Friday, February 28, 2014

"None of the above" - a response to Frank Cranmer

As His Grace mentioned last week, Gillan Scott of the excellent God & Politics in the UK blog has been running an insightful series on Christians who belong to political parties and justify their activism with appeals to Scripture. Today he comes to a Quaker in the guise of Frank Cranmer (no relation), who writes the equally excellent Law & Religion UK blog. Mr Cranmer has no current political allegiance, though he is ex-Labour (he is also ex-Anglican, but left and became a Quaker "in order to get away from 'doctrine'" [which His Grace takes as a compliment]).

Contrary to the caricature ranting of certain robust Roman Catholics who populate His Grace's comment threads, it is not and never has been the purpose of this blog to instruct people in how they should vote: His Grace inclines toward a conservative view of the world, but would far rather people voted Labour than not vote at all. And he is fully aware that the Conservatives frequently engage in or advocate that which is fundamentally un-conservative. But we live in a liberal democracy, and His Grace is of the view that voting is the least worst option of all the mechanisms that give rise to government, which is, as Augustine observed, a necessary evil. Those who do not vote for the party which is likely to do the most good and cause the least harm are simply increasing the likelihood of the proliferation of evil. That is not to say that His Grace is not unsympathetic to those who refuse to vote: it can be an honourable principled abstention. But that self-denial (in a liberal democracy, of a human right) is a wilful choice for impotence and an abdication of responsibility, which logically precludes the right to criticise, denounce or grumble when the government gets it wrong.

Political parties win elections by promising heaven on earth - 'twas ever thus. And when, a year or so later, the people realise that they are still in purgatory, another swathe of disaffected voters views the democratic process with cynicism and disdain, declaring a plague on all their houses. This leads to a voter apathy and alienation, a deterioration in democratic participation and a declining turnout in elections, especially among the young. This appears to be where Frank Cranmer finds himself.

This blog has never advocated the blind endorsement of any political party: it does not purport to be any kind of 'bridge' between Christian communities and the Conservative Party (that is the professed role and function of the CCF). Rather His Grace has sought for eight long years to explore the rich stream that flows between Christianity and conservatism. The principal concern aims to be that place where Christian theology meets political philosophy. These are usually expressed in the pulpit and through party politics. You may take the view that theology is diminished and philosophy corrupted by the mediating agency, but that is the human condition.

Mr Cranmer is free not to vote: that is his human right. But his reason for not voting Conservative merits a response, not least because it labours under a few misapprehensions. He wrote:
As for the Conservatives, although (with Margaret Thatcher, I’m afraid) I firmly believe that the free market is the least-inefficient method of allocating resources, in my view its concomitant has to be proper State provision for the poor – of which there is an alarmingly-high number in the UK.
This is as good a reason as any to vote Conservative (though all the main parties have to some extent now embraced 'neoliberalism' and the virtues of the free market). There is an acknowledgment that the market is "the least-inefficient method of allocating resources", ie, the lesser evil. But neither Socialist nor Green philosophy lauds private enterprise. Their collectivist mindset focuses on the shortcomings of Capitalism - of which there are many - and their view of Thatcherite wealth creation is that it is a manifest cause of inequality and poverty. Mr Cranmer seems to appreciate that it is the competitive market which is best placed to allocate resources, but he is not apparently aware that it has contributed more than any alternative in history to the eradication of disease, squalor, hunger, ignorance and destitution. There are indeed many poor in the UK, but their relative poverty is nothing compared to the absolute poverty experienced by many millions in the most poverty-stricken regions of the world. It is capitalism and the market which are improving their lot: socialism keeps them there.
Some elements in the Conservative Party seem to think that those who are unemployed should simply pull themselves together and find a job: tell that to folk living in places like the parts of Birmingham where the unemployment level is between 8 and 10 per cent.
Yes, there are some complete bastards in the Conservative Party. But there are some thoroughly obnoxious Quakers, too. And yet one wonders at the caricature here: what Conservative has ever said that the unemployed "should simply pull themselves together and find a job", without acknowledging that some are simply unable to do so? Any quote His Grace can find is addressed directly to the indolent and recidivist; those who calculate that welfare pays more than work, and so they are content to be supported by the taxpayer. Iain Duncan Smith is trying to address this fundamental injustice, for why in parts of Birmingham should someone in work be poorer than those on benefits? Why should those who take responsibility for providing for their families live a more meagre existence than those who claim the dole? But no Conservative is unaware of the moral obligation of the State to care for widows and orphans, or the elderly and disabled. And in those areas of the country where unemployment is high, the Conservative approach is not laissez faire: it is to create the right social conditions and legal framework for enterprise to flourish.
And I was utterly unconvinced by the Chancellor’s arguments for reducing the top rate of income tax from 50 per cent to 45 per cent.
There is a very plausible theory of optimal taxation: see HERE.
But my principal reason for avoiding the Conservatives is their attitude to human rights in general and to the European Convention on Human Rights in particular.
This is interesting, for modern Conservatives have embraced human rights lock, stock and barrel: the UN Charter demands it. If there is an 'attitude', it is not borne of bigotry or intolerance; it is simply that conservatives look to a different historical and philosophical tradition to that which emerged from the French Revolution. Burke is the conservative starting point, and his substantive review of conservative tenets includes an insistence on concrete rights rather than abstract ones; an organic conception of society as an eternal partnership between past, present and future; history as the accumulated wisdom of all generations; the natural inequality of human beings, and hence of their status and property; respect for authority and its institutional manifestations, law and religion; and an acceptance of gradual change.
We need a robust and justiciable regime of human rights to protect us against arbitrary and capricious decisions by public authorities and, incidentally, we need an equally robust and accessible mechanism of judicial review of their actions – neither of which seems to be within the comprehension of Lord Chancellor Grayling.
Very many Conservatives would agree (even about the inadequacies of Lord Chancellor Grayling). But the conservative justiciable regime of human rights negates the notion of abstract a priori rights in favour of an ex post facto theorisation of the development of rights within a cultural tradition. Mr Cranmer may recoil from the Tory commendations of authority, reverence, and paternalistic, quasi-feudal responsibilities, but it is a fundamental misapprehension to believe that Conservatives or conservatives do not support the necessary rights "to protect us against arbitrary and capricious decisions by public authorities". Conservative human rights are founded upon our traditional liberties within a framework of the rule of law, and those rights have corresponding duties. While it is a logical constraint found in all ideologies that rights entail duties, the decontestation of duties undertaken by conservatives is not based on the ensuing notion of reciprocity, as in liberal or some socialist thought, but on cultural constraint promoting the obligation not to burden others and, instead, to assume self-responsibility.
And how can we lecture corrupt regimes about their behaviour and promote good governance within the Commonwealth unless we are absolutely squeaky-clean ourselves?
We cannot, which is why hypocrisy, falsehood, conceit and deception must be swept from our political system.

But that can never be attained while good people insist on voting for none of the above.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Bishop of Oxford: "There will be no witch-hunts in this diocese"

As Prime Minister David Cameron enters into tortuous negotiations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel about the future shape of Europe; and as Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson threatens to resign over certain secret assurances given to Irish Republican terrorists classified as "On The Run"; and as the Ukraine descends into a bloody civil war about historic matters of ethnicity, identity, religion, and whether or not Russia is more Christian and free than the EU; and as Syria (remember that?) pours out a vast sea of destitute and diseased humanity, where Christians are beheaded and mothers die in childbirth; spare a thought for Church of England as it continues to agonise over the House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is trying to move on (with an ecumenical focus on social action projects), but the Bishop of Oxford has written a letter to his clergy in which he pours out his anguish and sorrow over the House of Bishops' statement, and explains his personal torment and the torture deep within his soul over the limbo caused by the statement. For Bishop John, civil partnership is not and can never be the same thing as marriage, and he has long trodden a narrow path which has pleased neither wing of the sexuality divide. It is not so much a question of sheep and goats, as which pasture is most conducive for spiritual grazing and where the theological grass is greener. But the inadequacy, ambiguity, obfuscation and internal contradictions contained in the Bishops' Dog's Breakfast Pastoral Guidance would do Sir Humphrey proud. For some, it comes as a great relief; for others, it is cruel and absurd. God reveals Himself in His Word, which requires exegesis, interpretation and a grasp of its fundamental Sitz im Leben. But the Bishops cloak Him in shadowy puzzlement and shroud the Word in smog. Doing theology in this context is nigh impossible.

This guidance permits the Church of England to begin the facilitated conversations that were advocated in the Pilling Report. There is no predetermined outcome, but the distrust and suspicion on both sides clouds understanding, makes prayer a profound spiritual struggle, and fellowship a depressing hassle. Here is Bishop John's letter to the clergy of the Diocese of Oxford in its entirety:
This is a very difficult part of the letter to get right. I know that what I write will be unacceptable to gay clergy who despair of the Church of England, and to conservatives who will see compromise looming. But I can’t not write about the Pastoral Letter and Appendix on Same Sex Marriage which emerged recently. I wish I could talk individually to everyone in order to engage properly and personally, but we all know this is impossible. I sit amongst many different loyalties and seek to honour as many of them as possible.

First I apologise for the tone of the letter (or rather the Appendix). It was written by committee and that is always bad news. This is a deeply personal issue, indeed a visceral one, and every word and inference is capable of harm. I hope it’s common ground that we are part of a Church which is called to real repentance for the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to gay and lesbian people. Nor have we listened well to those whose voice has not been heard, including the experience of those called to celibacy, those in committed same sex relationships, and clergy who have lovingly and sensitively ministered to gay couples over the years.

It was never going to be likely that the House of Bishops would change two thousand years of teaching during a day in February at Church House Westminster. The intention was to respond to a new legal situation in the context of a longer conversation in the Church about an issue which has theological, biblical, ethical, missiological and ecclesiological implications. This longer conversation is what the Pilling report has asked us to do and to which the College of Bishops is committed.

The House was also aware of a huge level of interest and concern from other parts of the Anglican Communion, and from other denominations and faith traditions. The Archbishop told us how in the previous few days, literally in the midst of corpses and tales of systematic rape, he had been quizzed by his African episcopal hosts about the Pilling Report, such was their anxiety.

The resulting letter and appendix is supposed to be a holding statement on the logical position of the House in the new situation, given the Church’s history and teaching – while the longer conversation goes on. The fact that this was done in a way which has caused dismay is a source of huge regret to me but that’s back to my first point above.

The longer conversation is one on which David Porter, the Archbishop’s Adviser on Reconciliation, is to give advice in three or four months, having worked on the task with a well-chosen group.

I appreciate that some are unwilling to participate in this process on the grounds that they believe the scriptural position is perfectly clear and ‘facilitated conversation’ can only mean an intention to change, while conversely others will be wary because they believe that to have participated in a process that didn’t in the end change anything might expose them to adverse treatment by bishops and/or others. Nevertheless, I dare to ask that we do enter the conversation with integrity and trust because we do need to seek God’s mind and heart, and we can’t do this without all of us being round the table and being honest with each other.

“I also know that many will be reluctant to examine the biblical material yet again. But the Bible is our core authority and issues of both exegesis and hermeneutical method are crucial. Let me be absolutely honest here. I don’t expect that many people will change their mind through this biblical exploration. I hope some might, because we must have the highest loyalty to truth, but in reality I don’t expect many to change their basic position.

“What I do very much hope, however, is that we can get to a point where we can respect the integrity of the biblical interpretation of others. I hope we can come to understand deeply why others take a different view, and to respect that conviction even though we disagree, perhaps profoundly. None of us is taking a cavalier attitude to biblical authority, but thoughtful, honest people can thoughtfully, honestly disagree.

“The task then becomes twofold: to discover how much we can agree on, and to learn how to disagree well on what we can’t agree on. Archbishop Justin often uses that phrase ‘disagree well’. So then the third question becomes whether we want to affirm that spectrum of honest belief or detach ourselves from it. I dearly want to keep intact the range and scale of the Church of England’s theology, and we will be grievously hurt by the loss of any from the richness of our calling and our reach in the nation’s life.

“As you will know from my statement on the website in December 2012 I have been very happy to affirm civil partnerships as a positive development which gives same sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual couples. As that statement says, such relationships ‘are capable of the same level of love, permanence and loyalty as marriage, and I believe God delights in such qualities’.

“Nevertheless I believe that to say that civil partnership is the same thing as marriage is a category confusion. To use a musical image, nature has its ‘theme and variations’, both part of the music, but not the same thing. I have therefore looked for different ways of recognising two different patterns of relationship. I realise that that puts me at odds with most people on both ‘sides’ of the argument! And society has largely gone past that argument now anyway. The issue has become same sex marriage, though some may still want to opt for a form of civil partnership.

“So where do we end up? That’s just the point – we don’t know. The Pilling Report urges us to talk, and although it makes at least one recommendation about the recognition of a same sex relationship in a public service, its main recommendation is to talk and listen so that God may be heard. And that voice of God will undoubtedly be a gracious, gentle and challenging voice, just as I trust our conversations with each other will be marked by humility and grace.

“It’s quite clear that these conversations take place in a wider context of deep sexual confusion in society with everyone making up their own script, and the result is much chaos and pain. We have a responsibility to model something better in the way we handle principle and practice, disagreement and hope.

“As I wrote at the start, I’m sorry that the attempt by the House of Bishops to hold the ancient borders while the conversation goes on has proved so divisive in itself. The train crash was probably inevitable; the only question was when, where and involving how many. But be sure of this – there will be no witch-hunts in this diocese. We are seeking to live as God’s people, in God’s world, in God’s way. And we do that best as we stand shoulder to shoulder and look together at the cross, and at its heart see an empty tomb.”
It is almost a divine-human encounter - a psalm of lamentation, anguish, sorrow and penitence, in which Bishop John's supplicating heart is revealed for the world to mock, deride, spit upon and crucify. But the letter is honest: it is a mirror to a great many souls. The tragedy is that more bishops don't write such agonising letters about national political upheaval, or the unimaginable misery of persecution and the appalling bloodshed of war, tribulation and martyrdom.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sir John Major fleshes out the Tory "moral mission"

Sir John Major delivered a speech yesterday at Conservative Campaign Headquarters. He was invited by Party Chairman Grant Shapps to launch a new apprenticeship scheme. This was an honour indeed for Sir John, coming 17 years after being ousted from office by the electorate. Margaret Thatcher wasn't invited to CCHQ to rouse the faithful 17 years after being knifed by her own colleagues. No doubt the then party chairman Francis Maude was far too concerned with decontaminating and re-branding to risk a virulent whiff of Thatcherism.

Sir John Major put some flesh on the Prime Minister's "moral mission", which His Grace would like to fisk a few extracts:
"We exist as a political party to help people reach their ambitions and to make sure our country is safe and secure militarily and economically."
So does Labour.
"Look at our policies: Education reform to make sure that people are being better educated in order to maximise their abilities, Opportunity, by creating jobs. And we should bear in mind that – when we are creating jobs and wish people to move around the country and take those jobs – they need houses to move to as well."
So does Labour.
"The world has changed, it’s moving faster and in a more bewildering fashion than it has ever done before. That isn’t going to change. Science and technology isn’t going to stop so we can catch up and become familiar with it. We need to understand that, use technology in the many ways we already are, but also reassure people that behind today’s often bewildering and frightening changes there lies a political party which understands the modern world, and whose primary purpose is the wellbeing of the individual."
So is that of Labour.
"That is what the Conservative Party is here for. We’re not just here to sit in parliament and become ministers. We are here to improve the lives of those who put us in parliament – as well as those who voted against us. That is our job. That is our mission."
As is that of the Labour Party.
"We Conservatives want people to help themselves. To make their own opportunities. To create something better for themselves, for their families, for their community and for their country.
So does Labour.
"I don’t believe that the Labour Party can do that."
Belief is a mental state, often determined by social and linguistic environment, and certainly influenced by desires, fears and intentions. It is not the same as fact, and Labour would claim the same objectives.
"The Labour Party is the party of class warfare and class division. They set people against people, rich against poor, north against south, haves against have nots. If it’s for their political convenience they will sow division not unity."
Um.. if it's for political convenience, so will Conservatives. Socialism embraces the foundational Christian principles and advocates a fairer society. Please don't delude yourself in the belief that Mrs Thatcher didn't sow division.
"It is an astonishing truth – but a truth nonetheless – that every single Labour government we have ever been cursed with has left the country bankrupt or near bankrupt, with incoming Conservative governments having to clear up the mess they left behind."
That's true enough.
"There are people in this country who will be paying the debts of the last Labour government for a generation or more."
That's also true.
"There are young people who were at school, and are now in work, whose taxes are higher, and who will have fewer opportunities because of what that last Labour government did."
Quite so.

So the uniqueness of the Conservative "moral mission" really all comes down to Mammon. Pity Sir John didn't mention marriage, the family and children. Pity he didn't mention personal responsibility which stems from the Christian understanding that choice is at the heart of the human condition, and that we have the opportunity to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. Pity he didn't mention national sovereignty and the ability of the people to assert their identity and rejoice in their origins, purpose and destiny. Pity he didn't mention the preservation of religion, of Christianity, as one of the highest duties of government.

Margaret Thatcher would have done so. She once said:
I believe strongly that politicians must see that religious education has a proper place in the school curriculum. In Scotland, as in England, there is an historic connection expressed in our laws between Church and State. The two connections are of a somewhat different kind, but the arrangements in both countries are designed to give symbolic expression to the same crucial truth: that the Christian religion – which, of course, embodies many of the great spiritual and moral truths of Judaism – is a fundamental part of our national heritage. And I believe it is the wish of the overwhelming majority of people that this heritage should be preserved and fostered. For centuries it has been our very life blood. And indeed we are a nation whose ideals are founded on the Bible.
Now that's what His Grace calls a moral mission.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Labour's paedophile problem is more about press regulation

If the Roman Catholic Church had forged links - even as far back as the 1970s - with something called the Paedophile Information Exchange, the political outrage and media onslaught would have been monumental. Certainly, there have been many thousands of appalling cases and a chronic culture of cover-up, but no one can pretend that this was countenanced by canon lawyers or advocated by the Magisterium. Similarly, if the BBC were found to have proven historic (= Savile-era) connections with a group which favoured easing restrictions on child pornography; advocated a more relaxed attitude to paedophilia; proposed the legalisation of incest; and wanted to lower the age of consent to 10, there would be urgent demands for a public inquiry, with immediate suspensions and assurances in Parliament that heads will roll.

But when three current Labour politicians - former officers of National Council for Civil Liberties - are confronted with documented links to something that really was called the Paedophile Information Exchange, and when it is set down in black and white that this group really did agitate for all of the aforementioned 'progressive' policies, you have to wonder why Ed Miliband has not at least instigated an internal inquiry and done a few background checks on Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey and (former MP) Patricia Hewitt. Instead, he declared that he doesn't "set any store by these allegations", and that Harriet Harman in particular is a person of "huge decency and integrity".

The evidence (if it be) has been set out in the Daily Mail, even alleging that "the Labour government of the time may have helped finance the organisation". Unsurprisingly, Ms Harman has dismissed this as a politically motivated campaign - a smear, indeed, of the most despicable Dacre sort, to which depths of journalism neither she nor Labour would ever stoop.

The thing is, Pope Benedict XVI spent much of his pontificate issuing profuse expressions of remorse and repentance on behalf of his church for the heinous acts of paedophile priests and the post-conciliar hierarchical conspiracy of cover-up. And the BBC is still apologising over its 1970s "groupie" culture of misogynistic permissiveness and predatory paedophilia. Both institutions are horrified and appalled - 40 years on - that they did nothing to protect so many vulnerable victims over such a long period. But at least the perpetrators are now being held to account - one of them even post mortem.

But last night Harriet Harman refused eight times to accept that her connection with the Paedophile Information Exchange was a mistake. This is not just any Labour politician: it is the party's Deputy Leader. She didn't just deflect the question once: she side-stepped it eight times. She has 'clarified' her position this morning in a hastily-penned statement of 'regret', but that doesn't quite explain her cagey obfuscation last night on Newsnight.

It is curious how Mr & Mrs Jack Dromey are more concerned with rubbishing Dacre and berating the Mail than they are with repudiating a group which sought to take advantage of children. If it is moral and just to arrest aging entertainers and prosecute abusive priests in their 70s and 80s, how can it not be right to investigate the alleged links between Labour, the NCCL and PIE? Is the Mail's political smear agenda really more repugnant than historic matters of child abuse, rape and torture?

Or is Harriet Harman's real objective here to situate herself and her husband as latter-day Dowlers - the latest victims of vile press abuse - and thereby reinforce the need for a Leveson framework of press control to protect the poor and vulnerable (and the rich and powerful)?

Monday, February 24, 2014

ConHome: "The bishops are blind"

The Great Benefit Row: Chapter 5.

ConservativeHome has now waded in, with Priti Patel MP telling us that the bishops are "blind". Specifically, they are "blind to the moral message of IDS’s gospel of work". She says their criticism is "disappointing", and their focus and claims "misplaced".

You see, this is what happens when one side bawls at the other: it simply barks back. Everyone is hearing the undignified clamour, but no one is listening.

The allegation that the bishops are blind to morality is quite possibly one of the most offensive that a Conservative political site could make. Christian leaders spend their lives in moral reflection: when they believe the social effects of a political policy are unjust, they do so not because they are blind, but because they are seeing or have seen. And their appeal is to a criterion that transcends the electoral cycle. Their conscience at its deepest may be informed by socialist thought, but the Christian God, being three in one, is undeniably social. The bishops are concerned with the expression of faith in concrete existence: it is their sensitivity to the plight of individuals which drives them toward change. You may think them misguided, or a product of primordial political thinking, but they are not blind.

Blindness is not only the inability to see; it is indifference and inaction. The bishops who signed that letter to the Mirror (and those who subsequently agreed with them) pray daily that the blind will see: they seek the co-working of divine grace and human endeavour; their goal is moral striving which is exhibited in the depth of their love. The politicians who berate the bishops are as blind to the love revealed in Jesus Christ as they believe the bishops are to the moral message of IDS's "gospel of work". The politicians look at creation and their urge is to reform it in order to achieve their political Utopia: the bishops look at creation and urge reconciliation before the consummation. Both are concerned with the end, but they differ on motive and means.

There is nothing at all to be gained from Christian pronouncements and political broadcasts which reduce complex social issues to simplistic soundbites. We are dealing with human beings, and these bishops - whether you agree with them or not - are concerned with the justice and love of a social theology. Tory politicians may think them blind, and yet this so very often is what they see:

This is the Rev'd Giles Fraser's church in Newington, near the Elephant and Castle, feeding the poor and doubling as a homeless shelter. You may think this Guardian-adoring priest and its lefty bishops to be a political blight on the Church of England, but their theology is operation-centred and emerges from reflection on their very real experiences. They observe and act, and sometimes they speak. You may not agree with their actions or proclamations, and they may only see IDS's reforms through a glass darkly, but the task then is not to hurl insults or berate their visual impairment, but to turn their eyes to the light in order that they may see and understand for themselves.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The bishops who secretly agree with IDS's welfare reforms

It has been a disappointing week. Not only has the Government palpably failed to alleviate poverty; it actually appears to have exacerbated it by current reforms to the benefit system. Worse, according to Bishop Nick Baines, politicians are not being entirely open with us:
Should the government just say clearly: we are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.

Harsh? Yes, but honest..
The belief that politicians are consciously and deliberately causing people to “starve and become destitute” to reduce benefit dependency is impossible to prove, but it is surprisingly widely held in the Church – at all levels. We can guess at the Government’s motives, and our guess may be informed by observation, suspicion or general dislike of them and all their policies. And our guess may be correct. But it is also possible that starvation and destitution, where they occur, are not the Government’s aim, but collateral damage caused by a chronically inefficient benefits system combined with a cack-handed attempt at radically reforming it.

Intention – as in other ecclesiastical contexts – is everything. Which is no doubt why the letter to the Mirror signed by 27 bishops (and subsequently endorsed by seven others via His Grace's site [and, indeed, eight others, if one includes the Archbishop of Canterbury's tacit blessing]) does not impute such a motive. While it blames delays, sanctions and cutbacks in the benefit system for half of those using food-banks (it does not explain the other half), it neither accuses the Government of having hunger as a policy objective, nor does it question the need for benefits reform; confining itself to calling on government “to do its part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger”.

What has become the Great Benefits Row began with the publication on 14th February of a Telegraph interview with Archbishop (now Cardinal) Vincent Nichols, who said that “the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart” and that “the administration of social assistance.. has become more and more punitive”. This prompted a reply from the Prime Minister in the same paper who claimed that the Government’s welfare  reforms were part of a “moral mission” to give the unemployed “new hope and responsibility”.

Only a month ago, there was a flat endorsement of Iain Duncan Smith by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He told the BBC's Hardtalk programme: "..the Work and Pensions Secretary who's leading on this legislation and on these reforms is one of the most educated and thoughtful people in this area there is. I think we're very careful about saying he's got it wrong.”

There is, to put it kindly, a lack of dovetailing here. Is Archbishop Justin saying that the Government has got it wrong or not? There are characteristic signs of poor behind-the-scenes advice, crass Church House communication and a total lack of co-ordination: the 27 bishops’ letter – which is actually not all that devastating – was published in the Mirror, which is noted for its crude and slavish pro-Labour, anti-Coalition (and certainly anti-Conservative) slant. It would have carried much more weight had it been delivered to a more impartial newspaper, any of which would have been happy to publish it with the 'Red-Top' embellishment.

But, wherever it appeared, we must wonder what good its authors thought the letter might do. Will it – or the furore surrounding it – cause the Government to think again about its benefit reforms? Will it make them more open to the Churches’ representations on behalf of the poor? Or will it force them back into their bunker and to a conviction that, since the Church is prepared to criticise them so publicly, it has no interest in negotiating privately?

For the record – though speaking strictly off the record – two bishops bothered to make contact with His Grace to voice their disagreement with the bishops' letter. They understand the Coalition's political reasoning and appreciate the Cameron/IDS "moral mission". They recognise the social consequences of indolence and grasp the importance of work incentive. Neither bishop wished to be named because they were fully aware that the story would then become one of 'Church schism", or that of aloof Tory-toff bishops indifferent to the plight of the poor. Other members of the clergy have also been in touch to express their dismay, but they are loyal ministers of the gospel, in submission to their bishops, and have no wish for the media story to become one of 'breaking ranks' or rebellion. It is absolutely appalling that the media narrative is so skewed to the Left that sincere and devout Christian leaders dare not be seen to support the Right (whether they do or not). The truth is that eradicating poverty is not a party political pursuit, yet these 27 bishops and Church House have helped to make it so by choosing to bellow through a pathologically anti-Conservative rag: the medium is the message. 

Neither these two 'dissenting' bishops nor other members of the clergy deny the reality being experienced by the 27 (now 34), but the view is that this letter was an inept and graceless way of addressing their concerns: it not only failed to appreciate the ethical complexities of debt and the manifold causes of poverty, it gave an utterly distorted view of the Church to the world – that of being riddled with Socialist vicars supervised by Marxist bishops under the lordship of Jesus who would undoubtedly vote Labour. So pervasive is this belief that it constitutes a cultural truth.   

Poverty is a soft issue for the Church, and an easy topic to shout about in order to secure an injection (or perception) of political relevance. The Christian calling is to love our neighbour and to alleviate his or her suffering, and this has been our duty and joy from the beginning. We cannot, and should not, ever be criticised for espousing the cause of the poor. In times when the Church is so little regarded, we need to hang on to that. But the Church needs to see it not so much as a righteous banner or holy war-cry, but as a labour of love, and that includes not denouncing those in power – with whom we may or may not be naturally in sympathy – but engaging with them in a reasoned and constructive manner, and, indeed, praying for them.

The poor need us to do that. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Chemin Neuf at Lambeth Palace: a "profound" step on the road to Christian unity

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has formally welcomed and commissioned four members of Chemin Neuf, the international ecumenical community, at Lambeth Palace. The members of the community, who took up residence in the Palace last month, consist of a married Anglican couple, Ione and Alan Morley-Fletcher; a Lutheran training for ministry, Oliver Matri; and a Roman Catholic consecrated sister, Ula Michlowicz. They share in the daily round of prayer that underpins the Archbishop's ministry, and further the ecumenical and international dimensions of his work.

A special inaugural service was presided over by the Archbishop, and guests included Fr Laurent Fabre, founder and Superior General of the Chemin Neuf community; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Revd Peter Smith; the Archbishop’s Representative to the Holy See, Archbishop David Moxon; and the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Great Britain, Dr Martin Lind.

That's all nicely ecumenical, reflecting something of the essence of Anglicanism's vocation to be catholic and reformed. It also reflects Archbishop Justin's essential Christian spirituality: it is perhaps no coincidence that his enthronement at Canterbury on 21st March 2013 coincided with the Church's commemoration of His Grace's martyrdom in 1556, and also the feast day of St Benedict of Monte Cassino, a significant figure for both Canterbury Cathedral and Archbishop Justin himself, who is an oblate of the Order of Benedict.

Benedict's monasticism helped to shape Rome's Semper Eadem; His Grace's witness challenged the Church to semper reformanda. But it would be a mistake to deny Benedict's historic capacity for reform, or, indeed, His Grace's reverence for the Church Fathers and his respect for the catholic traditions of the Faith. If the names of Benedict and Cranmer echo in Justin's mind, and if their spirits course through his devotional arteries, then we can expect Anglican discipleship and ministry to be nudged toward Benedict’s Rule, but not at the expense of His Grace's renewal.

It has been observed that Archbishop Justin has a Roman Catholic spiritual director - Nicolas Buttet, who founded the Eucharistein community in Switzerland. The Archbishop has also been on spiritual retreats in France with Chemin Neuf, which was founded by a Jesuit who had experienced charismatic renewal. The focus is on spiritual discipline: the spiritual objective is Christian unity. He probably experiences more peace and harmony among them than he ever finds at Synod.

And let's be honest, prayer is a bit of a slog. It can also be a tedious, lonely, fruitless pursuit, so His Grace is of the view that the more of it going on at Lambeth Palace, the better. The first of three priority areas for Archbishop Justin’s ministry over the coming years is the renewal of prayer and the religious life within the Church. The Archbishop observes: “There has never been a renewal of the Church in Western Europe without a renewal of prayer and the life of religious communities. If we want to see things changed, it starts with prayer. I am deeply moved that in God’s grace Chemin Neuf agreed to this radical and exciting new step of coming to live as a community of prayer, hospitality and learning at Lambeth Palace. We pray that this step of obedience will bear fruit among us, and for the church.”

Fr Laurent Fabre said: “480 years it has been, and we are rejoicing over this new step. But the one who is rejoicing most is the Father himself, because 480 years of waiting is long even for God. This is a first step of something new.”

With respect to Fr Laurent Fabre, this just is a tad overplayed. God has not been waiting since 1534 for rapprochement: Jesus was praying "that they may all be one" (Jn 17:21) a few thousand years ago.

Sister Ula Michlowicz said: “Being part of this great ecumenical adventure is for me, as a Catholic Sister, a huge privilege. So the gratefulness comes first. I feel fully welcomed, despite the very serious Palace's interiors there is such friendly atmosphere here! I love praying in the crypt. It is like being part of an underground prayer stream overflowing into Lambeth Palace, to the city of London, to all these places we're praying for, such the river of life. 

“To be together around the altar during the daily Community Eucharist is a deep experience of both: communion and suffering of separation. I just remain with Jesus washing our feet, of all of us. It gives me strength.”

That is communion in the Lordship of Christ; separation because Lambeth Palace uses Common Worship for the Eucharist and Sister Ula does not partake of the Anglican bread and wine but walks to Westminster Cathedral to receive the Real thing.

John Bingham notes in The Telegraph that this venture "is the first move of its kind since the Reformation", but His (former) Grace doesn't quite agree with His (present) Grace that it constitutes a  “profound” step on the road to eventual unity between the churches. The Reformation may have been a tragedy for Church unity, but it wasn't just a simple misunderstanding. The hurdles that remain are apparently insuperable: the Anglican Eucharist welcomes Roman Catholics; Rome's Mass remains closed to Anglicans. There are also certain thornier issues - "errors" - like Trent, gospel soteriology and the Petrine ministry itself. Not to mention women priests, women bishops, and the (most likely) development of a same-sex blessing/marriage liturgy. From the temporal perspective at least, these would appear to constitute profound steps toward disunity - both between and within the churches.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

More bishops heap burning coals on Cameron

His Grace appears to be (very slightly) in error. Not to worry: he has never claimed to be infallible.

His previous assertion that 74 Anglican bishops "were unable, for one reason or another" to sign the fractious letter to the Mirror is true only if one includes the inability to sign because they were not asked. The Bishop of Bradford (Bishop-designate of Leeds) the Rt Rev'd Nick Baines was not approached (which is a little odd, seeing as how his insightful views are very much in the public realm, and appreciated across the political divide).

So, the best thing to do is to re-open the signatory-list of this red-topped letter, and see how many bishops and archbishops actually support it.

The original list:

Stephen Platten, Wakefield
David Walker, Manchester
Tim Stevens, Leicester
Andy John, Bangor
Tony Porter, Sherwood
Paul Butler, Durham
Alan Wilson, Buckingham
Alan Smith, St Albans
Nick Holtam, Salisbury
Tim Thornton, Truro
John Pritchard, Oxford
Steven Croft, Sheffield
Jonathan Gledhill, Lichfield
Michael Perham, Gloucester
Alastair Redfern, Derby
Lee Rayfield, Swindon
James Langstaff, Rochester
Martin Warner, Chichester
Mike Hill, Bristol
Martin Wharton, Newcastle
Peter Maurice, Taunton
Gregory Cameron, St Asaph
Peter Burrows, Doncaster
Stephen Cottrell, Chelmsford
Martyn Snow, Tewkesbury
John Holbrook, Brixworth
David Urquhart, Birmingham

Now includes:

Nick Baines, Bradford
Pete Broadbent, Willesden
Paul Bayes, Hertford
Graham Kings,  Sherborne
Stephen Conway, Ely
Brian Castle, Tonbridge
Jonathan Clark, Croydon
“One of the things about the church, both the Catholic and Anglican and the other churches in this country, is that we have people on the ground all over the place. And it is from the upswell of feeling that they are reporting, that sense that they are seeing in their own church communities as priests, as ministers, as pastors … that these letters and the comments of Cardinal Nichols are coming. I am entirely with him.”
Justin Welby, Canterbury

If other bishops would care to add their names in the comment thread, or email/tweet His Grace directly, he will produce a more complete list. It is important to establish the real extent of this politician-prelate gap; to understand precisely what proportion of the Anglican Episcopacy repudiates the Government's welfare reforms based on their unrivaled "on-the-ground experience". Bless you. 

74 Anglican bishops don't castigate Cameron

The mainstream media are running prominently today with a letter to the Daily Mirror on the subject of food-banks, which has been signed by 27 bishops of the Church of England (along with sundry Methodists, and a couple of Quakers thrown in for good measure). The letter reads:

Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry.

Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year.

One in five mothers report regularly skipping meals to better feed their children, and even more families are just one unexpected bill away from waking up with empty cupboards.

We often hear talk of hard choices. Surely few can be harder than that faced by the tens of thousands of older people who must “heat or eat” each winter, harder than those faced by families whose wages have stayed flat while food prices have gone up 30% in just five years.

Yet beyond even this we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.

On March 5th Lent will begin. The Christian tradition has long been at this time to fast, and by doing so draw closer to our neighbour and closer to God.

On March 5th we will begin a time of fasting while half a million regularly go hungry in Britain. We urge those of all faith and none, people of good conscience, to join with us.

There is an acute moral imperative to act. Hundreds of thousands of people are doing so already, as they set up and support foodbanks across the UK. But this is a national crisis, and one we must rise to.

We call on government to do its part: acting to investigate food markets that are failing, to make sure that work pays, and to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger.

Join us at
And then comes a veritable psalter of episcopal signatories:

Stephen Platten, Wakefield
David Walker, Manchester
Tim Stevens, Leicester
Andy John, Bangor
Tony Porter, Sherwood
Paul Butler, Durham
Alan Wilson, Buckingham
Alan Smith, St Albans
Nick Holtam, Salisbury
Tim Thornton, Truro
John Pritchard, Oxford
Steven Croft, Sheffield
Jonathan Gledhill, Lichfield
Michael Perham, Gloucester
Alastair Redfern, Derby
Lee Rayfield, Swindon
James Langstaff, Rochester
Martin Warner, Chichester
Mike Hill, Bristol
Martin Wharton, Newcastle
Peter Maurice, Taunton
Gregory Cameron, St Asaph
Peter Burrows, Doncaster
Stephen Cottrell, Chelmsford
Martyn Snow, Tewkesbury
John Holbrook, Brixworth
David Urquhart, Birmingham

But we must keep these things in proportion: if 27 bishops are clobbering Cameron, 74 are not. No doubt this letter was circulated to the episcopal extremities with persuasive entreaties and pleas, but a colossal three-quarters of diocesan and suffragan bishops were unable, for one reason or another, to put their names to it.

His Grace is all in favour of this sort of temporal intervention by the spiritual; indeed, it is his raison d'être: As Sir Humphrey observed: "It’s interesting that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics." The fact is that man does not live by political platitudes alone: he needs bread. And if he doesn't get any bread, he goes hungry and life becomes rather miserable.

But the fact remains that many of these bishops are well-known anti-Capitalist Guardian readers, and Chris Mould, the food-bank entrepreneur, is a self-declared member of the Labour Party. His Grace neither doubts the noble motives nor disparages the good intentions of those who provide emergency food to people in crisis who are facing hunger, but let us not be under any illusion that many of them have a political agenda, and believe it to be the sole function of the state to provide such services: individual acts of charity, organic fraternity and 'Big Society' altruism should be subsumed to HM Government's ever-burgeoning Welfare State, paid for by the hard-pressed taxpayer (either of today or three generations hence).

Those who establish food-banks (which, incidentally, date from 2004, when Labour was very firmly in power) also seek to raise awareness of food poverty in order that policy-makers take account of their views. As Chris Mould's Trussell Trust explains:
Trussell Trust foodbanks will not benefit from current welfare reforms or become part of the welfare state. Indeed, we are concerned that welfare reforms could lead to an increase in the number of people who will need to be referred to foodbanks and that this could place strain on foodbanks and their donors.

..The Trussell Trust, and Chris Mould in particular, have repeatedly and publically (sic) highlighted our concerns that government welfare reforms are likely to negatively impact people in poverty and have urged politicians to speak to us to find out more about the reality of food poverty so that they can create policies to help the poorest.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has refused requests to meet food-bank leaders, having accused them of “scaremongering”.

But there is manifestly some epistemic distance between politicians and prelates which needs a bit of attention. No matter how much George Osborne bounces around gleefully yakking on about recovery, the fact is that life remains very bleak indeed for many who, through no fault of their own, are plagued by poverty and are wholly reliant on food banks. You can't cook GDP figures or eat unemployment stats. Life is hard for the poorest and most vulnerable, and the "arrogant posh boys" (who don't know the price of a pint of milk) remain aloof and indifferent.

The gulf is nothing new: the Church of England has produced a number of reports over the decades on the direction of Conservative welfare policy: in addition to Faith in the City (1985), there is Not Just for the Poor (1987) and Welfare - a Christian Option (1989). But time and again the Church comes down in favour of universal public provision and public funding of all services. There is no appreciation of the concept of relative poverty, and no acknowledgment that the 'poverty' so often talked about is not real poverty - of the sort last seen in Dickensian times. 

And yet.. and yet..

There is no point having central heating if one cannot afford to run it. The Conservative Party tends to take note of possession; the Church of England looks at practical usage. Unequal interdependence fails to respect human dignity. The Prime Minister may have a "moral mission" to reform welfare, but people are not hearing the ethical reasoning. If the poorest are feeling ghettoised and isolated, they will live parallel lives in deprived neighbourhoods and forever curse those evil Tories who place their faith in market dynamics and deify the economy. There may be periodic irruptions of civil unrest, but the Tory solution is not to address the plight of the poor, but to send in the water canons and armed police to bludgeon the despondent and dispossessed. These 27 bishops (and sundry Methodists and a couple of Quakers) are shouting out for the poor, but politicians are as deaf to these clerics as the clerics are as resistant to Conservatism. 

Conservative politicians do themselves no favours when they try to lecture the Church on social thought when they clearly have little understanding of the depth and long history of Christian social thinking. But Anglican bishops do themselves no favours when they fail even to entertain the moral philosophical stream from which conservative thought proceeds. If the poor are homeless and hungry, there is nothing to be gained by bishops and politicians ranting at each other in public denunciations of their mutual ignorance.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lord Deben: you can't be Christian and support Ukip

Gillan Scott writes and edits God and Politics in the UK - one of the best religio-political sites in the Blogosphere. Most recently, he has been running as series on Christians who belong to political parties and justify their activism with appeals to Scripture. There is, of course, no consensus: Christians in their diversity derive quite different theological understandings from the same texts: if we cannot agree on matters such as baptism, birth control or church government, it isn't likely that we will find unity on taxation, immigration or other matters of temporal government. But each of us looks to Scripture for our inspiration to discern the extents of liberty and coercion, and our interpretation is coloured by our education, culture and tradition. The mature believer will appreciate that there is no single Christian position to take, and that the authority of the Bible may be universally acknowledged while being conflictingly applied: there is rarely one right answer. Since all of humanity is fallible, division is inevitable, and Christian participation in the political arena will be as muddled and perplexing as our discernment of God's will.

Gillan Scott's explorations have been received politely, and they have engendered some intelligent debate: we have heard from a Labour-supporting Christian, a Conservative-supporting Christian and a Green-supporting Christian. All of these, it appears, are legitimate philosophies which may reflect God's mandate. But the poor clergyman who dared to reason that supporting Ukip might accord with Christian social theory received a swift rebuke from Lord Deben (formerly John Selwyn Gummer MP):

You will note that Lord Deben's initial response to Mr Scott was simply that he found it "impossible to understand" how a Christian minister of religion could support a political party which is dedicated to cutting aid to the poor and "hating migrants & foreigners". But he wasn't acknowledging here any mental deficiency on his part: he was judging an Anglican vicar and finding him theologically awry and spiritually barren.

Setting aside for a moment that someone like Owen Jones would find it equally impossible to understand how a Christian can be Conservative, it is apparent that Lord Deben has a rather narrow interpretation of Scripture, if not a fundamentally erroneous view of Ukip policy. No matter how much the Rev'd Sam Norton reasons his politics intelligently and moderately, Lord Deben repudiates with pious maxims and pompous incredulity. It is hardly serious political debate under the aegis of Christian fraternity. 

To Lord Deben, the gospel is clear: we should feed the poor, house the homeless and heal the sick. The Christian should not merely intend toward the good; he should act to intervene, alter outcomes, alleviate suffering and change lives. And Ukip, Lord Deben avers, is anti-Christian because it seeks to cut aid to the poor, alienate the migrant and expel the foreigner. He cannot equate these policies with the gospel. Christians are commanded to love their neighbour: those who seek to control immigration and leave the EU simply "hate".

Gillan Scott believes he should give a platform to a range of views, but, for Lord Deben, Ukip are simply beyond the pale: rather like the BNP, they should be given no platform (and certainly no pulpit). Lord Deben is not sufficiently gracious to examine the Rev'd Sam Norton's ideals, values or theories about the just or good society: the Vicar is simply wrong and a disgrace to his vocation.

But it was Nick Williams' assertion that "Aid fosters dependency" which elicited Lord Deben's most acerbic - if not un-Christian - riposte: "So said the priest and the Levi (sic) as they walked past on the other side". It appears that any Christian who believes that aid fosters dependency must be a Pharisee and a hypocrite, quite incapable of compassion toward the oppressed, battered and destitute. In the parable to which Lord Deben alludes (Lk 10:29-37), Jesus is concerned with the extent of neighbour love: the questioning lawyer assumes it to be restricted; Jesus makes it clear that the failure of the priest and the Levite to help the injured man evidences a fundamental hardness of heart.

Compassion is that which causes us so to identify with another's situation such that we are prepared to act for his or her benefit. What the Samaritan does is commendable because the law's demand for love of neighbour should extend to any needy human being: its practice should not be restricted to any closed community - even if that community is that singled out by God by divine covenant. Lord Deben is right that compassion should be unrestricted by national, racial or religious barriers. But he fails to understand the significance of the cultic figures of the priest and Levite - from whom aid might have been expected to be forthcoming - being shamed by the example of a wretched Samaritan.

Jewish listeners had a view of Samaritans somewhat akin to Lord Deben's opinion of Kippers: they shunned and despised them, and would certainly not have sunk so low as to debate with them, let alone accept their acts of hospitality. The gulf that separated God's covenant community from the Samaritans was actually greater than the distance between Lord Deben and the Rev'd Sam Norton, but Lord Deben is incapable of comprehending ("impossible to understand") this parable from the victim's perspective, which is what Jesus does. In extremis, a Samaritan will do very well for a neighbour, thank you very much.

Nick Williams' allegation of "Tory paternalistic arrogance" is not entirely unfounded: Lord Deben is playing both priest and Levite to the Kippers by misrepresenting their policy (they don't seek to eradicate overseas aid; simply reform it to ensure that it feeds the starving instead of subsidising nuclear missiles), and caricaturing their political objectives (controlling immigration is not "hate" of migrants; leaving the EU is not "hate" of foreigners). Instead of engaging the Rev'd Sam Norton in theological exploration and political discussion, Lord Deben puts his nose in the air and walks past on the other side, oblivious to the fact that many of his Roman Catholic co-religionists would agree wholeheartedly with the Anglican rector.

The world's starving, homeless and sick would be overjoyed to receive Ukip's aid, for it gives hope with responsibility: it is a social and moral mission to help the destitute through programmes of education, apprenticeship and job creation, instead of simply handing out wads of cash while they mill around without purpose or human fulfilment. Owen Jones may not agree, but 'compassionate conservatism' is a response to man's propensity toward indolence . The right approach to aid is about giving new opportunity, new hope and new responsibility to people who are trapped in a cycle of dependency.

These aren't His Grace words, but those of the Prime Minister - today. If cutting benefits to Britons may be part of a Tory "moral mission", it is entirely possible that seeking to reduce and better target overseas aid may be a legitimate Christian pursuit wholly consistent with the gospel. And if controlling immigration or desiring EU exit are manifestations of "hate", Lord Deben might humbly seek to convert the overwhelming majority of his fellow Conservatives before preaching infallible sermons to Ukip.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Postmodern CofE weddings: "Just ask the church for what you want"

The recent statement from the House of Bishops has confirmed that - in accordance with Catholic doctrine and Church tradition - services of holy gay matrimony will not be performed in the Church of England. But that doesn't stop wedding ceremonies being thoroughly camp.

His Grace thought this website was a spoof - a rollicking send-up of the Church of England's endless capacity for irreverent travesty and self-parody. Alas, it is not: it is the Church's official website dedicated to making that special day really memorable, if not utterly peculiar. "We're here for you", they say:
Wherever and whenever you choose to get married, you make a public declaration of life-long commitment to love each other faithfully and take on a whole new legal status as husband and wife.
So you'd think there might be a degree of propriety in the solemnisation: couples are, after all, swearing sacred vows before witnesses and making oaths before God. It is a sacrament, and "every wedding is a 'royal' one". In addition to that, marriage "boosts happiness" and "provides more and better sex". It's even "good for your health and extends your life".

There is a page dedicated to the biblical foundation of the institution, but it is couched beneath "What's so special about marriage". In this vacuous, dumbed-down era of post-modern liturgical accommodation to every fad and fetish, "You can choose" exactly the type of service you want. All you have to do is ask the nice vicar:
Our advice would be if you’ve got a dream for your wedding, don’t be afraid to ask the Church what you can do. You might be surprised at the answer you get.

Not at all: there's very little that could surprise His Grace about the Church of England,

Derbyshire pub landlords Andy and Emma "wanted a fun wedding". So they asked for one:
They had many loyal pub customers and wanted them to be part of the celebrations too, so they decided to host a themed wedding at their pub which they based on the ‘wild west’.

By the time the wedding arrived, they had transformed their pub car park with a marquee, complete with wild west backdrop, hog roast, cactus table decorations and more than 400 guests in a vast array of cowboy and cowgirl costumes.

Before the party, Andy and Emma had married in a register office, and Emma said: “I wanted to give something back to all our wonderful customers, so we planned this party, but I also wanted my marriage to include a Vicar. It was second time around for both Andy and me and we wanted it to be right. The local Vicar was very supportive and encouraging to us and said he was able to do a type of service in the marquee.”

The service was based on a Thanksgiving for Marriage service in the book of Common Worship.

Our advice would be if you’ve got a dream for your wedding, don’t be afraid to ask the Church what you can do. You might be surprised at the answer you get.

The Vicar, the Revd Tim Sumpter, arrived at the marquee wearing Stetson, leather waistcoat and neck tie, along with his dog collar. The bride arrived shortly afterwards on horseback, in denim cut-off shorts, checked shirt and Stetson.

“Tim completely changed my view of the church,” said Emma. “He was modern and funny but still did a very special service for us. We sat on chairs throughout, and the vows had a contemporary feel. Tim had a bit of fun with us and brought out some ‘Pritt Stick’ in the service to ‘glue us together’. It was brilliant.”

Andy added: “Our wedding really gelled our community and afterwards we were inundated with calls from other couples who wanted to do similar things."
The Vicar brought out some Pritt Stick?

No, you moron: marriage is supposed to be Super Glue: God is the cyanoacrylate whose dense monomers can withstand the fiercest flashpoint and irrevocably bind anything together.

Andy's and Emma's account is © The Archbishops' Council, but His Grace would urge that august and spiritually discerning body to order an immediate review into the irreverent and facile content of this website instead of wasting time suing His Grace for breaching publication restrictions.

It is true, however, that Andy and Emma were married in a registry office and Rev'd Tim was presiding over a service of thanksgiving. But surely the Way-out-West fancy dress belongs in the registry office. And one wonders, amidst the stetsons, spurs and buffalo herding, whether Jesus got much of a look-in.

And it's not as though this buckaroo bride is a one-off on this website: here's the Rev'd Andy Davies getting into the spirit of a "biker wedding". Yup, whether it's bronco-busting or burning rubber, the jolly CofE has got the party theme for you.

His Grace is all for applying theology to cultural context and making ecclesiology comprehensible. It is good to question traditions, test ideas and challenge sentiment. But not at the expense of theological reality and divine presence. And certainly not to the detriment of matrimonial decorum, ecclesiological dignity, or the exacting quest for holiness.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Legoland's homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic "Family Fun Day"

By the Grace of Allah, on the back of our highly successful 1st Eid Fun Day at Chessington World of Adventures – we are launching our 2nd Family Fun Day at LEGOLAND® Windsor Resort – with the hope that the two events will become the standard and annual fundays for decades to come, insha’Allah.
It sounds like a blasphemous Monty Python satire, but this is the declaration on the website of the Muslim Research and Development Foundation, promoting a Muslim "Family Fun Day" at Legoland, Windsor. It is a cyber-minaret call to halal entertainment - "a true alternative in which like minded families can enjoy safe and enjoyable time while at the same time conducive to their faith".

While some people are clearly irked and object strongly to the concept of a "Muslim Day", His Grace would like to make it clear that he has absolutely no problem with it: the event is an out-of-season, legally-contracted private booking - the sort of commercial activity Legoland might enjoy with any group, enterprise or corporation.

But there has been a certain twisting of the story locally - specifically by the Windsor & Eton Express - which seems determined to present all the objections as a kind of Far-Right, hate-filled, Islamophobic, neo-Nazi protest against Muslims per se. The abuse received by Legoland on Facebook and Twitter is, apparently, being reported to the police.

Except that many of these objections are not aimed at Muslims, or even against the faith of Islam: they are legitimate expressions of outrage that the key face behind the Muslim Research and Development Foundation is the one Haitham al-Haddad, who is widely known for his - how shall His Grace put this? - "anti-Western" views. He makes no secret of the fact that he loathes liberal democracy, which he deems to be a "filthy" political system, and supports suicide bombing and other acts of terrorism as part of "defensive jihad and therefore a ‘commandment’ of Islam". He is what one may describe as a Palestinian "hate cleric", who is watched by the security services and has been barred from numerous British universities.

This lover of Lego wants sharia law adopted in the United Kingdom, presumably to ensure that this Lego-Mohammed blasphemy is punished severely (and THIS outrage even moreso). He lauds Osama bin Laden; supports female genital mutilation; wants music banned; demands gender segregation; and deplores “the scourge of homosexuality” which, he maintains, is a "criminal act”.

As one might expect, he believes Jews are the “enemies of God” and “descendants of apes and pigs” (which, of course, are comments "taken out of context" - you may decide for yourselves HERE).

The question is not why is Legoland content to promote a "Muslim Day" (which, incidentally, is open to people of all faiths and none): it is why is Legoland prepared to tarnish its reputation by associating with a known anti-gay, anti-Semitic, misogynistic hate-preacher. It may be a fun day out for the children, but how many of the girls are aware that this man wants to remove their clitoris for the glory of Allah?

Legoland insist that they welcome people of all faiths and of diverse beliefs: "We certainly do not discriminate in any way,” they told The Express. It seems to His Grace that, instead of protesting at the gates, the EDL ought to test this: they might try to hire the park for their own "fun day" of "patriotic celebration" (open, of course, to all those who do not share their nationalistic ideology).

Would Legoland care if Nick Griffin were behind a booking? Would they object to a group of Christians hiring the park if its members (say) opposed same-sex marriage? Or would the company's executives withhold the contract (or, indeed, cancel the event or "reconsider" its policy) on account of it breaching corporate diversity policy?  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

House of Bishop's same-sex dog's breakfast

"..quite amazing how (the Church of England) can preach honesty but produce this masterclass in doublespeak, obfuscation and internal contradiction," tweets John Bingham, Social and Religious Affairs editor of the Daily Telegraph. And when you read the statement issued on same-sex marriage by the House of Bishops, you may wonder at the depth of duplicity which underpins the theology, and the breadth of naïvety which surrounds the politics.

Essentially, for those who can't be bothered to read the Pastoral Letter (which His Grace always exhorts, for secondary comment is no substitute for primary cognisance), the Bishops have decreed that gay and lesbian couples who get married (in accordance with and by the definition of the law of the land) will be permitted to ask their local vicar for special prayers of thanksgiving (not blessing).

However, if your vicar happens to be gay (or lesbian), and he (or she) is in a relationship (with a person of the same sex), they will be prohibited from getting married in accordance with and by the definition of the law of the land.

His Grace has only a few things to say (for he is thoroughly sick of this subject, and is mindful that people are starving, children are being euthanised, and souls are being lost):
i) The Bishops of the Church of England have not pleased all of the people all of the time since 1534: this via media holding statement is not a new religio-political device, but it is particularly inept. If priests and bishops are free to be contracted by civil partnership (provided they remain celibate), it is inconsistent and unsustainable to prohibit them the (new) institution of marriage.

ii) It is not, however, un-Christian, un-loving or un-compassionate to prohibit priests from entering into a covenant relationship which is permitted to the laity: it may not be very Anglican or Reformed, but it is perfectly Catholic.

iii) There are Roman Catholic priests who are in same-sex relationships: most are illicit, but a few are apparently quite open about the fact. Homosexual acts are not uncommon (and some say ubiquitous) among seminarians. His Grace is also aware of gay imam (in a relationship) who is (covertly) pushing at the boundaries of Islam to minister openly to young gay Muslims, and others are fighting to be acknowledged and accepted. Hypocrisy and inconsistency abound, but so do grace, dignity and respect.     

iii) The political naïvety of this statement is that it ensures the unending frolicking of the (homo)sex-obsessed media: the story will now run and run and run as one-by-one gay (and lesbian) vicars decide to get married (in accordance with and by the definition of the law of the land). And so martyr after martyr will be disciplined by their bishop, who will himself (or herself) be crucified between the thieves of lenience and laïcisation. In a sense, this document is theologically bungling and spiritually vacuous: it is not what Canon Law prohibits in theory but how the bishops handle disobedience in practice which will determine and define the Church's theology on same-sex marriage.

iv) The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has already observed that the Church is "viewed like racists over homosexuality". However histrionic, inaccurate or unjust, this perception is undoubtedly the case: there are many who equate the horrific persecution endured by gays with the appalling treatment of slaves; and many more see little difference between sexuality and skin colour. The Archbishop is not endorsing such views: he is simply recognising the sociological reality. But it is hard to see how the House of Bishop's statement mitigates or modifies this view.
His Grace is all for relationships of mutuality and fidelity, and desires that these virtues be encouraged and extended in society - in cohabitation, civil partnership or holy matrimony. But there is absolutely no point Christians pretending that the institution of marriage has not changed: Parliament has deliberated, debated and redefined. This 'battle' has been lost: the law will not be repealed. Our task is to preach the truth of Christ and Him crucified; to minister in love and compassion to the sick and dying - physically and spiritually. That is the Christian vocation. Those who expend all their energies dissecting this dog’s breakfast are depriving humanity of its daily bread.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Petition to Philippe, King of the Belgians, to halt child euthanasia

Roman Catholic King Philippe of Belgium has a choice before him (and before God): i) to assent to his Parliament's Bill to permit child euthanasia, contra the explicit teaching of the Magisterium; ii) to abdicate conveniently for day to assuage his conscience; or iii) simply to hold his ground, refuse assent, and thereby precipitate a constitutional crisis which would doubtless result in his overthrow and dethronement, if not the break-up of Belgium.

There is a heavy price to pay for placing private Christian convictions over public political duty.

In December 2008, Roman Catholic Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg refused assent to his Parliament's Bill to legalise euthanasia. It was, he asserted, an issue of conscience. And so proposals came forward to to amend his country's constitution, to downgrade the role of the Grand Duke to promulgating laws with a signature rather than approving them, giving him a purely ceremonial duty in line with other European constitutional monarchies.

In April 1990, Roman Catholic King Baudouin of Belgium temporarily abdicated over his personal moral objections to the Belgian Parliament's law legalising abortion. The government issued a statement saying it had declared the devout King "unable to reign" (usually referring to some mental incapacity), which permitted the abortion law to be promulgated irrespective of the King's conscience.

This was merely constitutional prestidigitation; a cunning contortion and sly deception to eradicate all inconvenient checks on the inexorable march of the enlightened liberal supremacy.

Some of King Philippe's subjects are petitioning him:
Your Majesty,

You are the King of the Belgians and as such committed to your people. You are used to signing every law that has been adopted by the democratically elected Parliament, even if you do not agree with them. However, there are laws that will affect not only Belgium but also Europe in the long term.

This law is unique and it serves as a sign to other countries that it might be permissible to introduce such laws. Please listen to the many voices at home and abroad, warning you of the dangers of this law - your Episcopal Conference and the members of parliaments across Europe who have spoken up clearly against this law.

As concerned citizens of Europe, we write to you to urge you not to sign this bill, even if it will be a challenge for you to defend this decision. Please do not say yes to the most frightening law on euthanasia worldwide.

Listen to your conscience and stand as a monarch with ethical principles. Show yourself worthy of the challenge for which you have been prepared throughout your life.


His Grace exhorts his readers and communicants to sign it, and to spread the word far and wide across the continents. Belgium is the only country in the world which believes a five-year-old has the capacity to determine his or her future and decide irrevocable matters of life and death. This is not a mere moral offence or ethical shame; it is malevolent, wicked and evil.

The Russell Brand brand breeds cynicism and disdain

It is a mystery why Channel 4 News promotes the goofy Russell Brand: last night, Jon Snow was trying to get and answer to a perfectly straightforward point of democratic logic - how Brand's exhortation not to vote is consistent with his demand for a parliamentary debate to change drugs legislation. How does encouraging young people not to participate in elections ever lead to the sort of psychedelic utopia he dreams of? But the wacky comedian just waffles and spouts sophomoric platitudes about his "revolution". He fools around and grins inanely like a deranged half-wit. This isn't Big Brother: it is Channel 4 News.

There was parliamentary by-election yesterday in Wythenshawe and Sale East, caused by the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, who was a committed and compassionate Christian. The seat has been retained by Labour. The full results were:

Mike Kane (Labour): 13,261
John Bickley (UKIP): 4,301
Reverend Daniel Critchlow (Conservatives): 3,479
Mary Di Mauro (Lib Dem): 1,176
Nigel Woodcock (Green Party): 748
Eddy O'Sullivan (BNP): 700
Captain Chaplington-Smythe (Monster Raving Loony): 200
Turnout: 28%

Forget that Ukip came nowhere near to taking the seat, as they boasted they might. Forget that the Tories were shunted into third place, which they dreaded but deserve. Forget that the Liberal Democrats lost their deposit, which is just humiliating but humiliatingly just. Consider the turnout - 28%.

It is a psephological fact that there tends to be a lower turnout at by-elections than for general elections - in this case down from 54.3% in 2010. But this is Russell Brand's fairytale: 72% just can't be bothered to participate in the election of their democratic representative, and so Brand is absolutely right that Parliament is made up of the unrepresentative. Political parties seem to win elections by promising heaven on earth, and when, a decade later, the electorate realises that they are still in purgatory, another swathe of disaffected voters views the democratic process with cynicism and disdain, declaring a plague on all their houses. This leads to a voter apathy and alienation, a deterioration in democratic participation and a declining turnout in elections, especially among the young.

Of course, the logic of Brand's revolution is that he would have to become prime minister, and his manifesto would be comprised not of every protest that takes to the streets on behalf of some day-dreaming minority with a Shangri-la cause, but of what he believes to be best for the common people. He would overlook the majority millions who favour the reintroduction of capital punishment or secession from the European Union. He would ignore the majority who favour tighter abortion laws or more rigorous control of immigration. Brand seeks to bring only his own peculiar brand of service, justice, healing, reconciliation, liberation and peace. Those who don't agree can safely be scorned  because they are simply boorish, birdbrained and unenlightened.

Our democracy is very ill: the condition might even be terminal. This is a logical consequence of 70% of our laws (according to EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding) being made above and beyond our control. And Russell Brand's solution is to recognise him as the nation's Philosopher-Guardian - effectively to make him our next EU commissioner. No need for a vote, because the people are too stupid to understand and lack discernment.

Why does Channel 4 promote this dotty, potty fruitcake?
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