Of prophecy and life in a horror movie

I enjoy horror films. This is a somewhat bizarre taste for a clergyman I suppose (a legacy of a very secular youth) but I find them cathartic. After all, classic horror is deeply conservative – there is a peaceful status quo; there is a violent interruption to the status quo; then the violent interruption is repudiated. My taste tends more to the supernatural thriller side of things (The Exorcist, The Conjuring) rather than the gory schlock (Friday 13th) but I can enjoy most of them – particularly if I find myself in need of an emotional purging. Sometimes I can get really tense and a good ‘Aaaagh’ is effective therapy.

One of the most striking horror films of the last twenty years was the film ‘Saw’, which I thought was very interesting, and had a remarkable central conceit (ignore all the sequels and derivative copies). The premise of the first film is that an evil genius has trapped people in a room, and forces them to make painful choices if they are to survive. The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov wrote “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Well, the film ‘Saw’ gets its name from the object lying on the floor in the opening act…

Why am I discussing such things here? Well the interesting thing about that film isn’t the gore but the exploration of the nature of choice, specifically, of the way in which we prioritise certain things rather than others. It is a measure of our humanity that we are able to step away from our own immediate needs and see a larger picture. The film is an exploration of values and it operates very effectively as a critique of the collapse of conventional western values and their replacement by mindless and selfish consumerism. Each character is faced with a particular choice, rooted in their previous patterns of life, and the challenge for each of them is to ‘choose life’.

There is a strand of theology rooted in some passages of the Old Testament which relates quite strongly to this. Specifically, in Deuteronomy chapter 30 God gives the Ancient Hebrews a choice. Either they choose life, which means to worship YHWH and establish social justice, and they shall flourish; or, they choose death, which means worshipping foreign gods and tolerating injustice, and then they shall be destroyed.

This fundamental message is repeatedly forgotten in Old Testament times, and in order to bring the people back to the right path, God sends prophets to them on a regular basis, to repeat the ‘Word of God’ and call the people back to life. Prophecy is often misunderstood as being principally about a prediction of the future. Such predictions are a part of what the prophetic ministry means, but they are a byproduct of the primary task.

Jesus himself, as the quintessential prophet, sums up the prophetic message when he describes the two great commandments. The first is to love God with all that we’ve got, to put him first in our priorities; the second is to love our neighbours as ourselves, which means to establish social justice, to ensure that no member of our society is flung onto the garbage heap. Where such priorities are not in place, the consequences are terrible. When the prophet denounces such activity he usually follows the denunciation with a vivid description of what the consequences will be, using the language of God’s wrath.

These consequences are principally geo-political. The political leadership of a country that has turned away from the right priorities is – by definition – operating in an unreal situation. This means that their decisions become less and less guided by truth, and more and more guided by the illusions held by the ruling class. The most vivid example of this in Old Testament times came with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 586 BC. The ruling class had felt themselves immune to the consequences of their actions; the prophet Jeremiah denounced their foolishness (and was thrown into a cistern for his troubles); the false prophet Hananiah told the rulers that everything was going to be fine – but reality broke in and scenes from a horror movie ensued, culminating with the slaughter of the royal family on the steps of the temple.

It is a useful rule of thumb when considering the nature of God to substitute in the word ‘reality’ – instead of saying ‘God won’t like that’, say instead ‘reality won’t like that’, in other words, ‘it won’t work, it will go wrong’. To be properly attuned to God in any situation is essentially to see the underlying truth clearly, to not allow any distortions of value to mislead our judgements, to step away from illusion. This is essentially what the prophet does – he simply speaks the truth into a situation. Sometimes this truth is heard by the leadership of a community – as with Jonah in Nineveh – and the people repent, and the foretold disaster is averted. Where the truth is not heard, however, then the consequences are terrifying.

We are, I believe, in a time when the consequences of our prior actions and decisions are coming back to haunt us. Western society does not have right priorities, and it is not concerned to seek social justice, and as a consequence we are running head long into the brick wall of reality. We have built an empire upon cheap energy and easy credit, and now both of those things are being taken away. We are going to have to start making choices about what we really want – what are we prepared to let go of, what are our deepest values? Where those values are aligned with God and social justice, then we still have a potentially prosperous future ahead of us, even if it means we have to saw off things that we are remarkably attached to. If, however, we refuse to make such choices, then a bloody fate lies in wait.

The rules of hospitality

There is a saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin that runs: “Houseguests are like fish – they start to smell after three days”. Hospitality is a tremendously important concept and practice, and it is one, I believe, that is much richer and more workable than ‘tolerance’. After all, what does it mean to ‘tolerate’ something, especially in the home? There are always bounds to what is considered to be acceptable behaviour, on the part of both host and guest. Indeed, there is much delightful and occasionally pointless ritual that surrounds the nature of giving and receiving hospitality. I greatly admire those of my friends who are swift to send small cards of acknowledgement after having stayed with me – I’m getting better at that, but would still only mark myself as slightly better than terrible.

This process of offering hospitality has tremendous cultural weight. I recently watched the celebrated author Neil Gaiman give a reading of one of his stories at the Barbican, called ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’. This is a dark and forbidding story set in Scotland before the time of the highland clearances, and a key plot moment hinges on a claim to hospitality. In an environment which is inhospitable – as the highlands in winter very much are – to be able to claim hospitality from a stranger in their shelter meant the difference between life and death. For those of you who have been watching Game of Thrones, I need simply say ‘Red Wedding’.

The same seriousness was given to hospitality in the Ancient Near East, as is witnessed to many times in Scripture. The most notorious rejection of the cultural norms around hospitality was the infamous city of Sodom. Their perversions had very little to do with sexuality. That our culture thinks that their sin was sexual simply reveals our own distortions. If the sin was sexual, why does Lot – the man portrayed as honourable – offer his own daughters to be raped by the mob (Genesis 19.8)? No, the sin being portrayed in the story of Sodom centres on the need to show hospitality, and the rules and rituals associated with it, which are hugely more important than sexuality. If only the Church of England gave as much attention to the issues around hospitality as to sexuality we might be less tied up in knots.

Jesus himself sees the sin of Sodom through the lens of hospitality. When he is telling his disciples to go out and proclaim the Kingdom he says that those who do not welcome them – who do not give them hospitality – will suffer even more for that rejection than Sodom and Gomorrah. As so often, sexuality is not on the horizon of his thinking. More than this, the famous Biblical teaching “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” is likely a reference to the experience of Lot in Sodom.

Hospitality, then, is an immensely important concept. Where I believe the concept differs most crucially from that of tolerance is to do with the boundaries of what is acceptable. There is, in Scripture, no sense that the offering of hospitality leads to any burden upon the host to change their patterns of life, especially their patterns of worshipping life, in favour of that of the guest. There is, rather, an immense emphasis on the profound wrongness of doing so. There are many examples of this throughout the Old Testament, but one of the clearest is to do with Solomon, who is shown as losing his way because he is led astray by his wives, who worship different Gods. As a result of this sin the Kingdom of Israel is split into two, and never again regains the authority that it held under David and Solomon.

Biblically, then, there is no room for what is presently called ‘multiculturalism’. There is a clear emphasis upon the rights and obligations associated with hospitality, which were seen as immensely significant, literally matters of life and death. Yet an equal weight is given to the insistence on keeping the patterns of home-life and worship stable and faithful.

Why do I discuss these things? It strikes me that our disputes about immigration would benefit from this understanding of hospitality. Where there is a clear risk to life – say, as with the Jewish population of Germany in the 1930s – there is an equivalently clear obligation on a Christian community to offer hospitality, to provide the means of life to those who are in a vulnerable position. There are many contexts today where the offer of hospitality might mean the difference between life and death.

However, it seems equally clear that there is something reckless and self-destructive about changing our own inherited patterns of life, including all the rights and rituals around hospitality, in order that other cultures might be established. There is a difference between a host culture which gradually changes in order to absorb and assimilate the gifts which different cultures can bring, and a host culture which is itself radically undermined by a revolutionary change brought about by mass immigration.

I am aware that this is a sensitive issue, to say the least, and I am sure there will be many reflex responses along the lines of ‘fascist!’ ‘bigot!’ ‘racist!’ and so on – the usual litany used to close down the conversation. I want to argue that we simply need a much better discussion around these issues, one which will command a widespread cultural assent from all who live in these islands, one which preserves our capacity to give a hospitable welcome to those in need whilst also preserving our own domestic patterns of life. We need to form a new consensus about what patterns of life can fit within a right sense of hospitality, and what patterns cannot do so.

After all, we too have a right to continue as a distinct culture and community, just as much as any undiscovered tribe in Papua New Guinea or any other exotic locale. It is not a mark of wickedness to try to defend our own way of life, our own inherited norms of freedom and community. It is not in and of itself wrong for a discussion about such matters simply to end at the point of saying ‘well, this is how we do things here, this is who we are’.

The world doesn’t owe us a living

A few thoughts sparked by this article, amongst other things.

The world is a hard place. If we don’t function properly within it then we will get chewed up and spat out.

To earn a living requires making a contribution that is valued.

There are two sorts of valuing. One is the sense of monetary worth. One is the sense of quality, spiritual worth.

The world dictates what is considered to be of monetary worth. If we wish to earn a living then we have to offer something that the world considers to be of value, ie of monetary worth. That is simply the way that the world is.

The world also drives a hard bargain. If it can get what you can offer for free then it will take it, thank you very much. I think that there is some truth in saying: the world will value you in the way that you value yourself.

The world could be larger than the number of people who have read Harry Potter. It may simply be 1,000 true fans. In fact, it need only be as large as a single other person – but then that one other person needs to be able to offer something that the world values.

It is perfectly possible to offer something of immense spiritual quality to the world and find that the world does not value it, does not offer any monetary reward. If that means that the desire to create vanishes, it is likely that the original desire was poorly founded, and not in touch with the real Spirit of creativity.

The contribution can be any of a myriad number of things, can be all kinds of wonderful, but the valuing is not under our control. If we wish to offer up ourselves to the world then there are two verdicts to keep sight of. The verdict of whether the world is willing to pay for our creativity, and the verdict of whether our creations have any eternal merit. We should not expect those valuations to coincide.

A simple law of economics is supply and demand. If what you offer is the same as what many other people offer, the price will be cheap, the work will not be valued. As we are each of us unique, it is possible that pursuing our individual vocations – which lead to a proper valuing and quality – may have the happy consequence that we can offer something to the world that nobody else can offer.

That is not guaranteed.

I lost money on publishing my book. It was one of the best things I have ever done, from which I gain immense satisfaction. I feel happy whenever I think of it. Yes, I am aware of my privileges.

Nothing would make me happier than to be able to earn a decent living from writing and teaching the faith. It is almost certainly a pipe-dream. That doesn’t matter. I write because I cannot do otherwise. To cease to write would be a self-undoing (and my lack of writing is a good index of the levels of stress in my personal life).

Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, then all these things shall be added unto you, Allelu – Alleluia.

Remorseless logic and a Bishop’s rest

So at least one Bishop has now made the decision to enact discipline with respect to a priest who has entered into a ‘gay marriage’. As Ian Paul rightly asserts, the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has now come to an end, and the Church of England is going to have to choose where it stands with regard to non-tradtional sexuality.

There is a remorseless logic to the situation that the Bishops now find themselves in. The remorseless side of things stems from the nature of the society that we now live within, which will consistently seek to assert pressure from the progressive side of the sexuality argument. The logic, however, is an internal one. After all, it was the acceptance of contraception at the 1930 Lambeth conference which has led directly to our present social understandings of sexuality. The Roman Catholic hierarchy recognise that the logic of accepting contraception leads inevitably to a much more progressive understanding of sexuality tout court, which is why they have held out against it.

I can see any particular Bishop resting safely on a traditional Roman Catholic understanding of sexuality. That much could be argued for, and we don’t have to go far to see how it could be argued for. To my mind, those who oppose modern sexual mores need to accept the internal logic of their position and accept that, if they are to reject gay marriage (for example) then they are also required to reject contraception and re-marriage after divorce and so on. There are people who have made that argument within the Church of England and it seems to me to be an honourable position to hold.

However, what of those who do not wish to accept such a stance? What might be a place of ‘Bishop’s rest’ – that is, how might a Bishop exercise due authority within his Diocese when it comes to questions of priesthood and sexuality? Is there a place to stand at the end of the progressive path?

I am concluding that there is, and I believe that the new substantive policy would rest upon: an acceptance that questions of sexuality and marriage are second-order issues; an acceptance of the authority of the individual baptised conscience; and an acceptance that we are called to exercise a radical non-judgement.

Practically, the outworkings of such a framework would mean a repeal of Canon B30 (which articulates the traditional view of sexuality) and an understanding that the sexuality of any particular priest is first and foremost a private matter for the priest themselves. I think that there would still be some room for the exercise of discipline over a wayward priest, but it would have to be on the grounds of either a) illegality (in which case the church disciplinary process would follow the secular one, as in other areas of misbehaviour) or b) bringing the church into disrepute. For the latter, an individual bishop would have to discern whether there was in fact clerical misbehaviour or whether there is simply a faithful position which is out of step with wider cultural mores (in other words, the Bishop needs to discern whether the disrepute arises from waywardness or a prophetic vocation).

Article 32 might be rewritten in the following form, to articulate the new perspective: “Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, are not commanded by God’s Law, either to vow the estate of single life, or to abstain from sexual relations: therefore it is lawful for them, as for all other Christian men, to develop lawful sexual relationships at their own discretion, as they shall judge the same to serve better to godliness.”

One last metaphor to assist contemplation: there is a remarkable sequence in Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander’ when the ship’s captain has to take the momentous decision to sacrifice the life of one crewmember. A storm has stripped away a canvas-filled mast from the main body of the ship, with the man on it, and the detached rigging has begun to work as a sea-anchor, and will eventually cause the entire ship to sink. The captain has to cut the ties to the lost mast in order to enable the ship itself to come right and continue to be a safe vessel for the other sailors.

I see the traditional view of sexuality within the Church of England as being that broken mast. Unless we cut ourselves free of it we shall all sink.

What we believe makes a difference

(Courier article)

I would like you to imagine an ideology that encourages a population of believers to move to a far distant country. When there, the ideology tells the believers that they are to work towards changing that country in ways that reflect the ideology, to displace the original inhabitants of that country and, ultimately, to ensure that the patterns of life that had previously obtained in the country are eliminated.

Am I talking about Islam? No, I’m talking about an ideology, born in native East Anglian soil and mothered by Christianity, called Puritanism, which motivated the Pilgrim fathers to establish a ‘city on a hill’ in North America, and which became incorporated into the self-understanding of the United States and which led in a consistent and logical fashion to the genocide of the native american population and the almost universal abolition of the previous civilisations.

Of course, I might also be talking about ancient Israel. Consider this passage of instruction given to Moses, when he was told that Joshua would take the Israelites into the promised land: “the Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy the nations living there, and you will take possession of their land. Joshua will lead you across the river, just as the Lord promised. The Lord will destroy the nations living in the land, just as he destroyed Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites. The Lord will hand over to you the people who live there, and you must deal with them as I have commanded you” – the commands being, essentially, to eradicate all ‘foreigners’ from the land.

Such ideologies do not have to be religious. A quick glance at twentieth century history gives several examples of secular ideologies that were used to justify national expansion. My point is that ideologies have consequences, serious consequences. An ideology is simply the structure of values and beliefs which guide behaviour, and it has the longest lasting and widest ranging effect upon the nature of the world within which we live. If we are to continue enjoying the sort of common life that we have enjoyed in this nation for many centuries then we need to ensure that those ideologies which are hostile to that common life are brought out into the open and engaged with.

This is the background to the most important political issues of our time, which are tied in with questions of UKIP and EU, of immigration and Ofsted inspections. We need to have a better conversation. We need to talk explicitly about values, about what sort of society we want to live in. Now those who raise this point are normally belittled as closed minded and racist little Englanders, as opposed to the intellectually sophisticated metropolitan world citizens, our morally enlightened elite. This is a fatuous division, not least because it is actually the most progressive achievements in our society that are most at risk from unplanned changes. For example, equal rights for women and minorities are developments in our society which build upon deeply rooted principles in English common law. If you believe that a girl born in this country has the right to an education, to a career, to an independent romantic life and so on then that is a substantial claim, an ideological commitment. Such a commitment means, as a matter of simple necessity, that you are against those ideologies which would seek to remove them, ideologies which say that women are the property of the men of their family and that if the male authority is rejected, then the men are justified in carrying out ‘honour killings’ in order to enforce their will.

The challenge for our ruling class is that they are faced with a dilemma, for to be committed to one ideology rather than another is to say that multiculturalism is bankrupt. This is inescapable and inevitable. To my mind the central question is how much damage will the multicultural experiment be allowed to cause before our ruling class recognises the roots of our cultural malaise and commits to doing something about it. At least, I hope that is the central question. The longer the elite and their legions of useful idiot supporters continue to ignore and belittle such concerns, the more likely it is that the despair so many people feel about our political situation will turn toxic, and then we really will be in a cruel and unusual era.

Such a step will not be easy. For example, one of the most problematic elements of Islamist ideology is associated with the Wahhabi strand of Islamist teaching, which has grown over the last two hundred years or so, and which is based in, and backed by, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has financially supported the establishment of mosques which promulgate an ideologically extreme form of Islam which is, in no uncertain terms, hostile both to the more peaceable mainstream of Islamic thought and the long-established norms and mores of England. Can we expect, any time soon, any actions by our elite to take steps against this ideology, to stop the message that it broadcasts taking root? Well, watch for when we stop making money by selling armaments to Saudi Arabia, that will be the sign that our elite recognise that there are more important and enduring elements to ensuring the safety of the realm than worshipping at the idol of ‘increasing economic growth’. That is when we will know that they are serious in seeking to preserve British values in the British realm.

One last point. I do not believe that it is a trivial fact that the schools at the centre of the controversy over a ‘Trojan horse’ strategy in Birmingham were all ‘secular’ schools. The claim to secular neutrality is an insufficient grounding for preserving one way of life rather than another. If we are to preserve an English way of life then we need to strengthen and build upon all the elements of English culture. The rites and ceremonies of Englishness need to be resurrected and affirmed. That this ends up being an argument for an established Church of England is one possible conclusion. I shall write more about this another time.

The theological basis of my politics

I thought this could be useful as a single place to outline some fundamentals, that I can then refer back to as needed. I’m not going to put any evidence in this, it is intended as a conceptual outline, not an argument.

1. The human being is made in the image of God. To deface the human being is therefore a blasphemy.

2. I view the Western development of human rights legislation as a secular working out of this Christian perspective. Christianity is, so far as I know, the only religious perspective to have abolished slavery, and it did this not once but twice.

3. A particular aspect of this is concern for the minority, those who are especially vulnerable. Biblically these are the widows, the orphans and the aliens. Concern for the vulnerable is more commonly known as ‘social justice’. I do not believe that it is possible to have a living Christian faith and not be concerned about social justice. There are, however, many ways in which that concern for social justice can be worked out.

4. This seed of the gospel is inherently radical and progressive, dismantling structures of exclusion and oppression. I like Girard’s teaching that it is due to the profound workings of the gospel text that things have got better – it is not that we no longer burn witches because we are scientific, rather, we are scientific because we no longer burn witches – and we no longer burn witches because we are more informed by the gospel.

5. Protecting the vulnerable, preventing the dehumanisation of our neighbour – this is a political programme. In order for that programme to be achieved there needs to be a support structure in place. This support structure can be expressed in legal form, but most substantively it needs to be expressed through the embodied forms of the culture. The Eucharist is a more progressive rite than the shared watching of X Factor. The Christian therefore must pay close attention to the cultural forms within which we live, and seek to preserve those which support a Christian approach, whilst struggling against those which would undermine such an approach.

6. In our present context, the forces which I see as most inimical to the Christian vision fall into the category of ‘industrial modernism’. This I see as having two aspects. The first is the ideology of making the world safe for multinational profits. All of the local and distinctive elements of human life, whether those be amongst the native tribes of the Amazon or the working mens clubs of a Durham mining town, prevent the smoothly functioning efficiency of a market state – that is, a state which sees its own primary purpose as enabling the multinational company to make more money. I believe that God rejoices in the manifold diversity of humanity and anything which reduces the human being to a unit of economic productivity is of Babylon. Profoundly and paradoxically linked in to this is the intellectual aridity of the various fundamentalisms which afflict religions, and within ‘religion’ I would include the dominant contemporary form, which is left-wing multiculturalism. If we are to preserve the human in the cultural context, then we must insist upon the value of the dissident opinion, and therefore ensure that the rights to free speech and free association are not inhibited. We either stand with the Rushdies and Ayaan Hirsi Alis of this world or we let go of any attempt to preserve our Christian patterns of life at all.

7. I see the most important political conversation happening within the UK at the moment as the question about whether to remain part of the EU or not. Given what I have said above, it will, I hope, be clear why I object to the EU. I see it as an overmighty principality in the Stringfellow sense, as something which is necessarily and relentlessly dehumanising. We need to be free of it. Given the impoverished state of our political system, I see only one option for effecting the change which I believe to be so necessary.

Anyone interested in more on this – especially the first few points – is directed to my book, which gives a much more substantial explanation of my views.

Two thoughts on Farage, racism and culture

So on the day that the Church Times quotes me as saying that ‘there are stupid people in every party’ it is somewhat disappointing, if not completely surprising, that Farage demonstrates the truth of my comments with regard to UKIP.

What concerns me is that there is a substantive issue being obscured by the sturm-and-drang of arguments about racism, and that substantive issue is about cultural difference and whether it matters. So here are two thoughts to throw in to the conversation.

1. Racism is intellectually and morally bankrupt. There is only one race, the human race. Even if there are, when averaged out, some statistically significant differences across the allegedly different ‘races’ (as is currently being alleged by this book) it is unarguable that the different races can make babies together. There are therefore no hard divisions between the races, and those ‘statistically significant differences’ become meaningless when looked at in the context of the human race as a whole. What matters are the particular gifts, virtues and vices that a single human being may possess, not what they may or may not share by virtue of being a member of a hypothetical class called ‘race’. NB some of the most racist thinking in contemporary life is actually displayed by those who claim to be most opposed, through things like ‘affirmative action’, but that’s another story. In other words I tend to the view that any language that refers to ‘race’ in anything other than the sense of ‘human race’ is confusion and obfuscation, a mask for power politics on each side of the divide.

2. We need to have a full, open and honest conversation about culture. This is where, in my view, the dominant left-wing narrative in our society is failing us badly, and where UKIP, despite their very obvious flaws, are gaining traction because they are the only people willing to address this very important question. To bring this home, and to bring out the contradiction in the dominant politically-correct understanding, I would simply ask – do we wish to live in a society that has a progressive understanding of gender? In other words, one where girls are educated and expected to be able to pursue their own choices with regard to their working and romantic lives? And by ‘girls’ I mean ‘girls born in the United Kingdom’? If we believe that this is indeed a desirable outcome, if we believe that this is indeed the culture within which we wish to live, then that will inescapably lead to a conflict with those alternative cultures and practices which are currently becoming embedded within this nation.

Of course, the question about girls is only one aspect of the larger conversation about who we are as a society, and whether what we are as a society is worth defending or not. I believe that the traditional British virtues of fairness, tolerance and equality before the law are indeed worth defending – and, moreover, that they are under threat from a confused approach to both immigration and contemporary law-enforcement. My concern is that if we don’t have the conversation in a healthy fashion, the legitimate fears of those who see an indigenous and progressive culture under threat will end up taking a much more toxic form. We need to regain a proper measure of national pride, and not be ashamed to seek to defend those things which need to be defended.

Things we cannot bear

Andrew Goddard’s article in Fulcrum lucidly sets out the challenge presently faced by our Bishops as they seek to adjust to the new social reality which is gay marriage. As Ian Paul points out, this is the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. The church is going to have to move in one direction or another.

The inherited position, still maintained by the Roman Catholic church, is that the telos of sexuality is procreation; and therefore all sexuality that isn’t inherently open to the procreative is objectively disordered and sinful. The insitution of marriage is the structure that the wider society has put in place in order to regularise sexuality. Any sexuality which is non-procreative or extra-marital (NPEM) is to be forbidden.

The fundamental shift that has taken place within our wider society is that the telos of sexuality is no longer seen as purely about procreation. As Rowan Williams has pointed out, once you accept contraception, all the other elements of the traditional position are also undermined. From that point on there are no coherent grounds on which to claim that a sexually expressed homosexuality as such is sinful.

This change in the understanding of sexuality has been going on for an extremely long time. Indeed, the language of the 1662 marriage service, in talking about the mutual society, help and comfort of the marriage, and not just simply referring to the right ordering of procreation, is part of the opening up (this is somewhat ironic in the light of the Bishop’s statement). The end-point of this development is our present worldly situation, whereby the ‘quality’ of the romantic relationship is what justifies sexuality and marriage, rather than marriage justifying sexuality and romance.

The contradiction takes form in the House of Bishops’ advice and so they shout ‘stop the world I want to get off’. They do not wish to accept the consequences of what they have already agreed to. The CofE really has to decide whether NPEM sex is inherently sinful, and then commit itself to working out and implementing the conclusions that flow from such a decision. It may be worth pointing out – although it is not necessarily a defect, it might be a virtue – that to say that NPEM sex is sinful is to adopt a minority position within the culture of today. After all, if the church commits to a re-affirmation of the traditional position, that trajectory does not simply rule out an acceptance of same-sex marriage, it will also commit the church to ruling out, inter alia, the remarriage of divorcees.

If we wholeheartedly accept that NPEM sex is not inherently sinful, then this opens up all sorts of other questions – questions which we have really only begun to wrestle with. Part of the answer will involve something like covenanted relationships – which is what civil partnerships could be, and blessed by the church – but is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?

What, after all, is the sin involved in NPEM sexuality? What is the sin involved in consensual non-monogamy? Or polygamy? Do people have to be assorted into one of two clearly marked out boxes in order to have non-sinful sex, and then only with someone from the other box?

A quick sketch of my own thinking would be: there are profound sins, which the church must be more actively engaged in denouncing, to do with the raising of children and the breaking down of family homes, the betrayals of trust and so on. Yet on the question of NPEM sexual relations, beyond a clear teaching about the difference between I-Thou and I-It relating, I do not see any scope, apart from the tradition, for saying anything beyond ‘All things are permitted, but not all things are edifying’ and ‘It is not good for the human being to be alone’ and then leaving it to the individual conscience of the believer. In other words, it involves a radical non-judgement, and a taking seriously that baptism confers both a new creation and an authority to decide what is good (what can be ‘loosed on earth‘).

This might apply especially to the clergy, for whom the 39 Articles reserve the authority over whether a marriage is of God for them or not. The two options that the CofE will therefore end up choosing between – or, more realistically, splitting over – are therefore a re-establishment of the conservative position or an embrace of a progressive path, and this latter option will, in the terms of Andrew Goddard’s article, mean removing any understanding of marriage from Canon Law and leaving the assessment of any and all sexual relations to the conscience of the individual believer. As I intimated back in 2009 I do not see this as representing a major threat to any form of Christianity. Tobias Haller articulated this well:

“Marriage is not a proper subject of dogmatic theology, but at most of moral or pastoral theology. There is no core doctrine concerning marriage, and it is doubtful that the subject warrants a doctrine at all, and at least some of the efforts to construct a theological defense of marriage do more harm to theology than help to marriage. The church did very well without much doctrinal reflection on marriage for centuries. The creeds and classical Anglican catechisms are silent on it. The Articles of Religion refer to it as an estate allowed, and available to clergy as they see fit. There is no settled doctrine of marriage, only changing rules, laws, rites and ceremonies — all of these, as the Articles also remind us, subject to amendment by the church.”

I believe this is something that we cannot yet bear, and yet, it seems to be where the Spirit is leading the church.

Let’s stay the hell out

Courier article, written in haste :(

So, here is a little nugget of information to start us off: “Burisma Holdings, Ukraine’s largest private gas producer, has expanded its Board of Directors by bringing on Mr. R Hunter Biden as a new director.” There are two things to note about this nugget. The first is that Mr Biden is son of the slightly more famous Vice President of the United States. The second is that this is about gas in the Ukraine.

Those of you who have been reading my columns regularly will be aware of my concern about energy supplies. With regard to oil I view the ‘Peak Oil’ case as having been thoroughly vindicated by events. The supply of ‘normal’ oil has not significantly increased since 2005, and this is the primary reason why the oil price is now sustained at over $100 a barrel, rather than the $20 per barrel that was standard when conventional opinion believed that Peak Oil was nonsense. With gas – which is the hidden factor behind all the political posturing in the Ukraine dispute – the peak will come some 20-25 years after the oil peak, and that means that there is still a great deal of money to be made, and power to be harnessed, through exercising control of gas fields.

Consider this map, and then consider what Mr Putin’s overall strategy might be in this dispute.

ukraine gas fields
Ooh look – two large gas basins in Eastern Ukraine. I wonder how attractive to Mr Putin those might be. Senator John McCain recently described Russia as a ‘gas station with a nation-state attached’. He neglected to add the significant additional fact that this particular nation state possesses a vast number of nuclear weapons and is effectively immune to coercion.

Now over the last few years the United States has been seeking to exercise a great deal of influence within the Ukraine, and a plausible case can be made that the CIA had a hand in the overthrow of President Yanukovych, who was getting a little too close to Mr Putin for Washington’s comfort. We are, in other words, simply looking at a proxy fight for influence over the Ukraine and, therefore, over the gas supplies that are under Ukrainian territory. The fact that the son of the US Vice President is now in a key post dealing with such issues is, of course, a simple coincidence.

The question that I want to ask is: does Britain have a dog in this fight? I’m wary of saying that the Ukraine is a far away country of which we know nothing because in this modern age neither of those claims are true. Yet I’m sure I’m not the only person who is getting fed up with our government seeking to ‘exercise influence’ in world affairs when such influence only ever seems to be exercised in order to advance American interests rather than British ones.

What, after all, should a British foreign policy look like? What are the ‘British interests’ which such a foreign policy should serve? As a rough guess, something like: preserving the British people from direct foreign aggression or terrorism; ensuring a safe, stable and legal international system, so combatting piracy and so on; and finally, seeking to foster British values like fairness and tolerance wherever that might be possible, which may, in truth, be quite a rare occurrence.

If we apply that to the situation in the Ukraine, the first and most important element is clearly not applicable. There is no direct risk to British people whatever happens in the Ukraine. The second element is, in truth, rather embarrassing for the West, especially the United States, for Putin is simply following a script established by the West over the last two decades and, frankly, he is far more ruthlessly efficient at it than the empty suit presently occupying the White House. Russia has much more at stake, and it really does have a dog in this fight. Russian strategic interests are directly engaged, and the failure to take account of this is the most frighteningly culpable element of Western incompetence on the whole issue. In so far as there is a British interest it lies in there being a negotiated and peaceful outcome, which restores some legitimacy to international law and custom. My fear is that Western policy in this area is being driven by an overestimation of Western capacity and a corresponding underestimation of Russian capacity, interest and will. In other words, I believe that Putin knows that the West is not going to be able to do very much about his intentions in the Ukraine, and he is quite willing to push the situation forward until Western incompetence and impotence is fully on display for the world to see. Such an outcome would have very significant and unwelcome consequences for decades to come.

So am I arguing for some form of isolationist foreign policy? I’m certainly wary of ‘foreign entanglements’ but given our heritage and national character I can’t see isolationism as being true to who we are. I just wish that we could pay a little more attention to where we do have significant interests of our own. By way of comparison, consider the Falklands. Here we have British people who are being directly threatened by a foreign power that has attacked them militarily within living memory. This seems to me to fall clearly within the first priorities for our foreign policy; that is, we should ensure that our commitments to the Falklanders are fully resourced before we ever think about engaging with other military roles – and that includes Afghanistan and Iraq. (I’m not saying we haven’t done this – Mount Pleasant air base makes quite a difference! I am simply using the Falklands as an example of where British interests are directly at stake.)

In the Ukraine the East of the country is filled with Russian speakers who are supportive of Putin’s actions. It is much more closely analagous to the Falklands situation, where there are strong ties of culture and history, than to a form of foreign adventurism like invasions of Afghanistan. Any prudent foreign policy needs to make a stark and clear-headed assessment of the different levels of interest that nations have in any particular area. I don’t know what the right ‘solution’ to the crisis in the Ukraine will be, I only know that we need to stay the hell out of it, if we are to look after our own British interests at all.

Rev, establishment and the pursuit of unafraid Anglicanism

Courier article

I have been watching and enjoying (sometimes through gritted teeth) the wonderful BBC2 series ‘Rev’. For those unaware, this is a sitcom following the Reverend Adam Smallbone as he seeks to pursue his priestly vocation on the streets of the East End, where he is the Vicar of St Saviour’s in the Marshes. If you haven’t been watching it, but think you might – and I’d recommend it, because it is superbly written and acted – you had better stop reading now because I’m going to spoil the ending. One of the elements which I believe the show captures perfectly is the way that the insitutional Church of England cannot help but become abusive towards its clergy, and the various characters who hold authority over Adam – the Rural Dean, the Archdeacon, the Bishop – are all shown as conscientiously pursuing the interests of the organisation and crucifying the poor parish priest as a consequence (an imagery which is developed superbly towards the end of the series). In the end, Adam is unable to “save something precious” and the insitution is able to sell the physical building where he works in order to raise millions of pounds for the central church finances. Out of this supposed disaster, however, there is shown a profoundly faithful and orthodox hope – when the small congregation gathers around Adam in order to celebrate the dawn service of Easter morning on the steps of the closed church.

This, I believe, is a parable of the Church of England for our time. If an Anglican understanding of the faith is to survive in this country then the faithful must indeed be prepared to move outside of the building. We must learn to sit lightly to the inherited ‘plant’ – the framework of buildings and laws that have accumulated around the Anglican expression of faith in this country over the last few hundred years. In other words, I believe that the Church of England not only must be disestablished but that it is very much in the interests of the Church for it to be so.

Historically, the church community experienced its greatest growth when there were no church buildings. World wide, churches which are suppressed and have no official status, eg in China, also experience tremendous growth. It is absolutely not the case that buildings are essential for our task. However, the paradox of place is that, whenever and as soon as it becomes possible for a church community to erect a dedicated building to assemble in, they always do so. Why?

A dedicated building, put simply, can make it so much easier to carry out the core objectives of the congregation – to grow more deeply into the love of God, to work and serve each other. It can also make it easier to share the Christian faith with outsiders – we learn an awful lot from architecture and the use of space. That being said, however, we should never forget that they are optional. The key question for the Church of England now, it seems to me, is simply “is responsibility for physical buildings a Godly use of the resources of this church community?” By resources, I do not simply mean finance. I also mean the amount of time and heartache that goes into questions of fabric, often so sacrificially. Are congregations more faithful Christian communities as a result of bearing the responsibility for these buildings? Or do these buildings represent a snare and a delusion which distract us from our core tasks and actually contribute hugely to our undoing and our failing as a Church? These are questions which do not have easy answers, yet I believe that they are the questions that the established church needs to spend time explicitly considering.

Where the inheritance of establishment does work, it seems to me, is in emphasising that the building belongs to the whole community, not just to those who gather within on a Sunday morning, and certainly not just to the one who exercises the legal right of ownership (that would be me). This is why I see one of the great blessings for the Church of England in recent years on Mersea has been the development of the Friends organisations, at both West and East, which not only give practical aid to the churches in order to pay for the regular repair and restoration work but also ensures that the building is used by the wider community. I am sure that I speak for both congregations when I say that we are profoundly grateful to them for all of their hard work and dedication.

Our political class have been discussing the question of establishment, prompted by some remarks by Mr Cameron over Easter. Are we a Christian country? Well, legally, obviously we are. We are, in fact, a theocratic state, in that the head of state is also the head of the established religion. I believe that only Iran has a similar arrangement amongst the other countries of the world. Historically, obviously yes as well. Most of our legal system and cultural mores descend from an explicitly Christian view of the world, which is only recently breaking down. In terms of existing practice? That’s slightly more debatable. The majority of the country still claim adherence to Christian faith, although how to assess that is much more difficult to judge than many commentators assume. It certainly can’t be equated with church attendance.

More specifically, what role does an established religion play in making our nation more or less Christian? (There is an assumption in the question that a nation is something that might possibly be or not be Christian – an assumption I would dispute – but that would require another article to explain!) The argument that is often advanced in favour of an established church is that it means that there is an official Christian presence in every part of the nation of England. The entire country is separated out into parishes, and every parish has their equivalent of Adam Smallbone. This is a good thing – but why does Adam need to be a member of the Church of England? In other words, in Christian terms, it is certainly important for there to be a Christian witness in all the highways and byways of our society, but if that Christian witness is Roman Catholic or Free Church, is that not enough? We Christians might, after all, have a much more effective witness to the rest of society if we were less caught up in our internecine disputes and enabled to act together in common serving people.

More than this, it has long been part of the self-identity of the Church of England that we are the ‘official’ church in this country. This is legally true – that is what establishment means – yet I am more and more persuaded that this part of our self-identity is ultimately idolatrous, and gets in the way of our proper discipleship and growth in faith. We are, after all, the odd one out when it comes to global Anglicanism. It seems perfectly possible to be a good Anglican Christian in places like Canada and Wales without the context or support of establishment, and there is no inherited expectation that the ministers there will spend their time engaging more with the people outside of the congregation than inside.

I believe that Rev has indicated the path that the Church of England must consider. The desire to save the building annihilated poor Adam Smallbone, leading him to despair and spiritual death. Yet he was raised to celebrate Easter with his congregation. That, in all of the messiness and hope, seems to me to be a properly faithful vision of an unafraid Anglican future.