Tuesday, April 19, 2005


[I have just written this for Ekklesia. The new Pope was elected two hours ago. It is difficult to feel any great sense of enthiusiasm, and easy to feel something to the contrary. Since a European was chosen it is sad -- but predictable -- that Cardinals Daneels and Kasper should have been overlooked.]

In a move set to cheer Catholic hardliners and dismay reformers, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, aged 78, was this evening elected by the college of Cardinals to succeed the late Pope John Paul II. He is already being talked about as a transitional figure as the Church absorbs the legacy of the longest Pontificate of the twentieth century.

Cardinal Ratzinger, from Traunstein in Germany, has chosen the name Benedict XVI. He is the first German Pope since Victor II, bishop of Eichstatt, who reigned from 1055-57.

The new Pontiff was immediately greeted with relief and enthusiasm by the large crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square, Rome.

It was one of the fastest elections over the past hundred years: Pope Pius XII was elected in 1939 in three ballots on one day, while Pope John Paul I was elected in 1978 in four ballots in one day. The new pope was chosen after either four or five ballots over just two days.

Ratzinger, now Benedict, has long been seen as the real power behind the papal throne. He worked directly for his predecessor from 1981.

John Paul II travelled widely (making over one hundred international visits) and was content to build up a strong bureaucracy in the Vatican – often to the discontent of bishops and ordinary Catholics around the world, who saw it as a source of intrigue, politicking and obduracy.

The new Pope is seen as a hardliner, but when he played a major role in the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) he was actually a modernizer. Vatican watchers say that his influence in recent years has come by mediating between other powerful figures.

Coming from the same generation as Pope John Paul II, the now Pope Benedict similarly struggled with rapid change in the modern world, and came to see retrenchment rather than revision as the way forward.

Controversy followed Ratzinger closely in his time as head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the inquisition. The Cardinal was obstinate in his opposition to liberation theology, to radical lay movements (like ‘We are Church’ in Europe and base ecclesial communities in the developing world).

He also pursued bitter doctrinal vendettas against key dissenting theologians, including Leonardo Boff and Tissa Balasuriya in Brazil and Sri Lanka respectively. Both were poorly treated in investigations which amounted to one-sided trials, according to many observers.

Boff’s mistake was to question the power and ethics of the church itself, and the contradiction between this and its message of justice and peace, in his book ‘Church, Charism and Power’. He said that the Holy Spirit was reinventing the Church from the grassroots, but the guardians of the institution had different ideas.

Talented and sensitive theologians who explored the relationship between Christian faith, inter-faith relations and post-modern culture also felt the wrath of the sacred Congregation and of the German Cardinal.

They included Jacques Dupuis, who died sad and lonely as a result of his rejection for work on the theology of religions which is hailed as groundbreaking and deeply faithful by many fellow scholars in the Catholic world and beyond.

Roger Haight, also a Jesuit, and considered one of the Church’s most brilliant minds, has also been condemned recently. He is an expert in philosophy and Christology, the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI is certain to continue with the conservative policies of the Curia on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, priestly celibacy and the refusal of women’s ordination as either deacons or priests.

However, some are tonight saying that Ratzinger’s choice of name may indicate some measure of conciliation towards those who disagree with him. This is because he has chosen the successor appellation to a Pope who succeeded a hardliner with a more moderate tone.

Benedict XV, who reigned from 1914 to 1922, followed Pius X, who had implemented a sharp crackdown against doctrinal "modernism." He reigned during World War I and was credited with settling animosity between traditionalists and reformers, He dreamed of reunion with Orthodox Christians.

Benedict, which comes from the Latin for "blessing," is one of a number of papal names of holy origin such as Clement ("mercy"), Innocent ("hopeful" as well as "innocent") and Pius ("pious").

Cardinal Ratzinger gave a moving and profound homily at the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 9 April 2005. As the new Pope Benedict XVI, he began his reign today by speaking to the world's one billion Catholics of the importance of humility and the need to be robust in faith.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2005


[from Ekklesia] The Anglican Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and the Christian churches in West Yorkshire have entered the general election debate on migration by urging political parties not to stoke fears about asylum seekers during the campaign.

Some 400 people attended a recent protest in Leeds over the mistreatment treatment of asylum seekers in Britain. Organiser Dave Young told the BBC that churches had serious concerns that the asylum issue was used as a "political football", re-iterating the earlier plea, reported on Ekklesia, made by churches across the UK.

The West Yorkshire Ecumenical Council (WYEC) has called for a “radical revision” of current asylum policy. The Council, which represents all the major Christian churches in the county, says that in its own direct experience asylum seekers are often “destitute, terrorised and imprisoned”.

In a public statement, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, John Packer, said: "The church leaders of West Yorkshire deeply regret the way in which concern for the needs of asylum-seekers seems to have been replaced by a desire to treat them harshly. All human beings are created by God and should be treated with dignity and generosity of spirit. The greater their need, the more they deserve our compassion and practical help.”

Bishop Packer continued: “We call on our political leaders to refrain from exploiting the plight of asylum-seekers and misleading the electorate by confusing the issues of asylum and immigration.”

Asking for a radical change of policy in favour of the persecuted and destitute who come to Britain for refuge, the Bishop added: “In the light of the parable of the Good Samaritan, we ask Christians to challenge their political candidates on the treatment of asylum-seekers - and to take their response into account when deciding how to vote.”

Meanwhile in London church leaders are also speaking out. United Reformed Church minister Vaughan Jones, who heads up a multi-agency project, Praxis, which works with people displaced across the capital, said today that “the whole experience of the Bible leads Christians to the defence of people in exile.”

Mr Jones, an Ekklesia associate, says that the debate about immigration and asylum is being confused both by politicians and the media. The churches, he declares, must stand up for the truth in the face of misinformation.

The statements of church leaders refusing the anti-immigrant and anti-asylum seeker tone of the general election debate come on a day when Conservative Party leader Michael Howard stands accused by a UN refugee agency representative in Britain of whipping up false fears.

But churches and humanitarian agencies are not just targeting the Tories. They have been critical of the Labour government too. “They are saying that politicians of all hues must put justice for the vulnerable above cheap political point scoring,” says Ekklesia research associate Simon Barrow.

Ekklesia, a religious think tank that has been named as one of the top 20 think tanks in the UK by The Independent newspaper, has also announced the launch of a major Westminster Forum, the first meeting of which will tackle immigration policy.

And church figures have joined politicians in expressing alarm at the actions of a Christian candidate who has had to publicly apologize after doctoring photos to support Tory immigration policy.

The full statement from the West Yorkshire church leaders was first published a week a go on Ekklesia.

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Biblical justice and the urban church is the theme of a special day event to be held in London this coming Saturday, to honour the remarkable contribution of a little known radical evangelical theologian and urban worker. Roger Dowley, a Baptist who died in 2004, influenced several generations of Christians involved in urban issues, including the late Bishop David Sheppard.

His book ‘The Recovery of a Lost Bequest’ is a detailed study of justice-making as the pattern for biblical community and Christian action. The study day will run from 10.00 – 15.30 on Saturday 16 April 2005. The venue is Brandon Baptist Church, Redcar Street, Camberwell, London SE5 ONA.

The speakers will include Chris Rowland (Professor of New Testament at the University of Oxford, and a specialist in liberation theology), Simon Barrow (Ekklesia associate, currently General Secretary of the ecumenical Churches’ Commission on Mission) and Chris Andre-Watson (Baptist pastor in Brixton, area coordinator for BMS World Mission, and anti-drugs campaigner).

‘Dowley Day’ is free and open to all. A hot lunch will be provided. The event has been organised by Roy Dorey who teaches at Heythrop College and is founder of the Philemon Group, and by Bruce Stokes, both of Brandon Baptist Church. It is being co-sponsored by the Christian think tank, Ekklesia.

Roger Dowley’s detailed work-notes on biblical patterns for a just community, ‘Towards the Recovery of a Lost Bequest’, re-awakened the radical evangelical conscience in the mid 1980s. His work helped shape the Evangelical Coalition on Urban Mission. It was rooted in the faith and thought of a lay person deeply engaged in the tough realities of inner city issues.

Roger Dowley is one of those unsung giants of the faith whose contribution to Christian thought and action is as inestimable as it is (sadly) forgotten. He represents a tradition which badly needs to be recovered again, as the evangelical section of the church sinks further into insularity and vituperation over issues of sexuality.

Brandon Baptist Church has done a great service to the whole Christian community – evangelical, ecumenical and Catholic - by putting on this day. The speakers (we hope!) represent a broad slice of Christian opinion committed to social justice and the radical Gospel.

Dowley Day will also ensure that the struggles of urban life are properly highlighted at a time when General Election spin is in danger of obliterating the faces of those who suffer injustice - people on sink estates, refugees and asylum seekers, victims of violence and abuse.

Those intending to come to ‘Dowley Day’, or wanting any more information, should drop an email to info@philemon.co.uk.

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