. Establishment commits the Church of England to full involvement in civil society and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications.

By concerning itself with the pastoral dimensions of wholeness and healing, the mission of the Church of England accords with people’s quest for meaning and an assurance of identity which cannot be found without community, without fellowship. Its fundamental weaknesses, in common with many churches in Europe, is its tendency to demand that people do not merely acknowledge the Lordship of Christ but also abandon their former way of life in favour of that of a peculiar middle-class sub-culture. Notwithstanding some of the excellent work going on in some of the most impoverished parishes in the country, the public perception of the Church of England remains one of middle-class privilege and an élitism which has little relevance to a modern, pluralist, multi-ethnic society.

And it is also one which has very little relevance to most gays and lesbians, and therein lies the missiological challenge.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Why do universities repudiate Christian orthodoxy but welcome sharia law?

Only a few weeks ago, the one remaining male-only college at Oxford University announced that it was going to admit women. St Benet’s Hall – of Benedictine foundation – has found a way to comply with Roman Catholic canon law and accommodate celibate monks surrounded by young ladies. This is progress: it is, after all, a little odd for a Christian college to actualise an ethos which is welcoming to students of all faiths (and none) while rejecting women, who are also made in the image of God.

Or is it progress?

Must we now expect Cambridge University to coerce its three remaining female colleges to admit men? If so, why should we tolerate gender-restricted admissions at any level of education? Why boys' prep schools? Why girls' high schools?

And isn't all this binary male-female categorisation rather limiting? What about those of 'indeterminate sex'?

Gender segregation in our universities has become an issue since certain 'fundamentalist' Muslim teachers appear to want the sisters seated separately from the brothers. And 'separately' in this context appears to mean 'at the back'. Up until a few days ago, this policy had the the support of Universities UK, which purports to speak on behalf of all British universities. They decreed that institutions could allow gender segregation during lectures given by external speakers if the tenets of their religion required it, as "there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating".

But then Michael Gove and the Prime Minister and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Richard Dawkins all objected to this 'gender apartheid', and so the UUK 'guidance' was hastily withdrawn.

His Grace does not wish to rehearse again the arguments for or against the assertion of inviolable equality over religious freedom: it is a path well trodden upon this blog.

He simply wonders why these universities have been so eager to accommodate the sharia of certain rather robust Muslims, while they have become increasingly hostile to certain expressions of Christian orthodoxy. Why is sexism encouraged – even endorsed – on a university campus, while all debate around the ethics of homosexuality is suppressed, for fear of offending the sensitivities of homosexual and lesbian students?

Is discrimination against women somehow less offensive than discrimination against the LGBT communities?

If the toleration of Islam's 'gender apartheid' is about free speech and freedom of religion, why do some universities clamp down on 'pro-life' Roman Catholic speakers?

It is a curious state of affairs in which supposedly 'secular' educational institutions permit Muslim speakers to impose their interpretation of sharia upon an audience, while Christian speakers – who simply wish to expound a moral worldview and impose nothing upon no one – are increasingly not even allowed through the door.

University Islamic societies are run in the interests of Muslims, and many of their members deplore gender segregation. Yet the practice has been seemingly commonplace at no fewer than 21 separate institutions.

Now they've got wind of it, feminists are in a rage: no assertion of religious power should be permitted to obliterate their hard-won equality. But why has it taken them so long to protest? Why has this matter received so little media attention up until now?

And why should an organisation like UUK find a manifestly discriminatory practice acceptable in the name of religious freedom? They said in a statement:
“The guidance does not promote gender segregation. It includes a hypothetical case study involving an external speaker talking about his orthodox religious faith who had requested segregated seating areas for men and women.

"The case study considered the facts, the relevant law and the questions that the university should ask, and concluded that if neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area also provided, a university could decide it is appropriate to agree to the request.”
Why have they never issued such guidance in defence of Christian external speakers? It is not against the law to seek to limit abortion. It is not against the law to assert that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. And yet a totalitarian and intolerant mindset has become pervasive: pro-abortionists restrict the pro-life message; gays and lesbians shut down all debate on sexual ethics and the nature of marriage.

Surely, if no one is disadvantaged by the expression of orthodox beliefs, Christians ought to be free to speak in British universities about the power of the sexual drive and the horrors of abortion. And maybe one or two might even do it with a little canonical perspective.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole as King Henry II in 'Becket'

"Life will often be tough, but you will find more love than you can imagine now"

The Spectator asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to write to his 14-year-old self. It is a surprisingly brief note from His (present) Grace (now also posted on the Lambeth Palace website). His (former) Grace would have an awful lot more to say to his 14-year-old self, not least about the vicious politics of all the church stuff the evil buried beneath shrouds of piety, and the long and lonely nights of consecrated darkness. Some Christians will let you down; others will be absolute bastards.

But they love you.

His (present) Grace's letter is probably copyright, but the Speccie has been known to 'lift' one or two items from His Grace's site, and if Lambeth Palace wish to sue, they are free to do so. His (present) Grace writes:
Dear Justin,

You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry — it does not measure who you are. Keep on dreaming of great things, but learn to live in the present, so that you take steps to accomplish them. Above all, more important than anything, don’t wait until you are older to find out about Jesus Christ and his love for you. He is not just a name at Chapel, but a person you can know. Christmas is not a fairy story, but the compelling opening of the greatest drama in history, with you as one of millions of players. Life will often be tough, but you will find more love than you can imagine now.

With my love to you, Justin
Neither the Palace's website nor the Archbishop's blog permit comments, which is a pity because all that His (present) Grace writes and says merits more than a little discussion.

"You are rarely good at anything."

What a window into the man's humility and youthful insecurity this opening phrase gives. He is no great theologian; no distinguished intellect. He has no impressive doctorate; no profound expression.

But neither did St Peter.

The Christian faith was preached in the first instance to poor, illiterate men – a college made up, for the most part, of an ignorant but inspired cohort of theologically undistinguished and spiritually flawed men who must have worried more than a little about their faults and failings.

But the Lord still chose them, because our inadequacies are not the measure of who we are.

If we do not dream big dreams we will reach our deathbeds and gaze back on our lives with sorrow and regret. But realising those dreams requires tenacity, discipline and commitment: we should not wait passively for Simon Cowell to discover us, or the lottery to deliver us, for fame and fortune are nothing but illusions of fulfilment. The material yearning is just a longing for the peace that passes understanding.

We need to find Jesus Christ, but when you find him don't, for God's sake, presume to believe that only you grasp the depth of his wisdom or the breadth of his salvation. The Church is universal, it is catholic, and the Holy Spirit lives in places and works through people you couldn't begin to imagine. Who are we to confine His infinite grace by the borders of our intellects and the boundaries of our structures?

"Christmas is not a fairy story, but the compelling opening of the greatest drama in history."

The world will not believe that, and no amount of shouting it or singing it will persuade them. Only by loving can we preach the truth. And that love must be selfless, or it is not love. If you have found it, share it. Yes, it will be tough. But Jesus didn't come to make our lives easy.

Perhaps, on reflection, there is not so much to write to one's 14-year-old self. His (former) Grace's missive might be even briefer that that of his (present) Grace: 
Be of good comfort, Master Cranmer, and play the man! You shall one day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.

But it will hurt, profoundly.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reno erat Rudolphus - nasum rubrum habebat

Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Impact of Christian Thinking on the European Project"

Apparently there was a conference in the European Parliament on 3rd December, examining how the EU's Founding Fathers were led by Christian inspiration "to peace and reconciliation in a war-torn continent"; and how there is now a need to renew the 'soul of Europe' because the project is deeper than mere politics and economics.

His Grace has tried to contact the organisers, but they will not respond.

He has tried to obtain transcripts of the speeches, but no one will oblige.

Surely they have nothing to hide.

Or has the wheel has come full circle?

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have been complicit in the whole manipulative process of European integration since its inception: they have been content to be (or to be portrayed as being) the 'Soul for Europe’; willing accomplices and dogmatic advocates of political union. They have nurtured, nourished and encouraged it. They have affirmed, praised and exalted it.

Why, one may ask, have they helped to create the beast which is anti-family, anti-life, anti-Christian, and intent on destroying the very foundations of their liberties?

If it profits a man nothing to give his soul even for the whole world, why has the Church abdicated its spiritual authority for a façade of privilege and 30 euros?

Roman Catholic social teaching has been foundational to European integration, and yet the project of ever closer union has evolved into one of ever secularising Enlightenment, in which equality is deemed sacred and abortion has become a human right. And God forbid that a devout Roman Catholic might now attempt to become a Commissioner.

All that seems to remain of the "Christian inspiration" of the European Union are the mysteries of ineffable revelation, the mechanisms of curial bureaucracy and the impregnable structures of infallible governance. It is apposite to consider the observations of Lord Shore of Stepney:
…no one who has been engaged seriously in the business of examining draft EC laws and treaties can have any doubt about their quite extraordinary – and deliberate - complexity. Every new article or treaty clause is, with reference to articles in earlier treaties - generally to be located in a separate treaty volume. Indeed part of the whole mystique of Community Law is its textual incomprehensibility, its physical dispersal, its ambivalence and its dependence upon ultimate clarification by the European Court of Justice: and the Brussels Commission and their long-serving, often expert officials are, in interpreting and manipulating all this, like a priestly caste - similar to what it must have been in pre-Reformation days, when the Bible was in Latin, not English; the Pope, his cardinals and bishops decided the content of canon law and the message came down to the laymen, only when the Latin text was translated into the vernacular by the dutiful parish priest.
There does need to be some very deep Christian thinking within and upon the vexatious matter European Union. But the way forward is for 95 theses to be pinned to the door of the European Parliament.

We need Europe.

But not this one.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

If Scientology is now an official religion, the Jedi constitute a church, Yoda is a prophet, and the Force a deity

The judgment in the case of Church of Scientology Hodkin and another (Appellants) v HM Treasury Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages (Respondent) makes very interesting reading. The case was heard before Lords Neuberger (President), Clarke, Wilson, Reed and Toulson. Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC represented Church of Scientology Hodkin and another; James Strachan QC represented HM Treasury Registrar General of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

Basically, Louisa Hodkin (the first appellant) and her fiancé, Alessandro Calcioli, want to be married in the church which they regularly attend at 146 Queen Victoria Street, London. The minister, Mrs Laura Wilks (the second appellant), would be pleased to perform the ceremony, but there was a legal obstacle. The church to which they belong is part of the Church of Scientology, and in 1970 the Court of Appeal held in a similar case that a different church within the Church of Scientology was not a “place of meeting for religious worship”.

Hitherto, religious worship has required an object of veneration to which the worshiper submitted. Their Lordships observe:
During the period from the reformation (sic) until the mid-eighteenth century, apart from occasional legislative interventions, it was left to the Church of England to lay down the rules about how marriages could be solemnised and what records were to be kept. The rules of the Church permitted extreme informality. A valid marriage could be contracted by simple words of consent in a church or elsewhere and with or without witnesses. The laxity of the law led to uncertainty and abuse until Lord Hardwicke LC persuaded Parliament to pass the Clandestine Marriages Act 1753 (26 Geo 2, c 33). The Act laid down procedures for the solemnisation and recording of marriages, over which the Church of England was given a virtual monopoly. There were exceptions for the marriages of Quakers and Jews, but others such as Roman Catholics could only be married in an Anglican church in accordance with the Anglican rite. Russell Sandberg aptly comments in Law and Religion (2011), p 25, that the law mirrored the approach of Parson Thwackum in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, published in 1749:
“When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not
only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only
the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.”
By degrees toleration, discrimination for other denominations and faiths was diminished.  It has been maintained against Scientology - mainly because it is a weird cult invented in 1954 by a writer of science fiction.

A bit like the Jedi.

But Their Lordships have given ear to the pleadings of Mrs Wilks, who:
..has been a minister of the Church of Scientology since 1995 and the minister of the church at 146 Queen Victoria Street since 2006. She has conducted many congregational services in its chapel. In her statutory declaration she gives an account of the history, beliefs and practices of Scientology. Her evidence was not challenged and so may be taken as accurate for present purposes. In the judicial review proceedings the appellants also filed other evidence about the history, nature and practices of Scientology, but it is sufficient to refer to the evidence of Mrs Wilks, as the minister of the chapel which the appellants wish to have registered as a place of religious worship.
Basically, the doctrine of L Ron Hubbard is now a de facto religion because it "involves belief in and worship of a supernatural power, also known as God, the Supreme Being or the Creator."

A bit like the Jedi.

Moreover, "understanding of the Creator is attainable only through spiritual enlightenment, and the goal of Scientology is to help its members to obtain such enlightenment."

A bit like the Jedi.

Moreover still, "Scientology holds that the accomplishment of spiritual salvation is possible only through successive stages of enlightenment."

A bit like Buddhism.

And the Jedi.

Mrs Wilks told Their Lordships:
“Congregational services are an important feature in Scientology Churches. These are what occurs in our chapel. Such services are occasions where we commune with the Infinite and reach with reverence and respect towards the Supreme Being. They always include a prayer to the Supreme Being in which the whole congregation joins. There is also a reading of the Creed of the Church of Scientology, in which the pre-eminent position of God is affirmed. All congregational services are open to the public. Scientologists also perform naming ceremonies, funerals and weddings and these occasions are open to Scientologists, their families and the public.”
Their Creed goes:
We of the Church believe:That all men of whatever race, colour or Creed were created with equal rights;
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance;
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others;
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind;
That the souls of men have the rights of men; And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.
And we of the Church believe:
That the spirit can be saved and
That the spirit alone may save or heal the body.
That's nice.

The have a 'prayer for total freedom', too. It goes:
May the author of the universe enable all men to reach an understanding of their spiritual nature.
May awareness and understanding of life expand, so that all may come to know the author of the universe.
And may others also reach this understanding which brings Total Freedom.
Freedom to use and understand man’s potential – a potential that is God-given and God-like.
And freedom to achieve that understanding and awareness that is Total Freedom.
May God let it be so.
That's nice, too.

And if the Jedi haven't yet quite got this far with their liturgy, His Grace will assist them in the compilation of their Book of Common Force.

Their Lordships pondered theology:
We have had much discussion on the meaning of the word “religion” and of the word “worship”, taken separately, but I think we should take the combined phrase, “place of meeting for religious worship” as used in the statute of 1855. It connotes to my mind a place of which the principal use is as a place where people come together as a congregation or assembly to do reverence to God. It need not be the God which the Christians worship. It may be another God, or an unknown God, but it must be reverence to a deity. There may be exceptions. For instance, Buddhist temples are properly described as places of meeting for religious worship. But, apart from exceptional cases of that kind, it seems to me the governing idea behind the words “place of meeting for religious worship” is that it should be a place for the worship of God. I am sure that would be the meaning attached by those who framed this legislation of 1855.”
And they noted the words of Lord Denning, who commented:
“Turning to the creed of the Church of Scientology, I must say that it seems to me to be more a philosophy of the existence of man or of life, rather than a religion. Religious worship means reverence or veneration of God or of a Supreme Being. I do not find any such reverence or veneration in the creed of this church. … When I look through the ceremonies and the affidavits, I am left with the feeling that there is nothing in it of reverence for God or a deity, but simply instruction in a philosophy. There may be belief in a spirit of man, but there is no belief in a spirit of God.”
Lord Denning’s 1970 definition of religious worship carried within it an implicit theistic definition of religion. It was because the Church of Scientology’s services did not contain reverence for God, as Lord Denning understood the meaning of God, that he concluded that the services did not amount to religious worship.

Religion and English law meet today at various points. Charity law protects trusts as charitable if they are for the advancement of religion. Individuals have a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under article 9 of the European Convention. They enjoy the right not to be discriminated against on grounds of religion or belief under EU Council Directive 2000/78/EC and under domestic equality legislation. And so:
Unless there is some compelling contextual reason for holding otherwise, religion should not be confined to religions which recognise a supreme deity. First and foremost, to do so would be a form of religious discrimination unacceptable in today’s society. It would exclude Buddhism, along with other faiths such as Jainism, Taoism, Theosophy and part of Hinduism. The evidence in the present case shows that, among others, Jains, Theosophists and Buddhists have registered places of worship in England. Lord Denning in Segerdal [1970] 2 QB 697, 707 acknowledged that Buddhist temples were “properly described as places of meeting for religious worship” but he referred to them as “exceptional cases” without offering any further explanation. The need to make an exception for Buddhism (which has also been applied to Jainism and Theosophy), and the absence of a satisfactory explanation for it, are powerful indications that there is something unsound in the supposed general rule.
On the evidence of Mrs Wilks, Scientologists do believe in a supreme deity of a kind, but of an abstract and impersonal nature.

A bit like the Jedi.

Their Lordships continue:
Of the various attempts made to describe the characteristics of religion, I find most helpful that of Wilson and Deane JJ. For the purposes of PWRA, I would describe religion in summary as a spiritual or non-secular belief system, held by a group of adherents, which claims to explain mankind’s place in the universe and relationship with the infinite, and to teach its adherents how they are to live their lives in conformity with the spiritual understanding associated with the belief system.
A bit like the Jedi.

His Grace has been warning about this for years (see HERE, with the financial implications HERE). The Treasury is right to be concerned. Conservative MP Brandon Lewis, Minister for Local Government, said yesterday:
"I am very concerned about this ruling, and its implications for business rates.

"In the face of concerns raised by Conservatives in Opposition, Labour Ministers told Parliament during the passage of the Equalities Bill that Scientology would continue to fall outside the religious exemption for business rates. But we now discover Scientology may be eligible for rate relief and that the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill, all thanks to Harriet Harman and Labour's flawed laws.

"Hard-pressed taxpayers will wonder why Scientology premises should now be given tax cuts when local firms have to pay their fair share.

"We will review the Court’s verdict and discuss this with our legal advisers before deciding the next steps. However, it will remain the case that premises which are not genuinely open to the public will not qualify for tax relief ."
And this is precisely what Labour told us during debate on the Equality Bill:
Baroness Warsi (Shadow Minister): Perhaps the Minister can correct me if I am wrong, but it does appear at the moment that the Bill would undermine this court ruling, and set us in a situation whereby philosophical beliefs in fact would also be included under that exemption. The Bill and the Explanatory Notes state clearly that a philosophical belief is also included. Furthermore, the Bill imposes a duty on public authorities which prohibits discrimination, harassment or victimisation by people who supply services or perform public functions. The Explanatory Notes state that this also applies to revenue raising and collection. Can the Minister therefore clarify whether this will mean that those premises used for scientology meetings would undermine the 1970 definition so far that this would mean that the Church of England and the Church of Scientology would have to be treated in the same way for tax purposes? Does she agree that this sends out a difficult message to the public, because, at a time when families and local businesses are really struggling, as bills rocket, scientologists will soon be eligible for more tax breaks? Most people are in favour of freedom of expression, but it is difficult to maintain this when, at such a difficult time, it seems also to extend to tax breaks.

Baroness Thornton (Labour Govt Minister): ...As regards the issue of scientology and the question about building ratings-the noble Baroness asked a legitimate question-the Bill does not change the current situation. There is a statutory authority exception in relation to public functions which would cover tax relief on religious buildings. I hope that that satisfies the noble Baroness on that particular question.

Baroness Butler-Sloss (asking a question of the Labour Minister): For the past 30 years at least, the Church of Scientology has not been accepted as a church. I did not understand from the Minister's answer whether the way in which Clause 10 is set out will change that situation.

Baroness Thornton: No. I thought I made it clear in my remarks to the noble and learned Baroness that this does not change the situation."
The problem is that Government ministers will consult ad nauseam with lawyers and tax experts, not with theologians. And the resolution to this absurd ruling is acutely theological. The Church of Scientology is winning, and political action alone is difficult because of: i) equality legislation; ii) pervasive relativism; and iii) there being no agreed definition of religion.

Having got this far (for which, His Grace reiterates, the Church of Scientology picked up all the legal bills and commissioned all the PR at huge cost), they won't give up now. The only obstacle between this cult and taxpayer funding is the issue of whether or not their places of worship are open to the general public. So we will soon see them being as open to the world and his dog as much as mosques are: ie, entry only on compliance with strict adherence to certain religio-cultural observances. And since mosques are open to the public but free to discriminate inter alia against women, there is nothing to prevent the Church of Scientology from imposing similar discriminatory policies to limit access for non-believers.

As far as His Grace is concerned, if Scientology is now an official religion, the Jedi constitute a church, Yoda is a prophet, and the Force a deity.

And so is the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

There is no logical end to the fragmenting of religious sects and the fracturing of cults.
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