Tuesday, May 29, 2007


This Thursday (31 May 2007) there is a unique chance to engage with Professor Deirdre Good about why the church may - ironically - be overlooking Jesus and the Gospel message of inclusive community in its increasingly anxious quest for 'family values'.

The event, sponsored by Ekklesia, and chaired by Fr Kevin Scully, will take place at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace - a couple of minutes' walk away from Liverpool Street Station, from 11 AM - Midday. Refreshments, and interviews afterwards. Full details here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/5297.

Dr Good is Professor of New Testament at General Seminary in New York, USA. Her new book Jesus' Family Values is available now. It argues that Jesus replaced his family of origin with differently configured communities and households.

All welcome. Please pass this on to people you know in the London (UK) vicinity, if you see this before the event.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Apologies for the lack of updates here (and, indeed, on Ekklesia). Both my hard disc and I have been unwell of late - and we have had various contingencies 'in the office', too. Things should be getting back to normal from tomorrow...

Friday, May 18, 2007


In the UK tabloid media, migration is "an issue". Actually, it's about people - and often their great pain. This much is made clear by Christian Aid's splendid new report, which (inter alia) blows the lid on the paranoid fantasies of The Mail and The Express - who are always talking in lurid and threatening terms about 'economic migrants' (people disenfanchised by the institutional inequity of the global financial system), asylum seekers and refugees.

What Human Tide makes clear is that there is a migration crisis. But it is at its greatest in the South, not the North; and equally its causes lies in the kind of policies we try to protect with barriers, not in the vulnerable people we scapegoat for their plight or the consequences of their exploitation. Of course there is the sickness and corruption of the people-trafficking trade, too. But again, many media portrayals segue the victims into the perpetrators. They fail to point out that movement takes people 'out' as well as 'in' (part of the issue behind a sane migration policy for Europe is how to help people move as a result of choice not compulsion). They don't recognise that development and security are the things that help people take root rather than being displaced. And they ignore the fact that in a word of dissolving borders and transparency to instant capital movements, trying to cage people just doesn't work - apart from being based on immoral premises.

None of this makes solutions to the global crisis that Christian Aid describes easy, of course. But it does suggest that the parameters of a sane and humane conversation about migration will look radically different to the one we have now, where electorates are scared by papers hunting fear-fuelled profit, and politicians bow to the climate of prejudice - in spite of their denials - with a weather eye to their electoral fortunes.

There are all kinds of reasons why Christians should care about this: about people, as well as policies. Among them is the simple fact that Christianity itself is constituted by journeying - in mission, in pilgrimage, in hospitality, in aid, and in flight from mistreatment and oppression. It is our history and our desiny we are talking about - and a growing understanding that the 'we' is a human family, not a self-preoccupied tribe. The Gospel, rightly understood, is always about enlarging the circle of our love, and developing our habitual capacity to respond to a barrier-breaking welcome which goes beyond the limits of human specification and subjectivity. God's, in other words.

Meanwhile, you can download Christian Aid's report, Human Tide: The Real Migration crisis here: full graphic version) (2mb *.PDF- this file may take time to download) or low graphic version (748kb *.PDF).

Monday, May 14, 2007


People are more and more wary of 'religious charities' these days, fearing that good-will can easily become a cover for proselytism or self-interest. No doubt collectors for Christian Aid Week 2007 will face this kind of suspicion in some quarters - but Christian Aid is one church-backed organisation that unequivocally works with those of all creeds and none, builds alliances for social justice, and supports some of the world's most effective NGOs in combatting poverty and inequality on the ground in five continents. It is also a leading campaigning organisation on debt, aid, trade, corporate accountability and global warming. I've seen its work first-hand and have no hesitation in commending it. This week Ekklesia will be specially highlighting the work of CA. You can donate online via this link. This year's Christian Aid education materials feature inspiring stories of how poor communities in El Salvador, Senegal and Afghanistan are growing a future in spite of seemingly impossible odds. With a bit more help they can make an even bigger impact.

Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury made an important statement in Malaysia about the purpose of Christianity. “Our mission”, he declared, “is not to conquer the world, to subdue others… our mission is to draw people to the company of Jesus; new words to speak, new thoughts to think and new love rising in their hearts.”

If the church really did take that as its starting point, and if it fully recognised that Jesus was crucified by precisely the kind of religio-political system it has historically been tempted to impose, a huge amount could change in its life, and in the life of the world.

It isn't too much to ask. But it is still an awful lot.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


Earlier this month, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) decided to have a meeting on faith schools at its annual conference - following up on their constructively critical position paper (pictured below). I spoke at it, on behalf of Ekklesia. So did Andrew Copson from the British Humanist Association. The organiser tried hard to get speakers (especially an Anglican and a Catholic) who would put the view for advocates of religiously-affiliated schools.

When the Church Times reported this on 30 March 2007, they said there was "an 11th-hour invitation had been sent to the C of E and the RC Church to attend the ATL debate". That's funny, because I know from my own correspondence that the organiser was making approaches two weeks beforehand - and that the union got some, shall we say, "sniffy" responses in some quarters.

It has also been suggested to me that "the timing was wrong for the churches, because of the run-in to Holy Week". This is an interesting argument. First, having worked both for the C of E and ecumenical bodies, I know that, although it can be a busy period, people are available. If clergy can't be, there are many lay people with plenty of professional experience in the area.

Second, the complaint once again illustrates "the Christendom mindset". When the church and its message was fully ingrained in the culture and its institutions, it could be taken for granted that other people would know and fit in with the Church Calendar. But that is no longer the case. Indeed a couple of people who I chatted to after the ATL meeting had little or no idea what Holy Week was.

If Christians wish to engage with others, they can no longer assume that it will always be on terms which are convenient to them. The onus is on them to go out of the way (in a manner that Jesus described the priestly class as struggling to do in the parable of the Good Samaritan). And insofar as this represents a shift away from ecclesiastical presumption, it is a healthy spiritual state of affairs for the church, I'd say.

The ATL argues that publicly-funded educational institutions should be accountable and open to all, which is not the case when faith schools are almost wholly financed by the taxpayer but can turn down pupils and teachers because they have the wrong beliefs . On Ekklesia we go further. We think that privileging the interests of church-going parents and children over others goes against the Gospel message of favour-free love, and we think that a "Christian school" would be one that favoured those excluded or at the margins of society, not people who have the time, money or possibility of jumping church admission hoops.

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic hierarchies see things very differently. So there is a debate to be had, and it shouldn't just be conducted in the corridors of power or at the Athenaeum Club (where Jonathan Bartley and I were invited for one conversation some months ago). The defensive shields need to come down and the talking needs to get more positive on the part of those who run religiously-affiliated schools.

That's why I welcome the ATL's position. Not just because I agree with their concerns, but because they are trying to address them constructively. They also have a lot of Christians on their side, even if they are not official church spokespeople.

See also: Teaching union defends its calling of faith schools to account and Time to end discrimination by faith schools, says teaching union. ATL's position statement on faith schools can be accessed here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007


As New Labour contemplates a degree of electoral meltdown on Thursday 3 May, the word from the camp is that its new idea is "progressive self-interest" - trying to make social justice more amenable by showing how everyone can benefit from a fairer society and will lose from a more divided one. That was, of course, the logic of the Brandt Report on world development in the 1980s - but the gravitational pull of market liberalisation, individualisation, game theory, organisational change and consumerism has been in the opposite direction, and democratic politics struggles to move to a different drum. The role of civil society initiatives and movements is vital in keeping alternative visions alive, and those who have lived within the constraints of Westminster politics know this too.

Turning to the bigger picture Clare Short (formerly Labour development secretary, now independent, MP) declared today: “You can’t take the evil of slavery out of the world and abolish it without making the world more just. You will never prevent people living in bonded labour or from getting caught up in sex trafficking while they are so desperate that they have no other choice but to sell themselves. As long as we in the West crave ever more excess, we conspire in their desperation, exploiting it and make ourselves sick in the process. We are well off, yet our society has never been more miserable. We suffer today from the disease of excess, from obesity, drug and alcohol abuse and resulting family breakdown. We must change the way we live, change the way the world is governed and create a new world order, both for ourselves and globally.”

She will, of course, be accused of miserablism for her initial judgment and damned for idealism with her last flourish. But the essence of Short's complaint (which is not invalidated by criticism of her own past performance, either) is based on stark realism, albeit of the kind we are ill-inclined to recognise. I'd put it this way. A society over-mesmerised by acquiring things has become more and more a collection of strangers who clash legally, struggle politically, by-pass socially, divide economically, narrowcast culturally, turn inwards spiritually and plunder environmentally.

You don't have to be a sandal-wearing Cassandra or a denier of the numerous benefits of modernity to see this downside, and to recognise that the most basic question we have to handle is what constitutes our common humanity over and above the technologies that mediate it. Given the magnitude of the forces that maintain us in our current materially-bound dilemma, steps in a different direction are going to seem small. But they are vital. And they will only be sustained by faith - not dogmatism or refusal of evidence, but reasoned trust in a greater future rooted in something that cannot simply be reduced to a function of what now-is and now-rules. This is what "undergoing God" (as James Alison delightfully puts it) is all about, and those who do not see that as a possibility have a responsibility for elucidating the grounds of hope, as much as those who do have a responsibility for elucidating the grounds of belief.