On the question of what is permissible in church

The Daily Telegraph has a story about a church in London which has been hosting an Islamic prayer service. There are more details here, presumably written by the person who shot the video.

First point: do not believe everything that you read (or see or hear!) in the newspapers (I speak with authority).

That being said, unless the video is demonstrated to be a forgery, I think this is a serious breach of ordination vows – specifically the declaration made at ordination and then repeated at each new appointment that “in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon”. I believe that there are other elements of Canon Law that are relevant.

I believe that our words matter, and when ‘Allahu Akhbar’ is chanted in a church, then this is a quite straightforward example of blasphemy – it is a profaning of Christian worship – and sacrilege – a profaning of the place of Christian worship. To argue otherwise is to indulge in syncretistic nonsense of the worst sort. The different faiths, whilst they have all sorts of family resemblances, are not simply different paths up the same mountain. It matters that Jesus was crucified, and to preach Christ crucified is to say that Jesus was killed, which the Koran explicitly denies.

I can see all sorts of arguments for pursuing peace, hospitality and friendly co-operation with those of non-Christian faiths and no faith at all. What I cannot see an argument for is abandoning our own distinctive identity, with all that binds it together.

Fundamentalism, fairy tales and the beating of dragons

Wittgenstein once wrote “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, the dominant understanding of the ‘arts and sciences’ in our culture is that science does the ‘hard’ stuff, the important stuff, all that provides real knowledge, whereas the realm of the arts and humanities is merely a question of what entertains us – and are we not entertained?

This over-emphasis upon scientific truth has taken two specific forms. The first is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that is an outlook called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else is rejected. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says: “If we take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That is the voice of positivism, and when positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, it is radically constricting our capacity for true wisdom. If the serious questions facing our civilisation are ultimately questions of value, then such an approach can produce nothing to say on this subject. The root problem of our time is the way in which the over-emphasis upon science in our culture has crippled our ability to see clearly and exercise a proper discernment and wisdom in our lives.

The other way of over-emphasising science is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation is more important that anything else. This is fundamentalism, and this is the outlook shared by both Richard Dawkins and those who take a literalistic approach to the Bible. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution. It is, in truth, a direct product, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens – the Bible is put through a scientific meat grinder because what is wanted from the end is a scientific sausage. Where particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others, and where science is seen as the most valuable, then, in order to preserve the value of the Bible, it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, and it utterly misses the point about Jesus. If you look into the origins of fundamentalism, in America, the end of the nineteenth century the beginning of the twentieth, it is very explicit – they defend their views by saying this is the scientific approach to the Bible. Richard Dawkins and the fundamentalists agree on what sort of text the Bible is – and I think they both completely miss the point.

Scientific knowledge and awareness, compared with the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, is comparatively trivial. In fact narrative is the most important way in which our understandings are formed. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the common recognition that science has too important a place in our cultural life has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose scientific credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Similarly, the legend of Frankenstein expresses the same truth, as do any of the myriad stories with a white-coated mad scientist, crying out “I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. These all describe the consequences that come when science is given more value than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed. As the story has developed in the telling, the scientist is replaced by a monster, then by a robot, and eventually by computers and ‘Terminators’. In each case what is missing is the emotional core, the ability to exercise a human judgement.

Simply put, science is ultimately trivial. It can act as the robot helper, collecting samples and sifting evidence, but on the question of wisdom, of what we are to value, of how we are to live, science – the scientific method and the culture which it has fostered and within which it is passed on – science is silent, and can never speak. Although the scientific stance is an important part of a wider wisdom, the converse is not the case. This is a moral blindness, and our scientific culture is systematically blind when it comes to questions of morality. I therefore call our society asophic because it is blind to wisdom. Science’s technological genius is providing us with tools, but the way that science has been taken up in our culture has removed our ability to see what to use those tools for. Our sense of what is right, our sense of what is of value, our sense of what is human and what is humanly important – these have all been ravaged by the dominant culture, like crops consumed by a plague of locusts.

Science cannot help us to determine what it is that we most value, or how to distinguish between different values. Our delusion that it can is the fatal flaw of our civilisation, with a single great consequence: we have forgotten what it means to be wise. Our scientific endeavours must be made subject to wisdom, both intellectually and practically – it is only in this way that we will be able to deal with the problems we now face. To become wiser, we need to become reacquainted with the wisdom traditions of the world, and most especially our own, Christianity. To quote from another of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”

(Courier article – adapted from part of my book)

It’s because we don’t believe in God

I am more and more persuaded that the problems that we face in the Church of England stem from a collapse of faith. We no longer believe in God, we no longer know what we do believe in, and so we chase desperately after idols, hoping that one or other of them can fill the gap.

This will never happen. Between the idol and the Living God is an incommensurable distance.

Which idols am I thinking of? Here are some.

The idol of public acceptability, leading the Church to marry the spirit of the age, leading to inevitable widowhood.

The idol of ‘family’ as if the worth of the church can be measured by how far it can compete with Go Bananas.

The idol of intellectual respectability, as if conformity to Modernist rationalism is the acme of faith.

The idol of Herbertism, as if priesthood could be reduced to the niceness of middle class mores.

The idol of bureaucratic managerialism, as if ministry can be reduced to the manipulation of numbers and financial returns.

Let us not be naive. The worship of idols requires sacrifice – not the sacrifice of thanksgiving but the sacrifice of human flesh: burnt out pastors, spiritually impoverished congregations, human misery in myriad forms. Idol worship makes the church sick, and the sickness then infects the wider body of society.

We no longer know what we are here for. The old has definitely passed, and because we worshipped a particular cultural role, and enjoyed the importance that flowed from it, we didn’t notice when God left the building. We are reduced to more and more frantic efforts to rekindle flames but the world can see the difference between orange paper and that which burns.

The Living God is taking away all the things which we valued, in order that we might concentrate once again upon the one thing needful. This is an act of love, and it is only painful in so far as we fight it.

We need to let go – of all of it. All our inherited expectations of what church looks like, of what ministry looks like, of what worship looks like, of what Scripture and teaching looks like. We need to go out into the desert without looking behind at Egypt and Babylon. We need to trust much more joyously in the provision of the Living God.

We need to have our hearts broken open, so that the rocks might be replaced with flesh.

Woe to us. Woe to us. Come let us return to the Lord, for he has torn us and will heal us. I just think we need more tearing before we are ready for the healing.

Prayer: an introspection and an ecstasy

Prayer seems often to be understood as an auditory dialogue. That is, in our minds we forms words and sentences – even paragraphs! – that we then address to God; then, in turn, God responds in the same way.

This, after all, is how things are repeatedly portrayed in the Bible. The Word of the Lord came to so-and-so and said “…”

Whilst I wouldn’t for one moment want to say that this does not happen, I would want to say that this has never been my experience of prayer. Although I am someone who has occasionally had ‘visions’ I do not experience God ‘speaking’ to me in the form of explicit words.

So why am I comfortable with the language of God speaking to people? Of God directing them, of God answering prayers?

I have found two forms of prayer to be satisfying, and when I talk about prayer, this is what I am referring to. (Those who know their Augustine will recognise the shape of what I am describing).

The first is what comes when I start the process of ’emptying’ my own mind and awareness in order to let God speak into it. That can often happen through liturgy and ritual, eg Morning Prayer, but it can also happen just as reliably out of stillness and peace. As the general noise of my own internal monologue quietens down, other thoughts, images and ideas come forward. Some of these have a particular character, a ‘glow’ about them, a ‘smell of something good’ (those are metaphors). I have found that if I dwell with those particular thoughts, they lead me to a place of spiritual growth. I learn more about myself. I learn more about what I am called to do with my life. I find that I become a better person from paying attention to such things. This I experience as the principal means by which God ‘speaks’ to me – it is not about specific words, it is more about recognising a particular pattern of compulsion. Sometimes this compulsion can be utterly overwhelming (and thus: terrifying) but I hope – pray – that such things have passed, and that I can pay more attention to God’s promptings before He has to resort to extreme measures.

The second way relates to being in nature, especially when I am on the beach or, more rarely, when I am in a forest or – best of all – if I am sailing. What happens in these cases is less direct than the introspection that I described above, but is more clearly a form of ecstasy, ie ex – stasis, a ‘taking out of myself’. When I lose myself in the natural world, when my internal monologue is quietened, I often experience two things – one, the sense of ‘divine presence’ and comfort about which our religious tradition so often speaks, a sense of ‘being-at-home-in-the-world-ness’ (surely there is a German word that means exactly that?); second, sometimes there will be a particular idea or thought that leaps as if fully formed into my consciousness, provoking an ‘oh, of course’. Again, there is a particular character to these things, which makes me recognise them as being ‘of God’.

A sceptic atheist might object – this is just a question of accessing your unconscious! Why bring God into it?

To which I would say: what is the benefit of such a redescription? It is no diminishment of God to say that He works through the normal processes of our minds. As Wittgenstein once said, ‘why can’t God work in accordance with a calculation?’

I reject the redescription, not because I see it as false, but because I see it an incomplete, and as cutting off the insight that is possible from integrating our own experience with the experience expressed through a tradition that is thousands of years old and which has vastly more wisdom embedded in it than contemporary secularism could ever dream of.

So that is prayer, for me – an introspection and an ecstasy.

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 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.

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.

Longing for an unafraid church

The Church of England is afraid of dying; consequently it is failing to be a church at all.

As someone who is persuaded of the merits of the ‘Limits to Growth’ argument – and who believes that we missed the opportunity to change course back in the 1970’s and that therefore our industrial growth culture is substantially over – I have become very familiar with the language of ‘doom’ and the way in which it can be misused. Just because something can be misused, however, does not mean that it is always false. The core argument of the Limits to Growth, after all, was that if present trends continued, then we would end up arriving where we were headed – and, indeed, we have now arrived there. Can the same analysis not be applied to the Church of England? 

After all, it is fairly unambiguous where we are headed – by the mid 21st Century there will be less than 100,000 members. It is not as if the trend has been hidden and come upon us unawares – it has been the unpleasant background music for several decades now. Clearly, unless something changes, the Church of England as it has been known and understood for several centuries is going to die within the next generation or so (the institution will collapse under its own weight well before we get to 2050). Perhaps the history of the Church will be described as resting between the two Elizabeths – the first pulled it together, and the second watched it pull itself apart.

Let me at once clarify two things. The first is that this anticipated fate of the Church of England needs to be separated out from the expected fate of Christianity within the world as a whole. I expect that well before 2050 disciples of Christianity will pass beyond 50% of the world’s population. Key to this will be the continued growth of Christianity in China, which already has more practising Christians than Western Europe, as well as all the other places where the faith is being spread. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, and I am confident that one day, at the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.

The second point to make is that the Church of England is not the be all and end all of Christianity in England. Whatever the merits of Catholic Emancipation – and I suspect the Church has still not caught up with what it meant – the consequence is that there are now more practising Christians in England outside the Church of England than in it. Whereas it has historically been the definitive form of English Christianity – as epitomised by its establishment status, and (in many ways) in its ongoing self-understanding – it has become, to all intents and purposes, merely another sect. Theologically the status quo is untenable, and the Church of England has to either fight that fate or embrace it.

Now an objection might easily come to mind: what if there was a revival? For sure, a major revival might well stop the Church of England declining so much – and I’m sure that evangelisation is one of God’s priorities – but we have been needing such a revival for some time now. I am persuaded that the tide of faith has turned, the Spirit is moving; I am convinced that the bombast of atheistic secularism is the last gasp of a dying ideology, and the potential for growth is immense – but might it not be the case – and I say this with all due humility – that God doesn’t want the Church of England to continue? I’m sure God wants Christianity to continue, but the Church of England, in its present form? Of that I am not so sure.

Might it not be the case that, rather than a story about the long, melancholy withdrawing roar of the Sea of Faith – and therefore a sad story of decline and death – what we have in the religious history of England over the last 150 years is, in fact, the direct working out of God’s will? In other words, that the Church of England, as a centralised and established form of Christianity, intimately bound together with the legal and constitutional arrangements of the country, that this glorious old lady has in fact achieved all that God wanted her to achieve (quite possibly the worldwide transmission of the via media approach to the faith) and that, now this task has been accomplished, what God actually wants is for her to enter her rest, and hear those most gracious words ‘well done thou good and faithful servant’?

After all, what is it that is actually ‘dying’? It isn’t the gospel itself; it isn’t Christianity in this country; it isn’t even the local church, which is often in robust good health. No, it is simply the place that a particular form of Christianity held within the national life of England. England has moved away from it, and all of the ways in which being an Anglican were tied in to the old cultural forms are now dying. What is wrong with that?

I believe that we most need to recognise that the good ship of Establishment is sinking, and trying to prevent that from taking place is not simply a wasted effort on our part, it is actually a blasphemous and misguided attempt to thwart God’s will. What we are called to do is the same as what all Christians are called to do, every where and at every time – to be faithful, to hold on to Christ alone and to be willing to let go of everything else. The centralised Church of England is sinking – what strikes me now as being worthy of theological interest is the multitude of Anglicanisms that shall follow – a flotilla of lifeboats floating away from the wreckage, seeking a new shore on which to embark on new adventures. Which is, after all, a more exciting and more inspiring prospect.

Terry Leahy, in his book ’10 words’ begins by talking about truth, as the foundation for everything else that can come, and writes “Organisations the world over are terrible at confronting truth. It is so much easier to define your version of reality and judge success and failure by that.” Why does the Church have such a problem with truth and honesty? My take on this is that it is because we have lost our way spiritually – we are afraid of our own death – and yet we can see the consequences around us of that state. We can feel that we have been mortally wounded, but we can’t see where the wound was inflicted and so, in lieu of actually dressing the wound and healing it (allowing God to heal it) we throw ourselves into ever more frenetic endeavours to try and cover up the truth. We substitute social and secular agendas for the gospel to show to the world how righteous we are (as if the gospel could be reduced to being righteous); we throw away the inheritance of our liturgy for the mess of pottage that is children’s entertainment, poorly done (as if the right way to worship God could only be properly discovered with the advent of Powerpoint); and we throw away the long, slow obedience of loyal, local discipleship for the ‘because I’m worth it’ pick and mix of the preferential rather than the penitential. Is it any wonder that we are in the state that we are in? 

I believe that the only thing that will energise the church and lead it out into the kingdom is a renewed appreciation of the gospel – a sense of confidence that what we share and why we share it is genuinely a matter of real life and real death – and that that in itself will give the strength for mission, and allow the temperature of things like the women bishops debate to be lowered. At that point all will recognise that wrestling over who has the helm is not the most crucial decision at a time when the ship is sinking and all hands need to be on deck. Given the nature of the traumas that have begun to be inflicted upon our culture – and which will continue to worsen through the coming years, with all the genuine hardship, poverty and starvation that ensues – I believe that we will look back on our arguments at this time with a profound sense of shame; shame not simply that we were distracted from the one thing needful, but shame that this blinded us to the mission that God wishes us to carry forward in a time such as this. 

The blunt truth is this: the Church of England is at death’s door. All I’m arguing for here is that I’d rather that we went out fighting for a joyful gospel rather than trying to save a particular historically conditioned administrative pattern which has turned the cornerstone of our faith into the proverbial millstone around our neck.

(This is a Courier article, drawing together a couple of previous blogposts)

We don’t worship the creeds

In the song ‘Armageddon Days’ by The The there is the line: “The world is on its elbows and knees, we’ve forgotten the message, and worship the creeds”. What I want to do in this article is explain why it’s a mistake to ‘worship the creeds’.

The first point to make is a simple historical one. The creed that is presently used in church services dates mostly to the fourth century AD and the Council of Nicaea, although there were still significant changes made for another 150 years or so after that. In other words, Christianity experienced its greatest success and most transformative influence upon the world before the creeds were agreed, and certainly a long way before they were ever thought of being used in worship. There is therefore no sense in which any particular creed is essential to Christianity. Creeds are not essential, but they are helpful.

Helpful in what way? Well, they are a little bit like the instructions that come with a Lego set. They are a guide to how things fit together. In just the same way that Lego instructions, if followed carefully, allow for the particular toy to be built so that it looks like the picture on the front of the box, so too do the creeds, if followed carefully, allow us to look like the ‘picture’ on our boxes; that is, they enable us to look like children of God, to look like Jesus.

The word ‘creed’, after all, comes from the Latin word ‘credo’ which means ‘I believe’. The creeds are a summation of doctrinal beliefs, the things that a particular church believes about God in general and about Jesus in particular. Doctrines, moreover, are simply the medicine for the soul that a particular church has understood. The word doctrine is related to the word doctor for a very straightforward reason. The creeds might well be understood as a sort of ‘gymnasium for the soul’. That is, once the different elements are understood and accepted, then the soul will be healed of various afflictions and then the world and the individual’s place within the world will be seen correctly.

The creeds, in other words, aim beyond themselves. They are a tool that are used to create a healthy soul. In just the same way that the Lego instructions are not what you buy Lego to play with – you buy the Lego to play with the bricks – so too the creeds are not what you become a Christian to play around with. You become a Christian in order to enjoy life in all its fullness. The creeds are a particular tool to enable that to happen. The creeds are like the proverbial finger pointing at the moon – don’t focus on the finger!

There is something distinct about Christianity in having a role for creeds in this way, as it makes Christianity vulnerable to falsification in a way that other religions are not. Christianity does make particular historical claims, in particular that Jesus lived, was tortured by the state, died and was raised on the third day. If the resurrection was demonstrably proved false then Christianity would collapse. I say ‘demonstrably proved false’ in order to try and avoid the generalised, hand-waving, scientistic ‘such things can never happen’ sort of objection. More than this, if evidence emerged to show that Jesus was simply not the sort of person that is portrayed in the gospels, if there was evidence that he was significantly immoral in some way then, again, Christianity would collapse.

Having said that, there is a a potential misunderstanding here, and I need to deploy a Wittgenstein quotation to clarify. Wittgenstein once wrote: ‘Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says: now believe! But not, believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, rather: believe through thick and thin, which you can do only as a result of a life. Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives! Make a quite different place in your life for it.’

To be a Christian is not simply to believe that certain things took place in history – even the demons believe, and they tremble. It is to pursue the life that those events witness to. It is to structure one’s life around what is revealed by them. To have, for example, a modern film crew with scientific support sent back in time to the third day after the crucifixion, and join St Thomas in physically inspecting the risen Jesus in such a way that all possible objections were overcome – this, of itself, would not generate Christian faith. This, of itself, would simply reveal a curious fact about the world. The leap of faith does not come here, in the believing in certain facts. No, the leap of faith comes when, in the light of what such events reveal about the nature of the world, a person chooses, for example, to take the risk of forgiving.

Which is where the really essential point about the creed becomes clear. The creeds are like Lego instructions, or a recipe for a meal, or any other particular tool. They are used for a particular purpose. Where that purpose is lost sight of and forgotten, the tools can be used for the wrong purposes, or used mistakenly. So with the creeds, whereas their original purpose is to help a particular person become more like Christ, where that spiritual aim is lost, the creeds become vulnerable to being used as a shibboleth, a way of discriminating between an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’. In other words, if you’re ‘one of us’ then you will say the same things as the majority. You will be assimilated, resistance is futile and so on. They become an instrument of power, not a vessel for liberation.

This is why the song that I quoted at the beginning of the article is called ‘Armageddon Days’. Where a society has lost sight of the spiritual and has reduced human beings to more or less productive and efficient economic units, political struggle and war is not far behind. The song continues: “If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today, He’d be gunned down cold by the CIA. For the lights that now burn brightest behind stained glass will cast the darkest shadows upon the human heart. For God didn’t build himself that throne, and God doesn’t live in Israel or Rome. God doesn’t belong to the Yankee dollar and God doesn’t plant those bombs for Hezbollah. God doesn’t even go to church, and God won’t send us down to Allah to burn. God will remind us what we already know, that the human race is about to reap what it’s sown. Islam is rising, the Christians mobilizing. The world is on its elbows and knees, it’s forgotten the message and worships the creeds. Armageddon days are here… again.”

Bertrand Russell’s Decalogue

I quite like these…

1: Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2: Do not think it worthwhile to produce belief by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3: Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4: When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5: Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6: Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7: Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8: Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9: Be scrupulously truthful, even when truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

(From here, via Facebook. Relevant to Andrew Brown’s latest too.)