A few brief thoughts on the Bishop’s Pastoral Letter

I am delighted that the Bishops have written such a document. Those who cry ‘Archbishops should stick to theology’ are simply parading their ignorance.

I am most particularly delighted that the document is rooted in the language of virtues and character – clearly the influence of Alasdair MacIntyre and his disciples like Hauerwas. This is very much where I would position myself.

Lastly, despite some questions about tone, I think the overall tenor of the document is a good one – it is an invitation to a larger conversation. I very much hope that it bears good fruit.

So, for once, I want to applaud our hierarchy for something. Of course, I have some specific detailed disagreements, but they may or may not be worth writing about!

The Church of England is an institutionally abusive church

In the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the Metropolitan Police were criticised for being ‘institutionally racist’. I have for some time now believed that the Church of England is institutionally abusive, and I would like to spell out what I mean by that.

Institutional racism (from Wiki): “the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. It is the ‘institutional’ part that is key; in other words the emphasis is not so much that individual members of an organisation are in themselves racist – they may or may not be – rather, it is simply that, in being obedient servants to the institution, those individuals cannot but help to act in a racist manner.

In a similar way, my claim is not that members of the Church of England are in themselves personally abusive – they may or may not be – my claim is that, in being obedient servants to the institution, the individuals within it cannot help but act in an abusive fashion to those in their care.

Let me give some examples of what I mean.

The first is Jeffrey John, and the question of whether this man was fit to become the Bishop of Reading. Views on that question are split. What is alleged, however, is that the decisions about whether he is to be a Bishop or not are being made, not on the grounds of his own personal merits but rather on whether it would lead to adverse financial and political consequences for the Church as a whole. So this example has two elements: firstly, is it the case that financial considerations are determining the appointment of Bishops (and if so, what are they)? Secondly, why is this not publicly confirmed information? I have written before about the way in which it seems that Bishops are simply incapable of telling the truth about a situation. This is profoundly unhealthy.

The second case is Jonathan Hagger, aka the MadPriest. Here we have someone who once suffered from depression and received medical treatment for it, so that it has not recurred. He is also a faithful local pastor and someone with a clear gift for sharing the faith through social media. One would have thought that such a person would be cherished by the institution, and encouraged to deploy their gifts more effectively. On the contrary, because Jonathan was a whistleblower about a specific case of abuse he has been completely frozen out of the church establishment.

Finally I would mention the hierarchical defence of the Green report (see here). This might seem trivial compared to the previous two, but I think it illuminates the attitude that I am seeking to highlight – and it is what has triggered this post. The needs of the institution – and the need to protect those in high ranking and established positions in the institution – are leading to a closing of ranks and a suppression of dissent. This is, once again, profoundly unhealthy.

There are many other examples that I could refer to (see here for an earlier form of this rant) as I know very few clergy in the Church of England who are in a place of peace with regard to the institution. There are, of course, also many positive stories of good care and consideration – but these are where someone gets ‘a good one’. It is wrong that the avoidance of abuse by the hierarchy is such a lottery.

My point is that, pervading the institutional atmosphere of the Church of England is an unhealthy mix of fear and denial of the truth. This leads to directly abusive consequences whenever the needs of the institution are placed ahead of the needs of the particular persons involved in doing the work of the gospel. The Church is a fallen principality – that is not news – but this needs to be taken very much more seriously.

I believe that faithful Anglicans must more and more operate on the basis of a division between “the gospel as the Church of England has received it”, and the workings of the institution which at the present time instantiates that understanding. We need to actively and radically foster the former, and keep a wary distance from the latter. To use my more hackneyed analogy, we need to spend much more time on our lifeboats than on how we run the ship.

If we continue to allow the Anglican gospel only to be expressed through the institutional forms then I see no grounds for believing that any thing will change. The institution will continue to devour its own children and then it shall die a sad and lonely death, for the Glory of the Lord will have departed from it.

The meaning of Islamophobia

Courier article

The word Islamophobic is being cast around quite a lot at the moment, and I thought it would be good to spend some time thinking about what it actually means, to see if we might be able to disentangle any truths from underneath the opprobrium.

The first point that I would like to make is about the ‘phobia’, which literally means fear, but which in current discourse principally means a fear that is unreasoned, irrational or rooted in an unacceptable prejudice. So arachnophobia is a fear of spiders, agraphobia is a fear of open spaces, whilst homophobia is not so much a fear of homosexuals as a dislike rooted in a particular view of the world. It seems that the word ‘Islamophobic’ is being used by critics in that latter sense; that is, the claim being made is that those who offer criticisms of Islam are doing so on the basis of a prejudice.

This prejudice is often rather confusingly called a racist prejudice, which is bizarre as Islam is not a race but an ideology, a religious faith – a way of understanding the world and organising personal and social behaviour in the light of that understanding. Which leads to the further point that it is indeed irrational to be afraid of an ideology – one might as well be afraid of theoretical physics or Tudor history – rather, the fear is about what that ideology might lead people to do.

Which means that we need to examine the evidence, to establish whether there are any grounds for the fear that this particular ideology (or, possibly, particular subsets of this ideology) lead people to behave in ways that would make it rational to fear Islam as a whole. Specifically, the fear tends to be a fear of violence specifically plus, more broadly, a fear that an existing culture will be displaced and then replaced by an Islamic culture.

So what might be the relevant evidence to consider?

If we look at the founder of Islam then we can see a remarkable man who was a capable and successful military commander. We can see that Islam was first established and developed, during Mohammed’s life, by military means. If we then look at what happened in the first few hundred years of Islamic life we can see that pattern repeating itself, as the Islamic armies rapidly and successfully expanded throughout the Middle East, developing a single Islamic culture. That culture rapidly displaced and replaced the existing Christian culture in those lands. Through the following centuries we can see continued military conflict in every direction, from Spain to India, as the Islamic culture expanded into new territory. I think this point is generally accepted.

Today, this association with violent conflict continues, primarily in the context of terrorist acts. Most major European cities have now had experience of this – London, Paris, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and so on. This is a worldwide phenomenon, as a simple glance at the headlines can confirm. Those who perpetrate such violent acts explicitly claim that they are doing so as faithful Muslims, and shout ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great) whilst perpetrating atrocity. It would seem undeniable that some of those who claim to follow Islam seek to express their devotion through violent, military means. This, then, is the rational ground for a fear of Islam – that there seem to be a great many followers who would wish to cause violent harm to those who are not such.

The question then becomes – is this a true representation of Islam or not? After all, we are assured by our political leadership (and they are all honourable men) that Islam is a religion of peace. We are also assured by some Islamic leaders in this country that those who carry out such atrocities are not faithful Muslims.

What can be done in such a situation? After all, it is very difficult for an outsider to fully understand the heart of an ideology. An outsider might consider that a division of the world between the ‘house of peace’ (dar al Islam – where Islamic ideology is dominant) and the ‘house of war’ (dar al harb – where Islam is in the minority) to be something that tends against peaceful co-existence, whereas an insider might justifiably respond, ‘this simply refers to the spiritual struggle’.

What is not in dispute is the actual behaviour that gives rise to the fear. We can discuss the precise nuances of technical language in academic terms but there comes a point when such debates are rendered pointless by the actions that are taken. What seems indisputable is that there are members of the international community, both nations and individuals, that claim to be Islamic, and that, as a direct consequence of that claim, are carrying out acts of astonishing barbarism.

How are we to respond to such a situation? Is it possible to respond in such a way as to reduce the risk of violence? After all, there is a little merit in the claim that the present violence has been exacerbated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the question needs to be – can Islamic society so police itself that it is able to restrain the vicious extremists from causing chaos? Or is Islamic society so internally compromised that it doesn’t have the resources required to form itself as a peaceful participant in the world community?

I’m not sure that Western society is in a position to give an answer to those latter questions; I’m sure that, as a Christian, and therefore a definite outsider, I am badly placed to give advice. What I do think is that, if our own society is to defend itself against an aggressively violent and nihilist ideology, it cannot do so by becoming aggressively violent and nihilist in turn. That, in truth, would represent the most thorough abandonment of our own values. We need to model a better way, a way that, whilst still doing all that is prudent to protect ourselves in practical and military terms, makes our main aim one of extending hands of friendship and the fostering of community, at both local and international levels. Which is, I believe, what the overwhelming majority of Muslims here and abroad also desire.

Jesus once said that his followers were required to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’. This, I feel, is the right way in which to understand Islamophobia – that there are rational grounds for some fears, but that those fears need always to be placed within a larger human context, such that all individual Muslims are loved as those that bear the image of God. We need to be wise to the very significant dangers that some Muslims pose, whilst also being innocent enough to see them as God sees them. We cannot establish a Christian society with unChristian methods.

Defending the truth with holy foolishness

What does it mean to defend the truth? I ask this question in the context of the continued march of Islamic fundamentalist nutjobs, who seem quite clearly convinced that they are in possession of the truth. One thing that I am convinced of is that I would never want to be so certain that I was in possession of the truth that I end up behaving in the way that they are behaving!

Yet there is something in that description ‘fundamentalist’ that needs teasing out. One of the mistakes that fundamentalism makes is to see belief as something that people can choose. This is a mistake that really took root with the rise of secularism, especially the thinking of the English philosopher John Locke, who argued that our religious beliefs are subject to ethical constraints. What this approach misses is that no matter how much a person may desire to believe – and that belief might be in Christianity or atheism or anything else – our fundamental patterns of thought lie deeper than our wills. We can only change our perceptions if, not only are we conscious of major problems with our existing world view, but there is a much better alternative available for us. Without that better alternative, all the arguments in the world will not advance the discussion one whit. This is why Professor Dawkins has become such a caricature – he is himself a fundamentalist and lacks the necessary subtlety of understanding in this area.

The philosopher Schopenhauer once wrote “The truth can wait. For it lives a long time.” There is something important here, in that coming to an awareness of the truth is not usually a sudden moment of clarity, along the lines of Archimedes in his bath, or St Paul on the road to Damascus. Normally – as my favourite philosopher once wrote – ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’. The truth is independent of our own certainties; indeed, our own certainties can often get in the way of our perception of the truth. As the Buddhist teaching has it, if your tea cup is already full then there is no more room to pour fresh tea in.

In other words, one of the most essential elements needed in any genuine search for truth is to begin with the frank confession ‘Of course, I could be wrong’ and to empty our tea cups. This intellectual humility is the ground for any healthy intellectual pursuit not least that of science, when it is done properly. The scientific method, rightly understood, is a way of systematically addressing and then removing all the personal preferences and biases that get in the way of attention to how things actually are. As such it has clear origins in the Christian spiritual tradition which applies the same method to the whole arena of human life; and this is, of course, why science cannot be carried on apart from such a spiritual tradition. All the attacks from supposedly ‘scientific’ atheists are ultimately forms of intellectual suicide, for they are sawing off the branch upon which they sit.

One way of describing this intellectual humility is to say that the full truth is always beyond our comprehension. We will never be in a situation where we have a full knowledge and understanding; we are, to refer to one of the classic English spiritual texts, ultimately in a ‘cloud of unknowing’. As the circle of our knowledge expands, the circumference of our ignorance increases all the more quickly. This is why it is essential to hold on to a sense of mystery, and it is this sense of mystery that fundamentalism systematically eradicates. There are so many mysteries, and they are what make the world so fascinating and exciting, from the immensity of the heavens to the astonishing worlds that the microscope reveals, yet possibly the deepest mysteries involve our fellow human beings – that each person is themselves a storehouse of wonder and amazement, if only we have the eyes to see.

Which is – to repeat the point once more – another inheritance from our Christian tradition. For Christians the ultimate truth is a person: “I am the way, the truth and the life” says Jesus, and Jesus is never under our control. We can never seize hold of Jesus and wave him around like a blunt instrument, he resists our vain schemes. What the Christian tradition also says is that every human being bears the image of Christ within them, which means that any defacing of a human being, up to and including execution by beheading or burning, is not simply an injustice but also a blasphemy. It is the Christian equivalent of ripping out pages from the Koran and burning them.

In our tradition there is a profound awareness that the full truth is elusive and mysterious; that, however far our understanding develops, it will always fall short of the ultimate truth; and that we therefore need to cultivate a sense of profound humility and respect for the individual human being, and their views, however strange or bizarre they may seem.

When I think of an image to sum up this tradition, my thoughts keep coming back to the tradition of the holy fool. The holy fool was a member of a Royal Court who had license to speak nonsense to the king. Of course, what was really going on was that the fool was the one person who could speak the truth unto power because he was immune to the consequences. All the courtiers were currying favour, and only the fool can ignore the social manipulation and power struggles in order to serve the truth – which is, of course, serving the realm. The role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a good example of this. So too, I believe, was Charlie Hebdo.

Which is what I think we need to keep in mind as we contend with the nutjobs who wish to destroy our civilisation. We need to remember our sense of humour and foolishness, for these are the things that stop us taking our own opinions so seriously that we might end up – as we have in past centuries – doing horrible things to people in order to defend our views. Perhaps, rather than sending bombs and bullets, we need to send slapstick and foolishness to ISIS, to cultivate laughter and a recognition of how absurd they are. Of course, we could only do that if we stopped being fundamentalist ourselves, and reminded ourselves of our own spiritual tradition. That might take some time.

Tainted love

Sometimes I feel I’ve got to run away
I’ve got to get away
From the pain you drive into the heart of me
The love we share seems to go nowhere…

Every time I think that I’ve plumbed the depths of despair at what the Church of England gets up to, along comes another episode of ‘how to demonstrate to the world that we are spiritually incompetent’. I refer, of course, to the debacle that has clustered around Fr Philip North’s consecration.

Two things first, before I let go and rant.

One, I feel immensely sorry for Fr Philip, who seems both principled and capable. Two, I have a huge amount of sympathy for the traditionalist perspective, not because I ultimately agree with it but because the process that has led to our present position has been driven by politics and a largely atheological form of argumentation (using the language of rights and justice). I well understand the fears and frustrations of those who see their perspective being marginalised and driven to the wall without even the courtesy of being properly engaged with by the wider church. It would be like seeing children let loose to play with the family heirlooms where the most distressing element is not that the heirlooms are being damaged but that all the other adults in the room do not recognise that there is damage being done. Far better that the damage is done openly and clearly with a full consciousness of what is going on rather than this blundering.


The consequences of our compromises are absurd and damaging and will make the eventual and inevitable collapse of our unity all the harder to deal with.

What, after all, is going on with +Sentamu’s ‘gracious restraint’? I have to confess to being rather baffled, in that I simply don’t understand the theology, the ecclesiology, of what is about to happen.

I hear that it is not about ‘taint’, by which I understand that it is not about a form of purity and/or contamination that will follow from consecrating or ordaining outside of the tradition. It is, apparently, all about communion. That is, those who take part in such consecrating or ordaining are placing themselves outside of the historic communion of the church catholic.

What I don’t understand is where this leaves Fr Philip’s future apostolic ministry within Diocese and Province. After all, I thought the very definition of being a bishop is that they are the principal celebrant of the Eucharist, from which all other priestly ministry in their area derives? Is this aspect not considered crucial as Fr Philip is to be a suffragan? But then, how can a suffragan bishop not be in communion with the Diocesan or the Archbishop?

+Sentamu has indicated that there are ways in which his authority will be recognised during the consecration, such as through oaths of obedience and ‘presenting the episcopal ring’. Yet to my mind this is to elevate the outward forms of episcopal office above the spiritual heart, which is centred on communion. What sort of witness is this?

I can only conclude that we are not a spiritually serious church. We are neither hot nor cold and thus we are apt to be vomited out of our Lord’s mouth. Which, now I think about it, is a rather good description of this noxious mess.

Don’t touch me please – I cannot stand the way you tease.
I love you though you hurt me so
Now I’m gonna pack my things and go…

Piss Christ and defending the deity

Courier article

In 1987 the American artist Andres Serrano created a photograph that caused much controversy in Christian circles. The image was of a small plastic crucifix suspended in a glass of the artist’s own urine and it was, naturally, called ‘Piss Christ’.

When I first heard about this, and saw the image, my initial reaction was ‘yawn – someone else trying to get shock value from appearing radical’ and to move on to more interesting things. I didn’t think much more about it until I made a passing reference to Serrano’s ‘delinquency’ in an article. This provoked a conversation with a friend that made me look closer at the image and the levels of meaning that it contains.

After all, suspending a crucifix in piss is a rather apt image for the way that secular culture treats Christianity. The culture doesn’t take Christianity seriously enough to want to attack Christians with physical violence, so it just pours scorn upon it. The dominant culture feels that it has won the argument against Christianity and so doesn’t feel the need to engage with Christian claims at any depth. Christianity is simply something to be excreted along with the other rubbish that the body politic has digested.

More deeply than this, however, is the sense that the photograph can be seen as presenting a profound theological truth. That is, Christians claim that Jesus was the Son of God. The crucifixion, therefore, and everything associated with it – the beating and flogging, the insults and spitting, along with the execution itself – tells us something important about the nature of God, and how we human beings relate to the divine. What the crucifixion says (amongst many other things!) is that God cannot be equated with human glory. There was no more shameful way to die than crucifixion, and this presented a huge problem to the early church. How can the promised Messiah be someone hung up to die on a tree? Yet this is precisely the mysterious wonder at the heart of Christian faith – that our own notions of what is glorious are what need to be re-examined. We preach Christ crucified, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.

One of the most important implications that flow from this is that God doesn’t need to be defended. If God can be glorified even in the cross, then what is left that God needs to be protected from? The whole notion is absurd. It would be rather like putting a giant wall up in space to defend the sun from attack by nuclear missiles. The Sun is perfectly capable of protecting itself.

Hence, for the first few hundred years of the Christian faith, when it experienced its greatest growth and ended up converting an entire Empire, there simply was no ‘defence’ of Christianity in any physical sense. The early believers allowed themselves to be thrown to the lions in the Roman arena rather than deny their faith – and taking up arms would itself be such a denial. Those early believers were called martyrs, a word that simply means ‘witness’, because they were pointing to the truth of the faith, a faith that did not, indeed could not, be advanced by force of arms.

This has had profound consequences for Christian culture, not least in terms of providing room for the growth of free speech. If a dominant religion does not need protection from being insulted – for it was born out of the greatest insult that human beings could offer – then there is no need to exercise such control over free speech that insults represent. A mature faith can simply laugh it off and move on, regarding it as like the babblings of a toddler, just beginning to appreciate the effects of words.

Wittgenstein once wrote: “Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important.”

What the Christian understanding of glory – and truth, and witnessing, and violence – allows for is room to laugh. Room for satire and absurdity, room for all the ways in which we can transgress and play, all the ways in which we can be queer and eccentric and odd – dare I say, room for the religious to wear silly dresses and make up and prance around on a stage? At the heart of the Christian claim is the faith that God has acted in the world to put things right, that we have been saved. The natural consequence of such salvation is joy and laughter, a release from an obligation to take things too seriously, for fear that if we don’t, those things that are precious to us will be taken away.

Which leads, of course, to the question that needs to be put to those of another faith, which may not have such confidence. Is it possible for a faith that was established through violent military victories, and which experienced its greatest growth as part and parcel of those military victories, and which raises up as the ideal man someone who was violent and led such military victories – is it possible for such a faith to co-exist with satire and absurdity, with comedy and pantomime? Is it possible for such a faith to detach itself from the identity that was formed and established through military victories in such a way that it can live in peace with those that it has not conquered? Or is it true what the Ayatollah Khomeini said, “There is no room for play in Islam . . . . It is deadly serious about everything.” Rather a lot depends upon the answer.