Saturday, July 30, 2005


In perhaps all but their own eyes, the House of Bishops of the Church of England have got themselves into something of a pickle over the government's new Civil Partnerships legislation, which gives legal recognition to established lesbian and gay relationships for the first time.

Yesterday Giles Fraser had a good, typically robust piece about this (Love is the answer) in the Guardian newspaper. The response from Affirming Catholicism was also firm and helpful. Ekklesia gives the background.

Inter alia, Giles, who has contributed to the new book on the Cross which I've co-edited, says: "[T]he writers of the New Testament did offer ad hominem support for marriage, but didn't provide a comprehensive theology of marriage for the simple reason that most didn't believe the world was going to be around long enough for that to matter. Hence St Paul's advice: if you are married already, fine - but don't make plans if you are not."

He goes on: "It's precisely this sense that the world is about to end that gives the New Testament its moral genius. It concentrates the mind on what's important. And their answer wasn't the institution of marriage - it was love. Whether within a marriage or in a civil partnership, it surely matters not: love and all its commitments, that's what counts. And when present, that's what will make a civil partnership holy."

I'd want to say more than that about the importance of permanent, stable relationships; but Giles is right to point out that wielding the New Testament without regard to its eschatological concerns creates all kinds of confusions. Chris Rowland (from Oxford) has written a good piece situating the sexuality debate in terms of the contestations within early Christianity, too.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005


[From the news release]

In the wake of public concerns about the relationship between religion and terror, the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia is raising questions about how some church teaching about the death of Jesus could be linked to the approval of violence.

In a book called Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, due to be launched formally next month, a group of British, American and Australian writers suggest that some popular misunderstandings about the meaning of the Cross may reinforce conflict, division and suffering in today’s world.

The book’s editors, Ekklesia Co-Directors Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley, say that the collection of diverse essays shows that theology is not an obscure academic matter or an issue of concern only to a particular religious in-group.

“The recent bombings in London have shown that our ideas about the world and God can literally be a matter of life and death,” says Simon Barrow, who until recently worked for the official ecumenical body, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

He adds: “The problem of religiously sanctioned violence isn’t just a challenge to Muslims, but to all people of faith – and not least to Christians, given that the reality of a man put to death is central to their imagery and doctrine.”

One of the contributors to Consuming Passion is Baptist minister Steve Chalke, who has been in hot water with some evangelical Christians recently for questioning the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’. In its crude form, this says that God inflicted death and suffering on an innocent Jesus to ‘atone’ for the sins of human beings, because God requires a price paid in blood before being able to forgive.

Chalke and others have controversially likened some versions of this doctrine to “cosmic child abuse.” There have also been criticisms of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion Of The Christ for its devotional portrayal of Jesus’ torture and murder.

“The purpose of this book will be to help Christians and others to think more deeply about these issues,” says Simon Barrow. “Consuming Passion reflects a variety of responses to the killing of Jesus, not a ‘party line’. In different ways, it seeks to show that the Cross is about how God absorbs and transforms violence – rather than inflicting or legitimating it.”

Some of the book’s contributors identify with the Mennonite tradition of active Christian non-violence, while others come at the issues from Anglican, Baptist, Catholic and Presbyterian angles.

The book’s launch will follow on from the recent Evangelical Alliance (EA) debate stirred up by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s controversial best-seller, The Lost Message of Jesus.

This week the EA, which claims one million members across the UK, said that “penal substitution is still central for most British evangelicals' understanding of the cross”, but affirmed that they were still in dialogue with Chalke and Mann after a 200-strong seminar earlier in the month.

The orthodox Christian creeds require no fixed understanding of the meaning of Jesus death, but all churches see the cross and the resurrection as a life-changing moment in which evil and death are defeated by God’s love.

“Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters” is edited by Ekklesia directors Simon Barrow and Jonathan Bartley. It is published by Darton, Longman and Todd (DLT) and is priced £10.95.The book can be purchased here

Review Copies can be obtained from DLT: 020 8875 0155

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Monday, July 25, 2005


The worst fears about the Stockwell killing last week have materialised. People have asked why an innocent man ran when told not to by police. But they were, from his point of view, armed people in civilian clothes. It seems he panicked, with tragic consequences. (I used to live in nearby Brixton, where the man came from, incidentally). This from Ekklesia on 24 July 2005:

"The Brazilian government and religious leaders have expressed “shock” and “horror” at the news that the man shot by armed undercover police at Stockwell underground station yesterday was an innocent citizen originally from Brazil, and had no connection with the recent wave of terrorist bombings in London.

"Yesterday faith and civic groups spoke of deep concern at events on Friday, when a man, now named as Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, from Brixton, was pinned down by three operatives by the doors of a tube train and shot in the head five times. They are now calling for an enquiry and a review of tactics.

"... Religious leaders in south London were in conversation last night about how to allay fears in the local community, especially among Muslims. There is concern that the killing will undermine trust in the police." [more]

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Thursday, July 21, 2005


I have been up in London for the past week, and so have been at least a partial witness to the unfolding events there. Yesterday I was in the vicinity of Kennington, not that far away from the Oval bomb -- which, like the others, failed, beyond the detonator going off. Today I travelled back to the West Country via Paddington. I was struck by how relatively few people there were on the underground. It is not that people are being cowed, more that they are making alternative choices about how to continue their lives.

As it becomes clear that the terrible killings and maimings of 7 July 2005 are part of a campaign (at least in intention), the clamour for security and "decisive action" will increase. Earlier today that included the shooting dead of a man at Stockwell tube station by three armed operatives. The most publicized eyewitness said on BBC News 24 that the man concerned was brandishing no weapon, had no obvious package on him, and was killed with five pistol shots to the head while being held down on the floor.

At present the authorities have not identified the victim or made any explanatory statement, except to say that the personnel involved (whose auspices remain unidentified) were following "operational procedures". However, the nature of these is also secret.

Obviously the police or military may well produce good reasons for their action: ones which those of us who advocate nonviolence will be able to respect, even if we do not agree. In the meantime, human rights and faith groups are justified in respectfully asking why it was not possible, within the parameters adopted, to disable this person with a shot in the leg or thigh. As one passer-by commented, it sounded too much like a summary execution for comfort.

Hopefully answers will be forthcoming in due course. It is comparatively easy to criticize security operatives who, we must remember, risk life and limb to protect others in situations like this. But we should not allow terror attacks to stop us asking necessary questions of the authorities and holding them to account. It is vital not to become what we contend.

In the meantime, the mayor of London. Ken Livingstone, is urging faith communities to identify the use of violence against innocents as immoral and to cooperate with the investigating authorities. As Methodist broadcaster Colin Morris has rightly pointed out, there is a struggle between a theology of life and a theology of death involved in these events.

Last week the UK Christian think-tank Ekklesia said that the link between terror and religion could not merely be pushed aside, and that although people who planted bombs were a small and unrepresentative minority, it was up to the different faith communities to confront their texts, traditions and histories when they appeared to sanction violence.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2005


There was a typically fine piece by the writer and academic Karen Armstrong in The Guardian newspaper yesterday, looking at the complexities of Islam and the religious ideology behind what, as she points out, we might more accurately describe as 'Qutr terrorism' -- rather than attaching easly labels like 'Muslim' to it. This is not to underestimate the problem, but to name it rightly. Armstrong says:

"Western people should learn more about such thinkers as [the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid] Qutb [who inspired Bin Laden], and become aware of the many dramatically different shades of opinion in the Muslim world. There are too many lazy, unexamined assumptions about Islam, which tends to be regarded as an amorphous, monolithic entity. Remarks such as 'They hate our freedom' may give some a righteous glow, but they are not useful, because they are rarely accompanied by a rigorous analysis of who exactly 'they' are.

"The story of Qutb is also instructive as a reminder that militant religiosity is often the product of social, economic and political factors. Qutb was imprisoned for 15 years in one of Nasser's vile concentration camps, where he and thousands of other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were subjected to physical and mental torture. He entered the camp as a moderate, but the prison made him a fundamentalist. Modern secularism, as he had experienced it under Nasser, seemed a great evil and a lethal assault on faith.

"Precise intelligence is essential in any conflict. It is important to know who our enemies are, but equally crucial to know who they are not. It is even more vital to avoid turning potential friends into foes. By making the disciplined effort to name our enemies correctly, we will learn more about them, and come one step nearer, perhaps, to solving the seemingly intractable and increasingly perilous problems of our divided world."

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St Ethelburga's, a centre for peace and reconciliation in central London, is hosting an important inter-faith conversation this evening (from 6pm, UK time) about how to respond to last Thursday's London bombings. The full story is here on Ekklesia. The picture below is from a previous event.

What they will engage in is far from cheap talk about reconcilition in the wake of atrocity: the church itself was the victim of bombing back in 1993, when 52 people were injured (one fatally) in a blast triggered by dissident Irish Republicans intent on de-railing the peace process there. What came out of that tragedy, due to the hard work and prayers of a whole range of people, was an initiative which is rightly considered a beacon of hope.

We need, I believe, to see active peacebuilding as an act of resistance in a culture of war and terror epitomised not just by those who use indiscriminate attacks, but by a wider politics of revenge and redemptive violence which reinforces such tactics. At the same time, it is important not to be sentimental about the motives and activities of jihadists and self-styled holy warriors from a variety of religious traditions.

Incidentally, responses to Beyond the politics of fear have been predominantly positive in the UK, but often angry from the US. That marks out a gulf in perception which certainly needs to be addressed. The CrossWalk news site has done this round-up of Christian responses to events in London from both sides of the Atlantic.

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Monday, July 11, 2005


Another historic day for the Church of England - the General Synod, meeting at York, has voted to begin the process of removing the legal barriers to women in the episcopate. Excellent news, albeit of the kind that highlights the continuing absurdity of the C od E's establishment under the English crown. The picture below (courtesy of WATCH) is of eleven women bishops from the USA, Canada and New Zealand who attended the 1998 Lambeth conference. Now there are thirteen in ECUSA alone, including the Rt Rev Bavi Edna Rivera who became the US Episcopal Church's first Hispanic female bishop in May 2004, overseeing more than 102 congregations and 33,000 members in Western Washington.

Early this evening I watched a curiously interesting Channel 4 documentary on the subject of women bishops made by Cristina Odone. A former editor of the Catholic Herald and former deputy editor of the New Statesman, Odone describes herself as both a feminist and traditionalist Catholic. Some months ago, when she started out making this show, she opposed women bishops and other changes within the Church-- on the basis that she saw faith as a bastion of consistency in a fitful world. Gradually her opinion was swayed away from the callous certainties of Ann Widdicombe and Fr Geoffrey Kirk, towards the idea that the Gospel might be about transformation: a view compellingly modelled by the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkins.

There were two pivotal moments in Odone's reluctant conversion. One was the discovery, mediated by a patient biblical scholar at the University of Birmingham, that the Gospel traditions enshrine differences among the early Christians, not cast-iron conclusions about all matters of order and morality. She was especially shocked to discover a female apostle, Junia, hidden within the text of the New Testament. The other revelation was the passion and commitment of a group of Catholic women in northern England, studying the ordination they are currently denied.

Cristina Odone's fear of change in the Church (both Anglican and Catholic) was genuine, moving and salutary. But I confess to amazement that a well-educated person who has spent 45 years in the cradle of Christianity should have been wholly ignorant of the fruits of biblical scholarship, unaware of the variety within the tradition that upholds her, and content to believe that the essence of spirituality is fixity. Not surprisingly, neither the Holy Spirit nor the 14 provinces of the Anglican communion that already countenance women bishops got a look in!

But really, I should get out more...

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Over the weekend I drafted Beyond the politics of fear, a short response from Ekklesia to the terrible London bombings last week. Cheap talk is easy in the wake of tragedy. I hope and pray that this is of a different character. The news story and press release associated with the document are here.

I am working on a reflective piece that looks in more detail about the dynamics of terror and how to work against it. It seems to me that honest self-examination is a crucial component of what those who believe "the truth will set you free" (John 8.34) should be engaging in right now, especially in relation to the religious roots of war and terror.

The Muslim scholar Mona Siddiqui gave the BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day on the subject of the bomb attacks this morning. She is Senior Lecturer in Arabic and Director of Centre for the Study of Islam at the University of Glasgow, and has made very significant contributions in the area of women's studies, legal studies, and much more.

Bravely, Dr Siddiqui said that it was a platitude merely to announce that Islam and other major religions abhor indiscriminate violence against innocents. The roots of violence within our traditions go much deeper than that, she implied. (You can listen online to the 3 minute broadcast now, but at the time of writing the full script has not yet appeared.)

Naturally I agree with this. Elswhere I have written from a Christian perspective about the Beslan tragedy, the misuse of biblical texts for oppressive and violent political ends, and also the difficult relationship between mission and terror post 9/11.

Where I am less clear about Siddiqui's position is when she says that "truthful commitment to our faith should not mean compromising truthful commitment to our country." I'm simply not sure what that means. Presumably it cannot entail loyalty to a state taking precedence over loyalty to God?

What I would infer is that she is talking about the indivisibility of truthfulness, which is something that both states and religions have betrayed, historically speaking.

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Sunday, July 10, 2005


Many thanks to James Church for pointing out that my weblink to the work of the late Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder was out of date. I have just corrected it. I haven't checked all the links, but there is also a Wikepedia entry here, and a tribute from Stanley Hauerwas published originally in First Things.

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Friday, July 08, 2005


When the bomb blasts rocked London yesterday I was on holiday with my wife, Carla, in Exemouth. It was a strangely disconnected experience to learn of the unfolding tragedy, which looks to have claimed more than 50 lives and left over 700 injured. I had returned from London myself on Monday, having completed nine years work there for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. I am now Co-Director of Ekklesia, and in that capacity I find myself back covering events as a journalist and theological commentator.

Of course the first response is to be concerned for loved ones and family. The picture on the left is the scene yesterday in Tavistock Square, a stone’s throw away from our friends associated with the Crown Court Church of Scotland. They were unharmed, but no-one is left unaffected.

It is also natural to want to ‘do something’ and to wish to feel some sense of positive connection in the face of horror. For a media monkey that means trailing the story, among other things. On Ekklesia we have been trying to highlight some of the less publicised aspects of the unfolding events – including, right now, the appalling attacks and insults faced by our Muslim sisters and brothers.

This is always a difficult issue to know how to cover. Quite understandably, the authorities want to play down the backlash, for fear that publicity will encourage thuggish zealots even more. The danger then is that Britain does not see itself accurately in the mirror. The country's self-understanding is still that of ‘a tolerant society’. There is some truth to that. But there is also a much darker side. Racism, xenophobia and anger towards Muslims, refugees, migrants and asylum seekers is neither new nor exceptional. It has to be acknowledged and faced.

Similarly, though the media focus on the London bombs is both reasonable and expectable, it is hard not to notice that the 200 deaths in Afghanistan last week were barely reported by comparison, and that the routine daily fatalities in Iraq (often outnumbering those in what is being described as ‘a major international incident’) have become mere numbing statistics for many reporters. No wonder disaffected Muslims feel that their lives are valued so much less than those of Westerners, not least by those who control the headlines.

Such realities are, of course, no excuse whatsoever for atrocities such as those in London. But though we may be right to see these bombings as a pathological assault on good faith of whatever kind, religious or otherwise, we would be foolish to perceive terrorist actions as being beyond any kind of rationality – even though it may be a form of reason we abhor in its intentions and actions. If we write off what we loathe as simply mad, we may feel comforted in our own sanity. But our own response will thereby be deficient in reason iteslf, and almost certainly humanity too. To love our enemies, as Jesus advocated, is to oppose them without becoming them.

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Sunday, July 03, 2005


This from Rowan Williams' recent centenary sermon for the Anglican Consultative Council. (The picture, of Williams but unrelated, is actually from yesterday's 100 year celebrations for the Diocese of Southwark, where I worked from 1991-96 as adviser in adult education and training. Happy memories, mostly. I commemorated the end of the Lay Training Team there in a book called Expanding Horizons: Learning to Be the Church in the World (1995). Anyway, back to Rowan and his fine address:

"The relation between Jews and Gentiles in the Acts [of the Apostles] is not simply that of one racial group to another. As the story is presented to us, it’s a story about a great crisis over what faith really is, and what salvation really is. The strict believers who challenge Paul and Barnabas and have no small dissension and debate with them – one of Luke’s wonderfully tactful phrases – those strict believers are in effect saying it is possible to know that you are in the favour of God. Be circumcised, keep the law, and when you are alone in the silence of your room, you will know where to turn to be sure; you will know what your record is. You will know that you have the signs that make you acceptable to God. To which Paul and Barnabas, and the Church ever since have replied, ‘There is no sign by which you can tell in and of yourself that you are acceptable to God. There is nothing about you that guarantees love, salvation, healing, and peace. But there is everything about God in Jesus Christ that assures you, and so if you want to know where your certainty lies, look to God, not to yourself.’ Don’t tick off the conditions that might possible make God love you, scoring highly, perhaps, and thinking, ‘So God must love me after all.’ Begin rather by looking into the face of the love of God in Jesus Christ, and then, as it were, out of your bewilderment and your speechlessness at that love, thinking, ‘And yes, I am loved.’ Not just one episode, you see, in the history of the Church, but almost another Pentecost."

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Saturday, July 02, 2005


The World Development Movement in Scotland has been running a live all-day account, with pictures and reports, of the G8 protests in Edinburgh today. Among those speaking was Noreena Hertz, from the Judge Institute at the University of Cambridge, who has shifted radically from a neoliberal worldview since her days as a privatization consultant in Moscow.

This picture is from Christian Aid's fine Pressureworks initiative, and was taken at 16.45 this afternoon.

The World Development Movement was established out of an alliance of church and world poverty action groups in 1970 to highlight the need for justice in economic relations between the rich North and the global South. Both Oxfam and Christian Aid helped set it up. WDM seeks to influence government policy on a range of international development issues, and to encourage grassroots action.

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Extraordinarily, there are still Christians who quote Jesus' dictum that "the poor will remain with you" (usually translated as "the poor you will always have with you") as a rationale for inaction or even hostility to initiatives like Make Poverty History.

The context of this statement in St Matthew is, of course, Jesus' affirmation of the action of one particular marginalised woman who was being mocked by the religious authorities -- while they, at the same time, were side-stepping their own obligations to those in need.

As his hearers would have understood, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomic texts which posit the continued persistence of poverty in the land as the fruit of the refusal of justice, and hold out a very different kind of hope for those who will listen and act. There was a good piece on this by Bryant Myers on SojoNet recently.

"There should be no poor among you," states the Jewish law in Deuteronomy 15.4. The continuing blemish of poverty in an an age of affluence is the largest moral judgement against us.

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The rallies and concerts throughout the world today and tomorrow are unprecedented, both in their scale and in the breadth of their demands for action on unpayable debt, unfair trade and inadequate aid for the global poor. Over 350,000 people are marching in Britain alone as I write.

It is encouraging that Christian churches and other faith communities have played a major role in this initiative, alongside development organisations, trade unions and other civil society groups. Shifting the agenda of the G8 will be extraordinarily difficult, but no-one should minimise the import of people power on a worldwide scale.

Nor should the scale of opposition be underestimated. Ex-Tory MP Matthew Parris has a smug article in today's Times newspaper, ridiculing the Live 8 initiative and blaming Africa's plight on its own corrupt governance. This is a well-worn theme by those who wish to prevent change and thwart global justice. That many of the regimes Parris and his allies rightly condemn have been sanctioned by Western governments eludes his attention, along with the evidence that internal elites are strengthened by the inequities of the global system (and by the corruption in 'developed' societies that fuels it, too).

It is by strengthening the capacity of the poor to act economically, politically and culturally that change can come. But let's not forget that social transformation involves spiritual reformation, too -- love, hope, integrity, commitment and solidarity is what gives people the strength to act in the face of enormous odds.

This from Eberhard Arnold in 1928: "We need to reach the millions who live in cities, the hundreds of thousands in industrial centres, the tens of thousands in medium-sized towns, the thousands in small towns, and the hundreds in villages -- all these at once. Like a volcanic eruption, a spiritual revolution needs to spread through the country, to spur people to crucial decisions. People have to recognize the futility of splitting life up into politics, economics, the humanities, and religion. We must be awakened to a life in which all of these things are completely integrated."

Here (and in today's rallies) we have a vision of a rather different kind of globalisation.

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