A Church for England: Guarding the nation’s soul

The prophets of ancient Israel were those who called the nation back to a faithful religious life – back to right worship, that is, worshipping the right things, and back to social justice, which meant ensuring that nobody was excluded from sharing in the national life.

The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is, which means that it doesn’t know how to call a nation back to a faithful religious life. This is something of a problem when the name of a nation is in your self-description. Captured by modern, secular individualism, the church seeks to market the gospel to modern, secular individuals – which means that those for whom issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity matter are alienated from their natural spiritual home.

Nations are part of the creation and they have their place in that creation, which is why nations are talked about so often in the Bible. Nations are real things, spiritually real – they are part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers – and our culture is very familiar with what it means when a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic – we all know enough history to be aware of what that looks like. It is a great sin to overemphasise nationhood: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than any national claim.

This does not obliterate nationhood however; it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation. What is missed in our church and our culture is that there is an equal and opposite error, of obliterating any sense of national identity and seeking to do away with any expression of it. It is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people, and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory: no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular land and nation.

George Orwell wrote that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality, and it seems to me that the mind of our House of Bishops has been captured by that same intellectual disorder; it is, in fact, a theological disorder. Some ten years ago a kind friend introduced me to the folk group Show of Hands, and took me to a show of theirs in Putney. It was the first time I had heard any of their songs, and I was blown away. One song especially:

And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn to be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack
That’s my flag too and I want it back
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots

We can’t let patriotism, the story of who we are as a nation, be monopolised by the morons and the bigots, but if we don’t have a healthy understanding, a theological understanding of what a nation is then that is what is going to happen by default, they will take up that space – and then the demonic will take it over. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, ‘Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil, for what is evil but good, tortured by its own thirst, and forced to drink of stagnant waters’.

The task of the Church of England is to provide fresh living water to our nation and by doing so to tend to the soul of England. It is because the Church has failed to even engage in this spiritual struggle that we have lost our moorings as a society and the church dies.

These words: I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.

Blake was a prophet, and I have always taken Jerusalem to be about the Kingdom, about engaging the imagination in such a way that working for the Kingdom in a particular place, for a particular people becomes possible… I think I’m supposed to work specifically for that. In England, amongst the English – here I stand, I can do no other.

(Developing thoughts from this old post)

Well what would you do about Brexit?

As a committed supporter of the UK leaving the European Union – you might have noticed – you will understand the strong sense of despondency that has been settling upon me over recent weeks. It really is quite a remarkable achievement for Theresa May to have united the Johnson brothers in opposing her plan. The flaws in what she has negotiated have been rehearsed extensively elsewhere; for me, the crucial point is that we will end up with less sovereignty than before the Referendum. If this passes the House of Commons then the Conservative party will deserve to be renamed as the BBP – the Brexit Betrayal Party. They will be defined by that one act against the democratic will of the United Kingdom and will deserve to fade away into ignominy.

It is a fair question, however, to ask ‘Well what would you do?’ It is comparatively easy to carp from the sidelines about the omnishambles of this present government; it is rather more difficult to say precisely what would be done instead. It is not that Theresa May is without virtues – I would credit her with duty, diligence and courage at least. It is simply that her framework for understanding this issue would appear to have been captured (after the departure of her advisor Nick Timothy) by the existing establishment, which clearly has an agenda for reversing the decision to leave the European Union. If the UK is truly to leave the orbit then Theresa May, sadly, has to be removed from office. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, or easily.

So what would I do? There is the proverbial joke about a man asking for directions (must be a made-up story – men never ask for directions) and being given the response ‘Well I wouldn’t start from here…’ So I shall answer the question in two parts, the first relating to what might have been done from immediately after the Referendum, the second relating to where we might go from where we are now. Then, finally, a religious comment – as I do believe that this is a matter that relates to the souls of nations, which are real things.

Immediately following the Referendum in 2016 the most important thing is that I would have stated explicitly that the people had decided that the UK was to leave the European Union, and that it would therefore have been what the EU calls “a third country”. The aim, therefore, would have been to establish a framework of relationship between the UK and the EU on that basis. This was very much the thrust of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech – the ‘deep and special partnership’ and so on – but because there was no emphasis upon the nature of the UK as a third country, with all that is implied by that description, the clear thrust of the Referendum verdict has been steadily diluted and diminished into the dog’s breakfast of the Withdrawal Agreement. At so many points those who benefit from the institutional status quo have pointed to areas where they didn’t want the UK to be treated as a third country – this even applies to committed Brexiters like David Davis. Truly this is ‘have cake and eat it’ territory. Instead of all that, there needed to be a hard-headed embrace of the only long-term sustainable position, that we are to be a third country with all that this meant. We could then build close arrangements with the EU from that stable foundation, in ways that are mutually acceptable. Instead we have had this panicked attempt to try and preserve what is unsalvageable.

So where to go from where we are now? Sadly, I think the only way forward that does not promise to rend our social fabric from top to bottom is what is called a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which I’d prefer to call a World Trade Brexit. I believe that the threats to our economy from this are exaggerated. There are threats, and they are not trivial, but even the Project Fear forecasts from the establishment indicate that a no deal Brexit would be less damaging than the recession following the financial crisis of 2008. We need – our political class needs – to have a much wider horizon for their thinking than simply the first few months of possible disruption. It beggars belief that the long term future of our country is being sold for the mess of pottage that is a few months of economic turbulence. I would also desire to see an enthusiastic and rapid embrace of what is called CANZUK – an agreement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand that builds upon our common shared inheritance. Fleshing that out might need another article though.

Which brings me to my theological point. A good rule of thumb for a priest is ‘God is not in the drama’ – that is, when emotions are in a heightened state, and all around are losing their heads and blaming it on others. This is the ‘earthquake, wind and fire’ – and God is found in the still, small voice of calm. What we most need at this point in time is not vehement advocacy but rather a slow and careful delineation of disagreement between those opposed to the EU and those in favour. I do not recognise myself in the regular caricatures of what a Brexit supporter is supposed to believe; doubtless Remainers have the same experience.

I would hope that such a process might lead to a reconciliation between the different parts of our nation, which are so strenuously opposed to each other at this time. It is understandable why that is the case – the vote for Brexit was an immense shock to the dominant consciousness of our time, and it will take time for all of us to adjust to what it meant. Yet we do need to leave the European Union. That choice was a long time coming, and not the consequence of short-term campaigns or slogans on the side of a bus. If that choice is overturned by the establishment – against the Referendum, the votes of the House of Commons and the manifestoes of over 80% of those elected at the last general election – then I do fear for what is to come. It might be diabolical.

Unacknowledged Materialism and the decline of the Church of England

I have been a little unwell, and postponed various meetings, which has left me, unusually these days, with the time to think and thus to blog. I find my thoughts coming back to what it is that the Church of England has really got so wrong, that has led to its not-quite-terminal-yet long decline.

If I had to put my finger on one thing, I would say that most members of the hierarchy of the church are philosophical materialists. That is, they might pay lip service to spiritual realities but in practice no real choices are made on the basis of those spiritual realities. They would almost certainly all demur from such a description – at least, those who knew what it meant would demur – but the demurral would not achieve much in practice. Which is my point.

Philosophical materialism is, roughly, the dogma that the only things that are real derive from mass and from motion, and stems from the thought of Francis Bacon. He excluded two of Aristotle’s four causes from reasonable (ie scientific) consideration, that to do with formal cause (a determining pattern) and final cause (the purpose for which something exists).

This materialism became culturally dominant in England quite some time ago, to the extent that it is now simply a matter of common sense. To reject such a materialism is socially not respectable; at least, not until extremely recently. It is why all language of miracles is rejected (miracles are, most of all, to do with the final cause of events). It is what lies behind the notion of ‘hard’ sciences – because Bacon’s two causes are the ones that are most tangible.

To take just one example with regard to the hierarchy, this – possibly unconscious – materialist bias is shown when the language of spiritual warfare is used in their presence, and the squirming and unease is palpable. Mostly I think this is a caution relating to charismatic forms of devotion – very unEnglish – but there is often something wider too. I diagnose it as a cowering before the mighty edifice of science. In opposing science the Church of England came off worst, it lost, and anything which smacks of reviving that fight is to be shunned for fear of more pain.

However, where materialism is accepted, the work of the church becomes less about a knowledge that leads to salvation than about those things which can be clearly understood in materialist terms: hence the emphasis upon the palliative care of the suffering and the embrace of a managerialist ethos.

It is, put simply, not a spiritually serious position to hold. Which is rather disappointing given the nature of the job, and it is why, in my view, the Church has been a long time a-dying. It cannot give spiritual sustenance when deep down it doesn’t believe that such a thing is real. Where the flock are not fed, they die or they leave.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying that the decline of the Church of England stems from an intellectual surrender to the doctrine of secular materialism. The Church has surrendered to science, and forgotten its own genius.

We need to rediscover the magic of our faith. In every sense.

I’m doing my own part to chip away at this through my own research, looking at one area in particular where this has happened (psychiatric diagnosis) yet I am very conscious of being in a distinct minority within the church community: odd, and therefore lonely. (I seek to avoid the vainglorious notion of being the only one left, I’m sure there are at least 7000 more that have not bowed the knee to Baal.)

I don’t know what to do about this, or even if God wants something to be done about it. It may be that God wants the Church of England to enter into glory. I just can’t help but believe that we need to see our situation clearly before we will be enabled to hear God clearly – and this is my contribution. I will start to believe that we are healing – and therefore open to growth once again – when the language of spiritual warfare, of idolatry, principalities and powers, angels and demons are once again comfortably and normatively used by those in spiritual authority over the church.

What is Justin Welby afraid of?

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a news conference at Lambeth Palace in London

I am feeling ashamed of the Archbishop of Canterbury. As you might imagine, this is not a comfortable experience for someone who is a loyal Anglican.

This has been provoked by Welby’s response to the Carlile report.

The Carlile report concluded that, in its investigation of the allegations against George Bell, “the Church of England failed to institute or follow a procedure which respected the rights of both sides. The Church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case. In other words, there was a rush to judgement: the Church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the Bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.”

In other words, the Church got things wrong – it did not make a proper investigation into the strength of the allegations against George Bell, and consequently defamed the late Bishop and destroyed his reputation without good cause.

This seems to me something that is a serious moral error and one that needs to be repented of.

Yet the Archbishop says this: “Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good.” He is balancing the heroic elements of George Bell’s life, which are well-known and well-attested, with the single, uncorroborated (and clearly partly factually mistaken) allegation of wickedness.

I believe that this is in itself wicked.

As I do not believe the Archbishop to be a wicked man – indeed, he has for the most part seemed a good thing so far – I am forced to wonder about his motivations for being so maladroit on this topic. The only thing that occurs to me is that he is terrified of the opprobrium that falls upon the church when it gets things wrong with regard to safeguarding – indeed that is what Carlile alludes to in the extract above. Welby has taken the easier, more worldly-mollifying course of action, rather than one which is principled and concerned above all with the truth.
This cannot end well.

This acting from fear is so far from what we need. I am still someone longing for an unafraid Anglicanism. I had been hoping we would get some fearless leadership from Dr Welby. I am now more worried that we will get an extremely efficient leadership that takes us vigorously in the wrong direction.

St Anthony of Padua pray for us!

Let my people go

There are three theological concepts which hold together indissolubly from an Anglo-Catholic point of view. The first is the incarnation, in which human flesh became divine. The second is the sacramental life, in which creatures of bread and wine become bearers of the divine. The third is social justice, in which we commit ourselves to work for the revealing of the divine in the human.

These are all aspects of what it means to talk about the Body of Christ – Jesus, the host, the church as a whole – working in the world.

For the Anglo-Catholic, the way in which we gain some assurance on these things is by talking about proper order within the church – so, valid ordination of priests for example, and also a prohibition on lay presidency. These things are not abstract and arcane, however much they may appear to be so to outsiders. Rather, an acceptance of proper order is how those three theological concepts are given practical effect – right doctrine, right worship, right behaviour.

What is increasingly concerning me is that this entire understanding of the faith has been quietly set aside in order to pursue unity between different factions of our church. Sadly, the political compromise that has been reached – the five guiding principles – destroys this understanding not simply for those who are opposed to women’s ministry, but for those who support it.

The Church of England, as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church has, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the authority to ordain priests. The Roman Catholic church, for one, denies that the Church of England has such authority which is why I (and many others) could never become Roman Catholics – to do so would mean accepting that the sacraments that we have celebrated have not had validity. I cannot fathom the internal anguish that would enable a priest to accept such a verdict.

At the moment the Church of England is processing questions about women’s ordination and consecration. I believe that the Church of England has authority to make a decision in these matters. That is, when the Church of England says that women can be priests, and puts that decision into effect, it is acting in a way that does not jeopardise proper order. Women priests ordained after such a decision are validly ordained and so on.

There are those within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion who disagree with this, for various reasons, including questions of proper order. However, those who do not believe that the Church of England has authority to make this decision are committed to an alternative path of church order. We have seen the implications of this with regard to Philip North’s prospective ministry in Sheffield. A crucial question has been whether, as a Diocesan Bishop, Philip North could accept the ministry of women priests in the Sheffield Diocese (and by ‘accept’ I mean be sacramentally efficacious, ie act within the ‘proper order’ outlined above).

I do not see how this is possible. That is, I do not see how a Diocesan who rejects the authority of the Church of England on this question can then exercise a Diocesan ministry within that same Church. This is, of course, the point that Martyn Percy has made so forcibly. I am starting to believe that the only way forward for those who reject the decision made by the Church of England on this matter is to walk separately in some way – more on this below.

The House of Bishops has been concerned to prevent such a separation, in order to preserve some form of unity. I have my suspicions that this is driven by several unholy reasons as well as – or possibly instead of – the more respectable desire for unity. I am quite certain that there are elements within the House of Bishops which are simply playing a long game and hoping for the Forward in Faith group to die out.

Yet my concern now is as much for those who take an Anglo-Catholic perspective who have accepted (on good Anglo-Catholic grounds) the authority of the Church on this question, and who choose to remain. The political compromise of the five Guiding Principles does not just place Forward in Faith into an impossible position; it also undermines those Anglo-Catholics who remain. It does this because it does not take sacramental life seriously. This is why I believe that it paves the way for lay presidency at some point in the future. If the proper order of the church can be set aside in this situation, if it becomes simply another part of the political negotiations, then from an Anglo-Catholic perspective that proper order no longer exists. It can only exist if it is taken as of the essence of the church; that is, where it is absent, there the apostolic church has also been removed.

(This is not to put boundaries around God’s grace, or even to say that this is the wrong development – it is simply to say that, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, it is impossible to hold on to proper order whilst at the same time accepting the five Guiding Principles. They contradict each other.)

The House of Bishops has become a house of low virtue, possibly because it has become animated by a fear of death in the form of numerical decline and financial ruin. I do not believe that the five Guiding Principles can in any way provide a way forward for the church. What is most important is that the House begins to cultivate some stronger virtues.

The first one is simply honour. Beneath all the theological gloss we need to accept that this has been a long and bruising political fight and as with all genuine fights there are winners and losers. What is essential now is for the victors to act with honour and magnanimity, and not succumb to a desire to force ‘scorched earth’ upon those who have lost the debate.

This could take the form of a generous dispensation for those who are opposed, not in the form of individual payments to individual clergy that object (how we have fallen for that modern idolatry!) but rather that the Church of England should divest itself of those parishes and properties associated with Forward in Faith; that is, to recognise that in this divorce, some of the marital assets belong to each partner.

The Church of England has too many churches and following an honourable path might allow for two things to happen – far friendlier relations with those who would then leave, who would not then see themselves in a fight to the death with those who simply wish to exterminate them, and also an opening for the Gamaliel principle to operate – that is, if the rejection of women’s ordained and consecrated ministry is against the will of God, then time will tell.

In order for this to work, the second virtue that the House needs to cultivate is honesty. Bishops need to be set free to speak clearly and openly and honestly with each other and with the wider church over which they exercise oversight. The burial of dissent has led simply to monstrosities and we need to bring things out into the open. Most especially the integrity of the church as a decision making body has been embarrassingly compromised and the church has brought itself into disrepute. We need to remove the bandage from the infected wound in order to properly cleanse it and heal.

The third virtue is humility. The Church of England as such is not an eternal institution. It had a particular worldly birth and it may yet have a particular worldly death. It may well be that this process of divestment is how the Church of England should come to an end – setting out many different lifeboats and leaving behind a sinking shell for the state to continue to manage.

If this happens, the chances are that the conservative evangelicals may well follow Forward in Faith out of the door. After all, what trust can they possibly have in the processes of the Church of England now, especially with one eye towards the ongoing argument around equal marriage?

The truth is that there are many different Anglicanisms that are presently sharing the structure of the inherited, established church. Is there anything which binds them together beyond institutional inertia, is there any place of theological integrity, congruent with our inheritance, on which we might all stand? I rather hope that there is such a place, and the the house of Anglicanism can keep many rooms. I have learnt a great deal from those whose expression of faith is not Anglo-Catholic, and I remain of the view that there is a distinct vocation for the Anglican theological vision.

Yet in order to find out what binds us together it is imperative that we cast out the spirit of timidity from the House of Bishops. In this as in so many other areas we act like a vessel that has been holed below the waterline but the officers on deck act like a people who do not know how we have been struck – let alone what to do about it! I reiterate that in making these criticisms of the House of Bishops I am not criticising particular individuals but rather the culture has embedded itself within it – it is a fallen principality that stands in need of redemption.

We need to recognise that unity as such can become a false idol, and that it can become opposed to the truth that sets us free. We need to risk dying, for only by doing so might we also be born again – and renewed to preach the gospel effectively in this time and in this nation.

Leonard Cohen’s Amen – how to live faithfully in the context of suffering


I would like to talk about suffering, and I want to use Leonard Cohen’s songs as a means through which to explore what it means to respond with faith in the context of suffering.

I believe that suffering is a human universal. We all suffer. Now it is possible to engage with this as a philosopher, and that leads us to consider what is called The Problem Of Evil (with capital letters). That Problem can be simply stated: how can a loving and all powerful god allow us to suffer? Or, more precisely: God is all powerful, God is all good, there is evil in the world – you can only logically choose two of the three.

I am not going to give you an intellectual answer to that tonight. There are some intellectual answers but they don’t reach me; they don’t make a difference to me as a human being seeking to live his life in the context of suffering.

To enter into suffering is to enter into a mystery of our human life, possibly the defining mystery. When Christians talk about the world as fallen, as broken, we use these stories and this language to describe the reality of our life as we experience it. The Bible never gives an intellectual answer to The Problem Of Evil – what it suggests is that an intellectual answer is a blasphemy, an attempt to justify God to our own conscience, an resistance to allowing God to be God and thereby accepting our creaturely state (for more on that see the book of Job).

I see Leonard Cohen’s work as fitting into this Biblical tradition, and this is why his songs speak to me. Cohen’s perspective is fundamentally Jewish, Biblical and liturgical. Yes, he spent time doing other things, especially his training as a buddhist monk (I would also add that his writing is saturated with Christian references, and to my mind he ‘gets’ Christianity) but Cohen himself said that he never felt any need to change who he was, a Jewish man.

Most particularly, for me Cohen is a modern psalmist. He articulates for today the sort of thing that the Psalms articulate in Old Testament, the full range of human feeling and emotion. He was also deeply influenced by modern Jewish liturgy – but I shall come back to that. Yet one key way in which his work is Jewish is that it is always under the shadow of the Holocaust, often in surprising ways (as with Dance me to the end of love). This is a thread that runs through his life and his work and there are many references to it, often with an echoing and paralleling between more personal elements and the more large scale prophetically judgemental and obvious ones.

All that being said, let me begin with the ‘title song’ – Leonard Cohen’s Amen.

This song contains demands made of God, the demand to hear from God when we have made the time to listen and we still cannot hear, when “we’re alone and I’m listening so hard that it hurts”: tell me that you love me, tell me that it all makes sense, tell me when there is fairness and the suffering has been justified, tell me that you want me then…

This is a plea, a form of lamentation, a classically Psalmist form of song. Cohen is clearly articulating what it feels like to suffer and to bring that suffering to God. Tell me, tell me.

As such, this is a thoroughly orthodox and faithful response to our human condition.

Here are some further examples of Leonard’s spiritual orthodoxy:

Treaty (pleading honesty with God)
I’ve seen you change the water into wine
I’ve seen you change it back to water, too
I sit at your table every night
I try but I just don’t get high with you
I wish there was a treaty we could sign
I do not care who takes this bloody hill
I’m angry and I’m tired all the time
I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty
Between your love and mine

If it be your will (surrender to God)
If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

Show Me The Place (begging for guidance)
Show me the place where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bendin’ low
Show me the place where you want your slave to go

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

Anthem (prophetic cry for righteous judgement)
I can’t run no more with that lawless crowd
while the killers in high places
say their prayers out loud.
But they’ve summoned,
they’ve summoned up a thundercloud
and they’re going to hear from me
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Villanelle For Our Time (the wound of self-knowledge)
From bitter searching of the heart,
Quickened with passion and with pain
We rise to play a greater part.
This is the faith from which we start:
Men shall know commonwealth again
From bitter searching of the heart.
We loved the easy and the smart,
But now, with keener hand and brain,
We rise to play a greater part.
The lesser loyalties depart,
And neither race nor creed remain
From bitter searching of the heart.
Not steering by the venal chart
That tricked the mass for private gain,
We rise to play a greater part.
Reshaping narrow law and art
Whose symbols are the millions slain,
From bitter searching of the heart
We rise to play a greater part.

Where Cohen’s orthodox and faithful response to our human condition comes over most effectively for me is through his use of biblical words at key points, that is, where the Biblical words are used liturgically. The most famous example is of course Hallelujah which means ‘praise to God’:

and even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue
but Hallelujah

No matter what happens, we praise God.

From his last album, there is the word Hineni which means ‘Here I am Lord’ and means surrender to God’s will; it is the response of Abraham, Samuel, Isaiah in the Old Testament.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Finally, for my purposes here, is the word Amen, which means “so be it”.

I mentioned the book of Job earlier. When Job suffers, his friends come to see him and say that he must be suffering because he has done something wrong. That answer is comprehensively rejected (it is rejected by Jesus too). We are taught that there is no necessary link between suffering and individual merit; rather vengeance belongs to the Lord. In his song Amen Cohen is pleading for some answer, in just the same way that Job pleads for an answer. Specifically, and with the shadow of the Holocaust in the background, and an extravagantly offensive promise of Christianity in the foreground, Cohen sings

Tell me again
When the filth of the butcher
Is washed in the blood of the lamb…
Tell me again
When I’ve seen through the horror
Tell me again
Tell me over and over
Tell me that you love me then
Amen

Here I believe we have articulated the only human response to The Problem Of Evil that can ever satisfy.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov Ivan articulates the most powerfully effective form of The Problem Of Evil. He asks if, were the price of making heaven on earth the suffering of one innocent child, would we accept it? Ivan says no. It is not that he doesn’t believe in God, simply that he declines his ticket of entry into creation, on the grounds that it is unjust.

In contrast to this, the faithful response is to say ‘Amen’ to creation. To accept the ticket. To accept that pain and to trust. It is to say Yes to God.

In the Jewish liturgy, Amen is the response to a blessing.

Amen leads to joy.

You got me singing
You got me singing
Even tho’ the news is bad
You got me singing
The only song I ever had
You got me singing
Ever since the river died
You got me thinking
Of the places we could hide

You got me singing
Even though the world is gone
You got me thinking
I’d like to carry on
You got me singing
Even tho’ it all looks grim
You got me singing
The Hallelujah hymn

This is the yes to God, this is the acceptance of the life that we have been given, this is the receiving of the whole package, good and bad, evil and joyful – as a gift. This, I believe, is the only spiritually healthy and life-affirming way to navigate through our sufferings.

Cohen as an artist is seen as depressing or melancholy. I have never found him to be this way; on the contrary, listening to him always fills me with joy. I gain a sense of being understood and exalted, as Cohen gives a fully human response to our situation. Cohen articulates the pain yet returns always to the beginning and end of faith.

This is holiness. This is the spiritual drink that sustains us, this is the food of life… and this is why I love listening to him. He brings me closer to God.

Of lust and the Bishops

The notes from my sermon on Matthew 5 21-37

St Paul – fed with milk not with solid food – you’re going to get some solid food this morning – I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes, and it may raise lots of questions that you may wish to discuss with me privately – please do so
Jesus in St John – there are some things that you cannot cope with yet; the Spirit will guide us into all truth – well, we in the church are on that journey with the Spirit

~~

Jesus says that to look at people lustfully is already committing adultery in the heart
lust is a deadly sin – remember, sin is anything which breaches relationships, either horizontally with other people or vertically with God
so lust is essentially a corruption of love – it still looks outwards from the self, but it treats others only for what they can provide for our own bodily appetites; rather than giving other people their own dignity, other people simply become means to our own ends
this runs completely counter to everything that Jesus teaches and embodies

having said that lust is a deadly sin, it is worth pointing out that on the scale of sin – lust is the least dangerous of the deadly sins as it is misplaced love, not an absence of love – need to tackle the pride which is the most deadly sin, as that is when a person has become completely curved in upon themselves

everything that Jesus teaches and embodies, which is all about recognising the human significance of all those who are not seen as worthy by the religious establishment of his time, such as the Samaritan woman at the well
his is a movement of inclusion, to bring into a relationship with God all those who had been excluded, the Samaritans and the tax collectors, and lets not forget that he teaches that the prostitutes get to Kingdom ahead of the priests – which is why priests can find Jesus unsettling

~~

so let me say something about the priests – and before I go on I should say that I am very conscious of the other elements that Jesus teaches in this passage, especially that those who call other people fools are liable to the fires of hell

so with that in mind I would like to talk about the House of Bishops of the CofE

they have recently released a document about same sex marriage in which they have reaffirmed the traditional teaching that marriage is a union of one man with one woman for life, and that any expression of sexuality outside of that context is sinful

in saying this, they are drawing on a perspective about what is the true end or purpose of sexuality, that is, what sex is for. The tradition, derived in part from Aristotle the Greek philosopher, says that the purpose of sexuality is procreation, and any form of sexuality that is not open to the possibility of procreation is therefore deficient and more or less sinful, dependent on how far it is driven by lust

this is why the Roman Catholic church does not accept contraception – and I can understand why they do so, for the implications of accepting contraception are quite profound, and would undermine a large part of the RC teaching on sexuality

however, the Church of England has a different perspective, and in the teaching of this church, marriage is instituted of God for three reasons, not just one – for the procreation of children, for the right ordering of our passions, and for the mutual society and help between a couple

this is, in part, why the Church of England some eighty years ago accepted the use of contraception by married couples – that is, the Church accepted that there was an expression of sexuality that was not open to procreation but was nevertheless not sinful, for it served the wider purpose of enhancing the love between a couple – the right ordering of the passions fostering the mutual society within the marriage

[a brief aside: to my mind there are still question marks around how we are to understand marriage, as the traditional core of marriage – around providing a structure for procreation – has now been almost entirely eclipsed, and I believe that we need to do some serious theological work specifically focussed on procreation, and establishing a parental covenant or something like that, because we need to take parenting more seriously]

the trouble for the church is that, once this step has been taken, there isn’t a coherent place to stand from which to reject same sex relationships. Let me explain that a little further – if we accept that it’s OK to have sexual expression when it is not open to procreation, then it means that we accept that non-procreative sex is valid when placed in the context of the right ordering of our passions and the mutual society of the couple concerned. There is then the possibility of what we might call holy passions amongst those who are not both fertile and straight

~~

to reject the validity of same sex relationships must then rest upon a more spiritual argument, which is what our House of Bishops needs to be concerned with

now one line of argument is simply to say ‘Scripture says…’ It is undoubtedly the case that Scripture is uniformly negative about the sexual expression of homosexual relationships. However, to rest the argument at that point is, at best, sub-Christian. We are not a community that does without rules, so long as those rules are rightly understood as being based upon grace and serving a higher purpose.

Furthermore, the church has the authority to change the rules that we live by – this is an authority explicitly given by Jesus himself to the disciples, to Peter in particular – that what we bound on earth will be bound in heaven and what we loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

We are given a worked example of how the church is to change the rules in the description of the council of Jerusalem in Acts, when there was an argument over whether the gentiles had to be circumcised in order to enter the Kingdom. Scripture was very clear that if a man wasn’t circumcised then he couldn’t join the community – but ‘it seemed good to the spirit and to the [disciples]’ that this rule should be discarded.

So the question isn’t about what scripture says in terms of a rule for us to follow, but what is the deeper spiritual question at issue. So, to go back to what Jesus says in our reading this morning, the spiritual argument has to be something along the lines that a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is necessarily characterised by lust rather than love. That a gay relationship, in contrast to a heterosexual one, is not pure.

That position is at least a coherent one, and it is one that has the benefit of being shared by the tradition, and by the majority of Christians in the world.

Yet I do not agree with it, and on this issue I would align myself (with the caveat about marriage I mentioned earlier) on the progressive side of the church debate. Whilst the church hierarchy is still arguing about this, our wider society, including the majority of those in our congregations, has quite clearly come to the conclusion that gay relationships are simply human – yes, open to lustful exploitation, but also vessels for the amazing grace of god – that within a committed relationship it is for the couple themselves to determine the right ordering of their passions to foster the mutual society, help and comfort appropriate to their relationship. In this they are treating homosexual relationships on the same level as heterosexual relationships – they are including all within the covenant community – and this seems to me deeply in tune with what Jesus was pushing for.

This seems to me to be what the Roman Catholics call the ‘sensus fidelium’ – the mind of the faithful. We are not there yet, but that seems to be the way that, at least in this country, we are being led, and I do see that as a movement of the spirit.

~~

Our Bishops, however, are in the almost impossible position of trying to reconcile two sides that have become more and more opposed, and the dominant impression that I have is that they are acting from fear – that they are terrified of causing disunity both within the Church of England and between the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. I am not without sympathy for that – it seems like an impossible job to me

but there is one area where I would want to raise a criticism against our Bishops, and it is this: within the report, indeed within all the ways in which our Bishops discuss this issue, the gay and lesbian community are seen as ‘other’ – not seen as within the church, but seen as a problem amongst those who are outside, to be touched only at a distance

I don’t believe that we as a church community will be able to make progress on this question until we accept that we are talking about a part of ourselves, part of our own body, when we talk about the differences between the homosexual and the heterosexual, and the right ordering of our passions.

Those who are baptised are a new creation, and their identity is found first and foremost in Christ. That must be the starting point for our conversations – we have to take our baptism seriously, and consequently, we have to listen to what the Spirit is saying through that part of our body which is gay.

~~

Christ did not come to lay a burden upon us that we cannot bear; rather, Christ came that we might have life and have it in all its fullness. That fullness of life does not come when we surrender to our passions and allow them to dominate us; nor does it come when we needlessly tear out pieces of ourselves out of a misguided quest for spiritual purity.

We need to start from the love of God, that Christ came not to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. We need to begin from a place of rest, resting in God’s love for us, and allowing that love to lead us into all truth. We will not get to God by making ourselves pure; no, it is by allowing God’s love to lead us that we will become pure in heart.

May God give us the strength and the grace to remove all lust from our hearts and minds, that we might truly be vessels for his inclusive love. Amen.

It’s all about the story

story_telling

I am often asked to give reasons for believing in God. Whilst I very much honour the motivation behind the request, I feel that it is based upon a mistake and I would like to explain why.

In the 1930s the philosopher Bertrand Russell would often engage in polemical debate with representatives of the Christian churches. There was one particular debate with a Fr O’Hara that Wittgenstein listened to, after which he commented “Russell and the parsons between them have done infinite harm”.

For Wittgenstein, and for me, the problem with this sort of debate is that it turns religious belief into some sort of weak science. “The symbolism of Christianity is wonderful beyond words,” said Wittgenstein, “but when people try to make a philosophical system out of it I find it disgusting.” What he was very opposed to was any attempt to “elaborate a philosophical interpretation or defence of the Christian religion”.

In part, this was because Wittgenstein was very aware of the primitive roots that lie behind all our patterns of thought. In discussing James Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’, which was an immensely influential work at the time, he criticised Frazer for completely lacking an historical imagination, writing that “Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness”.

To imagine that religious belief is based upon some sort of intellectual exercise is a grave mistake. Moreover, it is a grave mistake not only in mischaracterising the sort of thing that religious belief is, but also in giving far more importance to a narrow sense of reason and logic than either deserve.

In an academic argument, the one who can make the most reasonable and logical points can make progress. Yet that reason and logic – all reason and logic – is based upon unstated premises. The fallacy of Modern (capital M) philosophy is that it believed that reason could provide the foundation for our knowledge. Post-Modern thought is characterised by the recognition that this was a fool’s errand from the start, for (as Wittgenstein wrote) we do not acquire our most fundamental beliefs by a process of ratiocination.

We human beings actually form our understandings, first from the patterns of life into which we are born (including the language that is our mother tongue), and then from the stories that we are told from an early age. Such stories do not have to be put into books; more often they are simply told and retold as we grow and as a community develops. Our supposedly secular society is not immune to the power of stories – we are told things about science and progress, for example, that are clearly very tall stories.

Which brings me to the point that I would like to make about what it means to believe as a Christian. Our most fundamental commitments are shaped through stories, and so, to be a Christian is to have our understandings shaped by the Christian story. The most important element of that is found in the stories around Holy Week and Easter, and perhaps I shall describe them in more depth at that time of year. For now I would like to talk about the Christmas story.

It is surely one of the most familiar tales in our culture – baby Jesus born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. It is the subject of so many Christmas cards and it seems so very sweet. Yet there is much more to the story. Take, for example, the way in which Jesus is born far from home and is immediately taken to a different country as a refugee, where he has to stay for some years before his homeland is safe.

A Christian would see this as the working out of God’s providence; to put that differently, a Christian would see God as at work in, and found with, those who are refugees fleeing from political persecution. As a result of this, a Christian perspective on our present refugee crisis would suggest that God is also found there – that amongst the poor and vulnerable infants fleeing from a war zone may be found those who will be carrying out God’s will today.

When he grew up, Jesus himself said explicitly that it was not those who called him Lord who would enter the Kingdom but rather those who fed the hungry and clothed the naked – for in doing so, those who are generous will be looking after Jesus himself.

To be moved by the Christmas story in this way, to be affected by it and to then to live differently as a result, is to start to understand what it means to believe in God. Belief in God is not a matter of abstract propositions, as if God was simply the result of a magnificent equation. Belief in God is living differently according to different priorities, acting out our own stories in the light of a very much larger story, one that gives our own lives a particular weight and meaning.

Which is why, despite my own argumentative and belligerent tendencies, I don’t believe it actually helps anyone to grow in faith to come up with grand philosophical justifications for religious belief. There is certainly room for thinking about the faith, for loving God with our minds, for what has traditionally been called apologetics – yet to think that anyone can come to faith by the use of logic is, I believe, a tremendous mistake.

I would much rather talk about the King of the world being found in human form as a vulnerable baby, carried on a wing and a prayer out of the reach of evil tyrants and government apparatchiks who are ‘just doing their job’. I would rather say ubi caritas et amor, deus ibi est – that where there is love in the world, where there is compassion and mercy, forgiveness and healing, that is where God is to be found. Such things can never be demonstrated with reason and logic. We can know, understand and believe in these things only by telling our stories.

I wish you all a peaceful, joyful and holy Christmas.

The queen of the sciences

queen of sciences 2
What does it mean to claim, as I do, that theology is the Queen of the Sciences? It is a title that stems from the medieval era, when theology was openly acknowledged as the most important intellectual discipline. Surely, by now, we’ve grown out of such superstitions? Well, that is the default assumption of the modern world, but as devotees of The Silence of the Lambs will know well, if you assume, you make an ass out of u and me. Truly, the last remaining superstition is the one that denies theology her proper place as queen.

There are all sorts of ways to consider our forms and patterns of knowing, and those forms and patterns interlink in particular ways. Most importantly, there are intellectual hierarchies. There are some areas of study which open up other areas, and where a development will cascade down to transform how things are understood. For example, physics and chemistry were once entirely distinct intellectual pursuits; now, however, it is understood that chemistry is effectively an intellectual subset of physics. That is, a full understanding of physics is determinative for how we understand chemistry. This does not mean that the study of chemistry isn’t separate from the study of physics. One can become an expert physicist without at the same time becoming an expert chemist; what it means is that the ultimate explanation for truths in chemistry are dependent upon the ultimate explanation for truths in physics, and not vice versa. There are no truths in chemistry that cannot finally be grounded upon truths in physics.

So to claim that a particular area of study is the Queen of the Sciences is to claim that this particular study is the one that underpins all other areas of knowledge. This is the original claim made for theology, that, properly understood, a right understanding of theology guides and determines the way in which all other subjects are understood. There are no areas of study that are excluded from the Queen, in just the same way that there are no areas of our nation that are not ultimately subject to the sovereignty of Queen Elizabeth II. Indeed, if there were areas outside her purview, that very fact would mean she would cease to be Queen.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that there have been two principal areas of study that have pretended to the throne. The first is mathematics, the second is physics. Whilst there are some academics who still dream of a ‘theory of everything’, which would establish their area of expertise upon the throne, I believe most would recognise this as a clear example of an ambitious reach exceeding intellectual grasp. This is what it means to live in a postmodern intellectual environment, for the ‘modern’ was precisely the notion that science, as best exemplified in mathematical physics, would provide a new and more rational way of understanding, and therefore ordering and controlling, our human world. That dream died at least fifty years ago, although there are still some who cling to somnolent fragments. Must I mention Professor Dawkins again?

So to have a Queen of the Sciences means to have an intellectual hierarchy, within which some subjects are fundamentally shaped and determined by other subjects. This isn’t just a matter of scientific knowledge (to think that it is is to maintain the modern assumption that science is the most important form of knowledge). Consider Jane Austen, and the study of her novels. Knowledge of Jane Austen is a subset of knowledge of nineteenth century English novels, which is itself a subset of English literature – and that in itself is a subset of literature as such. So it is possible to become an expert in Jane Austen, her novels, her writings, her context and so on – and yet still recognise that such expertise (admirable and enjoyable though it may be!) is only a small area of equivalent expertise across a wider field.

Now imagine that there is someone who is a devotee of science fiction novels – who studies Asimov and Clarke and Iain M Banks – and who denies that this has anything to do with the study of literature. Now this might be well-intentioned, and a question of semantics. In the same way that ‘classical’ music has become identified with music of a particular period, even though similar music is still being composed today, it may be that our aficianado of science fiction is simply segregating out one form of literature from another. That is a defensible position. Yet to say that science fiction is not literature, and by that to mean that issues of the use of language, plot structure, characterisation, thematic explorations and so on are not present in these works is not a defensible position. To say that science fiction has nothing to do with the questions of marriage in early 19th Century england, and is therefore not literature, is to restrict the subject matter of ‘literature’ arbitrarily.

Which is how I tend to feel when someone denies that theology is the Queen of the Sciences. In order to fully understand any subject area there must be an understanding of the investigator themselves. There has to be a level of self-awareness, an appreciation of the limits of what can be understood properly, of what might be useful speculation and conjecture and, most especially, of the way in which our desires and ambitions can distort our perception of the truth. In other words, all our forms of knowledge – even the most ‘hard’ of scientific realms – is ultimately dependent on our most fundamental commitments and beliefs. We need to cultivate an awareness of those commitments and beliefs in order to gain a full and proper knowledge of every other subject area, whether in the sciences or the humanities.

This is the realm of theology, and this is why theology is Queen of the Sciences. Theology is precisely how we talk about what we are most committed to, our faiths and beliefs and creeds. It is not essential to be a Christian in order to study theology – that is the same as saying you need to be a student of 19th Century novels in order to study English literature. What is essential is to have the capacity to engage in a discussion about these matters with an awareness of one’s own commitments and assumptions. This is why atheists can study theology without being committed to a particular devotional stance, and why people of all faiths and none can explore the subject.

Is it worth arguing with Dawkins?

witt vienna

What makes for a useful argument? There are several things that need to be in place before a discussion can be mutually fruitful, rather than such discussion descending, as politicians’ arguments so often do, into a simple exchange of soundbites and slogans. The classical form for understanding a particular subject divides the material into three categories – grammar, logic and rhetoric.

Grammar is where to begin, the ground stuff: the basic vocabulary, that which is needed in order simply to know what you are talking about. This is the stuff that needs to be learnt by heart before being able to progress any further, so it includes things like the alphabet, number sequence, basic dates of history and so on. Without this foundation it is literally impossible to progress any further in an understanding of the subject area.

After grammar comes logic. This is where the basic raw material has been learned, and now it is possible to apply reason to that raw material. This is where the rules of interpretation are established and put to use, where words can be formed into proper sentences, where numbers can be put through equations, where a story can be told around a particular historical sequence of events and so on.

Rhetoric comes last. Rhetoric is where things can become creative, for this is where those who have mastered the grammar and logic of a subject are able to begin building new arguments and ideas; that is, this is where it is possible to develop new rules for the logic. This is where creative and interesting work can be done – and sometimes this creative and interesting work is so profound that it completely recasts the grammar and logic of the subject in question.

The great problem with arguments about theology and philosophy of religion in our society is that those who make the most noise are people who think that they are operating at the level of rhetoric when in fact they have not yet even engaged with the basic grammar. Richard Dawkins, for example, hasn’t even achieved the level of being wrong. He is like a baby first learning to speak words, whereby it is mostly gibberish that comes out, and when there is a coherent word you cannot be certain that it matches up with a coherent thought.

Theology and the philosophy of religion have been studied by the finest minds in human history for three thousand years and more. There is a rich and fertile intellectual field that interacts with every other intellectual field, most especially the philosophy of science and the philosophy of language – it is not possible to have a rigorous understanding of physics without an equally robust understanding of metaphysics for example (as Aristotle knew). In order to make a coherent contribution to understanding in this area it really does make a difference if you have become acquainted with the way the topics have been debated through history, not least because by doing so you discover many of the most common mistakes that have been made in the past, and you are therefore set free to not repeat them.

This intellectual history has many twists and turns, new pathways and dead ends. One particular dead-end is associated with the rise of twentieth-century atheism. The roots of that form of atheism are clear. It flows from arguments put forward by David Hume in the eighteenth century, moves through the development of analytic philosophy with people like Bertrand Russell, took a canonical form as ‘logical positivism’ with the publication of AJ Ayer’s ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ in 1936, and was taken as received opinion in undergraduate circles in the 1960s. The arguments that Dawkins and his ilk like to make are cut directly from the arguments made by people like Russell and Ayer nearly eighty years ago. He isn’t saying anything new. Of course, the tradition doesn’t stand still, and what was intellectually fashionable in the 1960s had begun to be dismantled by the 1990’s and is now regarded as rather quaint. Ayer himself has disowned the book that was so influential, stating that it was full of mistakes that he spent the next fifty years trying to correct.

So when someone who has been formed in an intellectual tradition like philosophy engages in debate with works like those by Dawkins, Hithens and their brethren, it can be immensely frustrating. There is no basic agreement on the terms of the argument, no consensus as to the grammar and logic, let alone the rhetoric. Dawkins himself is very clear about his distaste for theology as he consigns it all to an intellectual scrapheap (using what is basically a ‘logical positivism’ type of argument to do so). At that point, what can the educated person do? She can simply say ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’ and leave it at that.

Unless…. unless she sees that there is a genuinely enquiring mind behind the arguments and disputes. Where there is a good will and an open mind then it is possible for a shared understanding to be formed. Please note that this shared understanding does not at all mean that the beginning student using Dawkins’ arguments will end up being converted to Christianity. Not at all. It is perfectly possible to understand the tradition completely, to know the grammar, be an expert in the logic, and to be creative rhetorically within the mainstream Western philosophical tradition, and still be a completely convinced atheist. It’s just that such an atheist would not be intellectually lazy, parroting opinions at fifth or sixth hand, and most of all, such an atheist would have a proper understanding of what it was that he was rejecting. That is what is most missing from Dawkins.

My philosophical hero, Wittgenstein, was a part of the intellectual movement that I summarised above – he was Russell’s favourite pupil – yet, even though his own faith was murky at best, he had a very clear understanding of the nature of religious belief and the way in which the philosophical tradition both could and could not interact with it. When he was invited to address the Vienna Circle of philosophers (those whose work Ayer went on to summarise) he realised that they hadn’t grasped some of the basic grammar of what he was trying to do. He therefore turned his chair around and began to recite poetry, in an attempt to shock them into opening their minds. He didn’t succeed. As he later wrote, “What makes a subject difficult to understand — if it is significant, important — is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not difficulty of the intellect but of the will.” That’s the problem that I see with people like Dawkins – they simply don’t want to understand.