Friday, October 31, 2003


Many church websites are almost as dire as their noticeboards. A happy exception is that of St Peter with All Saints, Nottingham. This includes a Claves Regni newsletter page, which contains articles and thought pieces. I was particularly struck by Andrew Deuchar's sermon on "Facing Up To Division In Faith", based around Romans 14. 1-17. The full text is here. Deuchar formerly worked for Archbishop George Carey, but his own thinking on this subject is rather more capacious, as this extract indicates:

"For a long time we have been content to walk together through the darkness and the light. It has been uncomfortable and untidy - perhaps even at times apparently incoherent. But it has not been wrong. Until recently we have rejoiced in our diversity. We have recognised, as my former boss used to say quite regularly, that we are still becoming a communion, and therefore we are in the realms of provisionality. We believe that we belong together, we want to learn from one another, and we resist either a pulling apart into independence or a chaining together under some centralised authority. We have been willing to take risks in our search for the truth of Christ.

"Risk-taking calls for humility, a readiness to listen and learn, to embrace disagreement and debate. But today, seduced by the opportunity for renewed power in the world, we are being drawn away from faith towards the arrogance of certainty, and the demand for compliance with a set of values and beliefs that are being arbitrarily drawn up according to a particular way of interpreting scripture. And with the arrogance of certainty goes the death of mystery, and with the death of mystery goes the possibility that God can work change in us.

If we are to begin to face the mystery of God - a mystery which can encompass the vastness of the universes, the depths of wickedness, the burning intimacies and promises of love and persons, then we must share in the risks of God - risks which include the possibilities of suffering, sin, and getting things wrong. The power of love is not having everything cut and dried, with reserve force to push the divine plan through. Such power could leave no room for the freedom which true love requires.

"So wrote Bishop David Jenkins, a prophetic voice of our times whose words seem to become more and more perceptive as the years have passed."

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Thursday, October 30, 2003


A thoughtful piece by Charles Moore (not the ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph in Britain, I imagine!) from on the roots of war. This excerpt was offered as their daily reflection yesterday:

"It's hard to live consistently, but it is essential if we are to make our world a less violent place. If we're honest, most of us aren't very willing to give up the good life we enjoy. Consequently, we keep on fueling the very fires of war we wish to extinguish. We want to own what we have, enjoy our creature comforts, maintain our autonomy and modes of mobility, and make sure our bottom line is secure, even when the rest of the world suffers because of it." (c) Bruderhof Communities.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2003


James Alison's extraordinary new book, 'On Being Liked' (DLT, 2003) is launched at Waterstone's bookshop in London's Oxford Circus this evening. The sequel to 'Faith Beyond Resentment', it proposes a re-imagination of the central axis of the Christian faith as a transposition from the question 'how does God deal with sin?' to 'how do we take up God's invitation to share the act of creation?'

This is not a sentimental reduction of the Gospel's tough wrestling with human shortcomings and wrongdoings, but a re-focusing on the life of God as constitutive of the kind of re-ordered desire-in-community that can give us the resources to face such things. Its focus is on what makes for personal and social well-being, and the discovery of reasoning faith that the answer is thoroughly theological.

Ihar Ivanou writes: "James Alison is an excellent storyteller. His writings are always somehow inspired by his own experience that brings a heart-touching aroma to the written. At the same time, his reflections on Biblical passages are amazingly insightful."

Here is an excerpt from 'Faith Beyond Resentment'.

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The media has given much attention to the court victory by a Muslim in Italy who objected to the presence of a crucifix ("a little man between two sticks," as he described it) in his son's school classroom. Minority religious communities and secularists have long objected to the state's imposition of Catholic symbolism on public spaces. John Bell of the Iona Community presented a powerful BBC Radio 4 Thought For The Day on the issue this morning. The full text is here. These are Bell's concluding observations:

"[I]rrespective of Christian, Islamic, or Hindu beliefs, Western societies are dominated by deities. But unlike in ancient Rome, worship of them is more subtle.

"We don't have shrines to Mars, the god of war, but we do encourage a huge armaments industry at whose behest children in Angola and Mozambique still lose limbs through tramping on hidden landmines.

"We don't have shrines to Mammon, the god of insatiable consumption, but the logos of multi-national junk food giants are foisted in the face of the world's poorest, with the expectation of instant devotion.

"We don't have shrines to Bacchus and Aphrodite, the deities associated with excess and gratification, but we do have a whole fashion industry committed to exploiting the variable tastes of children and teenagers who don't have the money to pay the dues which the brand names demand and so pester their parents.

"By all means take down the Cross and the Crescent and the Star of David, but only if you also take down the insignia of ...of the multinationals I cannot name on radio.

"Or else leave the symbols of religious faith in their place, allowing - in the case of the cross - for the self-importance of earthly gods to be set against the seeming naivete of the Creator of the Universe who saves the world through suffering love."

I appreciate Bell's final sentiment. But it misses three points. First, the image of the cross in the public realm has been corrupted by its Constantinian associations ("With this sign we conquer"), so that its sanctioning by the state can perhaps never be innocent. Second, its ubiquity and generalization may cheapen the Christian commitment that it be a symbol of God's willingness to suffer rather than to inflict suffering. Thirdly, the idea of a God who suffers and who identifies with humanity at its most degraded is incomprehensible and offensive to Muslims: the meaning of God's presence in Christ crucified is something that needs to be offered and discussed with sensitivity, not with power.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2003


St Colm's International House in Edinburgh was the meeting place for a weekend gathering of European base ecclesial communities (24-27 October 2003). Some 25 persons from 12 countries / people groups were present to share stories and experiences and plan for the future.

Many people are aware of the existence and impact of CEBs in Latin America and South-East Asia (for example), but a similar phenomenon in Europe is less familiar. In some countries, such as Spain and Euskadi, the communities are very well-organized. In others (most notably England) they are few and fragmentary. Their characteristics include an orientation to those at the base of society, contextual reading of the Bible, socio-political engagement, prayer and celebration, and a critical position in relation to institutional church. Many are Catholic, some Protestant, and all stress ecumenism.

Few CEBs are what would be called 'intentional' communities in the sense of living together on a daily basis, but all have features of communal intentionality, including the sharing of resources and money. In Scotland Bert and the Iona Community home groups are among those linked in to the European network, which has been in existence for 20 years. In Ireland, the Crumlin Road community are involved.

In England there is a Contact Group which has been galvanised over the years by Jeanne Hinton. Simon Barrow has been part of this initiative, along with David Cowling (formerly of Grassroots) and Ruth Harvey (when she was with the Living Spirituality Network) and the late Derek Hanscombe of USPG.

The English group plans to meet again in December 2003. St Margaret with St Mary in Liverpool is one parish developing a distinct CEBs model here.

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A thought from Archbishop Rowan Williams. This was actually penned in 1998, and is even more true today...

"Living in the Christian institution isn't particularly easy. It is, generally, these days, an anxious, inefficient, pompous, evasive body. If you hold office in it, you become more and more conscious of what it's doing to your soul. Think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth. Why bother?

"Well, because of the unwelcome conviction that it somehow tells the welcome truth about God, above all in its worship and sacraments. I don't think I could put up with it for five minutes if I didn't believe this."

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Monday, October 13, 2003


Last week the Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, complained strongly about what he described as anti-Catholic bias in BBC programming and reporting. The BBC denied this. So did most commentators, though a number acknowledged that a wider distrust of organised religion and religious authority among those holding comspolitan values can certainly be discerned. Then again, is it not up to the churches to engage such widespread viewpoints openly rather than simply to condemn them?

One of the programmes that stimulated Nichols' ire was 'Sex And The Holy City', an episode of the well-respected Panorama documentrary series (broadcast on Sunday 12 October) which looks at the way the Vatican has been promoting anti-contraception and anti-reproductive health care messages throughout the third world. Reporter Steve Bradshaw, while not disguising his amazement at factually inaccurate claims in a global Catholic health manual that claims the latex in condoms permits the HIV virus to transmit (something explicitly denied by scientists and the WHO), allowed both sides of this life-or-death argument to be put. He praised the dedication and care of Catholic nurses and health workers in Kenya, Nicaragua and the Philippines (where the mayor of Manila has declared a 'pro-life city'). But at the same time he did not disguise the consequences of the ban on contraception, which has been to aid the spread of deadly infection in many of the most vulnerable communities on earth.

The argument that contraception is anti-life because it breaks the organic link between sex and fertility holds no theological water in the twenty-first century. It is based upon a naturalistic fallacy in ethical reasoning which conflates an 'is' with an 'ought' and attributes this to the will of God. No-one can deny that the moral issues surrounding the creation and nurturing of life are complex and demanding. But to reduce them to a one-stop policy (in both senses of the term) is dangerously reductive in a world where intentions and consequences cannot be ordered by magesterial demand, and where poverty, lack of education and the constraints of culture and community are potent factors in influencing the choices individuals have to make in less-than-ideal situations. Indeed the evidence of public education campaigns points in a very different direction.

Gospel communities can and should promote positive alternatives to the commodification of sexuality and the powerlessness which forces women, in particular, into dangerous and damaging situations. But it certainly cannot do this by pushing these problems onto the backs of their victims. To do so is, in the words of one Latin American theologian, 'anti-evangelical'.

Catholics for a Free Choice is a worldwide organisation promoting alternative perspectives on the issues of contraception, reproduction, fertility, abortion and respect for life. Its site includes a good selection of articles and publications. Many of those involved are lay people and health workers / eductors. Founder Frances Kissling is interviewed here. It is important to realise that faithful Catholics can hold views on these matters which suggest a devlopment of the tradition in a quite different direction to the weight of the current magisterium, though I am sorry that the theological basis upon which CFaFC operates seems to be fairly reductive. Back in 1980 TheOtherSide showed how it doesn't have to be that way.

Hopefully a wider range of theological ethicists linking the making of choice with the promotion of life will become involved in this crucial debate as it (inevitably) develops. For this is not a matter of abstract reasoning; it is a question of human survival and flourishing.

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Sunday, October 12, 2003


Today's Observer newspaper contains a brief report on the activities of Howard F. Ahmanson Jr, a Californian millionaire (see, it's not just Arnie who's got a screw loose) long involved in funding right-wing religious causes. At the moment he is helping to bankroll the anti-gay backlash against Bishop Gene Robinson and others in ECUSA. But his network also operates through The Claremont Institute, and his other 'concerns' include anti-evolutionism and odd 'pro-caucasian' statements from friends such as NRA-ally Charlton Heston.

Back in the 1980s I was involved in some investigations into the Christian Right, especially when it was tied up with unsavoury pro-apartheid initiatives. Sadly many CR protagonists seem well beyond the reach of reasonable discourse, and though people such as Christian Aid's former research Derrick Knight did a good job of exposing their political ploys (which included smears against Christian NGOs), it is all too easy to get caught up in an unhelpful world of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy. This, after all, is the currency of paranoia that the religious right trades in. Better, I think to promote healthy, reasoning faith than to be too caught up in contending decay and defamation, which has its own damaging ecology...

Still, it is good that there are people out there willing to respond creatively, trenchantly and positively to the flow of ideas from the CR quarter. One such is the author of The Right Christians, a weblog on issues involving Christianity and politics which is updated around five times a week. The Rev Allen H. Brill is an ordained Lutheran minister educated at Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO. He is also a member of the South Carolina Bar with a degree in Government from Harvard College and a J.D. from the University of Virginia Law School.

Brill has some good guest contributors and a fine set of links. And he writes additionally for Open Source Politics. I found his link on Religious Liberal blog. See RL's fecund articles page, too. My own vision of an open, engaged and radical Christianity would find far more roots and routes in the tradition than the likes of John Dewey (say). But at a time when the scope for debate in church circles is getting narrower and meaner, alternative voices are vital: and the liberal tradition is a necessary and honourable one, even if (as will be clear elsewhere in FaithInSociety) I would want to argue with some of its premises, prognoses and procedures.

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Thursday, October 09, 2003


The Middle East Forum of CTBI's Churches' Commission on Mission has circulated the following to the British and Irish church media in the light of the unfolding tragedy in Israel/Palestine:

"These are difficult times in the Middle East, with political instability, economic hardship, the continued recourse to weapons of war and violence, and deep suspicion of the motives of Western governments, not least with regard to Israel and Palestine. The indigenous Christian communities in the region share these difficulties, and are put at risk by the mistaken but common identification of Christianity with the actions of the US and UK governments.

"These communities have from the beginning formed an integral part of the life and culture of the region, but Christians have been emigrating, feeling that there is no future for them in the land of their birth. If Christianity were to die out in its very place of origin, it would be a tragedy for the whole Church as well as for the hopes for peace.

"In the days before the latest Iraq War many in our Churches were associated with the widespread protests and with criticism of the United Kingdom government. This was well reported in the Middle East and did much to lessen the belief that this was a war between Christianity and Islam. Whatever the mix of good and evil that is now resulting from the war, the danger of a “clash of civilizations” has not receded and Christian communities remain highly vulnerable.

"The Middle East Forum of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland’s Commission on Mission asks that we continue to remember Middle East Christians in our prayers, words and actions. For example the material prepared for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2004 (see originates from the Syrian Church with its history of promoting good relations between Christians and Muslims. That week will provide a great opportunity for us to hear the voice of our Christian brothers and sisters there and to grow in understanding of and solidarity with them.

"It remains possible to visit the region and the Churches there; we can invite Middle East Christians to British and Irish Churches; we can establish partnerships; we can advocate clearly; we can support those agencies and individuals working with the churches in their witness and service; and we can hold all who suffer in our prayers.

"This is a critical time for them and for the world. What we do can make a crucial difference to what the future holds."

On behalf of the Middle East Forum (which is the meeting of Middle East specialists of CTBI member Churches and agencies):
The Revd Colin Morton and Dr Aziz Noor.
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland
Inter-Church House
35-41 Lower Marsh
London SE1 7SA Contact phone number 07939 139881

[This letter was picked up in the UK by The Church Times and The Baptist Times. ]

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Friday, October 03, 2003


St Matthews-in-the-City is "a progressive Anglican church with a heart for the city and an eye to the world" located in Auckland, New Zealand. They produce an excellent, topical weekly e-zine with articles, news, comment, prayers and other relevant gobbits of interest to those with a broad and faith-ful perspective on the world. 'Social justice remains firmly on St Matthew's agenda. The congregation helped organize and host the Auckland City stopover of the Hikoi of Hope in 1998 and a lecture series on Apec to coincide with the Auckland summit of Apec leaders in 1999. This year, the social justice group is focusing on the theme of "healthy communities".'

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Thursday, October 02, 2003


Arundhati Roy, quoted this morning by the radical Anabaptist

"Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen...with our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our sheer relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we're being brainwashed to believe...Remember this: We are many and they are few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."

From a specifically Christian perspective they also quote their founder, Eberhard Arnold.

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