Monthly Archives: January 2016

Examining attitudes

Two news stories are given prominence today which are both of relevance to this blog. The first is the story of the Maoist cult and the way that a man, Balakrishnan, was able to control a group of women to do whatever he wanted. The second is the story of a British Muslim woman, Tareena Shakil, who went to Syria with her small child and then returned to Britain. She has now been tried and sent to prison for membership of ISIS.

The first story in many ways is richer for our purposes because it explores the depth of influence and control that a single person can exert over others. Also it is interesting that the Maoist leader was declared to have a narcissistic personality disorder as well as delusions of grandeur. We have discussed such personality defects as occasionally applying to religious leaders in many settings. No doubt we will return to the story but for today I want to speak about the second story, the British mother Tareena. Her story will allow me to focus particularly on my own feelings which are aroused by a story of religious abuse.

The narrative that is set out about Tareena and her infant son arouses in me a whole variety of feelings. No doubt these reactions are shared by other people. I want to look at these feelings because what is evoked in me is similar to the way I always feel when I am confronted with the actions and attitudes of people who are in thrall to extremist religious leaders. The first feeling, which I experience, is, as here, one of anger. The act of taking a young child into a war zone goes right against what we feel to be the act of a responsible parent. How could anybody endanger a child’s life or be so stupid as to think that this was a good environment in which to bring a child up? One’s sense of appropriateness and the protective instinct that one has for every small child is outraged. The anger one feels is also directed beyond the mother to the ideology that taught her to think in this way. There is a kind of rage inside one that is directed to anyone who exalts a cult of death and danger in preference to the normal human instinct to nurture and preserve life. This is even more true when it is the life of the helpless individual who has been entrusted to our personal care.

Having first felt a visceral sense of anger against the mother and her teachers, one then moves into a different stage, the stage of feeling profound sorrow and compassion for her situation. Her crazy perspective on life was probably made inevitable by the circumstances of her upbringing from childhood onwards. Her education was in all likelihood extremely poor, with little to protect her from the persuasive arguments of powerful individuals, particularly the men in her life. What chance does a woman in her situation have in resisting such powerful blandishments to think and feel in a particular way?

A sense of compassion for Tareena gives way to another feeling. I suspect that this third feeling is the one which is most typical in our society. It is a feeling of condescension mixed with contempt. What can be expected of this poor woman, brought up in ignorance? Most people, who have not tried to understand the influence of extreme religious groups, will be unable to experience the anger and the compassion which I have outlined above. They will bypass those stages and go straight to the uncomprehending condescension that seems to be the default mode among most people in our society. It is an attitude that completely fails to engage with the victims of religious extremism, of whatever kind. The vast swathes of the population cannot comprehend the results of extreme abusive religious doctrines, whether on the victims of such thinking or the perpetrators. This, sadly, would be true of people who attend many of our churches as well as those who are outside the influence of religious ideas.

It would be true to say that every time I meet someone who has been caught up in a religious group which makes them think and act in ways that go against their best interests, that I pass through all three of these feelings. I would like to think that I do not dwell on the third stage of condescension, maybe tinged with pity, for very long. I have nevertheless to admit that this is, or can be, the easy default option. No, I want to remain at the level of compassion for the victim’s plight and be able to use the anger I feel at the whole situation to give me energy to do something within my power to help. Opting for condescending pity would be a way of passing by on the other side of the road.

In our society there are hundreds of thousands of victims of religious and spiritual abuse of all kinds. There are many women trapped in abusive marriages which are reinforced by church teachings. Men are encouraged to exert their physical power over their wives and children because they have been told that the Bible condones such behaviour. Children submit to beatings and other harassment because of some verses in the book of Proverbs. Still more people live in environments of fear, unable to explore their individual personalities and creativity, because they believe that they must follow the will of a minister whom they believe holds the keys of heaven and hell. Our political leaders make a lot of noise about the Muslim treatment of women and children and no doubt many terrible things are done among these groups, hidden away from public scrutiny. But our society is still unable to comprehend the power of other religious groups, including the Christian, to commit or condone barbarities in the name of a holy book. This blog receives its energy from the anger felt at the existence of cruelty and abuse which are meted out in some dark places, even within our churches.

In this blog post I have identified within myself a trinity of feelings, anger, compassion and condescending pity. I am hoping that the first two of these feelings will always be the ones that predominate. I trust that when faced by religious abuse I can resist a slide into a condescension which so easily will turn into indifference. Sadly I fear that these first two feelings will always be those of a small minority. But I have the hope that those who read this blog will be among those who cultivate the capacity to feel anger and compassion in the face of spiritual abuse. It is from such feelings that comes the power to enable something to be done. The task before us is massive and may not be achievable in our lifetimes but we need to struggle to do what we can to confront it and maybe push it back just a little.

Thinking about Christian Unity

Week-of-Prayer-Christian-Unity-2016-aJanuary 25 is the feast of the Conversion of St Paul in the Anglican calendar. It also marks the end of what is known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is a week when Christians of different denominations in Britain, and indeed throughout the world, are encouraged to meet in each other’s buildings and hold joint acts of worship. Thirty years ago, when I was more actively involved in ecumenical activities as an ecumenical officer for an Anglican diocese, this Week was celebrated with far more enthusiasm. Today ecumenical activity, bringing the churches together, seems to have lost much of its energy. In the diocese where I now live, the diocese of Carlisle, we are supposed to be linking the churches together by creating what are known as ‘mission communities’. This is a method for bringing together Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed congregations to work, worship and act together in particular geographical areas. The feed-back that I have been hearing suggests that all is not going well in this particular ecumenical initiative. Problems of working with other groups, which have a different tradition and a quite different history from one’s own, will always encounter difficulties. There are also practical issues in to be faced in churches working together, like finance, leadership and buildings. It is never going to be an easy task to weld together different groups, even if the very survival of the church may depend on clustering resources together in this way.

On Sunday I listened to a sermon on the topic of Christian unity. The Dean of the cathedral made the point that Christian unity is not the same as uniformity. This set me off on my own path of thinking about what can really be expected when we seek to be Christians ‘being in full accord and of one mind’ as Philippians 2.2 suggests. The models of unity which suggest that it might be possible to be of ‘one mind’ have a relevance in political life. Politics sometimes seems to indicate that it is important for everyone in a particular party to have an identical point of view as well as repeat the slogans that are put out by their leaders. Political unity thus always risks a descent into herd-like behaviour. Those of us who have read Animal Farm will remember the slogans that were a compulsory part of life on the farm. A sloganising form of unity is all too often repeated within church congregations. Strict compliance with the theology of the leaders and teachers is a mark of a true member in many conservative churches. I have often discussed in this blog the issue of how difficult it is to be a theological dissident in this kind of church. Is a congregation where everybody believes exactly the same things an example of Christian unity? In a political context, do we value the followers who shout the correct slogans or the dissidents who question the assumptions that have become the norm in the particular community? All too often this kind of mindless unity is based not on truth but on fear. The fear goes into two directions. First of all there is a fear of being expelled from the group because one’s thinking is not in accordance with the standard conventions. One also fears falling out of favour with the leadership who may be presenting a powerful coherent presentation of a political creed. In conservative Christian circles, the presentation of the expected orthodoxy will always claim to be based on a true and authentic reading of Scripture. We know, however, that in practice that there are as many ways of reading Scripture as there are Christian leaders. A unity of a kind may be found within a single congregation but in the wider orbit of evangelical organizations beyond the local, it is very hard to find more than superficial agreements among the leading teachers of particular churches and networks.

What might a practicable unity in a group actually look like? The best and most realistic example of a united group is the successful marriage. When two people come together in marriage, they create a psychological and emotional environment where each of them can support the other in becoming the people they are meant to be. Each partner within the marriage will not be expected to agree on everything with the other. We do not insist, for example, that each side in a marriage must vote for the same political party. What is important is that both sides respect the right of the other to have an opinion. Marriage, in other words, is an institution which allows the ‘dignity of difference’. This phenomenon of unity combined with tolerating difference is also implied in the Pauline description of the human body with its many parts. I would love to be able to say that we find a similar respect for the beliefs of others at work among the churches. For this to be possible there would first of all be involved a general acknowledgement that there is no such thing as a single version of propositional truth. In other words Christians would have to start handling the idea that there is more than one way of talking about the things of God. The problem in this is that there are simply too many Christians at present wedded to the idea that there is only one correct way of reading the Bible and understanding its message. Other interpretations exist but many congregations still retain the fantasy that their church, their leader, alone is able to determine the path to salvation and God’s truth. It goes without saying that such a belief in any congregation is for me a sheer fantasy. To put it another way, it is a total nonsense to suppose that any particular chapel or even network of congregations are able to contain the entirety of truth about God and spirituality. Holding on to such a belief will also distort an ability to learn and grow in spiritual depth. If you have the ‘truth’ now, there is nothing new to learn. How can the Spirit be at work leading you into all truth if you already acquired it years ago?

If the analogy of a good marriage is a realistic description of the right kind of unity we should look for in the church, then it follows that Christian unity will always be about respect and the constant new discoveries of the truths that are held by other people. When we meet Christians who speak a different theological language from us, our reaction should be, not how do these people fall short of our definitions, but what can we learn through a patient listening to their history and to their experience? I have referred in the past to my privilege in learning about Christianity through the eyes of a quite different culture, the Greek one. I have also learnt that prayer in other languages has a quite different feel to it and I particularly enjoy hearing prayers read in French. This blog has always wanted to stand up for the claim that truth is not something we can ever possess, but only something to which we can aspire. The task of Christian unity is a call, not to put up barriers to protect our definitions of truth, but an invitation to go out beyond our traditions to learn from others. In this way, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity could be a path to a greater, more complete vision of who God is and what he wishes for his people. I believe that it was General Smuts who coined the expression that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’. He was not talking here about theology, but his statement could well be applied to a vision of God. God is and always will be beyond what we already know.

Anglicans and the Gay Issue

Anglican CommunionMany of us watched with fascination as the Anglican Communion seemed to be on a course towards self-destruction last week. The communiqué which was published last Friday does not really make clear what was finally agreed upon by the Anglican primates. The conservative group (the majority of the archbishops) among them certainly felt that they had won a moral victory over the Episcopal Church in the United States. The TEC, as it is commonly known, has been deprived of a place on some of the central Anglican decision-making bodies for three years. Commentators who understand the legal structures of the Anglican Church have announced that the Anglican archbishops have no authority to make such a decision. A different body altogether, the Anglican Consultative Council, is the only one to be able to make any decisions on behalf of the whole Communion. The argument will go on and on and the defeat of the so-called Covenant Proposals in 2012 has made the situation even more muddled and confused. I cannot again rehearse what was being proposed in the so-called Covenant Proposals, but when it was defeated by most of the Church of England dioceses, it was understood to be a defeat for any disciplining structures being wielded by those at the centre of the Anglican Communion. The sanctioning or rebuking of fellow-Anglicans in America should not be something that Anglican archbishops can do or should even want to do.

What we are left with, after the gathering of last week, is a stark reminder that for some Anglicans, especially those in Africa, the gay issue is almost the most important topic to be discussed and debated. It seems to take greater prominence than political corruption, poverty, global warming or economic development. The Anglican churches, particularly those in central Africa, appear to believe that a gay epidemic is being exported from the West, one which will undermine and even destroy families and the morality of their young people. It is as though an infectious virus has been released and this has to be resisted by every spiritual weapon and these include a grasping on to a fiercely conservative creed. This message of corrupt gays seeking to take over the world is what is being peddled by a group of American conservative evangelists who have access to the highest levels of church and government in countries such as Uganda. When particular celebrity preachers such as Scott Lively and Rick Warren speak about this gay conspiracy, many people in Africa listen. The preachers are treated as though they are experts in the field. This cluster of preachers are attached to an American organization called the New Apostolic Reformation. The organization is an unaccountable group with no denominational ties. It links back to the teaching of Peter Wagner, an influential figure in the neo-charismatic scene. His emphasis has always focused on the importance of a form of theocracy, God being in charge, crushing the demons and other forces arrayed against him. This also fits well with the rhetoric of the Christian Right as they battle to take ascendency in the Republican party. What these representatives of the NAR have to say is unfortunately the only Christian presentation on the topic of sex to be heard at present. There is no other message being heard. No doubt any attempt to suggest that there was another narrative which favoured understanding and support for gay and transsexual individuals, would be met by the cry that this was further proof of a gay conspiracy being peddled by the West. One of the myths being peddled in Uganda in 2008 was that young people were being bribed into homosexual behaviour by individuals from the West. A typical claim from Scott Lively was that, gay sexuality was equivalent to child molestation. It was against the background of this kind of misinformation that the anti-homosexual bill was introduced into the Ugandan parliament in April 2009. Lively had been visiting Uganda regularly since 2002, making alliances with Ugandan pastors who through him had been initiated into a rabid hostility towards the gay lifestyle. Many Ugandans responded to the thought that their own children were threatened by visiting gay men and they have become an eager audience up for all the myths being presented to them by these evangelists from the United States.

The idea that homosexuality is a western export to African nations is a convenient myth to be sold to both political and religious leaders in Africa. These leaders are thus, unwittingly, being manipulated by the American Christian and political Right. For African leaders a struggle against gay sex is made out to be a continuation of the old struggle against colonial values. So a persecution of gay individuals becomes a mark of someone who wishes to uphold African traditional culture. The question as to whether gay sex has any place in traditional African society is never addressed but those who study the problem have declared categorically that, at the very least, there has never been evidence of violence against such groups. Same-sex behavior, as in the West, is only practised by a minority in African societies, but there appears always to have been an acceptance that this is the way for some. We can claim that the current obsession with and fierce opposition to gay lifestyles among Africans can be traced back to America. It suits political and religious factions in the States to conduct their wars, their culture and religious wars, in another continent. The liberal majorities in the United States have increasingly turned their backs on the fanatical bigoted behaviour by thinkers on the Christian Right. Supporters of such ideas have had to seek to gain victories in other places, places where influence can be obtained by a combination of bribery, misinformation and outright distortion of truth.

I believe I wrote a piece about the real motivation of right-wing conservative thinkers in the States in their firm opposition to any tolerance towards gay people. I need to summarise what I said before. These ideas are not my own but I found them in a book by a left-wing political commentator, George Lakoff. His observation about the great division in the States between Republicans and Democrats is that the former had been brought up in very conventional families, with the father enforcing obedience over his wife and children. The pattern of family life in which they had been reared would have stressed control and obedience. The upbringing of the children of the family was against the background of a Calvinist belief in the inherent evil of a child outside the structure of firm control. In other words strong paternal authority in the family was necessary to eliminate the evil of self. The other pattern, exemplified by the liberal Democratic understanding of family life, stressed the importance of communication and openness. Here the father was no longer seen as the enforcer and controller but there was an assumption that love would allow proper growth and flourishing. The problem for the Christian Right is that homosexuality subverts the old authoritarian pattern in the traditional family. How can there be two fathers or two mothers in the family? Gay sex for the conservatively-reared Christian strikes at the heart of what is understood to be the norm of family life. To change that was to cast doubt on the way things had been from the beginning of life. It is no surprise that the conservative thinker has clung on to his/her opposition of gay sexuality to the point of create hatred and violence, not only in their own society but across the world.

From congregation to audience?

worshipOver the years I have had more than a passing interest in church architecture. One of the interesting things is to interpret why churches are built and furnished in different ways. There are of course, major differences between churches built in the eastern Mediterranean and those which have been designed in the West. One obvious feature in Eastern Orthodox churches which is different from what we are used to, is the way that there is almost a complete absence of windows in such buildings. In many cases the walls are filled with paintings or mosaics, and the only way we can see them is from the light that comes from artificial light, especially candles. The interaction between flickering candles and mosaics is fairly magical, and we would add mysterious. This sense of mystery, a participation in the unknown, is exactly what Eastern architect wanted to evoke in the worshippers.

In the western half of Christendom we observe a major transition between the mediaeval period and what came later. In some churches of the Reformation that wanted to downplay the prominence that had been given to the old Roman rite or the Mass, there was an emphasis on the pulpit and thus it was situated in a place of prominence at the centre of the building. The reading and the preaching about the Word of God were clearly the most important activities in church buildings of this tradition. Most of the churches in the Anglican tradition still gave a prominence to the altar and it was and is important for traditional Anglican worship that this structure should be visible from every part of the building. But even here, elaborate and intrusive pulpits were frequently constructed in the 18th century to emphasise the place of preaching in these buildings. Most of these were however, swept away by the Victorians. In most Anglican churches we now have forward facing pews so that there is once more a focus on the altar and the communion services that took place there.

Today in some churches there is a new architectural phenomenon to be seen. This is the raising of a stage construction at the front of the church. The purpose of this is not for the preaching of the word or the reading of the Bible but it is to give a platform for new servants of the church, the music group. The churches where services can last for over two hours, at least half of that time is spent in listening to this music group performing, or perhaps accompanying congregational singing. This music, to judge by the amount of time spent on its performance, has become the most important feature of worship in many modern churches. From the perspective of view of a traditional leader of worship such as myself, I have to ask the question as to whether such musical performance is entertainment rather than real worship. Are people coming to church, at least on occasion, simply to be entertained? Are worshippers turning into an audience? This is a valid question which I feel we need to consider. If I am right, then there has been a devaluation of the activity of worship.

What is worship? This is a question we have to address in order to give a measured response to our questions. Most traditional answers to this question would be to see worship as what the people of God bring as their offering to him. The emphasis is here, not on what we receive in church, but on what we can give. Traditional liturgical words like offertory and thanksgiving imply that the people in a congregation are expected to do something, to put an effort into this activity of worship. The traditional procession of the elements of bread and wine together with the envelopes containing financial gifts represent an important symbolism at the heart of worship. We can sum up the whole movement of the service by saying that worship is what we come to give of ourselves to God so that he can give himself to us in the form of consecrated bread and wine. This initial giving of ourselves makes possible the receiving of the gift of Christ so that ‘we can dwell in him and he in us’.

From the perspective of this kind of theology, there is something very superficial and inadequate about an endless succession of Christian songs being performed on a stage. Even if this kind of music is agreeable to a worshipper, and often it is not, it is hard to see how listening even to a semi-professional band is spiritually edifying. If in fact listening to this music is mainly to be regarded as entertainment, it is difficult to see how it becomes any kind of offering to God. It could of course be argued that the offerings of professional cathedral choirs are also forms of entertainment, but there are some major differences. Most composers of such liturgical music, such as Palestrina or Bach, have a very strong sense of the meaning of the words that they set to music. In other words each composer is interpreting a traditional liturgical text and giving it a distinct musical form. The words of the liturgy, in summary, are given a musical interpretation which heightens their meaning and impact on those who listen. Words and music achieve a harmony which can enrich the worshipper and become part of their offering to God.

To return to my title and question about worship. Are congregations sometimes becoming more like audiences and consumers of something that is being performed on a stage? Is the act of worship becoming closer to an attendance at the theatre? If entertainment were to become the dominant emphasis experienced by congregations, then we would be moving away from the old notion that we go to church to make our offering of praise and thanksgiving. When we say the traditional words ‘it is meet and right, our duty and our joy in every place and at all times to give you thanks O God’, we are saying something quite different from ‘I go to church because I enjoy listening to a musical performance’. Perhaps the next time we go to a church we need to look around at the architecture. The placing of a stage at the front of a church building may speak to us as powerfully as the positioning of the altar or the pulpit in the past. Is the church architecture encouraging us to think of ourselves as consumers of musical entertainment or are we being called to give thanks and offer ourselves in the worship of Almighty God?

Reflections on Fear

FeaRIn looking back over my many reflections on the uses of abuse in a church, we nearly always seem to come back to one place. Abuse, more often than not, seems to involve evoking fear in an individual. Whenever a person is frightened, for whatever reason, they can usually be compelled to do whatever the fear-monger requires. In summary, to frighten a person is the simplest way to control them. As I have often said the greatest thing to be feared among many conservative Christians is the threat of being consigned to eternal damnation. Anyone who has been persuaded to believe in this state of everlasting torture when they become Christians will do absolutely anything to avoid it. Sometimes in the process of avoiding hell and damnation their earthly lives are blighted irreparably by the miasma of fear that permeates their awareness.

When I contrast a stirring up of deep fears and dread about eternal punishment with the actual teachings of Jesus, I see an enormous divergence. Jesus had no interest in making people frightened and most of his condemnatory words were directed at the false and hypocritical teachers of his day. His central message was far more one of encouragement, how to discover the potential of life when lived within an awareness of God’s gracious love. I have often quoted the passage from St John which talks about the purpose of Jesus’s ministry, ‘that they may have life, life in all its abundance’. To quote this passage is not taking one saying out of context because we can see how it fits into the main thrust of Jesus’s other words and actions. We could summarise the ministry of Jesus as being one of removing the impediments to wholeness that existed in peoples’ lives. The healing ministry of Jesus is not only a battle against pain, but it is more importantly a way of helping people to find their full place within their faith community as well as their society. Sin is identified, not because it leads to hell, but because it represents another kind of failure to flourish as a full human being. When I read the parables I note a great deal about people searching and finding something new and exciting. The woman sweeping her house to find lost silver, or the man selling everything to buy the field with treasure inside it. Jesus seems to have been appealing, not to our defensive fearful selves, but to the hopeful and adventurous aspects of our personalities. He invites us to come with him on an adventure, and adventure towards a life lived in all its fullness.

Today, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, the gathering of Anglican primates begins in Canterbury. From my perspective I see one group who are in touch with the adventurous, transformative side of Christianity. Another group seemed to be tapping in to a version of the faith which is only concerned with self-protection, fear and the avoidance of terror. No doubt the conservative group experienceS some of the rewards of God’s blessings but one can’t help but feel that they have become obsessed with creating a system which in many ways has the potential to close people down. The countries of Africa are facing enormous problems, economic, social and providing adequate healthcare for millions. We also see massive problems of reconciling different tribes, different religions and facing up to the results of decades of corruption in government. In the midst of all this, the African archbishops choose to spend an enormous amount of energy on upholding a particular sexual ethic, one which has no impact on the wider society. Something is very wrong when this kind of situation arises.

The way that we can move from a fear-filled Christianity to one of hope is, I believe, to embrace the invitation of Jesus to move towards a love filled way of life. We can, for a start, believe in a God who invites us to share his fullness and his holiness without making us feel as though we are worth nothing in his sight. To judge from the comments of Jesus, we have every good reason to believe that God sees the good in us before he sees the ways that we fail. God is far more interested in encouraging the positive than in condemning the negative. Of course all of us fail, of course all of us do not live up to our potential. But I think that we can believe that God wants to bless us far more than he wants to condemn us. So much of Christianity feels like a headmaster’s study when the pupils queue up to receive their punishments. No, the Christianity I want to embrace and also communicate is a faith that constantly draws me out of myself to glimpse a fuller, wider and broader way of living and being.

This week we will see whether a part of the Anglican Communion decides to walk away in the name of what I believe to be a narrow, legalistic and claustrophobic expression of faith. If that happens it will be an occasion of regret, but the remaining part of the Communion, must then try to live out its own understanding of what it means to see the faith as a life affirming and life embracing creed. As far as I am concerned, Jesus came to invite people to see what life can be when it is lived in openness and love towards others and to God. The greatest sin is not that of sexual deviance, but a failure to live life as it is meant to be lived. A full life will include rich experiences, aesthetic, emotional and intellectual. But the same life will also involve feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting prisoners. Our modern obsession with sex does not seem to have entered the minds of Jesus or his disciples. If we remain with the gospels, we find Jesus encouraging us to live in new transformative ways. It is in exploring those new ways that makes the Christian faith constantly exciting and new. We travel in the path that Christ set before us but we never actually arrive.

The ultimate abuse? Exclusivity

Be Different
Be Different
Today I am looking at an area of abuse which many Christians have so internalized that they no longer see it as a problem. This particular abuse is found in the capacity of some Christians to be supremely confident in what they believe and in what they interpret as being God’s will. From this position they are ready and able to denigrate and attack other Christians who do not agree with them. The logic runs along these lines. My interpretation of Scripture and what I believe is the only correct and valid way of being a true Christian. Therefore if you do not agree with me, you must be resisted and opposed on every occasion. Your beliefs are dangerous since they pose a threat to vulnerable people who might be led astray by what you are saying. Taken to its extreme, exclusivity in belief gives some Christian the right to threaten and even destroy others because they, the opposition, believe and teach things that have the potential to send people to hell.

In our Western societies, exclusive beliefs do not, happily, result in Christians killing each other. Civil society, the laws and the courts insist that no belief system is permitted to allow religious people to fight or kill each other because of their claim alone to have the ultimate truth. But we do see this kind of behaviour in other parts of the world which operate with other religious systems. Sunni and Shias battle it out, with each claiming with great fervency that they possess the correct interpretation of their Prophet’s teaching. Holding the truth of their faith is for many indeed a matter of life and death. Having ‘the’ truth while excluding those of other persuasions will from time to time justify the killing of others who are not in their ‘tribe’.

In the next few days Anglican leaders are gathering to discuss the question of truth and unity in the Communion. In that debate we will no doubt hear more of the hard edged arguments from the conservative faction based mainly in Africa, South America and parts of Australia. The conservative Archbishops claim that they know and uphold the will of God in the issue over whether gays can marry. Because they are certain that, according to God’s revealed will, this is impossible, they feel they have to uphold this teaching because it affects the fate of millions of souls after death. It is for them a heaven/hell issue. If it were not, then perhaps they could seek a formula to enable them to live together with those who think differently. But the nature of their understanding of Scripture means that compromise is not permitted. The hard edge of excluding those who do not agree with them is for them the proper orthodox face of Christianity.

The liberal thinkers among us, who long for some kind of theological compromise to be possible in the Anglican Communion, are aware of many historical factors that have created this impasse. This is not the time however to rehearse how we have arrived at this place where an irresistible force is confronting an immovable object. What we can do in this post is to reflect how Jesus dealt with divisions and disputes that were going on around him. In his day there were many debates about how much of the observance of the law was mandatory to be a Jew in good standing. Jesus himself was criticised for allowing his disciples to break the strict interpretation of the Sabbath regulations in extracting grains from the ripening wheat as they crossed a field. There were well over 600 commands extracted from the Jewish Law Books and these were believed to be compulsory for a law-abiding Jew. As we know, it was only possible for wealthy unemployed Pharisees to even attempt this daunting task of obeying every law. Jesus in his discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees seems to have taken a fairly relaxed attitude over the matter of keeping the Law in every detail. We have no reason to doubt the tradition that has Jesus quoting the Deuteronomy summary that the Law is summed up in two commands, the love of God and of neighbour. It also makes historical sense of the events leading up to the crucifixion to suggest that it was important for the Jewish establishment to crush a teacher who tolerated a radical reinterpretation of the Law. This interpretation had resulted in Jesus feeling able to eat and drink with those the Law excluded, the tax gatherers and sinners.

One interpretation of the crucifixion is to say that Jesus is the friend of those who defy the human tendency to exclude and create divisions in the name of ‘truth’. Jesus was killed because he sought peace (shalom), forgiveness and reconciliation between humankind and God and the breaking down of every kind of human barrier. Reconciliation and peace are lived experiences and they do not readily translate well into words. This repeats a theme that I often spell out in these posts, that the search for truth goes far beyond correct words and formulae. God is never to be reduced to a series of propositions or statements.

What do we ask of those Christians who exclude and even hate others for not agreeing with their hard and exclusive understandings of Scripture? What we ask of them is not to change their minds, but simply to allow those who disagree with them the right and the space to exist. We ask from them the capacity to imagine that God is not confined to a single version of truth but allows people in different times and places to encounter him in a variety of ways. Thanks to the (liberal) laws of the West, Christians are allowed to live in peace with other Christians. The unacceptable face of hate and exclusion nevertheless still lurks just below the surface. The logic of John Calvin, whose theocracy in Geneva allowed Michael Servetus to be burnt at the stake so as to preserve Christian truth, is still to be found in some of our churches today. People are no longer killed, but some of the venom that used to inspire such killing is still to be found, regrettably, in the tone of the discussions like those among the Anglican bishops gathering in Britain this month. What divides us is the readiness of some Christians always to exclude those who do not agree with their version of truth and understanding of faith. Excluding others has become a mark of their version of orthodoxy. That surely is not the way of Jesus.

Property and Power

powerchuchAmid the vast amount of material in the Langlois report, one observation stood out very starkly. This was someone speaking about the moment that things started to go wrong at Peniel in the late 70s. The person speaking was not a particularly hostile witness to Michael Reid, and he expressed appreciation for the very early days when the church was still based in Ongar, operating in a rented building. The problems for the church and in particular Reid himself, was when the church bought its first property in Brentwood. Somehow the church changed and Reid himself changed. Having acquired property, and probably putting it into his own name, there seems to have begun a process of aggrandisement and corruption in Reid. Property and the possession of assets also seems to have changed the character of the whole church. From being a group of enthusiastic Christians who were enjoying the freedom of being able to discover what it means to be Christian without the trappings of buildings and plant, they became suddenly, in the negative sense, an institution. Now that the leader had become the owner or trustee for a valuable piece of real estate, the path to growing an empire had begun.

A major complaint about the leaders at many churches, not just Peniel, is that they frequently become so important that they become inaccessible to all but a few at the top. Another way of interpreting this remoteness in some church leaders is that the more remote they appear, the easier it is to preserve a mystique of power. If you are distant from ordinary members, then they have to look up to you and you hold on to that super-human aura which means in practical terms that fewer people are likely to challenge you or your power. Control of millions of pounds of assets and the influence that brings is of no mean significance in this process. That was a constant complaint in the report. The leaders were just too important to be bothered with the problems, whether pastoral or practical, experienced by the ordinary members unless they were among the elite. By the elite at Brentwood, we are talking about a group of very wealthy supporters and their families. This group, because it gave generously to the church projects, were carefully protected from the spiritual and emotional abuse meted out to poorer families. It reminds one a little of the way that the Nazi occupiers never upset the wealthy elite of France, unless they were Jewish, during the WW2 occupation.

The acquisition of property by churches has always through history been a problem for their healthy flourishing. During the Middle Ages, the monasteries of Britain became extremely wealthy because the elite of the country endowed them with increasing amounts of land. In return the monastery promised to pray for the soul of the benefactor in perpetuity so that they could be free from Purgatory. When Henry 8th wanted to close these institutions, he was in part justified as they had become bloated with wealth and in some cases they had begun a descent into rampant corruption. The foundations of these communities had come into being in the context of poverty and extreme simplicity of life. That had ceased to be true of many of the foundations in the 16th century. Similar things happen to many churches who become burdened with too much plant and money today. It is not that property and wealth are bad things in themselves, but that the fact of owning such plant frequently gives to their owners a sense of their own importance and power. If I preside over a building worth two or three million pounds, that must mean that I am an important person. My most important task is to preserve this inherited or acquired wealth. If I devote a lot of my time to this task, then it is because it is the most pressing priority for my work.
The Church of England does in fact have a great problem with the sheer weight of its inherited wealth and property. I cannot presume to suggest how it can resolve this issue but I merely want to stress how much its servants can be deflected from the tasks of teaching and caring for people by the need to oversee the care of property and buildings. The deeper problem, as I have suggested, is this spiritual one. How do people in positions of church leadership find the faith not to measure success by numbers of people, size of buildings and wealth, but by invisible criteria such as humility, integrity and total honesty?

Power abuse in churches starts with the acquisition of power. Clergy and pastors have the power of the care of souls given to them as well as the power over assets and money. I am not suggesting that many clergy actually steal these assets, but there is the temptation simply to enjoy the reflected glory of being an important person in a wealthy institution. There is the parallel temptation of using the pastoral responsibilities over people as an excuse to obtain social influence in a community as opposed to seeking to help others at every possible opportunity. One of the constant themes of this blog is that the temptation to power is a constant one in churches. What the Langlois Report has pointed out, in the words of one of the respondents, is that corrupt power, money and property are sometimes inextricably linked.

This reflection about the corrupting of power in churches that sometimes is linked to the possession of great assets, leads me to some final observations about the mysterious thing we describe as status. Status is the ability of an individual to feel confident within the group to which he belongs. Status is another word for being valued by the group rather than being pushed to the bottom so that one feels rejected and despised. It is of course true that achieving a moderate amount of status is important for our emotional and social flourishing but it is also true that an excessive concern for status is against the spirit of the Christian faith. We are all called, not to focus on our status in the eyes of our fellows, but to seek our status and approval from God. In the gospels we are encouraged, not to pray in front of other people to gain their approval, but to enter into ‘the inner chamber’ to be alone with God. Clearly there is an implied command that leaders in churches, as well as ‘ordinary’ members should never use their functions in the church to acquire power or status. This is the way of the world and Jesus clearly stated that ‘it shall not be so with you’. Rather in the place of power, all Christians should be seeking what feet washing might mean in practice. We need in other words to rediscover the meaning of humility. This is a word to which I shall return as it sums up into itself the opposite of the power abuse that we want to expose and remove from the church.