Saturday, February 19, 2005


This from Ekklesia. The full story is here.

As questions continue to be raised about their relevance in public life, churches in Britain are gearing up to renew inherited structures and embolden ‘fresh expressions of church’ through a major new initiative and training course launched this week.

A certificate and diploma in ‘mission accompaniment’ has been pioneered by Cliff College in association with the ecumenical Churches’ Commission on Mission (CCOM). The course is validated through the University of Manchester and its originators say that it will help to shake up church life in the UK.

The Diploma in Mission Accompaniment (DMA), which allows people with full-time occupations to study part-time, is aimed at all those who want to use their listening and consulting skills to help local churches and Christian organisations engage more effectively within their communities.

The Cliff College DMA has been developed out of the Building Bridges of Hope programme established over the past ten years by the Churches’ Commission on Mission, part of the official ecumenical body, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

“Mission accompaniment is a new way of thinking about activating and supporting churches as they seek to become more effective expressions of the Gospel,” says Churches’ Commission on Mission general secretary Simon Barrow, who is also an Ekklesia associate.

“To be an accompanier in mission is to be someone rooted in prayer and theological vision,” Barrow adds. “But it is also to possess an eclectic range of skills, including listening, consulting, coaching, mentoring and signposting to the right resources. It’s about long-term commitment rather than quick fixes.”

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C. F. Blumhardt writes: "Nothing motivates us Christians more than being asked to do something in keeping with our strength, our ability. Just the pledge to do something, to improve a situation, can excite thousands of people. Even sensible people waver and get carried away. The kingdom of God, however, comes in an entirely different way. It makes no call upon human strength or upon the exertions of the flesh. It silences out agendas - and for us this is the hardest thing."

In a more positive vein, the late Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador made the same point through his outstanding prayer/poem A Future Not Our Own. I regard this as a manifesto for reasoning faith today.

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Friday, February 18, 2005


I recently had an email exchange with a US Christian critic of my writings who immediately ceased conversation when he discovered that I 'believed' in evolution (as he put it), or saw no conflict between mature Christian theology and evolutionary biological sciences (as I put it). It's hard to credit the strength of anti-evolutionism from this side of the Atlantic, though we are seeing increasing manifestations of it here, too.

I've just updated my page on 'creationism' and the religion-science interface, mainly in order to include a plug for The Panda's Thumb and for Andrew Brown's Darwin Wars, which is not about the Kansas nonsense, but about fratricide within the evolutionary biology community. There is a credible debate to be had about evolutionary theory, but it starts nowhere near the creationist fiasco, or its latest manifestation, so-called 'intelligent design'.

Incidentally, Andrew, himself a sceptic, also writes the best regular column in The Church Times, commenting with wit and insight on the media reporting of religion from a British angle. I have included his elegant Helmintholog and the aforementioned sites in my permalinks. I'd also point you towards the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences website.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005


The big fuss over BBC Thought for the Day, however, is over a recent broadcast by John Bell of the Iona Community. This included inaccurate references to incidents involving the Israeli Defence Forces. The reaction has been predictably swift, one-sided and venomous from the pro-Israeli government policy lobby... with overtones about racism and anti-semitism all round. The BBC have appropriately published an apology from themselves and from John Bell, with a suitably graceful note from him. But they so far decline to publish a corrected version of the talk. I wonder whether Ekklesia might provide this function of free speech?

I sent in this response to the ongoing argument this evening:
Dr John Bell has had the good grace to apologise for the inaccuracies in his Thought [for the Day], a point some of your correspondents barely acknowledge. It is sad that he gave false data, because there is well documented material available from reputable sources on abuses of human rights committed by the Israeli Defence Force. I hope that your outraged correspondents would condemn these. Crimes are committed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Until the two peoples can recognise each other as wounded and hurting, and until both violence and occupation are outlawed as 'solutions', there is unlikely to be peace with justice for all. Meanwhile, could we have a corrected version of Dr Bell's Thought on your site please, BBC?

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Another superb BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day this morning from Giles Fraser. The print version is not yet available, but you can hear it via RealAudio here. The burden of the piece was in favour of the church being "the rainbow people of God" (in Desmond Tutu's telling phrase), and against the a priori exclusion of lesbian and gay people (and women bishops!) on 'biblical' grounds remarkably similar to those used by Jesus' critics, ironically enough.

The BBC noticeboard has contained a number of grateful responses, including one from a non-churchgoer who indicates that this is the message of love he looks for and doesn't find in the Christian community, and an ex-Holy Trinity Brompton congregant making a similar point. On a day when InclusiveChurch.Net has been attacked in Synod, there is also this response from Kathryn Whitney in Oxford. I hope she doesn't mind me blogging it:

Many thanks to Giles Fraser for promoting a sensible view of the importance of protecting the imperative of love and forgiveness -- instead of condemnation and exclusion -- in the Christian Church. [T]Bible contains no clearly defined hierarchy of sins that would justify the vehemence with which homophobia is expressed in Christian cultures, or the intensity and political importance of current official debates on the subject. Clearly, this debate is made especially complex because it can reference specific instances of biblical teaching. In this way, it is the similar to historical debates on the question of slavery, although in that case the Bible was of course used for the most part to ‘promote’ rather than condemn the practice. The debate about homosexuals in the Church is a debate about culture, not religion (Consider the very real worry about a split with Africa over the issue). I would be as happy to be led by a gay priest or bishop as I would one who was female, or had had sex before marriage, or was divorced. And so should every thinking (and, as Giles has said, loving) Christian.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005


The late Cornelius Ernst once said that Aquinas' 'Five Ways' were "an attempt to show how we may go on speaking of God in the ordinary world". Nicholas Lash shows how the main contours of the Christian doctrine of God may be mapped onto principal features of our culture and its predicaments.

After an introductory chapter on 'the question of God today', Lash considers -- in chapters entitled 'globalisation and holiness', 'cacophony and conversation' and 'attending to silence' -- three dimensions of our contemporary predicament: globalisation, a crisis of language, and the pain and darkness of the world, in relation to the doctrine of God as Spirit, Word, and Creator.

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There's much that has been making me think about one of the main themes of this weblog - distinguishing healthy religion from all the harmful stuff that's out there. One challenge has been correspondence with a couple of fairly narrow Christian conservatives over Does Christianity kill or cure? and various other theological forays. Since I believe that Christian faith redeems us from war to healthy argument, this is a necessary thing to do. But it's also extremely tough-going. Not like talking to a brick wall, just an extremely resistant, angry, righteous human being (on a mission, naturally) in one case. Heart-breaking in the best and worst senses.

In terms of overviews and snapshots, the strange byways of faith are well tracked (with amusement and curios on the way) by Bartholemew's notes on religion. Also worth attention is Religion and Society. At some point I might further revise my own Changing the world, changing Christianity?

And what happens when it all gets too much? People react in different ways. "God? Allah? Aliens? Krishna? All of them, and more. Come take a look at one of the oldest human urges - religion. After all, the only thing that makes us screwier is sex," says Lilith Saintcrow on God and consequences. Even more blunt is the demolition drama of Religion is bullshit (no room for equivocation there) or, only a little more subtly, Sam Harris's polemic in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

What we need is a good theological guide to the territory (reasoning faith at religion's wit's end, that is), and it will not surprise you to know that I recommend Nicholas Lash's The Beginning and the End of 'Religion' (Cambridge University Press, 1996), as well as the breathtaking Holiness, Speech and Silence (Ashgate, 2004) - about which I simply cannot rave too much. Sorry.

Of the former, CUP says:
"The common view that ‘religion’ is something quite separate from politics, art, science, law and economics is one that is peculiar to modern Western culture. In this book Professor Lash argues that we should begin to question seriously that viewpoint: the modern world is ending and we are now in a position to discover new forms of ancient wisdom, which have been obscured from view. These essays explore this idea in a number of directions, examining the dialogue between theology and science, the secularity of Western culture and questions of Christian hope. Part One examines the dialogue between Christianity and Hinduism, while Part Two considers the relations between theology and science, the secularity of Western culture, and questions of Christian hope, or eschatology."

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It would take a little time to sum up the ministry of my good friend Henry Morgan. He is, to put it briefly and inadequately, an Anglican priest who works as a spiritual director and animator independent of parish responsibilities. He also has a deep affection for the creative arts, writing, thinking, praying and befriending. And his work is both accessible and supportable through The Annunciation Trust, which was formed in 1993. It offers one-to-one spiritual direction, training days, spiritual direction consultations, holistic massage, quiet days and retreats. I should have linked it and said something about it before.

Henry recently asked me about the paper by David Hay and Kate Hunt, formerly of the University of Nottingham, on The Spirituality of People Who Don't Go To Church. We've been hosting this on the CCOM site for some time now. This link is to a Word Document. No doubt Annunciation Trust will link it soon too.... perhaps when I email to tell him!

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Monday, February 14, 2005


I take it that Chuck Wineguard (see yesterday) is probably no relation of John Wijngaards, the courageous ex-Catholic priest (that's ex-priest, not ex-Catholic) who felt called to give up his ordination vows in order to throw his lot in more fully with women who are having theirs denied. He has established, which has some claim to being the largest international website on the ordination of women. Though a kind of Mennonite-Anglican, I'm a member, along with my wife Carla J. Roth, of Catholic Womens Ordination. And, happily, so are our next-door-neighbours. (CWO, when spelt out, feels like it definitely should have an apostrophe in there, but I can see why they feel possessiveness is inappropriate...) But I digress. It was on Wijngaards' site that I was reminded of a fine article from 1995 by Nicholas Lash, On Not Inventing Doctrine, which is an able riposte to the so-called traditionalists. I mention it mainly because of yesterday's Lashings. And there's going to be another dose tomorrow, I warn you.

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Sunday, February 13, 2005


Where would be without humour? Yes, I know, Worthing. (That one's bound to go wrong, but I spent some of my callow youth in the town, so I do possess first-hand knowledge. "It's a place people go to die in ... and then forget what they came for", so the cruel joke went. Fabulous today, of course.)

Anyway, this proves an effortless segue into a witty post about the doctrine of the Trinity, that hot canteen topic, on The Grace Pages. Chuck Wineguard's Rumours true: Trinity to split brought a happy smile after a very tough day. The ultimate celeb gossip story, no doubt. To be read, perhaps, alongside my own sock-horros: Pope is not a Catholic, says writer and US gay sex bomb exposed.

But back to the Triune Mystery. In order to begin to get to grips with trinitarian theology one unfortunately needs to bear in mind that, in its originating concepts, 'persons' doesn't mean what we mean by persons, 'three' doesn't mean the number three and 'one' doesn't mean a singularity. Then it starts to become tricky. Nicholas Lash's Believing Three Ways in One God is the best short exposition I know. And as luck would have it, SCM Press have it on sale right now. See also his fantastic Holiness, Speech and Silence: Reflections on the Question of God Today (Ashgate, 2004), unpacking the grammar of God in terms of the globalisation, conflict and suffering. I used it in this meditation.

The SCM reviewer presents Lash in context:

"Nicholas Lash has long been one of Britain's most interesting and creatively original theological voices, though it is often said that his influence has been mediated most distinctively through short pieces and essays, a genre that he used to great effect in important collections such as Theology on Dover Beach, Theology on the Way to Emmaus and Easter in Ordinary.

"However, while acknowledging the impact made by these miscellanies, one should not overlook what is perhaps Lash's most significant piece of work, and arguably his most sustained and systematic theology: Believing Three Ways in One God, which offers a subtle and nuanced appraisal of the Apostles' Creed. While continually thought-provoking, and written with all the elegance and economy of style that one associates with Professor Lash, the book is at bottom a practical one, and is intended to bring those who use the Creed to a deeper understanding of the words they say.

"In deepening the understanding of those words, and by emphasising the fundamentally trinitarian character of the Creed, the author shows how we grow in a knowledge of ourselves, each other, the world, and the mystery of God. This is a book that - in outlining the essential contours of Christian faith - remains as fresh and as helpfully usable as when it was written a decade ago."

My only marginal dissent would be to suggest that the word "miscellanies" might be in severe danger of underestimating the aformentioned titles, each of which (especially Easter in Ordinary) forms a coherent whole. See also Lash's The Beginning and End of Religion.

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Saturday, February 12, 2005


Thanks to Maggi Dawn (whose site has just been added to my growing blogroll, along with the splendidly revamped Kinesis) for this moving poem, which is permalinked here.


Theologically speaking
I'm one of the awkward squad,
always asking questions
or questioning answers;
it's uncomfortable for all concerned,
especially me.
I wish it wasn't so;
wish I could tuck myself up in tradition,
snuggle down in certainty,
learn to trust,
but I don't know how
- don't even know what the God-word means to me now.
I do know love when I meet it though.
Oh yes, I recognise Love.

(c) Frances Copsey

I can't recall who said words to the effect that "as I get older, I find myself believing more and more in less and less." Copsey's verse calls this aphorism to mind. I remember once hearing the sentiment behind it dismissed as 'reductionist'. That misses the point completely. It isn't about erosion of faith, but the way faith finds sufficient reason to trust more and hypothesise less. Sufficient reason, but not too much... or too little.

This astringency of the mind and openness of the heart is, again, what Lent is all about. I find myself again and again talking of the God of Jesus as being "beyond manipulation and beyond metaphysics". This "beyond" is not about intellectual evasion, as in the more careless or dogmatic forms of neo-orthodoxy popular among some younger theologians at the moment. It is about realising that, in St Paul's words, knowledge is first and foremost unfolded by love, rather than the other way round.

Believing is seeing, but it proceeds by way of a dark, murky luminosity. Or as a songwriter I know put it, half by accident, I suspect: "Look in the light of what you're searching for." Just accept that the light may not be what you think it is.

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Friday, February 11, 2005


Ekklesia director Jonathan Bartley is a good man, and I'm glad that he has been prepared to go for the jugular on this one:

' Ekklesia, the UK Christian think tank, has become the first body publicly to call for moves towards the formal disestablishment of the Church of England in the wake of the engagement of Prince Charles and Ms Camilla Parker-Bowles, announced yesterday. It is asking for an ecumenical reconsideration of church-state relations.

' “The circumstances of this engagement clearly illustrate how inappropriate it is that the Church of England should remain established”, says Ekklesia’s director, Jonathan Bartley. “As a state church it has no say over its Supreme Governor and its interests remain subject to those of the Crown.”

' He continued: “In decision-making about the Royal wedding the Church of England has been shown to be little more than a bit-part in constitutional affairs. It is time to end this humiliation and set the Church free.” '

But even more crucially:

' Ekklesia believes that the case for disestablishment will be strengthened by the Church’s current plight, but it stresses that the theological case for ending the state link is paramount, and has nothing immediately to do with the Prince’s wedding.

' “The Church of England is the only state church in the worldwide Anglican Communion”, says Jonathan Bartley. “That the Church should be subject to the Crown compromises its ability to proclaim and live the Gospel free of state interests. It inhibits equal relations with other Christian churches. And it is also inappropriate in a plural society. Faith cannot be imposed. It must remain a free choice.”

' Ekklesia points out that Christ’s message of equality, justice and special concern for the poor stands in contradiction to the principle of Monarchy, which is based on privilege for the few through heredity. '

The full story is here.

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It's always fascinating to look at what really causes a stir on Ekklesia. Right now we have stories up about oppression in Zimbabwe and brave Archbishop Tutu; world poverty and how to end it; Christians working against nuclear weapons; Christian-Muslim cooperation on nonviolent change in Iraq; anti-Catholicism, and Christian social vision. (You can always consult the news archive if it has moved on by the time you read this.)

However, what is really making people click away at the moment is the monumental question over ... what the Evangelical Alliance has to say about how naughty Charles and Camilla have been. Yes, that's right: more people are apparently exercised about this than all of these other issues put together.

Now don't get me wrong. Adultery matters. And what the EA says is not insignificant, because it represents a big swathe of opinion, whatever we think of it. Ekklesia reports, it doesn't just comment. Moreover people surf in for particular stories, so the direct comparison may not be entirely fair. But even taking these factors into account, the capacity for a bit of Royal nothingery to dominate our consciousness is truly amazing.

Or perhaps not. Maybe the magic word is 'evangelical'. Either way, the idea that 'a new way of thinking' (let alone a new way of behaving) is any easier for Christians than for others doesn't wash. We all feed from the same trough, and we all fall short of the same glory. This is one reason why easy moralism about Chuck and Cammie's second chance should remain circumspect about its own interests. Moats, beams, that kind of stuff.

Anyway, following on from my acerbic comments yesterday (for which I feel some penitence, but not too much), here are links to previous articles about liberating the church in England from monarchical illusions, the question of disestablishment, and more on the Royal bug.

The review of Ian Bradley's book is a lot more even-tempered than the comment below, by the way. But these issues do, I think, cut deep -- and the wound is barely noticed (to re-employ another metaphor-of-the-moment on this weblog). So maybe the odd prod with a sharp stick isn't out of place.

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A 'Called to be Peacemakers' event was due to be held over the next few days. It's been postponed until October. Further information from FoR. I still think the poster is worth looking at as a focus for Lenten prayer...

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Thursday, February 10, 2005


I refer, of course, to the engagement of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. It is dumbfounding to see exactly how much airtime and newspaper space is spent analysing and dissecting this event. As if there weren't important things to worry about.

Monarchy is some kind of polite but persistent psychosis, I think. Or perhaps an unwitting psychological contract whereby people project their own expectations and unfulfilled longings onto a small group of self-selecting people -- whose continuation is a matter of pure eugenic priviledge. This is about as far removed from the Gospel of God's special love for the last, the least and the lost as you could plan to get, at least in terms of constitutional routine.

All of which makes the Church of England's continued involvement with it a horrid mess. To put the ekklesia at the disposal of the Crown isn't just inappropriate, it's wrong. But no-one seems to be noticing this massive political and theological issue lurking in the corner of the latest Royal Soap episode.

Though a staunch republican, I wish the Windsors well in their marriage -- even if the means by which events led up to it involved a lot of pain and wrong. But I still can't help concurring with the radical poet Adrian Mitchell, who I recently discovered lives in the same road as me when I'm staying in London. Mistakenly written to by the Daily Telegraph, which was seeking wordsmiths to offer homage to Charles on the anniversary of his investiture as Prince of Wales some years ago, Mitchell wrote back as follows:

For HRH Prince Charles: Monarchy is an illness. Get well soon.

Or words to that effect. (The 'poem' is, as the Dinsdale Brothers might have put it in that Monty Python sketch, "vicious... but fair".)

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Of course I should have noticed much more quickly the link between the previous post, the fact of Shrove Tuesday, and a hidden element in my article for the Bruderhof. For this is the day we celebrate the gifts of life before a period of reflection and discipline involving (in a world where the word seems only to carry a threat at the moment) abstinence.

Bread is, indeed, for sharing, and thus becomes a spiritual matter in material form. A few years ago I wrote some IBRA biblical cameos on precisely this theme. This is the first part. The second part is here.

The other Lent link is in the Does Christianity kill or cure? article. When I first quoted Dennis Potter I remembered what he said incorrectly as "God is the wound, not the bandage." I think that's true in it's own right. But what he actually said in his moving final interview with Melvyn Bragg, as he was dying and swigging morphine to quell the pain of cancer, was "religion is the wound, not the bandage."

That is even more knowing. Potter remembered what many of us forget, which is that the word 'religion' comes from the root religio, meaning "to bind". Of course religion can be, in the colloquial use of that term, "a bind". It can be a source of oppression rather than liberation, slavery rather than salvation. This is why theologians such as Karl Barth have often -- if a little too easily -- tried to distinguish and separate 'religion' and 'Christianity'.

But Lent reminds us of the true meaning of religio. In being freed from things that really do ensnare and bind our lives, like money and possessions, we are freed to be 'bound' to God -- but by the ties of love freely entered into and expressed, not the compulsions of possession or the need to be 'right'. This is St Paul's paradox: his discovery that servanthood turns out to be perfect freedom, as Christ showed.

That isn't something you neatly work out in your head. It is a discovery of the heart and a work of life. And, of course, it is a gift which can be corrupted -- as when people use Christian faith to bind others or themselves to things less glorious than God, but often (ab)using the name of God. This is why religion can be a terrible thing. Lent is a time when we can resolve that it shall be, instead, Good (though not undemanding) News.

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Interesting. I was always sure that this quotation was from Leo Tolstoy. But it turns out to be Jacques Maritain. Excellent either way.

Christianity has all too often meant withdrawal and the unwillingness to share the common suffering of humankind. But the world has rightly risen in protest against such piety... The care of another - even material, bodily care - is spiritual in essence. Bread for myself is a material question; bread for my neighbor is a spiritual one.

Thanks to the Bruderhof 'Daily Dig' for this. They have also kindly included my article Does Christianity kill or cure? in their archive.

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Saturday, February 05, 2005


In the course of my regular searches to update the tsunami prayer pages I maintain on my main site and for Ekklesia, I came across a superb maintained weblog by Rick Lord, World of Your Making, which is certainly worth checking out. He's something of a fan of N T Wright, and I gravitate rather more towards Marcus Borg (they wrote a very useful discussion book together, The Meaning of Jesus), but that's all part of enriching the conversation.

It was also good to hear from an old colleague, Tom Allen, who I haven't seen for years. His enjoyable BigBulkyAnglican log contains "thoughts, ideas, questions and ramblings about music, faith and youth work from Pennine Yorkshire." I think we connected via Dan Walters, by the way, Tom. Amusing to be linked by his post to Pulp (though you won't find them on my NewFrontEars music blog...yet).

Meanwhile, I have done a further overhaul of (and additions to) my general links on this blog. You'll find some new categories - thinkLinks, ecuLinks, and actionLinks - for a start. I continue to resist alphebeticisation (makes searching less lazy and more intuitive, he says didactically) and the "mapping the arena of debate" policy remains.

You'll discover some new campaigns and altChurch offerings, not least St Mark's and St Peter's in the UK and New Zealand. On the 'stimulating theologians' front you'll now find Denys Turner (see also this piece about his stake in the apophatic theology conversation from Peter Kugler), Alan Kreider and Gordon Kaufman (very different kinds of Mennonite voices) side-by-side, and a few others.

Please note that my tendency is to link people from their academic pages. In some cases this means that the resource links aren't as good as they could or should be. In which case Google will do the trick for you. Enjoy.

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Friday, February 04, 2005

[101.1] WHOSE ARE WE?

Not a point that contradicts Giles Fraser's valid insight (FinS yesterday) that over-easy identification with the victim can be spiritually dangerous, I think -- but here is Jean Vanier's counterpoint comment about why it is also important. We worship, after all, a God who became tortured (as well as living and risen) flesh.

Vanier wrote: Is not one of our problems today that we have separated ourselves from the wounded and the suffering? We have too much time to discuss and theorize and have lost the yearning for God which comes when we are faced with the sufferings of people.

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Thursday, February 03, 2005


BBC Radio 4's long running Thought for the Day varies enormously in content and quality. Aside from the battles over the division of air-time between Christians, other faith communities and secular / a-theistic perspectives (which are in my view wrongly excluded at the moment), some see the three-minute reflection as an exercise in cloying piety, while others push the boat out a bit more.

Giles Fraser did the latter this morning. His 'thought' is essential reading in the light of the recent Holocaust memorial events.

"Sixty years after the holocaust, the greatest crime of the twentieth century, the curse of anti-Semitism continues to haunt us.

"Christians often engage with the holocaust by celebrating the courage of other Christians who resisted the Nazis: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoller, Edith Stein. But the truth is, they were rare exceptions.

"For centuries, many Christians have stoked the fires of anti-Semitism with lies and slander. Jews were blamed for the death of Christ. Some believed that Jews practiced child sacrifice. The 4th century saint and theologian Gregory of Nyssa called the Jews 'companions of the devil, accursed, detested, enemies of all that is beautiful'.

"Martin Luther went even further: 'We are at fault in not slaying them,' he said 'Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying.' He went on to advise Christians to 'set fire to their synagogues and schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn.'

"These days, Christians are ashamed by such words. But it's still terribly important to remember them. " See the full text.

Giles is vicar of Putney, lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford, a Christian convert from a Jewish background, a columnist for the Guardian, the Church Times and Ekklesia, a co-founder of Inclusive Church.Net, author of a very fine book on Nietzsche... and one of the best theologically equipped commentators and writers the Church of England has (but doesn't own).

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