Monday, December 25, 2006


Nativity mural at Batahola Norte Catholic Church in Managua, Nicaragua - a centre of liberating theology in a region of the world still blighted by poverty and injustice.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006


Part of the annual squabble about the extent to which a Christian festival should be marked in the public life of a plural nation like Britain has been a rather thin running commentary on the biblical stories concerning the birth of Christ. What is striking about the response of both ardent secularists and religious fundamentalists is that they read texts in such a narrow, unimaginative way. One side pronounces with great solemnity its non-acceptance of these ‘made up stories’, while the other insists that every detail is some forensic description of an ancient event. The rest of us, I guess, can only wonder at the naiveté of treating evocative narratives in such a stultifying way.

The Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus act as a powerful reminder that in this wonderful and perilously fragile world we have been gifted, you can’t have glory without muck – and vice versa. The search for unalloyed purity is as dangerous as the abandonment of a vision which elevates the mundane. The nativity is also, about a radical reordering of the way we perceive the world and shape our relationship with God. The eisegetical wisdom of the Magi, based reading the interests of the powerful back into the heavens, is supplanted by an event which claims that the essence of divine favour is to be found, instead, in honouring the vulnerability of flesh. Their gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, representing imperial splendour, religious rule and suasion over death – prove instructively redundant. Jesus grows up to refuse them all, and instead to initiate a gift economy based on Beatitude sharing rather than the blandishments of earthly power. This is the deep truth which those who squabble over their control of ‘the facts’ are in danger of missing altogether. [Picture: A scene from the log-running ‘Black nativity’, Boston, USA]

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Saturday, December 23, 2006


New UK opinion poll shows continuing collapse of 'Christendom', Ekklesia. The latest ICM opinion poll confirms the continuing drift away from organised religion in Britain, and the tendency to regard both it and religiosity in its various form (as distinct from 'spirituality') as problematic or worse. Of course there are many sociological and psychological complexities bound up in this. But in the season of Christ's nativity the call towards a dying-to-self in our inherited institutions, and the emergence of a global hope in radically unexpected, vulnerable form, indicates precisely why this poll (and the mounting evidence to confirm it) should not be received negatively, or with defensiveness. Christendom is in probably terminal decay. But the faith of Jesus is of a different order and scale. The full Guardian report is here. The paper’s leader response is here. Also on Ekklesia: Redeeming Religion in the Public Square - beginning to chart a new approach to faith, politics and civil society; Faith and Politics After Christendom - Jonathan Bartley's overview of how and why the church-state settlement is unravelling, and the wayforward for transformative Christianity.

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Friday, December 22, 2006


Amazon inform me that people who have expressed interest in The God Who May Be: The Hermeneutics of Religion (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion) by Richard Kearney - a book I have found very stimulating - have also ordered Faith, Reason and Compassion: A Philosophy of the Christian Faith by James A. Gilman. For once I'm inclined to take their advice. (Last time they told me that people who read Rowan Williams enjoyed watching Shrek. Hmnnn...). A few years ago, Gilman wrote a very good book called Fidelity of Heart: An Ethic of Christian Virtue, which I consumed as part of a growing interest in the whole 'virtue ethics' discussion. It was more than enough to convince me to buy his latest, which was published last week, along with David J. Bartholemew's Uncertain Belief: Is It Rational To Be A Christian. (The answer is 'yes', but a good deal of unhealthy certainty-mongering masquerading as fidelity is rightly dispatched on the way.) The synopsis for Faith, Reason and Compassion: A Philosophy of the Christian Faith: "What is the relationship between faith and reason? How should faith and reason situate themselves in relation to each other? These are the chief questions that James Gilman seeks to address in this new title. An innovative new book in philosophy of religion, it treats the problems typical of the discipline in an untypical way, with a methodology that presupposes a particular religious tradition, in this case Christianity, and that re-enfranchises emotions (e.g., compassion) as crucial to shaping solutions to philosophical problems."

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“To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed [person] is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of knowledge [s/he] will lose sight of what is essential. But on the other hand, knowledge of an apparently trivial detail quite often makes it possible to see into the depth of life. And so the wise [person] will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge about events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge."
~ Dietrich Bonoeffer.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

[11.33 GMT] Festive foolishness. Simon Barrow Dec 21 06, 11:49am: The Guardian: Comment-Is-Free. August has always been journalism's 'silly season' but this year December has put in a bid for the daftest media month. Here's the coda, unpacking more of the theological issues (or see the post immediately below).

I should add that Sunny Hundal from the highly worthwhile Pickled Politics (who is up for blogger of the year on C-I-F) has kindly given a mention to FaithInSociety in his latest, which is well worth reading: Religion is not the problem, people are. And thanks to Maggi Dawn, too, while I'm being seasonally warm.

More on the kind of world called into being by the nativity of Christ. Back in 2004, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan (whose energy and general trajectory I like very much, though I go further than he is prepared to on a number of issues - as I shall elaborate below) co-authored with Jonathan L. Reed the book In Search of Paul: How Jesus's Apostle Opposed Rome's Empire with God's Kingdom. BeliefNet's Deborah Caldwell interviewed him about this at the time, specifically in relation to the meaning of the nativity story. Here's an excerpt, where he describes what was going on in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus' birth (the first couple of sentences are alarmingly contemporary in geopolitical terms) and then situates this in relation to the Gospel's alternative.

At the time, the prevailing belief was that in order to achieve peaceful civilization, you first secured victory. You capture a country, put it back on its feet, you build the economy, you build the roads, you build the whole infrastructure. As long as it doesn't rebel and it pays its taxes, you support it. So for example, if there's a major earthquake at Ephesus - there were earthquakes along that fault line all the time - you send a letter saying, "Dear Caesar, Saviour of the World, We Need Help." And if you're Caesar, you've got to furnish it. This is a very reciprocal game. So the opening word of Virgil's Aenead, which is the New Testament of Roman Imperial Theology, is "Arma (arms, weapons)." Off Actium, which is where this battle on the 2 September 31 B.C.E. took place, there's a huge inscription saying, "Having established victory in this place, I secured peace on land and sea," and it's signed, as it were, "Caesar, Son of God."

So the Romans would not ask if there's another way. But Paul is saying that there is another alternative. First, you establish justice, then you live in peace. It's an alternative programme based on the claim that God is just, that God is not violent, that God was revealed in Jesus, who was not violent. And there is an alternative lifestyle to this programme. It's taught and practiced by small groups from the bottom up, not from the top down like Roman Imperial Theology. Paul's programme advocates and announces a new theory of global justice.

And that's what Jesus also taught. Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God stands against Empire Rule. And not because Romans are particularly cruel, nasty, and brutish, but because they represent normal civilization. Jesus believes in a just God who will stand against that civilization. "Kingdom of God" is Jesus' language: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth. Paul puts it in different language - he talks about the lordship of Christ, which speaks better to pagan Greeks. It's different language, but the point is that both ideas establish a counter to what was then considered "normal" civilization.

This quite succinctly explains why what we now call Christmas is about regime change at a very fundamental level, and why it calls forth a Beatitude communiy. To name Jesus "Son of God" and "Lord" was to challenge Caesar's mandate, just as to name him "King of the Jews" (which happens at his birth and mockingly at his death) is to challenge both the sovereignty of Herod - who had been given that title - and the violent narratives of messiahship which formed a decisive part of the inherited expectation. The latter inscription has also come back to haunt Christendom for its crimes against the Jews.

Where Crossan's account is weak is in his marginalisation of incarnation and resurrection, which he pretty much disposes of as variants of primitive redeemer myths. This seriously (fatally) weakens the resources made available in the Gospel. As I've indicated elsewhere, to believe that God-is-in-Christ reconciling the world is to look without flinching at the unreserved humanity of Jesus and to come to see and experience it as the unlimited commitment of God to the flesh. This is how God comes through to us, rather than in some totalising ideology or via metaphysical speculation. It is central rather than incidental to the message.

The problem for modern thinkers about the Word-made-flesh goes roughly as follows: we assume we know what a human being is (with some justification) and we assume that we know what God is (with no justification at all, actually), and we therefore think we know that 'what flesh is' and 'what divinity is' must be two different orders of things lacking any intrinsic compatibility - like a circle and a square, to cite John Hick's analogy in The Metaphor of God Incarnate. That tends to propel us in two directions: either positing a God who improbably squares circles to benefit 'religious people' (while apparently ignoring more pressing worldly dilemmas for everybody else), or the assignation of Christ to the role of an encouraging but ultimately confounded anti-hero. But the premise of the choice is faulty. We do not know what God is in some essential or specifiable way. God remains utter mystery ("I shall be what I shall be"), and we therefore have no means of stepping outside the circle of investigation to adjudicate the relation of divinity and humanity - as a certain kind of 'liberal' and a certain kind of 'conservative' interpreter wish us to do.

Actually, the fabric of the Christian claim about Jesus' filial relation to God works in the opposite direction to the usual metaphysical way of reasoning. Instead, it says something like this: "Everything you think you know about God is based on the assumption that God is like an eternal Emperor. Actually God is like this nobody, born into obscurity and murdered by an alliance of religious and political expediency. So don't look for gods in temples, in arcane theories, in esoteric practices, or via barrier-forming rules twisted towards the interests of clerical elites. Meet the God-beyond-your-imagining in the vulnerability of the flesh; risk personal and social transformation; join yourself to the continuance of Jesus' body in the world. Then you will begin to discover that what appears to be most conditioned and limited about earthly life actually shows us something unconditioned, unmanipulatable, utterly wonderful - life as gift, which is the energy of God in the world."

This, in turn, is the message embodied in the resurrection narrative - which is not some zombie ideology, not a piece of magic with bones, but a way of saying that the God who is found unconditionally in the material (and, as Nicholas Lash adds in unpacking the surprising conclusion of orthodox Christianity, nowhere else) is in no way constrained by that, as we are, but goes on giving life in, though and beyond the flesh. This is how I tried to put it (badly, of course) in a sermon I gave in 2001:

[W]hen Christians announce, with Paul, that "God raised Jesus", what we are claiming is not that a part of Jesus survived death or that his atoms were reassembled in some magical way, but rather that the very power, presence and personality of the earthly Jesus was assumed and transformed within the endless creativity of the transcendent God – and then made available as a living reality to those who were already being transformed by him. In other words, the resurrection speaks of a new creation, a new order of being [beyond forensic description] which incorporates all that we have seen and discovered of love in this world, but much more beside. It is continuous with the best of what we have seen so far, but it is discontinuous in the sense that it is the work not of us, but of a God who goes on loving and creating beyond the death which we inevitably face. If we have been touched by God’s love, we will begin to know that it has no boundaries. It is either the most important thing in the universe, or it is nothing. As Paul says, with startling honesty: "If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins" – that is, to put it another way, you are still captive to that which imitates and embodies death rather than life.

So Crossan is surely spot-on in positing Jesus' birth as an unwelcome irruption of peace in a world reassuringly at war, and in situating the Gospel in stark opposition to Empire rule in all its guises. But for this to find shape and meaning (other than as yet another piece of human hubris) we also need Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, just over a year before his execution: “It is not from avoiding death but from the resurrection of Christ that a new, purifying breeze can blow into the present world …. If even a few people were really to believe this, much would change. To live from the perspective of the resurrection: this is Easter.” (Tegel Prison, March 1944). It is also, in an odd, way, Christmas - where killable flesh proves capable of introducing us to uncontrollable life-giving. Bonhoeffer cotinues on 30 April 1944, in words I have often found myself quoting: "The belief in resurrection is not the 'solution' to the problem of death. The 'beyond' of God is not the 'beyond' of our cognitive capacity. Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God's transcendence. God is 'beyond' our lives. The church is found not where human capacity fails, at the limits, but rather in the middle of the village." Or nowhere worth being at all. That’s the challenge of the Christ-child to the organizations that purport to speak for him.

[After penning this, I decided to adapt it slightly as my final Ekklesia column before Christmas - Giving birth to a new world Dec 21, 2006. The other columns are listed here]

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

[20.51 GMT] Americans not sure where Bethlehem is, survey shows (Ekklesia / Independent Catholic News / Open Bethlehem Project)

Many thanks to Daniel Liechty for this pearl, in the midst of an intra-Mennonite conversation about the disciplines of non-exclusion and spiritual transformation. It very well illustrates the meaning of a polity which holds a centre through the active example of a living community, rather than policing the boundaries with fences and brickbats:

It is said that a soldier came to George Fox and asked if he, a soldier, could also be a Quaker. Fox said: "Of course, if the Spirit so moves you." To which the soldier replied, "Is it not forbidden that I carry the sword?" To which Fox replied, "Come, be among us, and carry your sword as long as you will to do so!"

What's also noticeable in this story is how natural it is for Fox to conceive of the community created by Christ as a zone free of threat and combat. That this is quite alien to many of our modern churches, which prefer to copy the 'realism' of the world's armed security, indicates just how strange the company of Jesus is for those of us who exalt his name - but secretly fear his company.

[Dan has pointed out to me that this is a reconstruction of what Fox said from his memory, so it would be worth checking the sources]

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Amidst the tinsel and cheer elsewhere, stark reality faces Bethlehem this Christmas. The city is contending with economic stranglehold, a dispirited and diminishing population, and social disintegration as a result of an effective Israeli blockade. The beleagured Christian minority has been particularly badly hit. For some time civic, Christian and Muslim leaders have been pushing the international Open Bethlehem campaign - seeking to revive the city through tourism, and to change its socio-political situation through external pressure.

Today a group of senior English church leaders embark upon a pilgrimage there: one that they hope will draw attention to the plight of the city, and root our celebrations of the birth of Christ in the reality of a continuingly broken world. The Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams; Primate of the Armenian Church of Great Britain Bishop Nathan Hovhannisian, and the Free Churches Moderator, the Rev David Coffey are undertaking the visit - which will be documented on a weblog.

Related information: Local churches urged to support Advent pilgrimage to Bethlehem; UK visit to Bethlehem welcomed by local church and civic leaders; Archbishop of Canterbury honours Holocaust survivor and educator; Christmas peace messages taken to Bethlehem; Archbishop urges Christians to visit Bethlehem; Bethlehem peacebuilding school threatened with closure; Bethlehem visitor drive thwarted by road blocks; US and Palestinian children break Holy City barriers. [Picture: Church of the Nativity]

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006


The first of a series of reflections on surprising aspects of the Christmas story. This one is from Richard Rohr OFM, looking at the texts in Luke.

"The question for us is always “how can we turn information into transformation?” How can we use the sacred texts to lead people into new places with God, with life, with themselves? This is surely true with our Lucan texts on the birth of Jesus. They have largely been sentimentalized in Christmas card fashion. We no doubt enjoy such 'Christmas cards', yet they don’t really change our lives in any substantive way ...

"An untransformed mind writing a story of God would surely have the Christ born in a palace, among nobility or even royalty. The birth would be spectacular, not sordid. It would demand respect instead of inviting confusion. Only a transformed mind would write such a text as this, and only transformed (or eccentric) people would allow the text into the sacred canon." [Full text as *.PDF file download here]

Rohr's book of daily biblical reflections Radical Grace, is well worth reading. It's also the name of the journal of the Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded and fronts.

[Picture: a real manger, rather than a Christmas card one. Not that I have anything against Christmas cards. Commercialism turns true gold into tradable plastic, but miserablism is worse because it is mean-spirited]

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In a recent article about 'the Christmas wars', Giles Fraser observed: "The distinction between Christianity and Christendom is not widely understood." He's right. Whether we are Christians or not, our whole way of thinking about God, the church, theology and the subversive narrative of Jesus is still imprisoned in the functionalist assumption that Christianity is, or needs to be, an essentially 'established', 'recognised', 'buttressed' or 'majority' faith. Privileged in the social, cultural, political and economic order, in other words. It is this that produces the "either it must be imposed or it must be deleted" approach to religion in public life beloved of putative dogmatists on all sides.

But the alternative, post-Christendom possibility is catching on, not least because of dramatic changes in church and society. Around as a public argument at least since the time of Kierkegaard, the critique of Christendom as the dominant ideology of faith is (very) slowly starting to edge into contemporary conversation and commentary. It is hinted at in Frank Furedi's penetrating piece Do they know it's Christmas?, and it was also effectively recognised by Brian Walden (coming from a rather different place on the political spectrum) in his weekend BBC Radio 4 A Point of View broadcast - although he used the less helpful - because confusing - term post-Christian, which precisely assumes that Christianity depends upon power and status.

Now here's former Iona Community leader Ron Ferguson, writing in the Scottish newspaper The Herald, and hitting the nail firmly on the head: “The reality is that Britain is no longer a Christian country – the term is a piece of fantasy anyway – and fewer and fewer people go to church. What we are witnessing in western Europe is the end of Christendom – the cultural, if not constitutional, alliance between church and state. I've yet to be convinced that this particular demise is something that should be mourned.”

For it is surely the divinely disruptive and levelling spirit of Iona's wild goose, not empires and temples, which is needed to sustain the radical message of the community of Jesus in the 21st century? This is what it means to pay homage to the Prince of Peace, rather than principalities and potentates. "Not my might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Sovereign One." It's a difficult vocation to live when the logic of compulsion is all around us - in both its 'religious' and its 'secular' guises (none of which are nearly so religious, or secular, as they like to claim).

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Monday, December 18, 2006


A rabbi once asked his disciples how one decided at what hour the night was over and the day had begun.
‘It is perhaps when, from a distance, one can recognise the difference between a cow and a pig?’ asked one of the disciples.
‘No,’ came the answer.
‘It is perhaps when, from a distance, one can recognise the difference between a black and a white dog?’
‘No,’ the rabbi replied.
‘But how can one decide?’ asked one impatient disciple.
The rabbi responded: ‘It is when one looks into another person’s face and one can see one’s brother or sister. Until then, the night is still with us and it is still dark.’

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Sunday, December 17, 2006

[15.51 GMT] An Advent thought (from a presentation in Bath & Wells Diocese on Consuming Passion): "Sanctity is the giving of what is God in and through what is not-God. Holiness is not life lived in the absence of the world or in rejection of worldly things; it is the world lived in the presence of God, that is as pure gift."
[14.19 GMT] Faith leaders' appeal to US government over Israel-Palestine conflict - a joint bipartisan statement by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders issued this weekend.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


In an earlier post I was thinking about how to respond in some thoughtful but not-too-technical manner to basic questions such as "what is Christian faith?" and "What does it mean to be a Christian?” I had a go a the first one. Here is my stab at the second, which - in the way that I view things - needs to incorporate the shape of the first in a coherent way. What I've attempted is a personal answer which tries to show some awareness of the formal categories involved. For some it will be too sinewy, for others too clinical. But we have to go on risking inadequacy in the way that we live and the way we speak. That's what opening ourselves to God means.

A Christian is someone who (through neighbourly commitment, the ritual recollection of narrative hope, deep scriptural reasoning, self-dispossessing prayer and continuous rational exploration-in-community) looks without flinching at the unreserved humanity of Jesus and recognises in it the unlimited commitment of God to that which is not-God. The God who is available in vulnerable, tortured, transformed flesh remains, however, utter creative mystery which cannot, in principle, be reduced to a metaphysical proposition or an epistemological limit. This mystery of God that enables us to reconceive the world and each other as pure gift is at the same time experienced, though never captured, in attention to the connected distance between things (the otherness) that we call love. It is this mutual coinhering of the unknowable God, disclosed by unrestricted humanity and expressed through uncontainable inter-subjectivity, which gets called Trinity in the odd grammar by which Christianity tries to make sense of the divine mystery and its impact on us.

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"Imagination is always the fabric of social life and the dynamic of history. The influence of real needs and compulsions, of real interests and materials, is indirect because the crowd is never conscious of them. " ...

"Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link."

"A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves."

Reflections from Simone Weil.

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Friday, December 15, 2006


Ooh, this one's dangerous. I know my blog is supposed to be terribly serious, waxing about the waning of the world, gibbering about God - that sort of thing. But how could anyone resist such a charming invitation as this? - especially when it's from Maggi Dawn, who's in the midst of writing a book right now. Not that I'm implying blogospheric procrastination or anything like that. (Though that's what would be going on if it was me.) Anyway, here are my Five Things You Probably Didn't Know About Me, a questionable idea inspired by (the) Roger von Oech. They're not as deep as Ruth Gledhill's. But then the task wasn't five useful things, was it, he asks in feeble self defence?

1. When I was two I was monstered on a park bench by three German Shepherds (of the canine variety). I don’t recall my grandmother being too effective at shooing them away. Life has turned out pretty well for me since then. Considering.

2. In 1969 I abandoned Manchester United and started supporting Dumbarton, who now languish in the Third Division of the Scottish Football League. It’s a long story involving dubious ancestry and a knack for lost causes. But we’ve just drawn Celtic away in the next round of the Scottish Cup, so glory is only 90 minutes away. Honest.

3. When I was thirteen I wanted to be a park keeper. No, I haven’t got a clue why, either. But I still have an instinct to pick up litter. Then again, I never bother to mow the lawn until reminded. It wouldn't have made a day job, that’s for sure. Back then, I never even considered Ekklesia, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, theology, journalism or the like. Unfathomable, huh?

4. I used to work with Alexei Sayle before he became an alternative comedy headliner. He was a part-time filing clerk while I was an editorial assistant at a now defunct London publishing company. One Christmas he got the booze and I got the crisps for the office party. Didn’t stop it being a bit rubbish, but that’s what office parties are for. Graham & Trotman finally sent him off the rails, and the rest is history.

5. I have this thing with deadlines. And I don’t just mean those ones. F’rinstance… I inexplicably declined a ticket for what turned out to be The Smiths’ final gig before they split, and then for what turned out to be Miles Davis’ last ever concert in Britain. I also missed Sir Michael Tippett’s final Proms appearance because of a major train delay. I am determined not to miss the end of Yes, shameful though it is to admit in polite circles. Carpe diem.

Right, it's the season of goodwill, so I tag Jonathan Bartley, Johan Maurer (or Dima), The Weary Pilgrim and Tom Allen. Er, how come the bloggers I know are mostly men? Hmmnnn...

[Picture: Alexei Sayle on an average day or Maggi Dawn on an indescribable day, (c) BBC]

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Thursday, December 14, 2006


Middle England stirred minimally today, as that quintessentially medium-blend radio soap opera, The Archers, saw its longest-running gay love affair joyously confirmed in a civil partnership - which also managed to dent the walls of suburban prejudice, and cleverly culminate in a heterosexual marriage proposal at the after-ceremony reception. So much for lesbian and gay partnerships threatening the age old institution of matrimony. Anyway, Ekklesia got in on the act (Christians welcome civil partnership in Ambridge) courtesy of a tip-off from Pink News. The story was also covered in different ways by The Stage (A very Ambridge wedding) and The Guardian (A walk on the wild side). There's a lurking irony in me being quoted wishing the happy couple all the best, which is that I have a long-term aversion to The Archers. I am known to grumble loudly when it comes on, usually because I have just turned BBC Radio 4 on in the hope of some news, some comedy, some dramatic relief, or a depressing documentary about the exploitation of yak farmers in Mongolia. Still, Ambridge came up trumps this evening. And I know quite a few clergy listeners who would be more than willing to bless the newly-hitcheds. I just hope someone remembers to send Christian Voice's Stephen Green some tablets for his queazy stomach. He has been described as suffering from homophobia, but the pedants among us are apt to point out that it is actually more properly labelled heterophobia - fear of 'the other'. [Picture: Andy and Ian get hitched, courtesy of the Beeb]

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006


The best name for God is the power of love
Transformative power
Love that makes a difference
That breaks down boundaries,
crosses borders that keep outsiders out and insiders in.
It is the power of love that seeks to end poverty,
To thwart and overthrow the structures which perpetuate it,
And anger the elites that benefit from it.
In Jesus, that contentious Jew, the power of this love was strong
Is it any wonder they wanted to kill him?
If people had taken him seriously the economics of greed could have been disrupted.
The rich might have lost some riches
The poor might have gained some power.
He was dangerous, and so he had to be nailed.
The Romans did the job.
What his killers didn't understand was the power of love.
No grave can keep it in.
No border can keep it out.
No religion can control it.
No amount of money can buy it off.
It is wild, wonderful, and free.

By Glynn Cardy, St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland, New Zealand

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006


On 3 December 2006, Observer columnist Nick Cohen wrote an article about the often aggressive defence, or re-assertion of, Christianity in British public life. As a critic of 'establishment faith' I sympathise with many of his concerns, but he seems to write all but the most controlling kinds of religion out of the script and therefore produces an account which is in danger of veering into caricature and offers no way beyond "a plague on them all" or a war of counter-assertion. Before his piece was filed, Jonathan Bartley had briefed Cohen, at his own instigation, on the post-Christendom argument and some alternative takes on 'Christmas wars' et al. He chose not to pursue these angles, but the reference in his subsequent article portrayed Ekklesia as 'the left wing' in an intra-Anglican row. Which misses the point at more levels than one. This week The Observer published my response (below). Incidently, they entitled it 'Cohen's phoney war'. I had, of course, referred to the phoney war described by Nick Cohen. Which is different. And consciously so:

Nick Cohen ('Let's not sleepwalk with the Christian soldiers', last week) portrays my organisation, Ekklesia, as part of an 'internal conflict' within the Church of England. On the contrary, Ekklesia is an independent think-tank with no denominational affiliation.

Our argument is that when establishment Christianity puts civic self-interest before equality and justice, it betrays its own radical origins, as well as making the world a nastier place. Many religious and non-religious people are recognising this to be true in their traditions, too.

Voices for change are, however, lost in the phoney war Nick Cohen describes. That's why we need a conversation of civilisations, not the kind of clashing that only encourages sectarianism.
Simon Barrow, co-director, Ekklesia London EC1

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Monday, December 11, 2006


Two unhelpful approaches are dominating debates about the role of faith in public life right now. One is the increasingly assertive voice of organised religion defending its privileges and questioning cultural freedom – everything from what plays we should watch to who ‘owns’ Christmas. The other resides in the anxious criticism of many ‘cultured despisers’, who see public religious expression only as a problem to be contained.

Ironically, these opposing approaches do not cancel each other out, they egg each other on. The more religious communities try to assert themselves in controlling ways, the more strident secularist voices become. Likewise, when non-religious advocates say that faith should be abolished from the public square, it only increases the sense of grievance and anger among some religious people.

This is a deeply unproductive antagonism. Rather than enriching public life with a range of perspectives, we are in danger of retrenching further into “competitive grievances”, a war of position between vested interests trying to assert themselves through a narrow interpretation of their own self-understanding.

But there is another way. Ekklesia has been arguing for some time that it is possible for both the religiously committed and for advocates of a plural, secular society to find a place of mutual accommodation. We don’t have to choose one ‘camp’ over the other. We can be in both. Continued. [Graphic courtesy of LICC's secular-sacred divide debate page]

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

[00.31 GMT] Making a meal of moderation - Colin M. Morris shows why radical religion does not have to be a bad thing.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

[13.31 GMT] Christianity is a radical call to peacemaking - by Norman Kember.

It's been an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with former Iraq hostages Norman Kember, Jim Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden over the past 72 hours. Jim and Harmeet came to London to meet up with Norman, and to make a media statement that clarified why they feel that forgiveness and restorative justice are the way forward in relation to the men who captured them and held them prisoner for 118 days. Ekklesia was honoured to be asked to coordinate the media bids and yesterday's press conference, and the resulting coverage has mainly been pretty positive so far - recognising the integrity of the men's position and the challenge their action poses to the terrible cycles of violence which have been ripping Iraq apart - as Jim said, during the years of Saddam's brutal dictatorship, and then in the context of US-led war and occupation and the horrific aftermath - 3,000 deaths a month, and some thousand people fleeing every day.

Still, it is salutary to be reminded that some sections of the media not only don't get it (comment is, rightly, free) but appear rather more interested in what will make 'a good story' than what is actually the case (fact is rarely determinative of journalistic construction these days). For example, here is Norman Kember - writing in today's Daily Telegraph, and re-iterating what the three Christian Peacemakers have been saying again and again for much of the past two days: "Although we are all absolutely opposed to the death penalty, we do not have, at present, enough information about the working of the Iraqi court system to discover if we can best help these men by refusing to testify, and asking for clemency outside the court system, or by agreeing to take part in the trial and ask[ing] for clemency within the court process." And here's how that was translated in The Guardian (surprisingly) Former Iraq hostages refuse to give evidence against captors in trial and (more predictably) in The Times Kember: I will not testify at trial of my kidnappers. Also: Hostages explain refusal to testify (ABC Online, Australia). As they say, "spot the difference". The Guardian, to its credit, ran additional stories: Kember pleads clemency for his kidnappers and Former hostage forgives captors. Mostly, the emphasis of coverage has been on forgiveness and restoration - but as Jim Loney has been at pains to point out, that doesn't necessarily mean unwillingness to testify, and it certainly doesn't mean a simple 'bang them up or let them free' choice - it is about seeking the middle round where rehabilitation and change remains possible.

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[00.54 GMT] Forgiveness not revenge for Iraq, say former peace hostages (Ekklesia).

Friday, December 08, 2006

[00.15 GMT] LATEST ON IRAQ: The Iraq Study Group has still not understood what people in Iraq well know, says Sami Ramadani: that it is the United States military occupation of Iraq itself that is fuelling the violence there (OpenDemocracy). Christians welcome new dynamic of Iraq Study Group report (Ekklesia).

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

[18.17 GMT] Press Conference by former Iraq hostages Former Iraq hostages Norman Kember, Harmeet Singh Sooden and Jim Loney are to issue a statement on Friday 8 December 2006 (in the morning), as their alleged captors face a trial which could end in the death penalty. The event will take place at St Ethelburga's Peace Centre in the City of London, and is being coordinated by Ekklesia. The three men went to Iraq as part of a Christian Peacemaker Teams' delegation in November 2005, and ended up being held for four months. Prior to their release in March 2006, one of their number, Quaker Tom Fox, was murdered by the kidnap group. The others were released in a non-violent operation coordinated by intelligence and army officials. Loney is from Canada, Sooden from New Zealand and Kember from Britain. Fox was a US citizen.

Monday, December 04, 2006

[01.31 GMT] Not being enslaved by 'life as advertised' - Simon Barrow explores the way that the Gospel message turns servants into free agents. (Ekklesia column)

Sunday, December 03, 2006


There's an excellent article in yesterday's Guardian, by Stephen Tomkins, on why he is giving up Christmas for Advent. As he rightly points out, it is a bit rich for Christians to complain that their festival is being nicked by 'pagans', when they stole it from honest hedonists in the first place. Rather than whining about his image (or its absence) on seasonal postage stamps, it might be better for the churches to start taking the narrative of Jesus seriously as a shaping factor in their own identity - you know: hospitality to the outsider, peacemaking, celebration, justice-doing, enemy-loving. That kind of thing. For the more Christianity is turned into a civic vehicle for 'culture wars', the more commitment to genuine discipleship is obscured and compromised. And the more it feeds the fear of those who believe that religion is nothing but a malevolent fanstasy aimed at lording-it over others. [On another tack... Fair Trade Christmas ideas here]

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

[00.06 GMT] Inter-textuality given a new twist: Learning to reason scripturally - Nick Adams from the University of Edinburgh explains why deep reasoning and careful friendship are key to the fruitful reading of texts, both within and across traditions. This is an edited excerpt from his superb book, Habermas and Theology (Cambridge, 2006). See also the work of Peter Ochs and the website for The Society of Scriptural Reasoning.

Friday, December 01, 2006


You can't win, really. So it's best not to try. Winning is for losers. And here's why: Christians and other "religious people" are routinely accused of being intolerant, impatient, ignorant and unpleasant - not without reason sometimes, sadly. But according to a piece in the latest Sunday Times (a profile of John Sentamu, though it wanders a bit) the problem with Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, is that he is none of these things. Instead he's pleasant, thoughtful and commends careful listening ahead of hasty action. This, apparently, is even worse. How dare he refuse to adopt the commandeering manner we expect of our "real leaders". String him up! Oh, hang on, they did that to someone else, didn't they? Maybe this Christian lark isn't supposed to be brutal and simple after all....

[Dr] Williams, hailed as a new broom on his appointment in 2002, is now perceived as an unworldly academic who ties himself in rhetorical knots while his church tears itself apart over the ordination of women and gay priests. He sounded too clever by half in John Humphryss recent radio series, Humphrys in Search of God, when he spoke mystically of “silent waiting on the truth, pure sitting and breathing in the presence of the question mark”.

“For God’s sake, man . . . why are you so nice?” one newspaper demanded recently. Last week the tone became harsher, when a Daily Telegraph comment piece announced, “The archbishop’s days are numbered.” It suggested that Williams, undermined by a feud with Lord Carey, his predecessor, will step down early to make way for Sentamu.

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