Saturday 28 February 2009

ABC Piloting Car-Based Reality Series

According to someone called Dan French, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be piloting a car-based reality series where contestants have to overcome fear inside a fast moving car.

The ABC took time off from his Anglican duties (shown here with the Archbishop of York blessing an idol as part of Fresh Expressions) to announce plans for a new format Reality TV series titled Crash Course, with a pilot being shot this weekend. It is part of his own contribution to Lent, where members of the public can appreciate what suffering is all about.

It is known that the Archbishop of York was very annoyed when he was thrown out of an aeroplane during a publicity stunt, but 'shooting a pilot' means only that there will be an initial programme to test the concept; hopefully no one will be killed.

The canteen at Lambeth Palace will provide some indirect inspiration: the ABC will join forces with the producers of the programme Hell's Kitchen.

The ABC is known for never having learnt to drive, and this may be related to a life as an academic and church insider and never risking himself out in the public sphere. David Virtue was keen to repeat the words of Theo Hobson about this closeted life:

He has never had to seek employment, or existential meaning, outside this world. He has almost always been housed by either Church or university, thus being spared a major form of worldly responsibility and angst. He happens never to have driven a car, another reprieve from dirty worldliness," wrote Hobson.

The new programme will do new things with cars "you would never imagine", said a cockney male comedian attached to the exhaust pipe of one of the cars to feature. But the programme will focus on the people. The ABC said:

"This is a pastoral programme, where I put people in the passenger seat and watch them scream a lot."

Count E. Cannabis, who will assist the ABC, said that passengers will have to endure the Archbishop's crazy untutored driving through the busy streets of Canterbury, going through hazards such as rain, snow, fog, and falling rocks from the Cathedral.

Quentin Crisps and Tilta Swindon will present the programme, as the ABC intends to give live poetry performances while handling the controls.

Friday 27 February 2009

A Sermon for the Future

Now it is unusual to produce a sermon so far in advance, and this one will be edited, even heavily, but the sermon here is the linchpin around which the rest of the service has to be written, and then the sermon will be rewritten. On Easter Day I will conduct a service and preach to a Unitarian Church on the other side of the River Humber, and what follows was banged out in two rapid typing sessions, being therefore the first draft, and is roughly what I intend to say:

This morning at 6 a.m. many churches around the country will have lit a bonfire outside the building, with people stood close by holding candles, and then gone inside the church, and had a Eucharist or Holy Communion, and given again their baptismal promises to welcome in the day of resurrection, Easter Day.

The church I attend in Barton does this every year. The proclamation for today is "Christ is risen". Before this new dawn a period of solemn waiting had taken place through Lent, usually with extra services and study groups. Maundy Thursday is the last Holy Communion, and then comes worship on Good Friday which ends with the lights going off with no exit music, and people then sit and wait afterwards. Saturday has another observance, and for the more Catholic minded this includes receving the reserve sacrament from the Thursday. Actually, I dislike this because a reserve sacrament is perhaps for those unable to get to church; and here we have churchgoers having, so to speak, two bites at the cherry. Thus I did not partake, and it was the one Eucharist I refused, as did a few other people.

Until this year I observed Easter as completely as anyone else, despite having a radical theology regarding God, the historical Jesus, and the Christ of faith; I've made a distinction between the spiritual pathway a liturgy provides, which is enriching to the soul, and theology, which we construct. I have had a rather Buddhist view of Christianity, which is to do the worship as a practice and let the theology follow on. I have an anthropological view of the Eucharist, that explains itself like this: it is a feature in a number of societies that there are rituals of gift and exchange where people pass tokens to one another that have little value in themselves, but their exchange at some material cost and commitment involves the reception of spiritual value or spiritual gift from the giver. The exchange of the token has the effect of binding the community together and renewing its identity. For example, the anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski, in the manner of Marcel Maus, showed how, off New Guinea, islanders took time and risk in taking boats out to neighbouring islands, exchanged gifts in a circle of connections called the Kula Ring, and this action bound themselves together. Religion - Religio - means to bind.

So ritual is important, the Eucharist of bread and wine involves the material cost of attendance, participation, submission, and money, and a nutritionally useless disc and watered down wine becomes a spiritual gift, a gift that binds and renews the community, and refreshes its outlook towards itself and the wider world, a world itself of material exchange. Reciprocity is a key human behaviour, and indeed it is an animal behaviour too - such as when chimps groom one another for mutual bonding.

Indeed, just to add to this, when we go out and buy and sell using money, we can only do so with an element of trust, and trust means that a covenant between buyer and seller has come before a contract. Well the gift element of an exchange ritual is itself a covenant, a spiritual covenant.

The whole theology of Easter is that of a gift: a gift said to exist in the crucifixion, that service and sacrifice took place to its ultimate, of love at the heart of death, and the resurrection is a gift too, a gift that allows for the world to be redeemed.

And yet: is it... true? Clearly, to make a statement that one has a radical theology is to suggest that there is something inadequate or insufficient about the non-radical - the orthodox - theologies. Let's face it, my explanation of the Eucharist itself, is hardly the most common one, my explanation being entirely humanist and entirely this worldly, based as it is in purely collective human behaviour.

Here is the problem. In love Christ died for our sins, it is said, so that we do not have to die, and that we can have everlasting life. Well, good job then that the cruel Romans were around at that time and place for him to be killed for doing what would have been a demo attracting at worst today an anti-social behaviour order. Jesus was not killed because he loved the world, and indeed there is no evidence that this Jewish preacher, healer and teacher did love the world: he was killed because his messianic movement was just one more group that annoyed the Romans at the edge of their empire, where they were particularly cruel and were having to enforce their power - as indeed in 70 CE they destroyed the Jewish temple and caused a first dispersal of Jews - before they finished the job decades later.

By the way, people at that time thought they were poor, got ill and died because of the weight of sin, the demons in them. Now we know that we die for biological reasons, and it rather undermines the whole basis of the original belief, shifting everlasting life to some spiritualised realm after death and in some conflict with the idea of being raised on the last day - which is the resurrection, and the first of the resurrected was, we are told, Jesus.

Here is another problem. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, tells us that if the dead Jesus's bones were not reconstituted into a transformed body, then he, Rowan Williams, would not be a priest and might not even be a Christian. The trouble is, the brain of a human when it dies rots very quickly. There are some very silly people who have their bodies frozen once dead, so that they can be revived when technology catches up. But they will be revived brain damaged at best. Once the body rots, it rots incredibly fast: and the Romans anyway chucked the crucified bodies into lime pits to make them rot even faster. You would never find the bones of anyone after that treatment.

So let me be clear. I do not believe, and never have, that a restored, objective, self-conscious man rose after being dead, so that his bones were transformed into a manner that allowed him to walk through doors and walls, and to disappear at will. Of course not. Anyone who works that one out can get a Nobel Prize in biology, physics, chemistry, the lot. It is anti-scientific, and also I will suggest that it is anti-historical.

As most Christians rightly accept a naturalistic view of evolution, specific and local to each mutating creature in its environment, so they should have a naturalistic view of someone said to be fully human - otherwise he isn't.

The reading I gave today was of the resurrection encounter on the Emmaus Road. What was that all about?

Now there are various approaches to doing history, but all really do have to begin with documents, and the gospels are primary documents of the early Churches, a gospel representing a community or more than a community of a diverse, fast growing, expectant, Christianity. Now I believe that these communites and leaders were asking several questions.

Who are our leaders? From whom do these leaders get their legitimacy and authority? What holy rituals should we practice? How close is the very last day when we are liberated from the Romans and all human suffering, when God brings heaven to earth? Why, if Jesus was the first of the resurrected - why did he appear to some, and yet no longer appears, and when is he coming back? Who or what is guiding the leaders in the meantime?

Well, Jesus was, apparently, resurrected, then he ascended - so has gone - then Pentecost came and so the leaders have spiritual power, this being the birth of the Church. But the leaders were visited - met - by the resurrected Jesus, as was a congregation - 500 according to Paul, 120 according to Acts. The accounts are various and contradictory: it's not like several people viewing a car accident and giving slightly different accounts, but rather like several people viewing different car accidents and giving different accounts.

See what the Luke account tells. They do not recognise Jesus as they walk. Jesus tells them his connection to the Hebrew prophets. He is asking if they get it, if they understand. Then they all arrive, and have a meal. Now, the Upper Room account had said that the bread and wine meal would not be celebrated until the Messiah and Kingdom had come. Here they were celebrating it. And suddenly they saw him. It's like we might say to someone, "Do you see - do you get it?" What happens as soon as they get it? He disappears. Job done.

Now this is clearly a story. It is not real. It did not happen. It is written by the early Church, and is in the form of an encounter leading up to its core ritual. Just as the gospels are biography-like, and given as history-like, so is the resurrection, but time and again the meaning is in the story, not in trying to turn it into history.

We can't go back in time, and we can't take video cameras. That isn't history anyway. History is done by documents, and the form and purpose of these documents is about those communities. Basically it is their belief that the Holy Spirit is with them until Christ returns as a second coming, which remains the position of the Church now, though they say that Christ is encountered in the Eucharist. Why is the Eucharist important? Because it is the love meal, derived out of Judaism, cut down to bread and wine essentials, that is the boundary between earth and heaven. When you taste the Eucharist, you taste heaven at its boundary. It is the pure, heavenly, gift, and is the future hope.

So my interpretation, then, of this non-historical, anti-scientific resurrection, was that it is something to be lived out, something lived in a ritualistic pattern.

And then suddenly... it all fell away. This was a surprise because I thought that my theology was now watertight, and indeed I haven't changed my general opinion.

A curate joined the team of a priest-in-charge, an unpaid local priest, one Reader, and an ordinand in training, as well as one retired. The curate is broad in theology, and she's an ex-Methodist who prefers the Anglican mode of doing things, and her husband was a minister once in the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship and now is a Catholic lay Anglican.

She did what all Anglican curates do at her ordination as Deacon, and that was declare certain doctrinal promises. We were told by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands that she had declared promises before, and she also declared them directly to us. And she declared them again at other services. And I thought, hearing these repeated, I could not declare these promises centred on the creeds and towards historic formularies.

Now I regard the creeds as simply a statement of continuity, that they represent a point in the past that certain beliefs were established, and represent the working tradition now. They didn't bother me so much, though I'd rather they stayed in the museum case. Yet suddenly they did matter: like declarations of minature promises to uphold a set of beliefs, I said "no" and stopped saying the creeds. Nor would I want to give those baptismal promises, never mind the extended promises given by clergy. So now I was saying no, but taking the Eucharist, the Eucharist which is open to confirmed Anglicans and to members of mainline trinitarian churches. This partaking felt more and more uneasy, and thus I decided that I had to stop taking part in the Eucharist, at least for a period of time, to see how I felt.

Thus now I sit at the back so I make no over-visible protest, and I sit and not stand at the creed while I keep silence. I'm aware that Emma Darwin, the wife of Charles Darwin and member of the Wedgwood-Darwin Unitarian dynasties, used to attend her parish church without Charles and the whole family turned around and faced the congregation at the creed. I don't go quite that far.

I also sit as the long Eucharistic prayer takes place, and only join in with the Lord's Prayer half way through.

Now Anglicanism has become Eucharist dominated, and if you are not on the inside this is a very excluding ceremony. I think this ceremony could well be the means by which numbers in Anglicanism continue to reduce over the long term.

And funnily enough, when you don't participate, you cannot say that Christ is Risen, because the theology which comes down to that Eucharistic ritual is no longer connected and no longer active. In the end, the risenness of Christ, so to speak, is a liturgical performance of participation, is a moment of new vision for the year within the Church.

This does not mean that the whole crucifixion-resurrection myth is without any power. The usual explanation is this: that God intervened in history, and that Jesus Christ both died for sins and was resurrected to new, redeeming life. From this the world is given restoration and hope. However, look at it the other way around. The strength of any myth is in how it reflects upon life as it is lived, what it explains: and its strength is that so often we have to undergo death in order to live to the full, to finish what has come to an end and let new shoots arise. Life is not smooth, not do we just 'get over it' in a superficial way before carrying on. Sometimes and ongoing, life is just awful and a situation has to come to an end before it can be fully resolved. Until it does, the new cannot begin. However, it so often comes about that only after a death of something, or indeed someone, can you see the whole of that which has ended in a renewed light. Sometimes you find that you have to serve a situation faithfully to the point at which it comes to an end and then you "get it", and then you see. It could be a person you love, it could be a human conflict that has to be worked through to its exhaustion. Life, then, has a death before life characteristic, and it is that bumpy, uneven, dark tunnel and then light feature, that gives a crucifixion-resurrection myth its strength. And of course the Easter season is connected to the season of renewing life in nature.

The myth is one thing but there is this institutional problem. It is an institutional problem that knocked me off my perch. Churches are becoming narrower now in their accepted theologies, as they shrink and become more sectarian. The Church of England is undergoing such stresses. Its recent General Synod had a very silly debate affirming the uniqueness of Christ, as a way of marginalising pluralists like me. I note that in the early 1990s Don Cupitt stopped leading worship, and in 2008 he gave up any regular Church of England attendance.

There are now some tiny, open-table Eucharist-celebrating groups and miniature churches, with whom one can have open views, and a few of these go back to Unitarian linked Free Catholic and Liberal Catholic individuals like Joseph Lloyd Thomas of Birmingham and Vernon Herford of Oxford, early in the twentieth century, as well as back to the syncretistic use of Theosophy.

So what is it to say Christ is Risen? It is to say that one can and will live within a renewed vision of hope, that the world can be ethically remade, that we will serve one another and seek the common good, and that we do have a covenant of trust before we engage in material exchange. We affirm this transitory world and our passing existence, and state that the world was good, and will be good, and we seek out the highest we can know, which we may call God. We contemplate the dark: we deal with the difficult and that which needs to die. And we see, because of the risen life, that there is God even in that difficulty which comes to an end. But whatever needs to die, and whatever does die, there is always that hope on the other side that new life can be lived in its fulfilment, that we can in the end proclaim, as Friedrich Nietzsche did, a renewing and resounding Yes to Life.

Wednesday 25 February 2009

Learning from Others

James Tonkowich, IRD President, is quite right when he says that:

"Buddhism is not merely a series of practices, saying so devalues it. Buddhism is an entire worldview."

Yet Buddhism also lends itself to being a series of practices, and Buddhists are happy and confident that for many this is all they understand it to be. I used to attend Western Buddhist classes, and was one of those who became more involved in going to their houses and attending events. But many came just to the classes for the meditation, and that was it. The Buddhists were fine about this, because the orthopraxy of Buddhism is practice-led, practice first. If you do meditation, as directed, and seriously, then you are doing the Buddhism, even if you think you are just doing meditation, like you might be doing yoga. Buddhism unfurls as you do it.

Now it can be that people from other religions are also coming to do this meditation. Buddhists would say this is potentially confusing, but again if you are doing the method you are opening up to the programme that takes you on the road towards that distant realisation of Nirvana. It's just that, again, you don't have to know that to be on the road to doing it.

So it is quite possible, then, to come along with a different perspective about what you are doing, but do it nevertheless, and following the Buddhist methods (usually quite simple ones in terms of what you actually do: breathing based, number counting, thinking good thoughts about self and the world...).

Now if you go along often, and you are very serious, you are noticed, and there will be some conversation. You might say, and some people do, that you are a Christian, or a Jew, or a Hindu, and you are coming along to learn from the Buddhist techniques, and you want to take them seriously. You find the Buddhist method, the Buddhist spiritual discipline, to be very useful for your own tradition.

Now the Buddhist might well think that the Buddhist method works best understood from their own perspective, but then (being practice led) that can be by the by. Buddhism will welcome serious participation. A very serious participant might even receive some sort of recognition of the seriousness and commitment of what is being done.

Thus enter the issue of Kevin Thew Forrester, the Bishop-elect of Northern Michigan in The Episcopal Church. He is a Christian who, in the manner of Thomas Merton, treats his learning spirituality from others very seriously including meditative practice. He is given a Lay Ordination by the Zen Buddhists as recognition of his seriousness, that brings a name Genpo with it.

Lay ordination is a recognition of what has been happening, that is thus a kind of future commitment too, towards serious spiritual practice. This means meditating and a clarity that has to be in one's whole life. Such lay ordination and its commitment involves honesty in action and speech, not stealing, sexual fidelity, don't be cruel and don't distort the mind by alcohol and drug abuse.

There is everything Buddhist about these, and yet nothing particularly Buddhist about these. That's the point. People can come from elsewhere, and these can enhance your spiritual practice.

Thus Kevin Forrester draws from this. But what knocking copy this provides to the right wing Anglicans who search out another stick with which to beat The Episcopal Church! It can go down on the list alongside Pagans and Muslims and all sorts of mixtures. Even labyrinths get attacked by some. There is nothing new or original in this story whatsoever, other than the continuing desire for knocking copy.

Once again, yet again, The Episcopal Church is pretty much in parallel with other Anglican Churches in the West - those that have theological education, those who live alongside people of different faith - regarding its range of beliefs and practices. The difference seems to be the openness and accountability in selecting leadership personnel: would it be so in the closeted Church of England and other Anglican Churches! There are very many who draw on the insights of other faiths for their practices and understanding, and you wouldn't expect it to be otherwise.

Tuesday 24 February 2009

Archbishop Bloke

There is a lot of chat going about regarding the Most Reverend Jonathan Blake, who used to be known by insiders as 'Jonathan Bloke'. As one person who has actually been in touch with him, and had a short email discussion with his Scottish bishop, it is clear to me that the Open Episcopal Church is one of the most 'normal' and ecumenical Churches of the Old Catholic line that exists.

It does not carry the esoteric and sometimes regarded (and unfairly) as 'off the wall' characteristics of the Liberal Catholic stream - it deliberately sees itself as an expression of the Old Catholic. It thinks some others play at being Church, where it just wants to, simply, express the love of the resurrected Christ.

It dismisses Reformed or Protestant heritage but is almost C of E in breadth via its independent Catholic heritage. I came to the view, by talking to these folks, that it is not deliberately doctrinally liberal: it is broad regarding doctrine but essentially via the simplicity of the Nicene Creed. What is different is that it is socially inclusive, and this extends to ceremonies and its own ministry. Thus it has a female bishop in Wales. People who would want to be a part of the OEC, especially ordained, have to give it long term commitment.

The people in these Churches are all unpaid, and therefore some of their income comes from rites of passage, often through funerals at crematoria. Jonathan Blake is one of the few people who can run full time on rites of passage. He became famous appearing on Richard and Judy with a gay couple. He went to court and received support from Kenneth Leech (Anglican) on the validity of his orders, and as a result of both has an outreach that he has never lost. His car is a bit flashy from any angle. He combines this pastoral trade with developing what is really a straightforward ecumenically minded Church, unless we have to exclude women and gays in advance.

I think it is good that such a straightforward ecumenical Church exists that does ordain women and men, and does offer rites and rituals that bring mainstream-marginalised people together.

And, for all the carping, Jonathan Blake seems always to leave people to whom he ministers in good spirits. He is a character, but that allows him to reach others. The C of E and other main denominations do not have a monopoly over rites of passage.

So why don't I sign up to his Church? Because it is of the same broad doctrinal basis (as my discussion showed) as the C of E and the others. The Scottish bishop's advice was I better suited with Unitarianism!

Now then we come to Liberal Catholics, and one group managed to fall out with me even when not a member, after I asked questions of a friend it was targeting for one of its ministries. And I concluded there that there was no distinction between the organisation and the people who set it up and regarded it as their own precious possession. And, actually, that is not the sense received about the Open Episcopal Church.

There is another small group, whom Jonathan Blake took part in consecrating, which is not a recent invention but comes directly from the Liberal Catholic tradition. This is headed by Professor Elizabeth Stuart in the UK, the lesbian and gay specialist theologian (though she dislikes such categories) and I have received some material from one of its priests. This has a direct line as such to Leadbeater and Wedgwood, its founders. Liberal Catholics tend to have a priestly power view of the Eucharist which bends it towards the magical rather than purely supernatural, and whilst that was Leadbeater's view, it is not a compulsory view. In fact the LCCI demands no promises from lay people, few from clergy and the only trinitarian confession comes from a bishop (and that's it). Thus, just as the founders also used theosophy, the LCCI people can stray into syncretism just as other Liberal Catholics do.


In the photograph above, that I raked up from somewhere, there is at the viewer's far left the Right Reverend Shelley Harstad-Smith of the OEC in Wales, Archbishop Elizabeth Stuart of the LCCI is 5th from the left with one of her priests in front of her, Bishop Jonathan Blake is the tallest there, and second to the right is Alistair Bate when he was a priest and I think in the LCCI, before he left and eventually joined the LCAC. I'm afraid these are all the people I recognise, though it is more than most.

God the Cosmic Joker

As well as watching Peter Owen Jones race around some eighty branches of faiths on the BBC, I have tried to watch Christianity: A History on Channel 4. Channel 4's idea of scheduling a programme about Christianity is to put it on when some of its audience is at church in the evenings. So I'd come back from evening worship and put on the remainder of the programme, and then watch it from the start on the Channel 4 plus 1 (I always think it should be minus 1 but my brain may not be mathematical) - that's if the logo doesn't irritate the content (and if it does it goes off). It's why I skip dramas on BBC 4 etc. unless desperate. Anyway the programme has website video clips, and a time-limited page of watch again programmes and the actual edition.

Colin Blakemore's programme in the series looked at science, first encouraged by Christianity and then clashing with Christian authorities, and then major scientific outlooks undermining the Christian explanation for the world and universe. I noticed how Richard Dawkins does allow for a more sophisticated God view around actual evolution, though it is a more limited view.

However, I was more interested in Colin Blakemore interviewing someone I've met on a number of occasions, once one of the radical priests in the Loughborough area and now it seems he has moved to Oxford. I understand that another of the Loughborough area radical priests I knew has also gone elsewhere; there was always a thought at the time that they would be stuck where they are but obviously not so. A number of East Midlands incumbents occupied Emmanuel College livings and thus were connected with Don Cupitt.

The programme itself arrives at a point where the Hebrew Bible creation stories have been as much superseded, but Colin Blakemore makes the point about a far more limited effect of science upon the New Testament. He is interviewing his Roman Catholic ordained scientist guide again, before he comes to Rev. David Paterson.

From 21:37
Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican Astronomer, is explaining to Professor Colin Blakemore that with Christ "all bets are off" and God is inserted into human history and we can't expect that to ever occur again. He agrees with Blakemore that it is an assertion and as a scientist he has no evidence. He cannot disprove it until there is a time machine. It is an assertion based on faith but also the evidence we have that is the recorded evidence of the people at the time. The Church never taught biblical literal creation as central to its faith: it's not a core belief, not in the creed, and different from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

30:41 Caption: St Michael and All Angels Oxford [New Marston: Marston Road B4150 and Jack Straws Lane]

Colin Blakemore narration: But science has led a few Christians to question even these fundamental tenets of Christianity. I was brought up an Anglican and there's a lot I still like about churches: the hymns, contemplation, the sense of community. I'm here to meet an Anglican priest, David Paterson, who belongs to a group of Christians called the Sea of Faith. Many of them doubt the divinity of Jesus Christ and even whether God really exists.

CB: So, er, let's just be clear, I mean God didn't make - literally make the universe.
David Paterson: No.
Caption: Father David Paterson
CB: And er, God didn't engineer the virgin birth of Jesus.
DP: No.
CB: And Jesus perhaps didn't really exist as a person at all.
DP: Mmmm. I think he probably did, actually, yes. Yes I think, I think he did.
CB: Then can I just explore that a bit more. I mean what - what then is God to you?
DP: Em, what I fell in love with; what I wanted to give my life to. [Edit?] And its ingredients were a lot about the natural world, a lot about making relationships with people.
CB: Well I empathise with all of those things but I haven't found any necessity to see God reflected in those things. The existence of life is extraordinary, but why any more? Is there any more, really?
DP: No there isn't any more. There is actually no difference between the theist and the atheist: it's only the terminology that's different. Some people have this - this deep understanding of the spiritual nature of reality - of everything - and they want to personify it and call it God, or a God, or a particular name of God or something. Some don't want to do that.

CB narration: David thinks that the Bible was never meant to be taken literally.

DP: All the religious stories are mythological stories where asking 'Did it Happen?' or 'Where did it happen?' or 'What date did it happen?' is all completely irrelevant. It's actually all about this being a story that helps you understand what life is all about.

CB narration: So according to David all these fundamental tenets of Christianity - virgin birth, the resurrection, life after death - didn't happen at all. Seems to me that David's version of Christianity is virtually atheism: science provides the facts about the world; religion gives us the music and the pictures and tells us stories about human nature.

Caption: Pays de Gex, France.

CB narration: For me it is science not religion that provides out best understanding of the workings of our universe.

This was one of the better programmes in the series. I was disappointed with a number of them and Michael Portillo's was basically shallow. Incidentally, Colin Blakemore is not one of the scientists at the next 2009 Sea of Faith Conference, Science, Religion and Meaning.

Well, I agree with David Paterson. Recently it was suggested to me that because I have been invited to preach on Easter Sunday at the Hull Unitarian Church that this adds to Anselm's proofs of God - one he'd missed - that God has a sense of humour. Thus I might proclaim there, "Christ is risen, no he isn't."

I thought about this a lot afterwards, and I thought this is just a bizarre way of thinking. First of all it assumes that God is a Cosmic Joker, which would be one explanation for some of the biblical myths compared with scientific findings. Indeed, either could be jokes - an appearance of an old earth while it is young, or the biblical narration of a young earth and quick creation when the earth is actually old. On any such account, though, God the Cosmic Joker leaves nothing but unreliability, that we all might be wasting our time investigating or thinking and looking busy.

Perhaps then this God has acted like this throughout my own biography, but if so it's less God the Cosmic Joker and more God the Fuck-Up Merchant: setting up trivial co-incidences, trip-ups, failures and such the like and all centred around my ego.

And then you think along such logic: what a waste of God's own God-activity. It makes the tragedies of the world all the more obscene while the God is making jokes and fucking up lives in relatively trivial ways.

This is rubbish. It is the mentality of this form of thinking that I object to, in the end, and it has to be dismissed. It certainly is no proof of God, but is a proof of the decline in the credibility of God-thought.

Recently there was a ridiculous debate in the Church of England General Synod about affirming the uniqueness of Christ. Eight people voted against. I can just imagine the mindsets of some people voting for who don't actually believe in Christ's uniqueness. They do it in the pulpit; they vote. At least they avoided Peter Ould's investigatory witchhunt, who listed and made value judgments about those who voted no, as he parades his self-righteous narrow orthodoxy. I made a quick comment on Thinking Anglicans but couldn't be bothered to blog on it because it was pathetic, as if such can be voted upon (rather why I dislike part of the Jesus Seminar approach). I'd have voted no because I don't believe it: there is the absence of historical evidence and means of such evidence (and lack of evidence of absence is not equal in reply), there is the mythic community based construction of the texts that is visible in interpretation by reading them, and there is the anti-science involved in such as a reconstituted transformed body or in giving birth without a father. So I'll be agreeing with David Paterson: and to repeat Colin Blakemore:

religion gives us the music and the pictures and tells us stories about human nature.

Monday 23 February 2009

Holy Intrigue

In a shock comment the Roman Catholic Church has effectively declared that the Pope is not infallible.

His spokesman, Father Georgio Theswein, who has said, "No one gets to the Pope except through me," and who in future will do all his duties, including Mass, stated, "He's only human you know, and keeps making mistakes." Theswein is known affectionately in Vatican circles as 'Miss Diane' and has exclusive access to the Pope and decides who may see him.

Rumours are flying through the Vatican that the Pope, who was Cardinal Philip Pope before he became Pope, could be his doppelganger called Benny, who used to star in ITV's Crossroads. When Benny left the series, he joined the Iceland Italiano Bank as a cashier, where the worker priest Pope worked as an executive. A year later Benny was apparently mysteriously found swinging dead from a bridge in Dublin, having deposited his soap fortune in the Bank, where Pope was Head of Human Resources in the Ireland branch. However, the police investigation was put on hold as the detectives were unable to penetrate priestly confidentiality. When it was then rumoured that Pope the Head of Human Resources had spent too much time head hunting in the staff nursery, he was rocketed up to Cardinal status and went to live in the Vatican City, where no one is allowed in except through the heavily fortified barriers staffed by men in funny costumes. From there Pope became Pope the Pope.

It was said at the time that staff at the bank bullied Benny the cashier for looking too much like Pope the Head of Human Resources, and started to undermine Pope the Head of Human Resources for looking too much like Benny the cashier.

Now, no one is quite sure whether the Pope is Benny or Pope, or Pope is Pope the Pope. Cardinals are said to be going around deliberately creating confusion about the identity of the Pope. Police in Ireland are going to go to the crematorium to see if they can do a DNA test on some ash next Wednesday.

In 2006, after becoming Pope, Pope the Pope (if it was him) wrote a book called Taking Leave of Jesus (ScuM Publishing) that was said to be his private opinion and should in no way be seen as stating any official position. This puzzled many who wondered how the Pope could be two people at once, and how one of them could have a private view of reasonable theology while the other was authoritarian. If so it was said that the Pope as Philip Pope was not the Pope but Pope the Pope was the Pope despite being one person. In other words, this mirrored Christ in some sense because the Pope is the Vicar of God and also a man.

Pope the Pope is criticised as fundamentally lazy, but, as has been pointed out by some wag, Crossroads has been off the air a long time and he is old. Anyone who wants to see the Pope apparently has to see Theswein. The Pope never looks at newspapers nor receives a briefing. It was said that he takes a lot of Tablets, but this turned out to be medicinal rather than the Catholic magazine. He gets up quite late, like a lot of clergy do (a legacy of evening meetings) and signs papers while watching daytime television. He is a fan of Dickinson's Real Deal daily on ITV and always has a go at the competition. During the later afternoon and evening he reads theology books and comics or falls asleep.

To add to the confusion, Father Georgio Theswein is said to look a bit like the Pope himself, as well as a woman known to some as Amy Turtle.

Pope the Pope has stated that he wants a pure Church, and he doesn't care what happens so long as everyone is as dogmatic as him. However, an alternative theory is that the doppelganger Benny is wreckless and is seeking to bring the edifice down from within. Whatever, the policy towards extremism is long developed anyway, and was seen with his predecessor, the Polish Pope called Poke. The Pole Poke the Pope had a populist charismatic streak with persons that belied his own authoritarian streak when it came to personnel. Poke the Pope was hopeless in human resources, relying on Pope, but as Pope, Pope the Pope proved no better at human relations, as indeed shown by events at the bank.

The new instruction that, on top of celibacy, Roman Catholic clergy cannot drive vehicles any more (because it conflicts with the alcohol - no drinking and driving) has clashed with the sheer number of parishes individual priests now have to cover. In places like Latin America and Africa, old Catholic Churches are now being converted by the neglected laity into places of Pagan worship again. Anglicanism's top in-depth researcher, Peter Co-op Jones, noticed this as he raced around the world in 80 Days, finding that lay Roman Catholics are either becoming polytheists again, or starting brand new religions, or turning into extreme Protestant lunatics like the Virgin Mary teenager in Australia during World Youth Day, an event which led to 'Miss Diane' having to use a wet flannel on the excited Pope the Pope every day during the Australian trip.

The latest scandals to hit the Roman Catholic Church are being laid at Theswein's door. First the Pope decided that the Church could be really authoritarian and doctrinally pure if it had a rank fascist bishop back into the hierarchy. It had to be done through complete deniability, but thirty years ago there was a Unitarian minister who was frustrated in front of his sceptical half a dozen congregation, and this spurred him on to become completely mad and to win the Roman Catholic Gold Medal for personal transformation and conversion. However, his negative description of a long ago Italian reforming Pope, Pope Pepperoni, got him and his small bunch of associates kicked into some clerical back alley - but he now seems just perfect for promotion today.

Now the Pope has even converted a Bishop of Carlisle, who has stated that global warming and heavy rain is God's judgement on abortionists, prostitutes, homosexuals and condom wearers. This man will also add to the purity of the Church.

A man called Tony Blair was also converted to Roman Catholicism, which created a stir as he introduced Civil Partnerships in Britain.

So all is going very but has come at a cost of transition as the Church unravels into its state of purity. As expected it has been attacked from the outside by other 'ecclesial communities' and others. Anonymous Christians, such as Jewish leaders, have condemned the slide back into a position the Church held for hundreds of years about the Jews, and Muslims have told the Pope to stop name-calling against their revered Caliphs. Secular authorities are also attacking the Church: the German Chancellor reminded the Pope that the Holy Roman Empire vanished long ago. Most unexpected, however, has been criticism from within the Church at the highest level, but thanks to 'Miss Diane' the Pope hasn't a clue that they are telling him to resign and to go and spend the rest of his days in the local library. There is turmoil in the Church all around the world, with people resigning and being expelled, such as clergy being forced to leave Argentina which, historically, has been a destination for fascists, but these are no longer wanted once identified.

It is understood that some Cardinals are even considering a full-scale revolution, by exposing Pope the Pope as really being Benny from Crossroads, and instituting another Pope from somewhere else, even a woman who passes for a man or perhaps a closet homosexual. However, Theswein is said to possess sufficient political skills to hunt them all off, by employing Dan Brown as a masterstroke of deception and making plotting all the more difficult inside one of the holiest cities on earth.

Saturday 21 February 2009

Religion by Travelogue

Thanks to first broadcasts, later broadcasts and the BBC iPlayer, I have now watched all editions of Around the World in 80 Faiths presented by Peter Owen Jones (who seems to talk to someone at the side and not into the camera). At first I grew irritated with the programme, that seemed to be superficial and arbitrary, a travelogue via religious moving snapshots, and indeed missed some of the following early programmes. Then I watched the later broadcasts, and filled some in via the iPlayer as a theme or two did emerge.

The later broadcast of the Latin American programme brought back my interest because there was a theme there, which was understated but evident: that the Labour shortage of Roman Catholic priests and its uninvolvement of lay people in congregations is allowing back the indigenous faiths of the localities. The Roman Catholics had been to some extent syncretistic, but now the Pagan originals were coming through. The people in localities were using Roman Catholic sites, often on Pagan sites, to bring back the old religions. I thought this is good, and Peter Owen Jones seemed to be saying the same.

The most bizarre moment for this participant in rituals of different faiths was when he said that as a Church of England priest he cannot carry out a gay wedding as the Episcopalians did, though personally he approved.

POJ often described himself as a Protestant Christian and also as a priest. Yet it was with Protestants, especially the more strident kind, that he felt most uncomfortable, and seemed to feel most comfortable, with the exception of Australian urban Wiccans, with the very local religious and some of the more newer syncretistic (though he though Cao Dai were full of rules - my late Unitarian friend was fascinated by the Cao Dai so I knew something about them). Indeed over and over again you could see that the more open the better. His praise for the Baha'i Faith was unfortunately uninformed: it is simply not true (since Shoghi Effendi) that you do not have to leave your own religion to be a Baha'i, and furthermore the Baha'i Faith inherits a literalism of scriptural words similar to the Islamic tradition. It also welcomes all religious perspectives only in the way it understands and changes them. Also he might have asked why, in the area he visited, as he praised equal rights, women are simply excluded from the International House of Justice, the Baha'i ruling parliament.

Of course one thinks this: that if he was wrong on something I know something about, as he zips through, was he wrong on something I do not know about? Presumably he had researchers.

He really ought to have included the Unitarian Universalists in his United States visit, because they are part of the congregationalist origins of the States and gave rise in part to Transcendentalist literature, and have been an example of evolving even secularising religion in the US and, more recently, a movement from rationality towards including the mystic and New Age. They may be only some 300,000 but they are increasing, unlike (say) the Episcopalians (and his treatment of them was virtually insignificant to tabloid).

His own conclusion was left to the apparent end in Europe (in that he also summarises some aspects at Lake Titicaca). He had approved of a tiny group in Italy, the Damanhur Experiment, which is fully syncretistic and offered what many great faiths don't: harmony, and then he moved in the narrative from Italy to his home turf, at the Long Man of Wilmington. There he concluded that he'd found that the religious pulse of the planet still beats; faith helps us retain purpose, hope and feelings (like intuition and love). Faith isn't about proof that God exists but is a journey inwards. Human beings were the most fascinating discovery: they were generous and showed humilty, faith, imagination; they gave a welcome and love informed by faiths that have evolved. He learnt to be wary of religions that denomise others for not believing in their way, and conversely to learn from open religions open to other religions. Now back to what he had missed, he was off to take his own service (which made me chuckle: its liturgical text is hardly one that learns from other religions), and then go to the pub.

They were not eighty faiths, of course. They were eighty branches of fewer faiths and categories, so a peculiar collection. The BBC does not list them, though on one BBC web page you can reconstruct the list as broadcast - at least one having been left on the cutting room floor - and I have done this:

Episode 1: Australasia and Indonesia

01. The Bissu ritual Religion: Islam and spirit worship Location: Sulawesi, Indonesia

02. Ancestor worship Religion: Christianity and Location: Sulawesi, Indonesia

03. Pulilan Carabao festival Religion: Roman Catholicism Location: Pulilan, Bulacan province, Philippines

04. Fertility festival Religion: Roman Catholicism Location: Obando, Bulacan province, Philippines

05. Aboriginal Dreaming (Baby smoking) Religion: Indigenous religion of Australia Location: Alice Springs, Australia

06. Purification Religion: Iraqi Mandaeans Location: Sydney, Australia

07. Drawing Down the Moon ceremony Religion: Urban Witchcraft Location: Sydney, Australia

08. Drinking kava Religion: Indigenous Kastom Location: Tanna, Vanuatu

09. Flag raising ceremony Religion: John Frum Cult Location: Lamakara, Vanuatu

10. Healing ceremony Religion: Prophet Fred and Unity Location: Tanna, Vanuatu

Episode 2: The Far East

11. Oto Matsuri Religion: Shinto Location: Shingu, south east Japan

12. Naked Man Festival Religion: Buddhism Location: Wakayama, Japan

13. Hindu Street Shrine Religion: Buddhism and Hinduism Location: Erawan Street Shrine, Bangkok, Thailand

14. Buddhist ordination Religion: Theravada Buddhism Location: Bangkok, Thailand

15. Visit to a Confucian temple Religion: Confucianism Location: Confucian temple, Beijing, China

16. Taoist devotions Religion: Chinese Taoism Location: Jade Spring Monastery, 50 miles south west of Beijing, and the Hua-shan Mountains, China

17. Pentecostal service and prayers Religion: Korean Pentecostal Christianity Location: Yoido Full Gospel Church, Yeouido Island, Seoul, South Korea and Prayer Mountain, Jorimyun, Paju, Kyunggido province of South Korea, near border with North Korea.

18. Shamanic swordsmanship Religion: Korean Shamanism Location: Mountain retreat, South Korea

19. Cao Dai service Religion: Cao Dai Location: Cao Dai Temple, Tay Ninh, Vietnam

20. Spirit possession Religion: Vietnamese Mother Goddess Location: Phu Gaiy temple, Nam Dinh, Vietnam

Episode 3: Africa

21. Mamywata Religion: Voodoo Location: Cotonou, Benin

22. Gris Gris Religion: Voodoo Location: Cotonou, Benin

23. Church of Thron Religion: Voodoo Location: Church of Thron, Cotonou, Benin

24. Trance Dance Religion: San Bushmen Location: Ghanzi, Botswana

25. Sangomas Religion: Zulu Location: Johannesburg bus station, Johannesburg, South Africa

26. The 12th Apostolic Church Religion: Protestant Christianity Location: Edumisweni Apostolic Church of Christ, Hillsboro, Johannesburg, South Africa

27. Afrikaner Calvinist service Religion: Afrikaner Calvinism Location: Groot Marico, South Africa

28. Rastafari Religion: Rastafari Location: Shashemene, Ethiopia

29. Khat ceremony Religion: Ethiopian Islam Location: Negash, Tigray province, Ethiopia

30. Feast of St Michael Religion: Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity Location: Church of Mikael Imba, Tigray province, Ethiopia

Episode 4: The Middle East (only 9 - reference to Baha'i?!!)

31. Hebrew Israelite prayer meeting Religion: African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem Location: Village of Peace, Dimona, Israel

32. Good Friday procession and Mass Religion: Christianity Location: Along the Via Dolorosa and at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel

33. Purim celebrations Religion: Judaism Location: At the Jerusalem Great Synagogue and in Merrsharim, Jerusalem, Israel

34. Muslim prayer Religion: Sunni Islam Location: Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

35. Dancing and whirling Religion: Islam - Sufi Dervishes Location: House beside a 14th century Sufi mosque, Aleppo, Syria

36. Cem ritual Religion: Turkish Alevis Location: Cemevi (or house of gathering) in a suburb of Istanbul, Turkey

37. Yazidi New Year celebrations Religion: Iraqi Yazidis Location: Village, 15 miles from Mosul, northern Iraq

38. Samaritan Passover Religion: Samaritans Location: Mount Gerizim, near Nablus, West Bank

39. Festival of Ridván Religion: Bahá'í Location: Shrine of the Báb, Haifa, Israel

Episode 5: United States of America

40. Serpent handling Religion: Pentecostal Protestant Christianity Location: Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ's Name, Newport, Tennessee

41. Baptist preacher prodigy Religion: Evangelical Christianity Location: The Greater Travelers Rest Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia

42. Revival meeting and laying-on of hands Religion: Evangelical Christianity Location: Ignited Church, Lakeland, Florida

43. Séance and spiritualist reading Religion: Spiritualism Location: Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, Cassadaga, Florida

44. Navajo sweat lodge Religion: Navajo Location: Navajo sweat lodge, Arizona desert

45. Mormon prayer meeting Religion: Mormonism Location: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah

46. Polygamist family gathering Religion: Fundamentalist Mormonism Location:The Work of Jesus Christ, Centennial Park, Arizona

47. Same-sex marriage ceremony Religion: Episcopalian Christianity Location: All Saints Episcopalian Church, Pasadena, California

48. Nectar ceremony Religion: Summum Location: Summum Pyramid, Salt Lake City, Utah

49. Burning Man festival Religion: Non-religious Location: Black Rock Desert, Nevada

Episode 6: The Indian Subcontinent (11)

50. Tara ritual Religion: Tibetan Buddhism Location: Kutsab Ternga monastery, near Jomsom, Mustang district, Nepal

51. Muktinath waterspouts Religion: Hinduism Location: Stupa of Muktinath, near Jomsom, Mustang district, Nepal

52. Child blessing Religion: Hinduism and Buddhism Location: Kathmandu, Nepal

53. Durga Puja Religion: Hinduism Location: Calcutta, India

54. Aghoris Religion: Hinduism Location: Tarapith, West Bengal, India

55. The Bishnoi Religion: Bishnoi Location: Rajasthan, India

56. Firewalking Religion: Nath Location: Rajasthan, India

57. Zoroastrian wedding Religion: Zoroastrianism Location: Parsi Fire Temple, Mumbai, India

58. Guru Granth Sahib 30th anniversary Religion: Sikhism Location: Nanded, Maharashtra, India

59. Jain nuns and monks Religion: Jainism Location: Monolithic statue of Lord Gomateshwara, Hassan district, Shravanabelagola, India

60. Gorehabba ritual, during Diwali Religion: Hinduism Location: Gummatapura, village on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border

Episode 7: Latin America

61. Midnight Mass for the Feast of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Religion: Catholicism - Virgin of Guadalupe Location: Basilica Guadalupe, Mexico City, Mexico

62. Santa Muerte prayers and tattooing Religion: Santa Muerte Location: Barrio de Tepito, Mexico City, Mexico

63. Offerings to the Mine God Religion: El Tio Location: Cerro Rico mine, Potosi, Bolivia

64. Llama sacrifice Religion: Pachamama Location: Hill above Sampaya, Bolivia

65. Automobile blessing Religion: Catholic Christianity Location: Car park outside the basilica of the Virgen de la Candelaria, Copacabana, Bolivia

66. Cleansing and exorcism Religion: Assemblies of God Location: Benfica detention centre (Casa de Custodia de Benfica), Leopoldina, Rio de Janeiro and the Assembly of God of the Last Days (Assembléia de Deus dos Últimos Dias), São João de Meriti, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

67. Samba Day and orixa possession Religion: Candomblé Location: Concourse of the main railway station (Estrada de Ferro Central do Brasil), Rio de Janeiro, and Candomble, Estrada Estiva 19, Sepetiba, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

68. Temple of Goodwill meditation Religion: Temple of Goodwill Location: Templo da Boa Vontade (Temple of Goodwill), Brasilia, Brazil

69. Vale do Amanhecer ritual Religion: Valley of the Dawn Location: Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of Dawn), 3 miles from Planaltina, 30 miles north of Brasilia, Federal District of Brazil, Brazil

70. Ayahuasca service Religion: Santo Daime Location: Ceu do Mapia, State of Acre, Brazil

Episode 8: Europe

71. Lutheran baptism Religion: Norwegian Lutheranism Location: Lutheran Church, Sussjavri, Lapland, northern Norway

72. Yoik Religion: Sami Shamanism Location: Vesterama Sami Camp, Lapland, northern Norway

73. Shabbat prayers and meal Religion: Lithuanian Judaism Location: The Choral Synagogue, Vilnius, Lithuania

74. The Hill of Crosses Religion: Christianity Location: The Hill of Crosses, 12 km north of Siauliai, northern Lithuania

75. Feast of the Epiphany and Baptism of Christ Religion: Russian Orthodox Christianity Location: The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Kropotkinskaya Square and an ice hole on Zhivopisnaya street, Moscow, Russia

76. Atheist discussion meeting Worldview: Atheism Location: Moscow State University, Universitetsky Prospect, Moscow, Russia

77. Hare Krishna procession Religion: Hare Krishna Location: Krishna Temple, Begovaya Street, Moscow, Russia

78. Kalmyk Buddhist meditation Religion: Kalmyk Tibetan Buddhism Location: Syakyusn-Syume Temple, Elista, Republic of Kalmykia, Russian Federation

79. Vespers (evening prayers) Religion: Roman Catholic Christianity - Benedictine monks Location: San Benedetto's Monastery, Subiaco, Italy

80. The Damanhur Experiment Spirituality: Damanhur Location: Damanhur Community, Baldissero Canavese, near Torino, Italy

The missing one

Shingon Buddhist rituals Religion: Shingon Buddhism Location: Daigo-Ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan (in the Far East)

Friday 20 February 2009

Economic Theology

Anyone can read my piece submitted recently for Episcopal Café that uses theology to examine recent catastrophic economic events that have politicians scurrying around with ever more desperate policies of containment and attempted reversal.



By the way this photo was taken by Elena and is 800 by 600 when clicked upon.

Thursday 19 February 2009

Scenes

A few scenes from my own camera in recent years (just to prove to Mimi that it can be sunny in Durham, even in April two years ago)...



And Edinburgh is good from some unusual positions (like a toy train set)...



Some are obvious locations, but making the best of it...



Pitlochry looks good with cloud, and, back in England, Lindisfarne (below) has a number of viewpoints available, of which this is but one, and it is indeed Holy Island.


Click on a picture for 800 by 600 size each time.

Service Taking

One thing I've missed since joining in and participating in Anglican services has been preaching and presenting within worship, and though I have written and delivered occasional intercessory prayers it has not been the same as preaching, which was actually producing whole service material and presenting it as once I did. Having said that, I do enjoy presenting theological material for discussion, something that can go on as long as others want or permit it and then I'm happy to give way.

Dealing with and hanging on to some Unitarian related archives once held by the late minister at Hull Unitarian church, and trying to decide what to do with them, and hearing that the last minister in place has now moved on, and that various people are asked to take services now, I said I would take one for my travel expenses if wanted.

Where I live, the nearest Unitarian churches are at Hull, Lincoln and Doncaster, and it is both cost and distance that keep me from even visiting. We have a bridge over the Humber, but it is not a bridge but a barrier. It costs £5.40 return in a car, and is due to rise to £5.80 in July, and then the return petrol is about £5 plus other wear and tear. People often park at either side and get the bus: working week buses will be increased in frequency shortly. So I'm not exactly going to cross the Humber at car expense to go to the church there at about 30 minutes drive away, and I'm not going to Lincoln at minimum 50 minutes away or similar (but more expensive - faster) to Doncaster.

However, Wednesday I tool a telephone call and was reminded that I'd said I'd take a service, and would I - yes - and the first available is on 12th April. Yes, fine. So I wondered this evening if this was a date of any interest that might possibly go towards any theme. So I looked it up. Oh yeah, just a small theme there: Easter Day.

I thought that was quite funny. For a number of years on Easter Day I've been getting up to arrive at the Anglican church for 6 am and I was wondering about it this year, as I have fallen off the edge so to speak and stopped taking the Eucharist (having ceased saying the creed earlier). I am one of the more frequent attenders and turning up to those services with a handful of attenders (Wednesday mornings are well attended) has become a bit difficult, in that I go to a Eucharist service and then effectively sit out at the main point of it. I go for the spirituality: and the first part (service of the Word), the Peace and some extra bits like the Lord's Prayer have my full participation.

There is something of a crunch point about this coming Easter Day then and that first service of the new morning. Have my beliefs changed? Not really, no: I have never believed that anything happened in terms of a reconstituted set of bones or indeed a revived consciousness inside a renewed body of Jesus, so this Easter Day was always an expression of newness and revitalising after the darkest of darks, that whatever the difficulty and however severely lived through, the small flame can be there and then burst out one day in that unknown future, and indeed is as bright even in the difficulty. That was connected with the vision and purposes of Jesus and what he represented; clearly the man is a symbol of something greater and so is used as a focus. The myth of Jesus's death into resurrection is a reflection of the uneven nature of living, which is its power, rather than the nature of living derived from some into history hinge event.

So my participation was to join in with the myth, but so long as the train stays on the rails. But when the promises would be asked for, and the commitments made, and I thought no I don't, then I slipped off these rails. I stopped the most visible versions of promises, and then realised everything was out of kilter. And thus I stopped communicating. But what of the Easter services?

Not only is that 6 am service the Eucharist of Eucharists, but it also contains a rerun of baptismal promises of commitment. So it is the credal thing again and it looks ridiculous to go and yet to sit out, including not making those asked for promises.

What is interesting about this is that for the Easter Day service I will take, I have a full (if responsible) freedom to write and present what is compatible with my own beliefs. I cannot ask anyone to give promises to anything. Now obviously worship relates to a given congregation, but I'm not asked to pitch it in any particular direction. So I won't be preaching in a manner that something sounds like this when what I mean is that (though I don't object to preaching in a manner that something offers many possibilities when I prefer one of them). I won't be preaching or participating in order to fit in with a set of promises or a collective position, but offer something that can be expanded upon.

So this is quite fascinating really, writing a full service (I shall produce much of the material myself), for the Christian day of the year, which will test and present what I do actually believe in the context of worship for others. Obviously the theme will be Easter (it doesn't have to be but for it not to be would be bizarre, even for me).

Here is something else as intriguing. A very few British Unitarian churches may just have a Eucharist service on Easter Day, and it might be the only day of the year they have such. They will throughout central Europe, and some will even in the USA, and a number of Unitarian Universalist churches will do something equivalent. I won't as such. My last presented service in that church six years ago was an experimental Eucharist service, and it was frankly divisive despite attempting otherwise, because it's what a number of people precisely do not want. If there is a Eucharistic element in it of any kind, it will not be of a participatory sort, and would be of the most general references and actions, and I intend something moderate and sensitive and lower key rather than experimental and bold. After all, I'm there to facilitate actual worship for everyone and experiments are few and far between by those well in the groove - which obviously I am not as I have not been there for some four or more years.

And I'm going in to take the service, and not going in to then join the congregation - not at £10 plus a trip. So the time I'd go next would be to take another service, really, if they wanted me as a resource. I have no objection to taking services: indeed I'd take them in other denominations, but on the basis that what I say does relate rather closely to what I think without in any sense hiding what I think. Not that I ever have.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Conferences and Focii

As ever, a number of conferences are taking place later in the year when the lit part of days are much longer.

Two at the liberal and radical end are addressing themes of science and religion in this year of Darwin.

Sea of Faith
is looking at: Making Meaning: Science and Religion and this is held at its usual location at Leicester University from 21 to 23 July 2009. Its speakers are quite broad and impressive, with a Quaker, Tom Shakespeare, a social science Research Fellow Newcastle University, and specialist on genetics and disability issues; a Quaker, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell FRS, Visiting Professor of Astro-Physics: University of Oxford and President of the Institute of Physics; and an Anglican priest, Michael Reiss, Professor, Institute of Education, University of London. Don Cupitt provides reflections. There are also many workshops tackling the breadth of religion and science.

The general position of Sea of Faith is that religion is a human creation, but it will be interesting to see how far that line is pursued regarding science - in other words, is science an equivalent narrative or is it more narrowly governed and even differently realist?

It is tackling a whole range of questions from science in education to questions within physics, and how consciousness comes out of evolution and applying religion and ethics in science.

Science features in the Modern Churchpeople's Union Conference thanks in large part to Keith Ward (see below) but this seems to have a fairly scattergun theme about the whole. It gives space to Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, outside the camp perhaps, whilst Bishop Brian Smith of Edinburgh wants to liberate the Church, Helen-Ann Hartley thinks she can liberate scripture (fundamentals not fundamentalism), Gary Dorrien specialises in liberal theology, Lucy Winkett delves into the economy (an area that would interest me the most) and Jonathan Clatworthy asks if liberal theology is to bring peace or a sword.

Shorter conferences include another with a science theme, but also a bend towards internal Church issues.

Affirming Liberalism is a recently established group (not as active as the Progressive Christianity Network) that describes itself as 'A Church of England Network Supporting Liberal Christians of All Denominations'. In such it heavily overlaps with the modernist MCU. Affirming Liberalism's Second National Day Conference is called A Credible Faith for Growing Churches and is held on Saturday 6th June 2009 in The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford from 10 am to 4 pm. Keith Ward is to Affirming Liberalism what Don Cupitt is to Sea of Faith (though Don has stepped back a bit from providing full lectures), so this is his main base. Keith Ward speaks on "Why the Scientific World-View Confirms Liberal Christian Faith". He is Regius Professor of Divinity, Emeritus; Oxford University. More church focused is "Why Liberal Churches Are Growing" by Canon Professor Martyn Percy, Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford.

From reading about the first conference I noticed a tension between a moderate, centrist, liberalism of the Church of England, and those who had a more distinctive liberal faith.

Affirming Liberalism's starting point is the Church of England's own inclusion of the liberal perspective, and then it makes a number of points, for which (I think) point 1 and point 4 can be in conflict.

1. Affirming faith in Jesus' life, teaching, death and resurrection as revealing God's limitless love to all humanity in this life and the next.

4. Affirming a free, questioning and philosophical approach to Christian faith through God-given reason.

In fact point 1 would exclude me as a matter of course, as I don't affirm these points and my view of liberalism is more like point 4, though reason is sufficient.

Point 9 has:

Affirming open, creative conversation between Liberals, Evangelicals and Catholics to enrich our understanding of the Christian Gospel.

In such spirit I'll mention the Fulcrum Conference on Saturday 16 May 2009, 10 am to 4 pm, at Christ Church on the B283 north of New Malden station. This is wholly inwardly concerned with Church matters titled Spirituality of Unity and features various evangelicals, namely: Hugh Palmer, Rector, All Souls Langham Place, London; Jane Morris, Vicar of Cricklewood, London; Adrian Chatfield, Director, Simeon Centre for Spirituality, Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Afternoon sessions are group based with Phil Stone, Vicar, St Mark's Kensal Rise and it ends with Bible Study with Ian Paul, Dean of Studies, St John's College, Nottingham.

It recognises strains between evangelicals but puts a stress on exploring unity between them.

Monday 16 February 2009

Abel Sentamongyu on Jenny Cain

Now I am Abel Sentamongyu, tha Archbishop o'North, and my job spec here says I can be tha all round entertainer of your Anglican Church here in England, especially to give a bit of fun to the Church when my friend down south is deep in his books. You don't have to call me Archbeeshop, no, because I am really your happy, local, friend, tha friendly friend like tha local Building Societies round here were lad before they demutualised yes.

Now look. Where I cum from, wi' teeth to prove it, we have a huooooge growth in people believing in demons, spirits, all sorts of signs and wonders, and when they open they their Gospel, you know, it is not 'istory book nor science book but a book about the present day an' salvation is there from all these wibbly wobbly things we is frighten about down there.

Now we Africans think that we aff to bring faith back to where it came from, where it was first delivered from dee saints by de nationalised Post Office. And this is what I am doing, but I have gone native and now I look a little bit liberal from the perspective of my once background. My mother said, "Abel, lad, when in Rome do as dee Romans do," like I have said to my friend the other Archbishop, who thinks he's in Rome by some of them things he's doing.

So to compensate for my going native, what I have decided to do is jump out o' aeroplanes and not wear me collar while Mugabe is in power. I am told that gimmicks get you into the media, so I do as I am told.

And I am tha Abel man able to ask, "Why can't you recover your beliefs that tha used to aff, when England was all traditional and imperialist?" So I like to comment on cases I can get in t'press even though I'm fairly ignoorant about them.

I like being that, yes, immigrant of colour who 'ass leapt barrier and gets 'proval of the right wing press after all.

So I, Abel Sentamongyu, now make a comment for the press about Jenny Cain and her daughter. You see, we like to manipulate how our daughters and sons think, and in Africa we can take them to churches full of demons where they get exorcised, whereas in north of England we take ours to school full of food and hope they get exercised. But we still want to manipulate their minds along with the sweeties and processed food and all the snacks they love to eat. Now, that Mr Dawkins, who has been sent to irritate us: he says that we should not call children Christians but children of Christians, and no doubt the daughter repeats the outlook in this case of a certain Jenny Cain. Listen to the babble of a classroom and you always hear them sexist and racist attitudes that can only come from parents - yes? - and so it is with religion.

A little girl tells another she will go to hell. Now we really must uphold the right of freedom of speech so that little girls can make others cry. It's part of childhood after all. As you know, back where dee faith is strong we do diss as a first stage towards giving the children some exorcise in PE - Paranoid Exorcism it is yes. And then we can really get them all screeeming and yelling on the floor as a way of preventing parents themselves from exercising child abuse. So here we have a teacher preventing a natural process, almost forgotten here, of going towards church and having adult pastors screaming at terrified children. Though I understand some churches daan in Landan have now taken up dis vital ministry, according to some interfering social services people that the right wing press love to hate, though they luv me and though it has now altered public policy towards children called that there Every Child Matters - which must have been in the mind of the teacher when she told one child that the other child mattered.

Then of course we have a parent like Mrs Cain - I hope it's Mrs - who emails from home asking for her people to pray for her, her daughter, the school and the whole world like. Unfortunately there was one o' them Judases out there opening the inboxes. Is this just not the Gospel teaching I preach abaht? Somebody takes the thirty pieces of silver and goes t' Pilate, like I did when I checked he was high enough and then jumped aht a plane.

Now surely she should, Mrs Cain, as a staff member, be able to criticise what is going on, and I welcome the sweeping in o' yer newspapers and pressure groups to come in and add whatever chaff they can t' debate, just like I do.

And this is just another case, like that Dish case recently, where a nurse approached someone with a syringe and asked if she should pray for the patient. Now this happened to me tha sees: "Shall I pray for you before putting this in your arm," she said, and I said, "No I shall pray that you put it in me properly and do your job." Tha sees this, yes. I recovered to be t'Archbishop that I am, so my prayer clearly worked and all demons that day ran away from t'ospital.

I think we bishops, intervening in the public debate, have been doing a veary good job recently. There is somat about from where we stand, somewhat removed from the push 'n' pull of everyday life, that gives us the pearspeective that we need in order to make a contribution, and it is so impoortant that we keep religion in the public debate exactly as we do do do do do.

Sunday 15 February 2009

As it Warms a Bit...

Look no theology, no 'intellectualism' and few words!

View from my house in one direction (West) last year in March:


View from my house this year in the other direction (east):


Finally, here is the church I have been attending these last few years, from Easter Day 2008:



Actually, where we live, snow is rarer here than for many other parts of the UK, and it clears more quickly.

Click on each picture to see it a little larger and sharper.

Saturday 14 February 2009

Recruitment Problem?

The Revd. Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, and writing a Cambridge Ph.D on Thomas Aquinas, says that the use and profile of theology should be raised in the Church of England, for "we should go orthodox and thoughtful".

He laments the loss of the use of theology in many areas of Church life: so that there was a liberal turn to social sciences, and he cites an example of a short training course that was nothing but management theory. Priests today trained at a time of loss of confidence in creeds, doctrine and theology draw on spirituality and Church history. The Doctrine Commission has said nothing on the current economic crisis. It is as if theology is left to individuals, and a theology is not put in the way of newcomers. Current disputes and changes seem to dodge around theology into procedure and law.

As an ex-Unitarian I see parallels here within Unitarianism. First of all there was the loss of a general theological framework as a result of the pluralism of thought and belief. In an individualist community, there really was no way to impose a thought system. Secondly, some of those who were more conservative, or conserving, moved towards preservation of form: you can think what you like, but we will do it in a noticeable Protestant Christian manner in recognisable worship. Thirdly Unitarians started living in the past, with an overbearing interest in history. To some extent history is unavoidable, because when theology is weak then legitimacy and authority and continuity comes through references back into history.

I do this myself. I have become something of a nineteenth century junky, finding the insights of actually liberal theology and seeing streams of this that come from German and American theologians, and also that of James Martineau.

However, the difference is (and expressed in the town's In Depth Group) that we tackle theologians who stood as correctives to them and who have themselves led to controversies and later up to date theologians. So in our little corner, we are doing it.

It is unfortunate that Andrew Davison is having another general swipe at liberalism, but I would say there is a theological liberalism and a liberal approach to theology that he might welcome.

The fact is that the days have gone when theology can be imposed upon people: never mind other faiths: even within the Christian faith the extent and breadth of theology (and much of it contradictory) simply disallows some kind of imposition. Nevertheless, we can try to tool ourselves up, so to speak, with a look at the theological output that has taken place.

I've made the same arguments with Unitarians: that just because there is such breadth there is no reason to abandon looking at some of the important theological principles that go towards even the existence of plurality.

Nor should we apologise for inserting into theology important insights of educational theory, social sciences, sciences and historical methods. Nor should it forget the arts and writing itself. Theology applicable to the current economic crisis, for example, must contain social scientific insight.

I have just submitted my next piece to Episcopal Café on the economy and a small theological insight regarding sin.

My own view is that the creeds are weak and antiquarian, and that they are going the same way as the Thirty-nine Articles. They are a less adequate way of saying that this is part of a tradition, if that is what they are for, because they imply current belief that many people do not share. But this is where theology steps in, to ask why, and what happens instead.

Recently, on the basis that "these days theists are content with small gains", Keith Ward gave an example of how science can be used to discuss God issues. What he discussed was not science as such, but how science can affect the doing of theology. So the discussion of God becomes one of process and instant process (outside of time), of dimensions beyond our big bodies' lived in four, and mathematical models. It does not, itself, add up to Christian orthodoxy, though someone might try it afterwards, but it does show how theology can work these days. The same is done with educational theory (for example concrete to abstract, plural to universal - though I argue against that!), or with social sciences (conflict and consensus, poverty, needs and wants) or with writing (the story form giving rise to deep human meaning).

What's the problem? Can't they get the academic recruits?