The British Humanist Society has been actively engaged in promoting its wedding services and campaigning to make them legal in England, as indeed they are already in Scotland. I see this as a positive… More
THE CHRISTMAS STORY
During this Christmas season, tales of stars and donkeys, shepherds and kings will be told by Christians around the world. Most are fully aware that the three kings are in fact an unspecified number of wise men and only appear in Matthew’s Gospel. The shepherds are only found in Luke’s gospel and as for innkeepers and publicans, they arise from a mistranslation of guestroom. There was no room in the house so Mary and Joseph were invited downstairs to sleep with the animals. (See No Room at the Inn ) The controversy of the Virgin Birth can also be understood within the context of differing interpretations of the description of Mary as a “young woman”.
The evangelists John and Mark don’t contain descriptions of the birth at all and furthermore, many church-goers accept the whole narrative canvas of Christmas stories as fictional. This does nothing to diminish power of those stories; on the contrary, it renders them ever more powerful, enduring and inspiring.
This Christmas, besides seeking to offer hospitality, to be generous in our giving, to recognise the divinity in each other, to be humble in giving birth to the things of God, let us celebrate the work of biblical scholars who over the last two hundred years and more have unpicked different sources within the Old Testament books, brought to light the relationships between the gospels, highlighted the creativity and characters of the biblical writers and their communities, and freed us to interpret their stories in ways that are relevant to us and our times.
Above all, let us seek not to belittle the intelligence of our congregations young and old by pretending we know nothing of this rich history.
LET THE CHURCH CHANGE
As long ago as 2002, it was reported that a quarter of Church of England members did not believe in the Virgin Birth. (see here)
In 2017, a survey revealed that 31% of Christians did not believe in life after death. (here)
Four years later The Clergy Project was launched to support clergy who no longer held supernatural beliefs.
In the light of these statistics, an assumption might be made that the church is in decline and no doubt the 57% of Christians who believe the bible word for word will claim that these doubters are not true believers and should be expelled from the church. From my standpoint, these figures are in fact a sign of hope that the church is evolving and changing.
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer we find prayers for rain and protection against the plague, yet I have never heard these prayers used, since only a tiny minority believes this is how the world operates. In forty of years of ministry I have never heard anyone preach a sermon on the threat of hell.
It vexes me whenever I encounter individuals holding forth on the subject of Christianity who haven’t set foot in a church for years and who imagine its members still believe what was taught fifty years ago in Sunday School. Most Christians are intelligent and well-read; it’s naive and patronising to afford them ideas and beliefs that cannot be considered and articulated in a meaningful way.
Why must a belief in prescribed fundamental principles be a prerequisite for belonging to a Christian community at all? In 2000 years we have seen an astonishing diversity within Christian thinking and practice and during that time the way we understand the world, the way we make meaning and interpret texts has changed, so it is hardly surprising our understanding of faith has changed accordingly.
As for the clergy who say God does not exist, Thomas Aquinus, one of the founding theologians of the church himself asserted that God is not a being that exists but existence itself; does that belittle his faith in any way? What does that say about his belief that God exists?
If the church is to thrive today, its clergy and people must continue to be honest about the things they believe (or not!) and indeed about the very nature of faith. Is it really, for example, a matter of giving assent to supernatural (whatever the word supernatural might mean today) propositions, or about living according to certain principles? At the same time, those outside the church should allow that church to change and furthermore acknowledge when it does.
RETURNING FROM WAR
When I was a youngster, Remembrance Sunday seemed to be dominated by “the men with the medals”. I would watch from the choir stalls while these men processed to the chancel steps and lowered their flags in solemn remembrance of fallen comrades.
It was very moving. We looked on in awe and wondered what acts of daring and bravery the soldiers had performed to earn those medals. All we had to rely on were the films we’d seen. Were these the men who had blown up bridges, shot down enemy aircraft and survived prisoner of war camps?
As the men with the medals have dwindled in number, we’ve started to acknowledge and marvel at others who contributed to the war effort alongside them: the women who worked on the land and in the factories, those who nursed the wounded on the front line overseas, or in hospitals at home; the animals – war horses shipped out to carry ammunition, – donkeys and mules to carry food and water, canaries to detect poisonous gas, and cats and dogs to hunt trench rats.
We’ve learnt to remember not only the men but the boys,our boys, caught up in more recent conflicts. Young lads and lasses on active service in Korea, Bosnia, Kosova, Afghanistan, Iraq. And we’ve leant to remember the wounded and the traumatised.
The men with the medals didn’t talk much about their experiences. Only in the past few years have we heard their stories, perhaps encouraged by more recent generations of service people publishing their accounts and campaigning for better treatment and care. We also now remember their families, the military wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends and children.
Returning from combat and surviving the trauma of war is as old as war itself. Part of Homer’s Odyssey, the oldest extant piece of western literature, written possibly as early as the 8th century BC, describes the ten year homecoming of the eponymous Greek warrior famous for his exploits in the Trojan War.
Odysseus encounters innumerable obstacles and traumas en route for home; he is blown off course in severe storms, is repeatedly haunted by visions of fallen comrades and returns to a wife who thinks him dead. Worse still, she doesn’t even recognise him since he is a changed man, a man in a new guise, who has to win his way back into the household and into her affections. Furthermore, there is no happy ending to the tale, as Odysseus fights with his son to the very end of his life.
There is much anecdotal evidence to draw on with regard to the problems returning soldiers have experienced in adjusting to “normal” family life; to wives who’ve had to learn to survive independently in their absence, and in redefining themselves both as husband and father who may have missed out on the birth and early years of their children.
We probably all know of soldiers who have returned from war as changed people, unrecognised, traumatised, angry and depressed, and once the initial euphoria of the homecoming has subsided, the consequences of their internal struggles have then gone on to threaten the fortunes of their families for generations.
In 2009 eight and half thousand veterans were serving sentences in UK prisons and a further eleven and half thousand were on probation or parole.
In 2012 in Britain, more soldiers and veterans killed themselves than died in combat in Afghanistan.
An average of six veterans a day over the last few years have requested treatment and are said to be suffering from PTSD Disorder.
The return from the conflict brings no immediate peace for countless veterans, who along with their loved ones have to weather the fallout of mental illness on a daily basis..
Likewise, there is little peace for us. Learn the lesson: life’s battles against injustice, evil, inequality and prejudice affect us all. Like Odysseus and returning veterans, we are all trying to find a way home to ourselves; our way home to God.
We should honour and take as our models not only those who have survived both the physical and mental scars of war in direct combat, but also the many partners, siblings and parents who have helped to nurse their traumatised loved ones back to health
They too deserve to stand alongside “the men with the medals”
WHERE DID I COME FROM/IS GOD?
It’s the question parents are supposed to dread. “Where did I come from?” Nowadays I suspect most parents are well-prepared. They also know that very young children are not expecting a biology lesson. A lecture on the facts of life wouldn’t quite answer the question.
The child in front of us is not just a bundle of bones, or a brain, or a whirlwind of arms and legs. Children are people and a person isn’t made by sticking cells together. People are created from so many different elements; language, culture, experience, human life and love.
“Where did I come from?” may represent a search for some kind of intention behind a child’s existence. They weren’t an accident but conceived in love. They are wanted and they belong.
When I was training to be a priest, I spent some time working alongside a hospital chaplain. One day we were taken to the morgue. As the mortician was preparing a body for a post-mortem, he produced a little electric saw. “I need to open up the skull” he said. “Where is he?” he asked, “Come on, you’re the experts!”. Again it’s not a geographical question. People are not simply physical objects. To ask the question “Where is he?” is to ask for re-assurance that the person who was part of our lives will remain in our family conversation and in the history of our community. That is what makes them a person and continues to make them a person after death.
Parallels can be drawn with the question “Where is God?” We are not looking for a biology or a geopgraphy lesson, since the notion of a physical “coming together” is not appropriate. God is not made by anything at all but is that which creates love, joy, peace and the fruits of God’s spirit. The question “Where is God?” looks for some kind of assurance that all is well; that there is hope and purpose in our lives.
That’s why the Christian answer to the question “Where is God?” should be “God is with us”. The equally important question is “Where are we?”. That’s not a geographical or biological question either ; Are we with God? Are we where there is hope, courage, humanity, dignity and love?
The Australian Catholic Bishops recently decided not to adopt all the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and rejected a recommendation that reports of abuse disclosed to priests during confession be reported to police.
Three Australian states have already adopted laws making it an offence for priests to fail to report the confessions of child sex abuse. However some priests in these states have said that they are “willing to go to jail” rather than break the seal of confessional.
It seems extraordinary that the highest standards of safeguarding within most secular institutions should not be adopted by the church.
There is on old puzzle that is still presented to theology students: Are God’s commands good because he commands them, or does he command them because they are good? The thinking behind it is that as God cannot be subjected to anything, to say that he commands things because they are good would suggest that God was being subject to standards of goodness.
The crucial and most telling point is this. Anything that we consider to be less than the highest level of morality cannot be of God. Consequently we should have no hesitation in adopting what after careful consideration we think best for our children. The search for goodness is surely by definition a seeking after God. We should begin not by asking what God wants (which makes the extraordinary claim of knowing what God is thinking) but what is the best we can do.
We are all acutely aware of the vulnerability of our personal data, since Cambridge Analytica was accused of harvesting thousands of Facebook profiles. Many companies keep an eye on our internet searches and online/ offline shopping, and their algorithms deduce our likely profile and preferences, so as to tailor their advertisements and target their propaganda.
For many Christians this has an unnerving resonance in the prayer that opens some Communion Services: “O God from who all hearts are open, all desires known…..” Their all-knowing God is even more informed than the internet giants, and disciples are called to act beneath the gaze of an all-seeing God.
Of course we should all aspire to live with a clear conscience, unafraid of how our actions might be judged by our partners, friends and colleagues. Those working for public institutions will always be mindful of the scrutiny of trustees, stakeholders and the watchful eye of the press, and must be prepared to defend their decisions. Good communication and trust is built on the sharing of personal knowledge.
Yet we would be reckless not to consider carefully in whom we place our trust. The dangers of identity theft are very real and can have serious financial, medical and legal consequences. It isn’t a new phenomena, however; the Genesis 27 tale in which Jacob steals Esau’s birthright is probably one of the earliest recorded examples of self-seeking and calculated identity theft.
Preserving our personal identity offline is probably as hard as online. It isn’t only unhealthy relationships and abusive communities that can rob us of our identity. “Make of our hearts one heart” sing Maria and Tony in West Side Story; something to which most lovers aspire. Yet alongside this idealisation of an intimate relationship, is the need to balance mutual dependence and the freedom of an individual’s emotional autonomy. As the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran writes:
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
The same holds for the intimacy of faith. St Augustine wrote in his Soliliques “If I know myself I shall know thee, O God.”. To lose our identity is not only to lose ourselves but to lose the way to God.
THE WEIGHT OF HISTORY
I grew up near Liverpool, and returning to the city after a few years was a revelation. Places I remembered as some distance apart were on each other’s doorsteps – the Philharmonic Hall almost next door to the Anglican Cathedral, the Everyman Theatre next to Paddy’s Wigwam, the entrance to the Mersey Tunnel just behind St George’s Hall.
It’s a vibrant city, constantly renewing itself and still bathing in the glory of having been chosen as City of Culture back in 2008. Yet the wealth of the city that produced many of these great buildings was built on the back of the slave trade and thousands of impoverished dock workers whose lives are well-documented and displayed in Liverpool’s museums.
At present, figures from the the Terracotta Army, the underground battalions of life-sized warriors that secretly guarded the tomb of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, are on display at the World Museum. The unification of China under Qin was impressive but again the cultural advancements that we marvel at today were achieved at huge human cost and loss of life, many sacrificed and buried alongside the warriors and the Emperor they had faithfully served.
We ended our visit to this great city with a trip to Crosby Beach, where the hundred cast-iron figures of Antony Gormley’s collective sculpture “Another Place” look out to sea. They reminded me, as we commemorate in 2018 the lives of those who fought in the first world war and the debt we owe, that many aspects of our lives are built upon the dedication and the sacrifice of countless others unknown to us. It isn’t only the pioneers and people of extraordinary talent we need to remember but the many who bore the burden of the political and economic life of the past.
Job by Léon Bonnat (1880)
We have no hesitation in accepting that some suffering may simply be down to bad luck. It’s no one’s fault and certainly not the sufferer’s. However, for much of human history the sufferer or someone close to them had to be to blame. God looked after the righteous and no ill would befall his chosen ones, providing they remained faithful. If it did, it was a sign that they or their forebears had sinned. There was no such thing as innocent suffering.
A positive step away from this simplistic notion can be seen in the Book of Job, where having been stripped of all his possessions, and seeing his wife and family killed, Job remains faithful. When his comforters try to convince him that his suffering is a punishment from God he pours scorn on them.
It’s a remarkable book and Job’s attitude to his supposed friends is one to be applauded. However, its theology is despicable, for in the opening chapter we learn that God has allowed Satan to inflict such pain on Job simply to prove his steadfastness. Such a God is unworthy of faith and morally indefensible.
For our sanity and well-being we must cling to the notion of innocent suffering. A lazy commentator would resort to speculating over which lifestyle choices and decisions might have brought about a person’s downfall. All decisions have their consequences but the outcomes, whether positive or negative are not inevitable or easy to predict.
Asking “Why me?” is easily answered in medical terms, but as an existential question it makes no sense. Any thoughts about God must begin from our conviction that innocent suffering is a possibility; the concept of it occurring as a result of sin is ludicrous. The “punishment” simply doesn’t fit the crime.
In the Gospels Jesus is asked of a man born blind “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” ” Neither” he replies, and suggests that the man’s blindness presents an opportunity, rather than a hindrance. Perhaps we should approach our own suffering in the same way. If possible we must try to gain some benefit from it, and in the management of it, learn empathy and a greater understanding of ourselves and others.
NEEDLES AND CATHEDRALS
A friend told me of a recent visit to one of our cathedrals, where having been welcomed by the steward, was offered the pass code for the toilets. Why, she asked, do the toilets command such high security? The answer, “well we don’t want drug addicts injecting themselves in there, do we?” was delivered with an unhesitating conviction that my friend found initially rather unsettling, within the Christian context.
This response, or at least the manner in which it was delivered, so disturbed her that she looked to me for an explanation. Surely the church should be welcoming such people; furthermore, what positive action is the church taking towards engaging with, and caring for them.
Perhaps rather too keen to defend our cathedral churches, I pointed out the health and safety issues involved in having dirty needles lying around in toilets available to visitors. “People often expect the church to be a soft touch…” was a common line of argument that I proffered.
Most cathedrals and city churches do indeed have programmes of support for homeless people and their associated problems, but I knew I was on the wrong side of the gospel. Jesus tells a parable of a Samaritan travelling the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He comes across a man who has been attacked and left for dead. A priest and Levite have already passed by the man, either fearing that they would become “unclean” through contact with the man or had urgent or ritual obligations to fulfill. The Samaritan, however, disregarding all health and safety concerns for himself and his patient, entered the crime scene, (were the muggers still around?) applied first aid (had he any idea what he was doing?), supplied ambulance support by putting the man on his donkey (was the man in a position to be moved?) took him to the nearest inn, and left money with the innkeeper to look after him (was he to be trusted to support the man?).
Who, asks Jesus, acted as neighbour to the victim? The answer might seem obvious, but for us to emulate the Good Samaritan in our own lives as Jesus commands, is rarely so clear-cut. We are both to care for our neighbours with planned and responsible programmes of action, and yet be ready to respond to the unexpected where we see an immediate and urgent need, by putting our own plans to one side and taking risks.
I’m looking forward the cathedral’s response to my friend’s letter.