Wednesday, December 24, 2003

FaithInSociety will be fully operational once more in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003


When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people
To make music in the heart.

© Howard Thurman, FoR USA.

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Saturday, December 13, 2003


The Scottish writer, critic and historian William Dalrymple (whose latest book is White Mughals) has written pereceptively of the contradictions of religious life in modern Britain. Some of his data seems to have been drawn from Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain, but his judgements are more moderate. Not that they constitute grounds for complacency among firstline British church leaders, many of whom still seem not to have understood that the kind of faith that persists amidst the secularity of public life is not a likely antechamber for the return of their own verities. Dalrymple observes:

"It is usually assumed that Christianity in Britain was in decline from the mid-19th century on. In fact, church attendance figures reached an all-time high at the end of the 19th century, and dramatically revived again in the 1950s: this was the period, for example, when Billy Graham, the American evangelist, was able to draw crowds of more than 2 million to his open air services.

"The decline has taken place, at a quite startling rate, only since the mid-1960s. As late as the 1950s, nearly half the adult population went to church on a Sunday. By the 1990s the figure was down to 10%. During the 1960s, the decline was initially limited to the Anglican church, and both Roman Catholic and Jewish attendance figures held up well. But even there, decline set in towards the end of the 1970s and accelerated fast, so that by the late 1980s Catholicism and Judaism found themselves haemorrhaging faithful as Protestants had 20 years earlier.

"Today the decline is at its most severe in urban areas, and most severe of all in London: fewer than 3% of Londoners now attend church on Sundays. This is clearly a major change in the landscape, but it does not represent a universal decline. For while organised religion is ceasing to play a major role in the life of the white majority, there is no comparable decline in the religious life of Britain's ethnic minorities. Today in London, white Christians are already outnumbered by black ones. Black Pentecostal churches are flourishing and 51% of regular London churchgoers are now non-white.

"Likewise, the number of mosque-going Muslims is fast catching up with the number of church-going Christians, and Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras are also flourishing. Nor is there any obvious drop-off in the faith of second- or third-generation British Indians. The outlook remains uncertain, especially as regards mainstream white Christianity, but reports of the death of religion in these islands are premature."

See the full piece 'God in Peckham Rye' here.

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Friday, December 12, 2003


From Daniel Berrigan (see these resources on his life and witness). And, yes, he said it twenty years ago!

"The hunger for news eats people up, makes newsprint out of them.... People can become so bewildered with the mass of information and news brought down upon them that they're unable to move; they're paralysed. So the question of selecting, meditating, having an interior life of one's own in the midst of all this becomes crucial."

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Thursday, December 11, 2003


Earlier in the year I joined at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland staff visit to Brussels, home of the European institutions, to engage in exchanges with the CEC Church and Society Commission, COMECE - Commission of the Bishops' Conferences of the European Community, the EKD Brussels Office, the Orthodox, and an EU policy adviser on 'Dialogue with the religions, churches and humanisms'.

The churches continue to play a significant and constructive role in practical conversations about the evolution of European polity and society -- not least on issues of human rights, economic justice, religious / cultural freedom, bioethics and social dialogue.

Perhaps the most difficult discussions are about the function of religion itself in the new Europe. There are strong and divergent opinions over the extent to which churches and other faith communities should have anything approximating to an 'official role'.

My own view is that there should be a clear distinction between church and state, transparent and regular conversation about mutual rights and responsibilities, the vigorous participation of faith communities alongside others in the shared arenas of civil society, and space for the autonomy of different civic communities. But the co-extensivity of Christendom is (and should be) a thing of the past. It is incompatible with the plurality of modern societies and it is also enervating for faith communities.

One particular sticking point is the EU Constitution. Should religion (Christianity in particular) be mentioned in the pre-amble? Should God be mentioned? The Vatican has been advocating for both. Its approach is mediated by the statehood of the Holy See and its historic understanding of corpus Christianum.

My latest Ekklesia column, 'Should God get a name check?' offers a different perspective on this question, premmised on a post-Christendom viewpoint which says that Christian social and political praxis should be an orientation developed from the outwardly engaged community of faith, not from incorporation within the structures of governance.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2003


For years The Guardian newspaper has been a robust organ of progressive opinion and critical reporting. It has also been avowedly sceptical, the home both of 'cultured despisers' and of secular commentators whose opinions about religion often (perhaps unbeknown to them) lack the rigour they expect in other fields. But there has been a sea change of late. In part the current editor's admiration for Archbishop Rowan Williams seems to have translated itself into a new willingness to treat the religious dimension of contemporary life more seriously. Correspondent Stephen Bates' hard and creative work has also played a significant role in realizing this aim -- at a time when religious reporting in Britain's national media is at its weakest for many years. The fruits can be seen in the religion index. Well worth trawling.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2003


Here's a thoughtful piece on the Fulcrum site from David Rucorn, on principles for discussing belief among those with whom we differ. Thanks to Simon Taylor for alerting me to this (not to mention the fabulously irrelevant church sign generator.) While on the argumentation business, Karen Johann has passed on this salutary quotation from Anne Lamott: "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

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Monday, December 08, 2003


Christians are warning that tens of thousands of casualties may be the result of the development of a new generation of nuclear weapons by the USA. The details are in a report from the Ekklesia website -- the source of the news update column on the left-hand side of FaithInSociety. Ekklesia operates from an Anabaptist-style value base, but its reporting is from all quarters of the Christian community. Its hard-working director, Jonathan Bartley, has recently written The Subversive Manifesto: Lifting the Lid on God's Political Agenda, which partly charts his own journey from the religious right to a radical Christian commitment influenced by people such as Jim Wallis and the late John Howard Yoder.

For those long steeped in political theology this book may not contain a lot that's new, but it has three special merits. First it encapsulates the implications of the prophetic biblical tradition in direct and lively language. Second, it is media savvy. Third, it will reach into the evangelical and 'new church' constituency in a way that much of the literature in this field -- including the stuff I churn out -- never will. More strength to your elbow, Jonathan.

(I should declare an interest, by the way: I'm an Ekklesia columnist!)

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Sunday, December 07, 2003


Abuna Elias Chacour: "Either we stop claiming we are children of Abraham, or we act as brothers and try to reconcile."

Dr Denis MacEoin of Newcastle, writing in The Guardian:

"For years the left, which once admired Israeli socialism, has swung towards an uncritical support of the Palestinian cause. This has led the leftwing press to the point where it will never call Palestinian suicide bombers 'terrorists'; and where to express sympathy for the plight of the Israelis, surrounded for over 50 years by an ocean of vehement anti-semitism and calls for the destruction of their country, is to be branded as a traitor to liberal values.

"As a lifelong liberal, I have always supported Israel, because I believe its foundation was the proper response to the Holocaust. As an Arabist and Islamicist, I also hope that a fair and workable resolution can be found for the problems faced by the Palestinians. I just don't happen to think the two things are incompatible."

Fair comment, though he doesn't mention either a two-state or secular state 'resolution', so I'm unclear whether he supports full statehood for Palestinians, or only for Israelis.

To go to the guts of the matter rather more theologically, in the paraphrased words of Fr Elias Chacour, a Palestinian (Melkite) Christian and a Jewish citizen: it is vital that Jews and Palestinians stop regarding each other as mortal enemies and begin, instead, to recognise themselves in the wounds of the other. Only in the presence of the kind of suffering-transformed-into-hope made visible on the Cross (he says) can we begin to discover a new way of handling each other, the crimes that have been committed against us, and the sins we have perpetuated through cycles of hatred, denial and revenge. That means working across religious, political, cultural and social barriers to help each other to reconstruct our identities and out of that process slowly to discover a shared one.

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Saturday, December 06, 2003


Over the years I've had many reasons to be thankful for Chris Rowland, Professor of New Testament at the University of Oxford. He's been a courageous advocate for (and practitioner of) radical contextual theology. He's worked with grassroots organisations and parishes as well as operating as a creative academic. He's collaborated with adult educators like me. He's a dissenting Anglican involved in the UK Anabaptist Network. We both contributed to the Jubilee Group symposium on disestablishment, Setting the Church of England Free. So Chris is no ivory tower theologian. He sticks his neck out. His excellent 'Face to Faith' piece on 'Paul's Letter of Tolerance' is but one example. Here's a brief excerpt:

"Thanks to Paul, Christianity has never really been a religion that used the Bible as a code of law. In his Second Letter To The Corinthians, he writes: "The letter kills, the Spirit gives life." Throughout his writings, he tries to get at what the Bible means, with the central criterion being conformity to Christ. He pioneered an approach to the Bible which also applies to his words in the New Testament. We should not concentrate on the letter of the text, but try to get at the underlying point of his words.

"So, basing one's attitudes towards gay and lesbian people merely on two verses from Romans and Corinthians I runs the risk of ending up with a form of religion which is based on the letter of the text -- something Paul empathically opposes -- rather than on what a loving God is doing in transforming lives in the present. On the Damascus road, Saul's world was turned upside down. He encountered Christ in the outsiders, the heretics, the misfits and aliens, the very people whom he had been commissioned to round up. It was this experience that transformed his life. Such a turnaround was not the result of minute attention to text and precedent."

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Friday, December 05, 2003


Charles Walmsley from InclusiveChurch.Net (for which I'm on the steering group) had this letter published in The Church Times -- the main Church of England newspaper -- on Friday 28 November 2003:

"[T]hank you for your warm review of our website (Web News, 21st November). In her review, Sarah Meyrick describes Inclusive Church as 'the liberal group'. It is an easy mistake to make, but it is far from accurate. The huge upsurge of concern following the forced withdrawl of Canon Jeffrey John was not confined to 'liberals', and of the nearly eight thousand individuals who have currently signed our declaration of belief, many would describe themselves as Catholic or Evangelical. More than 90 Parochial Church Councils have signed so far, as have many organisations, including Cathedrals, Fransiscan orders, and entire deanery synods.

"Inclusive Church is not a single-issue pressure group. Rather, it is concerned to work and pray for an inclusive Anglicanism that is founded on a just ordering of our common life that 'opens the ministries of deacon, priest and bishop to those so called to serve by God, regardless of their sex, race or sexual orientation'.

"There will be debate within the Church about how this is to be achieved, and there will be many different theologies. But all those who wish to see our church life founded on a just order will be welcomed to contribute within Inclusive regardless of the labels others give them. We are already developing a network of support for a number of specific pressure groups who have been working long and hard over the years and who have achieved a great deal already, as well as a network of diocesan coordinators.

"There is a profound sea-change occurring within Anglicanism at the moment, and it is focussed not on the specific issues of women or sexuality. Rather, it is about the soul of Anglicanism itself. Many of us within Inclusive wish to work and pray for an Anglicanism that is open, inclusive and just. We do not believe that Anglicanism should be forced by power plays into a narrow sectarian framework.

"It is not a matter of biblical theology versus liberal freedom, but of a working and praying together to enrich our common life with a deeper understanding of God's love for his creation expressed in scripture, tradition, reason, and the experience of our common life in Christ. It is not going to be an easy task."

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Thursday, December 04, 2003


As usual the British national tabloids and some of the more gullible regional press in Britain have started their seasonal spreading of false or exaggerated rumours about evil secularist attempts to ban Christmas (or Easter, or whatever). Undoubtedly we live in a plural society where diplomacy to avoid offence often outweighs (rather inadvisedly, I suspect) the attempt actually to converse and communicate across communal and religious differences. Even so, there is no anti-religious plot. See this typical scare story relayed on Religious News Online -- to which I have replied, as you will see.

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In her tough-minded book Jesus and the Politics of Interpretation, feminist scholar Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza astutely critiques various mainstream methodological approaches to 'the historical Jesus', and the intellectual hubris of much reconstruction per se. She scores some palpable points, but remains hopeful that the Spirit of the living Christ can break through our appropriations and conceits -- not least through the historical argument that is always part of faith: a reminder that God's in-breaking of human discourse is continually beyond our manipulation.

Fiorenza rightly says that it is those on the margins, those who do not have vested interests in the institutions that manage the narrative, who can best help us to re-discover it. For that reason -- and in spite of a title that will make her baulk yet again -- I am very much looking forward to reading the new book by Geza Vermes, Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford. The Authentic Gospel Of Jesus (Allen Lane) was published a few weeks ago. In a 'Face to Faith' article in The Guardian last Saturday ('What's sex got to do with it?'), Vermes says:

"The gospel of Jesus is still largely unperceived among church people: the message which the master from Nazareth -- not Paul, John or two millennia of Christianity -- formulated in his own language and teaching for his mostly uneducated Galilean Jewish audience."

Also worth a look: Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's Jesus: Miriam's Child, Sophia's Prophet, Jack Nelson-Pellmayer's controversial Jesus Against Christianity and South African Albert Nolan's Jesus Before Christianity.

A useful non-technical introduction to the import of 'Jesus studies' debates is Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright's The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. I enjoy a good deal of Borg's work (though his panentheism is now strained -- see the recent pole of post-metaphysics ranging from Jean Luc Marion to David Tracy). Wright is conservative, but in a thoughtful and creative way.

Bart Ehrman offers a different kind of salutary warning about current modern and post-modern renderings of Jesus in his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, which I have just finished. He's right to point out how the apocalyptic dimension of the Gospels is underplayed (for obvious reasons) by modern interpreters. However, there are different theological possibilities arising from the text than those he deploys -- which tend towards 'unrecoverability'.

So the jury remains out. But the calling of the Christian community is to go on telling and retelling the Jesus story, in the conviction that the God who defies our categories and expectations continues will be met in and through it. Usually when we least expect or deserve it. Strangely enough, this is -- as Vermes the Jew points out -- something that the churches are notably bad at. often because they wish to control the text for their own ends. There is real fear in this. Too much of what now is in institutional Christianity is threatened by its founding figure (thankfully).

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Wednesday, December 03, 2003


The Centre for Christianity and Inter-Religious Dialogue at Heythrop College and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (through the Middle East Forum of the Churches' Commission on Mission) are jointly organizing a major symposium exploring the dilemmas facing Christian communities in the Middle East today.

‘Christianity in the Middle East: contemporary explorations in politics and theology’ takes place on Thursday 11 December from 10:30 to 18:30pm at Heythrop, which is part of the University of London. Places are limited and admission is by ticket only, price £20, available from the college in Kensington Square, London W8 5HQ; phone [+44 1] [0]20 7795 6600.

Speakers will include Anthony O’Mahony (Heythrop College, University of London), Sebastian Brock (Oriental Institute, University of Oxford), Peter Riddell, (London Bible College, Brunel University), John H.Watson, William Taylor (St John’s, Notting Hill), Harry Hagopian (Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee), Leon Menzies Racionzer, Revd Leonard Marsh.

The gathering will explore the political and theological dimensions of Christian presence in the Middle East today, surveying the challenges that face Christian communities in the region, including Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. Speakers will focus on issues of ecumenism, Christian-Muslim relations, Christian-Jewish relations, and Jerusalem.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003


An Advent reflection from Liz Walz, who founded Martha House, a Catholic Worker house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in 1998. Shortly before that, she worked at Philadelphia's Four Seasons luxury hotel. She was imprisoned in Towson, Maryland, for direct action against the US military use of depleted uranium. This excerpt (c) TheOtherSide magazine. Liz is now the coordinator of Word and World: A People's School.

"Most of us try to protect our loved ones from pain. Is this loving? Or are we robbing them of their education, of access to wisdom? How can we acquire the tools for bearing pain, for enduring suffering, if we run and hide? How can we know God's love if we don't allow ourselves to need it?

"We have become numb. It takes the deaths of not one, not a score, not a hundred, but hundreds of thousands, even millions, to awaken us from our stupor--because we haven't learned to grieve the death of the one, to feel the pain. Who will confront the oppressors and say, "No, for God's sake!" What meaning does the birth of Christ have if not hope for those most oppressed?

"Pain is not the end of the story, nor is suffering. But to witness the end of the story, we must have courage to look with clarity at our situation. As the powers develop and deploy ever more sophisticated weapons, as the empire continues to starve children, our silence reveals us as complicit in the crucifixion of our brothers and sisters. Despair overwhelms us, and we'll try almost anything to stop the pain. But nothing works until we have the courage to walk into the melee. We must step into the line of fire, and love the squalling child lying in the muck of the feed trough, announcing to those who would kill her, "No! This is a holy child of God."

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This from weblogger Alvarny Windrider:

My friend asked, "Do you want to be Jesus Christ?"

And I shook my head and thought to myself, "He had the easy way out, all He was required to do was to die. I am required to stay alive and live the consequences."

It is, of course, the superficiality of much Christian thinking -- not to mention twisted, forsensic doctrines of the meaning of this paradigmatic death (see, by contrast, J Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement) -- which have led to the popular caricature of "the man born to die." What crucified Jesus was not his avoidance of life or divine sadism, but deep-seated fear of unrestricted life (and the uncontrollable God of Life) on on the part of those bound to religious and political authorities. Similarly, risen life is not the magical resolution or reversal of death, but the capacity to live fully in the face of it -- which is the gift of God. But Alvarny is absolutely right: life is tough, and death-as-a-virtue is no answer. Nor is it what the Gospel proposes.

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Monday, December 01, 2003


Mike Yaconelli's death diminishes us all. I didn't know him, so I can't say anything personal. But this is from the Greenbelt festival blog:

"I can't remember everybody's name; I often can't remember where I am! You don't have to have my gifts or skills - and I don't have to have yours. The most seemingly unimportant thing can make all the difference in the world. A teeny weeny act of kindness can make all the difference... That's what spirituality is -- simple kindness, the significance of the insignificant. When's the last time you wrote a little note to [someone] telling them you think they're great? Really. That says more than all the religious and Bible talk, and will mean a great deal to them. It's an act of kindness any of us can do."

(From 'Jerk-Free Christianity' in Yak Yak Yak, Marshall Pickering, 1991)

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