Sunday 30 September 2012

Lincoln Dysfunctional - But the Solution?

It seems that my remaining days in the C of E at the north end of the Lincoln Diocese were inhabited in a dysfuctional diocese.

Here was what I knew at the time. The numbers of people through the doors was down, and had been going down for a long time. The paid clergy numbers were at the upper age range and declining rapidly, but there were volunteer trainee priests on the way. The chap as priest at the neighbouring group of parishes retired and was not replaced. They were then divided up for a time for oversight purposes, and messed about, and everyone else was messed about until they all came into the same parish oversight and the incumbent finally achieved some stability of position. So in a sense they were hanging on until a decision was made while a sort of 'minster model' emerged which meant centralisation around a town regarding clergy provision, where there was located a group of unpaid clergy in increasing numbers along with an existing lay reader. There was a sense in which, all through this period, the churches beyond were left to produce their own solution by decline with oversight, until oversight became incorporation by an eventual decision.

So when the previous bishop left the new one came in and got himself a report, a report that showed Lincoln is near the bottom of some key performance indicators. Like, for example, they are a tight fisted lot down in Lincolnshire. I could have told them that because I was too. The report states:

Between 2000 and 2011, the number of stipendiary clergy in the Diocese fell from 226 to 152, a reduction of 33%, whilst Norwich fell by 7%. The national average reduction was 16%. Based on its area and number of churches, Lincoln’s national proportion of stipendiary clergy should be more than twice its actual number. Giving as a % of average income was 2.6% in 2009, compared with a 3.4% national average, ranking Lincoln 41st from 43. At the same time, weekly attendance fell by 17% compared with the national average fall of 10%, despite Lincolnshire’s population increasing by 6%. Source: CofE Research & Statistics data (see appendix) [Notes page 9]

One of the reasons people were tight fisted was that the paid clergy kept disappearing, so the idea apparently grew that if there were fewer people to fund then less money was needed. As for the surplus of unused churches, the best thing for them was for them to be looked after by heritage bodies or left to go to ruin. This was actually a strategy, called the New Era strategy (and may explain why a group of neighbouring parishes was left to drift towards a solution before management became more effective and took a decision).

the New Era strategy often results in the withdrawal of a Parish Group’s stipendiary priest, which in turn reduces effective Mission, Ministry and focus for fundraising. The result is a downward spiral of despair: reduced Mission and Ministry leads to smaller congregations and less Giving until the Parish church becomes unviable. The burden of maintaining the church in a safe state then usually falls to the Diocese. A policy is required for unviable churches.

Alternatively, early intervention through access to the Diocese Reserve and other grants could reverse this cycle and, in the long term, save the Diocese money. Initiatives to improve churches’ economic viability could include solar PV panels, lead replacement and, where no other village facility exists, the fitting of kitchens and lavatories to facilitate their utility as Parish halls. [page 10]

The sense of drift, then, was an experience of the area and of the diocese in general. The report states:

In the Ministry Division’s 2011 ‘Experiences of Ministry’ survey, clergy from the Diocese rated their support against four key criteria. The results ranked Lincoln between 40th and 42nd out of the 42 English mainland Dioceses. [notes page 7]

The only good thing seems to have been the training of lay readers. Clergy recruitment was another rubbish experience, with untimely advertising, and geographic remoteness counteracting against good housing. Promotion for clergy was seen as unrelated to talent and chaplains felt separated off altogether and people retired unrecognised. The reputation for liberalism was seen to favour this tendency and excluded others. Thus morale was low [page 7].

One can see where this is all going, but let's see if the report does go that way. So what does the report recommend? First that the Diocese’s Senior Clergy should comprise of one Diocesan Bishop,one Suffragan Bishop and three Archdeacons [page 2]. Thus David Rossdale, Bishop of Grimsby, has resigned. He's the one on the left, up above.

Then the work of ministers should be recognised and rewarded with the bishop overseeing the development of talented clergy for promotion to senior roles. The bias perceived towards liberals should be replaced by a welcome to all kinds and chaplains should be better included. [See pages 7 and 8]

Well, what does one make of such a report? I think it has a fundamental flaw and it is in its clergy and then management focus. The guts of the matter is the fewer people darkening the doors of organised Christianity. The Methodist church down the road was in far worse shape. Its ministry and leadership (with a scandal down the road) was adapting to take account of real decline. The idea that you can employ more clergy, make it all cost more, and that this produces more people to dig deep into their pockets is an illusion of self-importance.

While I was there I did a web archive of a news booklet that had ambitions for itself in the 1970s. Even in the 1970s a Sunday Achool outing to the coast involved bus loads of children and many Sunday School teachers. But in 2009 there was a group approaching the 'leaving age' well catered for, and asking for more involvement, and a handful if that of younger children. The Sunday School is a dead institution, and is in most places. In the 1970s the Sunday School, Choir and local schools were all connected. Now the clergy make visits into school and maintain the connection with Church of England schools.

As regards liberalism, there might be the wider reputation, but the next parish was evangelical, and there was some crossing the border traffic. I crossed the border. I never attended the main church in my parish once and attended the one 30 seconds from my door three times between 1994 and 2010. The town constrained not the liberality, which actually was a plurality (because the congregation had main, Catholic, liberal and evangelical elements), but the desired Catholicism. The tension was, should the church become even more Catholic and mystical (even) or be accessible to the broader outside, the latter argument undermined by the fact that Anglican liturgy is an acquired taste in whatever style it is presented. People haven't acquired it in Sunday School, and it looks and sounds strange to people of ordinary thought. Nevertheless there were the more open, even semi-chaotic, services, and some regulars knew when to stay away.

The argument about ministers and focus, and stability, even identity, is one that faces the people I am with today, in a small independent congregation. Do we run the thing collectively or does it end up in factions and errors that cause arguments, or do we have the focus of a minister if only one would consider such a remote location. The minister could constrain the plurality we get now, but the plurality of now is almost random and sometimes amateur. It is so easy to have a minister but to have a bad minister and then matters really are disastrous.What is required, perhaps, is management skills and pastoral skills and clear distribution of roles and methods. But what is also required is enough people coming through the door. A minister might be a means to that, but might also lose some, and might be fairly useless as people sit back and leave it to the one paid individual.

What I am trying to get at here is the old reports like Paul and Tiller were about lay solutions and working from the bottom up, from activity up. Management is the solution in so far as it facilitates activity. But what seems to be implicit in this Lincoln report is the refocus on the clergy, as if a church is its clergy.

It isn't like that. There is a workload and the people who care for the church's future take on the workload. But the church should be aiming at an inner harmony and purpose, a means to handle its disagreements, so that it becomes an attractive community throuigh which people can think through the meaning of their lives.

There is no excuse for managerial drift, but it can make sense to rationalise churches and lead them from the congregation (allowing space for those who simply want to attend). A place has to encourage participation and jobs done, and it is when no one wants to do them that the hard decisions need taking. The solution is not to clericalise and pay anyone who wants to help manage a church on the basis that this might cause others to put their hands in their pockets.

The real question is to ask what churches are for, and how they can function as meeting places, and what is done in them, and then how they can be managed and by whom.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Animal Cruelty Offenders Register Proposal

On Sunday at St Albans Cathedral the idea will be floated of an Animal Cruelty Offenders Register (and so would go alongside that of the Sex Offenders Register). Someone on the Animal ruelty Offenders Register would be forbidden from keeping an animal, or working with them, which means it would be an offence to sell an animal to such a person or employ them in animal-related work. The person would end up on the Register after an animal cruelty conviction, but not straight away. The proposal is that Christian principles apply in that at first the convicted would have to attend compulsory classes run by animal protection professionals to develop some empathy with animal suffering and confront their own violent tendencies. The person sees the error of their ways and escapes the Register.

The proposal will be made by Professor Andrew Linzey in a sermon on Sunday evening (18:30) at St. Albans Cathedral. It is a proposal that responds to calls for tougher and more consistent punishments for animal offenders but one that recognises that prison does not work given the tendency to reoffend from a dehumanising setting. Also, the link is being made between cruelty to animals and violence then towards other human beings.

Would it work? This is my view. The Sex Offenders Register works because there are clear understandings of what constitutes sexual offence. Take the example of a teacher and a student, he aged 30 and she 15, and she gives consent to sexual activity. He will still end up on the sexual offenders register, and the reason is that we judge that she cannot make that consent, that he had a duty of care and to step away from even considering a 'relationship', because her level of development and outlook is clearly not fully formed. The excitement for life and emotional turmoils and attractions of a teenager are for teenagers alone and not a person, a professional, put in place to teach. The rules then become clear, and a minimum limit of 19 - in fact over the age of consent - is made in that situation. The clear rules follow lots of professional advice on the matter. Indeed, the clear rules mean that you might attend change of behaviour and outlook classes but you are still put on the Sex Offenders Register. Andrew Linzey's proposal allows one to escape the Animal Cruelty Offenders Register if the person has changed their outlook and behaviour.

I'm not sure about the proposal (before hearing it in full). The comparative problem with animal cruelty is that it is a shifting area of debate. The view of a vegan, for example, is that the milk industry and removal of calves from mothers involves animal cruelty. Now I am not sure that calves and cows have an awareness that leads to that conclusion. They might and if it becomes demonstrable then cruelty exists: would we then be placing farmers on an Animal Cruelty Offenders Register? A potential future is one where private individuals keeping cows for milk could be prosecuted.

This sounds like a far-fetched argument, but there are lots of claims about cruelty in abattoirs. There are arguments that in the final moments the animal becomes aware of what is happening and is thus fearful. This is emotional cruelty with physical consequences (they have minds and bodies - it is suffering). To not keep equipment up to the mark might involve prosecutions if there was any intent in not retaining the highest standards regarding stunning and killing.

To say that this proposal can be limited to physical violence may then call upon definitions of violence and purpose. Clearly there have to be definitions, perhaps centred around physical immediate pain that must mean suffering and perhaps also involving a warped sense of human enjoyment.

But let's turn this comparison around: would it have been possible for Victorians to have had a Sex Offenders Register? There was an environment of violence, sexual-charged violence (even with the cane in schools), childhood exploitation and an underworld of class based sexual duplicity. It is even more complicated than that because much of what offended Victorians is not so regarded today and some of what was deemed essential to Victorian life we now regard as requiring the Sex Offenders Register. So an Animal Cruelty Register, via changing behaviour classes, could well be a good place to head for protection of animals, but it needs clear and settled guidelines and principles on what we are protecting animals from and where activity with animals that some people call cruel remains entirely legal and free from legal threat beyond the usual monitoring of standards. But I can see a situation where (perhaps rightly) a position once entirely legal and free from threat becomes something that demands change of behaviour and outlook classes and the threat of being placed on a register. Is the ball moving too fluidly at present to have such a register?

Update: Andrew Linzey tells me his point is for those convicted now of animal cruelty, whereas I am asking about a regime that prosecutes when there is a register. Further Update: Andrew Linzey comments in response: "I am referring to those convicted now or in the future of illegal acts of cruelty, hence the definition of cruelty is quite clear. One would need to be convicted of an illegal offence before the empathy training and/or register would apply."

Wednesday 26 September 2012

An Uninteresting Horse Race

I suppose it's almost expected for a blog like this to comment on the Archbishop of Canterbury horse race. But what I'm hoping is different, that when this one retires we can largely forget about the next one.

I have been interested in Rowan Williams because of his turnaround ethically and his deceptive theology. The narrative theology he promotes is one about stories, and not about history, but he treats it at a level of detail that suggests it is history, and indeed when put in a corner, as by Simon Mayo (of all people), he has made claims that the birth narratives are historical - I think he said, "I think so, yes," to these narratives as history. But elsewhere he said that the virgin birth that he used to regard as unimportant he came to regard as more important - whatever that means. It's all a sophisticated level of double-speak, and the deception it involves needs cracking open.

And his whole time as Archbishop has been to put the Church first and people second - the Covenant being his principle policy that, fortunately, was taken from him. He allowed the worst elements to call the shots, again the low point being around 2007.

Frankly we've got better material from the Chief Rabbi about the interface between religion (again as guiding stories) and the work of secular science and the influence of other faiths and philosophies. For someone of orthodox Jewry, he really has been interesting. He has been curtailed a little by fellow rabbis. Rowan Williams has also been generous regarding the texts of other faiths but this never equated with his lack of breadth in his own Church and Communion (often deliberately mistaken as a Church).

So I don't care whether the capitalist in Durham wins (who can run an organisation) or a safe pair of hands or whatever. It matters little. Well, not unless this continuing recession and unmoved debt in an unbalanced world economy leads politicians towards pessimism, nationalism and war, and then we might have to wake up some potentially ethical leaders if indeed they are ethical leaders.

Other than that I'll be less interested in the next one than I have been in the disaster that has been this one.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Theology as Discredited

Despite my interest, I think it has to be concluded that theology is now an utterly bogus academic discipline.

It is probably the only one where the answer comes before the question, in having to maintain continuity with a given tradition.

Probably, because some Marxist sociology had a tendency to live within itself, and use its own writings to conclude a point that seemed to ignore the wider world and rougher experienced reality. I remember back in 1979 to 1981 doing some Marxist sociology and writing my essays from the perspective of Friedrich Hayek. So I could and did employ liberal ideology and the department could not (and did not) mark me down on the basis of ideological preference (this form of liberalism didn't last long). A similar situation took place in 1996 to 1998 when I was then Unitarian and I did a contemporary theology course and wrote all I did from a religious humanist perspective. My reattempt at Anglicanism took place from 2004 to 2009 as a sort of postmodern Christianity, which meant delving in levels of double-speak. It didn't work in the end. The university is not a seminary, so it has to accept all stances as positions, and it is why so many theology departments became departments of religious studies.

All academic studies have traditions and a language of operation. You have to get into that language to do the work. But they all have self-critical methods which means there can be paradigm shifts, even if there are defensive professors. Yet a paradigm shift regarding theology could mean a change of orthodoxy, and that would never do. There are increasingly theologians of gnostic texts, but they don't seem to be regarded or regard themselves as theologians, and are often content to apply severe historical methods to their work whilst regarding the source as important. OK, so do some theologians apply such methods, but they are as if on a roundabout of prior commitment and never come off it.

So theologians become experts not just in a language of discourse, but in double-speak, partly because some of them are also serving a church community.

So many people in churches still believe that Jesus was 'sent' by God, and that his divinity was present as a new born baby after his parents had had a long walk south. He did perform miracles because he was God 'in situ', and then of course there was the big one where he died, got up and walked out of the tomb (though he may have been down and up in an invisible lift regarding a visit to hell) and then he walked around meeting the disciples and vanishing again, with an additional power of walking through walls, until he decided to leave them for good upwards and join God to then send a third divinity to direct the religious traffic.

Theologians might realise there is a lot of twaddle in that account, but they are obliged to maintain at least its outward appearance. This double-talk brings lack of credulity.

Recently an evangelical friend has been blogging about the depths present in a Timothy text that tells women to keep quiet and to be saved through having babies. The depths involved are that women should in fact be as talkative and teaching as men and will be saved through faith. For an evangelical, plain reading of scripture is to be preferred until of course it doesn't suit. Then double talk begins. The liberal simply does it earlier.

One has to declare when the use of words is poetic. They are to enhance feeling, to be artisitic in building up the three dimensional nature of being human and being human towards the other. I sing all sorts of nonsense in this pursuit, and will tell so (and why to do it - metaphors of ideals and potentials). It may be that the words are such that here too is double talk, but then we must pen some more and other words, allowing for the ground-in expressive, something that just is let be. The rope is cut and there is no 'objective' way back, nor any intellectual basis of limitation to one tradition set of texts instead of many. The evangelical keeps answering "no" to the lines of the hymn Jerusalem, but she or he is obviously an idiot to even bother, but the liberal tries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Rather it is just a song of an ideal, grounded in some metaphors about smoking factories and rolling green hills at home - pictures of England made divine.

At one time theology was upheld by a general Christian culture. But now even church people with those ideas above about baby Jesus onward do go home and expect the weather to be an anonymous chaotic force and all of life's events to be fairly random and purposeless. Even the church person lives in a double world. Most folks beyond the churches understand science as enquiry, and are not bothered by distant religious texts and traditions - they no longer went to Sunday School to have their early minds confused.

A recent hymn I transcribed from the Iona Community has a statement of the presence and movement of God, but it is a hymn that fails as soon as it succeeds. It is great in its imagery of presence, care, support, good things and bad, but it cannot be taken literally. It just says 'take much in' with your spacial metaphors of what raises the human vision.

Theology really is a branch of anthropology. It could be rescued as an analysis of metaphors that give meaning towards ethical direction. Religious studies is also highly anthropological - it is what some people believe, some structures believe. Performing circular arguments like 'Radical Orthodoxy' have no place in universities because they are retreats into a small self-justifying world of the seminary. Similarly the evangelical world is its own enclave of reality that avoids the reality of the everyday (until the reality switch is pressed on). Clergypeople praise God for the spare parking place but theologians really don't want to be so naive.

Thursday 20 September 2012

It's Still the Core Even if it's Disagreed With...

Now someone has discovered a fragment of a Gnostic gospel that says Jesus had a wife. The dating is in the 300s with the language as Egyptian Coptic. To be his wife means also that she is good enough to be his disciple. As April DeConick points out, the Gospel of Philip also states Jesus had a wife. None of this is historical information, but rather represents the community's view of whether the representative of God would have had a sexual union in an eternal coupling. The historical debate has been whether a rabbi would ever be unmarried, in other words that your average, standard rabbi would be married. But there is no historical necessity for this either. So then the question is what Mary Magdalene represents: is she the cook and bottle washer, his girlfriend, a connection to some money to keep the band of brothers going? Well, no one has a clue. As April DeConick says, there is not the information to say he was or he was not married. We get the notion that he was one of the chaps organising the drinks at a big wedding, theologised to tell us what the Kingdom of God would be like. It might be his own wedding, but just as likely not. Would a chap who was believing he might have to suffer to nudge God into bringing in the final hours get himself married?

Bizarrely on the same day as I'm expressing my religious humanism, I'm stuck in a Facebook battle defending the centrality of the proto-orthodox stream with, I think, a Liberal Catholic. I can see that my first response was potentially misleading, but I am confident that the Roman Empire picked up what was the main stream of Christianity that had grown (in opposition) within the main empire whereas something different had developed outside it but still agreed with Nicea - and went off east. Here is the debate:

Jane Harper The underlying message of the apocryphal NT material is that there was no single dogmatic Christianity until Constantine made it the state religion and put muscle behind it... There was money and power attached to it at that time and so the in-group began drawing boundaries around itself to keep the goodies in.

Adrian Worsfold There was a pre-Roman empire proto-orthodoxy, the main channel for Rome to select and reinforce; to see a different Christianity you would have to go outside the Roman Empire and the Nicea but no further form that went from Persia and Afghanistan off to China, but it also died in China and the missionaries planted the Roman stream. Plus, Protestant religion is the Roman version revised

Jane Harper Adrian W., I'm afraid NT scholarship in the last 20-25 years doesn't agree with you. Within the Empire there were many kinds of Christianity next to proto-orthodoxy, in places like Syria and Egypt and Asia Minor.

Adrian Worsfold There's all sorts of Christianity around and about, but there was a main strand and it is represented by the three synoptic gospels. Thomas is a bit strange in its positive historical potential for some sayings. John might have not made it into the canon, but did because although the Gnostic is in there it is resisted. Ones that came later tended to be the other streams. The Jewish Christian faith was essentially lost. But the better, more 'historical' gospels, are the synoptics, and they formed with John the canon. Thus there was a proto-orthodox stream; after all, 1 Thesellonians came first of all and all these Mark onward gospels were Paul affected. And that was proto-orthodox too.

Jane Harper I'm sorry Adrian W., once again your views do not concur with mainstream NT scholarship, which finds no evidence of even proto-orthodoxy until the 4th century.

Adrian Worsfold Mainstream New Testament scholarship? So someone like Larry Hurtado, in Edinburgh, who points to rapid binitarian views, even amongst Jewish Christians, never mind Gentiles, is not advancing a view of proto-orthodoxy? Of course he is - he is saying that there is a stream, that is focused in the synoptics, and in what history is possible, that produced the central stream that became orthodox. This is not just a 'history written by winners' but the history that bends Jesus into a figure of salvation himself. This is not an issue of whether this strand is 'correct' because it is as myth-making as the rest, but whether it is the core and how early it is, nor does it dismiss the existence of other Christianities. The Gnostic stream was always more than Christian, and had its own existence that absorbed the Christian. But the first stream was Pauline, affecting the gospels, and why John was accepted rather than rejected. So what is the 'mainstream NT scholarship' that I am missing?

Adrian Worsfold If you take April DeConick, who writes on Gnostic materials, and says you cannot tell whether Jesus is married or not from the synoptics, she also will accept that these synoptics are the first core gospels - one probably from Rome (Mark) in rough Greek, one more of a Church (Matthew), one Gentile (Luke) and these are core - they are not trinitarian and could have been unitarian or arian compatible, John forcing arian or plus, but they do contain an 'economic' salvation view that makes the Trinity possible. But despite all that, they are the main gospels picked up by the central tradition. I cannot see what the argument is otherwise.

No doubt this debate will roll on, but if you take the books in order, the earliest gospels after the Pauline letters, which have his influence, are those of the main tradition, so despite the variety elsewhere, this was the one the main tradition picked up. Of course the Church reads the material its way, but nevertheless it is also bound by the material. It's not as if Christianity became Gnostic and then suddenly scholars are saying hang on there is earlier material about which we can do some secondary historical sifting. The earlier material about which there can be secondary historical sifting is the main tradition material!

Still, they are as mythological as the rest and we have a different world view now - our guiding narratives are utterly different about cause and effect in the world. Meanwhile I see that my debating opposite fancies having a cartoon with a female superhero that evangelicals would understand but I've said mine would be too sexy and vicious.

I rather fancy the idea myself of Yesha the superheroine cooking fish for 5000 in her frying pan.

On Lay Anglicana

So an expression of my beliefs I have given to Lay Anglicana. These, of course, can be expanded upon here or elsewhere and no doubt will be at some stage.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

CV Higher Criticism

I have been asked to provide an opening article on personal beliefs at Lay Anglicana. So I have and will make a link there when it appears. I wrote it out longhand on paper at first and there are very few changes. Lay Anglicana was interesting recently with its Canterbury runners and riders but of course it is somewhat internal to the institution if with a general moderately liberal voice.

I've been quite busy. One is with the music, but it was put to one side to produce a presentation for a job interview - I'd teach adults to produce CVs.

Anyone like me who's done the jobseekers' treadmill will know that this is an area without progression and just means repetition. Have you made a CV? Yes. When? Last time I was at one of these.

Now I hate learning by Powerpoint, and may approach is to reverse it. The resource contains more than I will say, not less. Teachers lean on bullet points and students copy them down and surprisingly no one learns the reason for anything. So my approach to CVs adds in a bit of biblical criticism. See if you, reader, can spot it.

Saturday 15 September 2012

A Sermon from a Novel

I'm writing a novel, slowly and haphazardly. I won't describe the scenario here, but its central character is a female curate who has arrived at believing absolutely nothing about Christianity given her background (her husband was supposed to be ordained, he wasn't accepted, she threw her hand in and was; she's always been liberal). She still wants to be ordained, though home life is in doubt. More or less everyone is involved in deception of one sort or another. The novel might be summarised as "philosophical filth" but every so often there needs to be the philosophical bit.

The central character, Linda, is called on to give a sermon at very short notice. The training vicar is generous, giving her some days to think it over, instead of an hour, but asks that she leaves no evidence of notes, script or cue cards. Obviously he wants to impress the bishop as much as she might. So I've taken the text for the present and made a sermon for my unbeliever...

The moment of the sermon came, during which time Keith was returning home.
"I pray my words are acceptable. Amen. I've been asked to take this sermon at very short notice," she said. "So I am reflecting on a reading from John's Gospel that offers a number of challenges on the face of it. Jesus is saying, apparently, if you eat his flesh and blood you live forever, as it comes from heaven, whereas in previous eating you died. The location is Capernaum, which I think is significant, and the teaching is complex, difficult, and Jesus wonders about this, even if it offends. The spirit gives life, he says, and the material doesn't. And there's a strange reversal of the usual no one get's to the father except through him moment as now we have no one gets to Jesus except via the Father. The disciples wobble but have no one else to associate with who is the holy one.
"I don't think this is Jesus talking at the time in a thoroughly Jewish context. It is John's gospel at its Gnostic strain, it going off in that direction and resisting too. So the material is rejected, and though these people are eating a material Eucharist, it comes from heaven, rather as ours is blessed. A clue I think is Capernaum, which is home territory and where Jesus's message is least accepted amongs those who thinks he's a it off his trolley for a local lad. And the spiritual Jesus is approached through the Father, the Father being God and of the Spirit.
"So what do we take from this, assuming I am about right on this, and it's open to challenge? Oh, er, it follows on from the feeding of the five thousand, which is itself a eucharistic reference given as a miracle. That's a stumbling block for many on its own. I suppose the point is that understanding this is complex, and even more complex when the Gnostic is resisted. You are bound to wonder what's the point and is it too difficult and difficulty is another block to belief. Well it might be, and that is the wobble, but the argument is there's nowhere else to go. You have to tackle the difficult part. On the other hand, you can just eat and drink the spiritual food, and that is not too difficult. The praxis, the doing, is open to everyone. But it is worth tackling the difficult stuff because that is about understanding and we ought to try. Amen."
Afterwards, her training vicar said, "Actually, that was quite interesting. I've never heard it put quite like that before. But I wonder, again, if it isn't a little too neutral. We'll see."
"What will we see?" Linda asked.
"The future, I think," said Colin.

Friday 14 September 2012

Fantastic New Poster

First look at this poster. Don't worry. It shits as well but said to its mum, in remarkable fully-formed Aramaic, "Don't worry mum, I'll change my own nappy."

Yes: the ridiculousness of Christian dogma gives rise to one of the cheesiest, most ridiculous campaigns ever considered. Jesus the dolly.

Jesus says, "Tell me mum, I was born in Capernaum," but she replied, "Yes, but according to them, you came out in Bethlehem."

Changing My Mind about Islam

So before today my understanding of the origins of Islam was something like this. There was a man called Muhammad and as well as being a trader and something of a raider of caravans across the desert, he was intense and had these revelations, first of a more general kind and then of a more managerial kind. He told them to friends, but several versions of the Qur'an existed over time and these were brought to one. He married later on for tribal reasons. He built a tolerant city of Madina but had a problem with the local Jewish opposition, and an embarrassing episode is him attacking them when seen as a disloyal opposition. After his death this communal Islam then spread by Arabs forming an empire, even a motivation of their expansion. Some of my information is from the PGCE RE work, my own reading, and the over-generous Karen Armstrong.

After Tom Holland's piece on Channel Four, I'm bound to make adjustments - with the proviso that there have been a number of wacky programmes about the origins of Christianity on Channel 4, with different explanations of resurrection for example that do not stand up to scrutiny. I do not for example think that Jesus was given healing herbs and survived death and met his disciples before getting outside the Roman Empire in a search for the lost tribes. And no I do not believe in an objective resurrection of any kind and can explain it from the material available (as can anyone).

Taking his word for it, then, there is the first problem that the victorious Arabs at Jerusalem do not bring an identified Islam with them. There is no imprint as there was with the other religions. The Arab victory continues with two religions functioning properly (and Zoroastrians): the Jews find more tolerance.

Then there is the absence of the qiblah in the right direction, though that can have other explanations. Mecca does not get a proper mention in the Qur'an either. The question then is the whole story of Makkah and Madina, as already stated: what about how Madina was ruled by Muhammad? It's not all to his moral credit, nor is his continuing attack on camel trains. Karen Armstrong is far too apologetic on this. If this is not historically grounded, how did it arise? I'm quite clear that Abraham didn't exist never mind went to the desert and establish Islam in the Ka'aba, only to have the Pagans corrupt the attempt. The story of the miraculous spring is a nonsense to my historical ears.

Then we have the encounter with peoples, and here Tom Holland is quite convincing, in that the people are conversant with Christianity and Judaism, indeed we suspect he encountered Ebionites and the more primitive tradition of Christians than the Pauline, though again that needs caution. Distinctions are made between the love-meal of early Christians and a Pauline eucharist, whereas the simpler celebration might also be an economy of persecution and anonymity. But it gives questions to the geography of origins, say in Syria where the olives grow, though again people travel. He's weak on the first sanctuary at the foot of the Dead Sea, and he knows it - but the general point is well made.

Same with the coin and it drawing on Muhammad. Abdul Malik continued to use Islam after defeating the first warlord to draw on the power of this prophet to bind people together. The first coin is some 60 years after the death of Muhammad. We do often say that the Arabs wanted a religion of unity like the Christian and the Jewish, but of course this was set on understandings much earlier in Madina itself.

I have assumed that more was known historically about Muhammad than about Jesus, but I think this is up for revision. There is indeed a 'black hole' but then it could be because Muhammad was deep inside a spread out, transient, on the move, society. The Hadith about Muhammad is, of course, told and created. Buddha is lost inside texts of traditions but some stripping away is possible based on assumptions. We know considerably more about Baha'u'llah of the Baha'is and then most by far about Gandhi.

Rules of historiography apply to Islam as much as they do to any other religion. But also one can read the contraditions in the Qur'an and the mistakes - e.g. about the Trinity (an evidence of getting it from a different Christian group). The Qur'an is in non-historical order - I have a version in apparent historical order - and can be confusing. Many Muslims learn to recite it in a language they do not understand and as such have never read it - a situation comparable to the Bible in Latin read by priests and never distributed among the laity. But then Christians read the Bible and skate over the contraditions in the New Testament, simply because they listen more to authorities than read it themselves, and some of these preachers are like snake oil salespeople - keep quiet about what we learnt at college, like the salesman of a product who knows how it was made but presents according to the packaging.

So there is a programme on TV that has caused me to change my mind and to pursue the matter further. Tom Holland has his own response to criticism.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Dialogue Well Worth Reading

This dialogue is well worth reading, and so are the pre-debate statements by both Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt. I like Don's statement despite his sweeping dart-throwing 'this happened with Newton' type statement. I like the fact that he does tackle the supernatural Jesus, makes his extraction, and then warns that Jesus is not some pre-set authority. Stephen Batchelor also says similarly including in dialogue, that in getting back beyond the traditions to the Buddha, if possible, the object is not to rely on Buddha but just do the task involved. For both, the whole practice of religion is a one life task.

I note that Don Cupitt never mentions the Unitarians (except to refer once to the Autobiography and Deliverance of the semi-fictional character Mark Rutherford). The Quakers, he likes, and Sea of Faith (his baby). He took himself off doing the Eucharist in 1994 and stopped attending church in 2009. In May he said he was 78. The problem is the Quakers don't talk during their worship, except briefly and haphazardly, and they don't sing, unless someone does it alone. So such religion is either inspired by a theistic spirit, or is flat, or is Buddhist without the programme. I like to hear people talk and have a sing. A lot of it might be junk, or from a previous time in cosmos terms, and there are theological dinosaurs in the Quakers as well as in the Unitarians, but at least you can hear them and tell them why they are for their reply - and no one has authority of superiority.

Passing the Legislation

The Church fo England House of Bishops has decided... and a new Clause 5 (1) (c) has been decided. It's this:

the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which parochial church councils issue Letters of Request under section 3

In other words it is looser wording: still forcing a selection of a male bishop or priest who would be theologically and ecclesiastically of the grounds of the Letter of Request. But the diocesan (male or female) still does it, and respect is a loose word. So a Conservative Evangelical parish might get an Anglo-Catholic if that Anglo-Catholic met the grounds of the Letter of Request. Humm - expect very precise letters of request. Or one might say, "Well I think my action does respect your Letter of Request, and, after all, I am the diocesan bishop."

Unfortunately, there is a foundational problem. The bishops have passed the text but it came from the submission of the Rev. Janet Appleby. This implies a teaching ministry and headship from Rev. Janet Appleby as the source of the text and therefore would be unacceptable to Conservative Evangelicals. Had she suggested this to a group of women, or children in Sunday School, then it might have been something for them to chat about. But as a source of the key text for the future of Conservative Evangelicalism it won't do. The irony of the bishops, chuckle churckle, that 'this came from a woman after all, come on then you women and support it', might backfire. Conservative Evangelicals were never very good at irony - literalists aren't.

In any case the whole delegate/ derived argument may well satisfy traditionalist Anglo-Catholicism, who can ignore how a compatible bishop or priest came about so long as he is unpolluted in his derivation (no female hands hovered over his consecration), but it won't satisfy the Protestant for whom there is no derived order (a mystic thing) but where there is only delegation.

After all, if she delegates a bishop, or a compatible minister, she has exercised headship and presumably she would retain the power to remove (under the usual rules) what she has given.

November is the best shot at it that the equality folks will have. The Anglo-Catholics may well concede and occupy their remaining rabbit holes. The Conservative Evangelicals may simply not be strong enough. But if the opposition grows, then, in years to come when the legislation returns, Conservative Evangelicals will be all the stronger in a more sectarian Church. On the other hand, if the legislation passes, the Conservative Evangelicals will have to resort to entryism or escape, and they might just take their sectarianism with them, especially if there is a quick number of female bishops and a good proportion quickly. There'll be a more liberal outlook and the Conservative Evangelicals will be on the back foot from then on.

Personally I don't care for bishops, except as superintendents that facilitate better activity and management across congregations, and would hope that female bishops might undermine the hierarchical attitude that has accompanied bishops in the past. Usually, though, women priests make no impact on liturgical doctrines and beliefs so I'm not too hopeful.

Monday 10 September 2012

Pub Philosophy

Sunday evening I was in the pub with my mates and it was another example of that Monty Python sketch - "Hello, I've come for an argument." "No you haven't." "Yes I have - oh very good." "No it isn't." "Oh yes it is. Hang on, this isn't an argument, it's just contradiction." "No it isn't."

My friends just like to have an argument, no matter what I say. Afterwards one said, "Will this be in your blog?" I said, "No, but will be a few words in my diary." As I said to the other in his shop this morning, I've changed my mind. So here it is, also in the blog.

I was telling them of thrashing about with Ps and Bs trying to remember a core postmodernist philosopher, and I went to my library shelves and it was Jacques Derrida. So what is postmodernist and I said it is a non-foundationalist philosopher, a poststructuralist.

Ah it's just jargon. No it is not just jargon. It's short hand. Asked how to be a philosopher I said you learn the language and what it is trying to get at, and what it is trying to get at is understand the epistemology of things, what is the meaning of meaning, and I referred to the linguistic turn which Derrida represented.

Now this is in a pub, and I'm drinking lime and lemonade, and my friends are on the stronger stuff. A question was, who are philosophers and who are not. I said well Jesus and Lenin were not philosophers, but Hegel and Marx were. One knew Marx borrowed from Hegel - yes, he did, but Hegel was a philosopher of spirit, I said, and Marx of effectively technological foundationalism. More jargon. For Hegel, thesis led to anti-thesis and then synthesis, whereas for Marx a paticular level of development and social organisation led to opposition and that producing a new stage [though hardly a synthesis, more a replacement]. Socialism (rather, communism) was a technological expectation of plenty, or no shortage of resources.

They tried to claim that socialism was natural, and I mentioned the "religious communists" who went to America and were authoritarian amongst themselves; they cited native Red Indians and not just hunter gatherers where resources were plentiful and followed. They said these groups had chiefs who listened to meetings. But I said that as soon as people settle, issues of boundaries appear and thus property. Not in their case (but no evidence offered). As for socialism being "natural", I said just look at greedy children. I said that if children have to be told not to be greedy (which they conceded) then it is not natural. They just went on insisting it was, but then that's pub talk. No mention of the severe sanctions the native Indians used either amongst themselves or to the unwelcome visitor.

So, here we are: I've blogged on this part of the pub talk as well as put an entry in my diary.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Church-Off Sunday

So here I am on my first non-church Sunday in - well, years and years. If there was a 'Sunday off' before I'd use it to visit somewhere else. This time I've gone nowhere, not even to a church two streets away.

I visited the Sutton church during a heavy snowfall in 2010 along with fifteen others including some refugees from other places. The sermon was evangelical in content and the lay reader treated people like idiots, and so that was a decision not to return there. Evangelical religion is a kind of intellectual nonsense and if they don't know it they ought to read some simple books on science. And I have no desire to go elsewhere. I know a friend who once migrated from the Unitarians to an intelligent Anglo-Catholic church, although that priest has since gone, and so anyway so had the ex-Unitarian. He didn't stay long.

And the question has to be asked, as I do more on hymns than I'd do towards providing for a Sunday (building up the stock, handling a new choir CD): would I, starting from here, go to any church at all? The answer might be no.

The other day in bed I had in my head one of those blockages where I tried to remember the name of the central postmodernist for our times. I was thrashing my brain around Ps and Bs but could not get the name, so went to my Cupitt books and one in particular, The Long Legged Fly, and found Jacques Derrida straight away. The result is a few of his hovering in the bathroom and about. His Lenin book, that is the 'What is to be Done?', is Radicals and the Future of the Church (1989). It calls for a kind of subversive existence, one that he now rejects. Indeed I reject the central argument of the book, which is the difference between accommodating liberals, for whom the myth is a semi-realist viewpoint, and the radicals, where the myth is a human made-it-all-up useful pathway.

I don't accept Cupitt's blanket across the board non-realism anyway. It applies to religion like art, as he puts it, but there is something different about research in the sciences and social sciences that delivers negative answers to the ones we'd like. We don't make that up: they are powerful narratives because they do reflect truth. I'm not a language fundamentalist even if language is awkward even for the scientist and leads to imprecision. Of course there are schemes of understanding and these can shift, but they shift because of the nuisance of factual discoveries through research. So I am with Cupitt some of the way, regarding language and narrative and schemes of understanding, but end up as a semi-realist in science and social science (measuring culture with the tribal issue of evolved sociobiology nagging).

I reject his then central argument because the problem is not liberalism as such but Christianity. Such (about Christianity) is Cupitt's own discovery. I go much further than him too, in that for me the central problem is the cult of Jesus itself. He wrote a book on Jesus's sayings that was virtually realist and historiography-warning busting: Jesus and Philosophy, 2009). The whole thing turns, and wrongly, on a focus on the man. Much of what Jesus said is interesting, useful, but a lot of it was just plain wrong as a man of his time. He made it up too, along with those he borrowed his ideas from. Cupitt and his Jesus Seminar mates haven't rescued Jesus but sanitised him for a Western audience.

Unitarians also say the worship of Jesus as a deity is a mistake, but then they went and compromised and made him a supreme brother or some such. Francis Newman got it right, when he said Jesus was not morally perfect (and then advocated a pure theism). As to his moral perfection, in some sort of league table: how do we know? We don't know. Indeed there are attitudes to Gentiles and animals that suggest ethical imperfection despite the Gentile wrapping. His ethical perfection is a dogma and comes wrapped up in the theology that dishes up answers before the questions get asked.

The Unitarians haven't escaped the legacy. Well, some have 'moved on' but others still dig in the same hole. Well, that's fine, and people do, and I have too, but let's not then get contradictory. Some Unitarians proclaim their liberal Christianity, and they are like cars going around a roundabout and never come off.

There is no way to be subversive within Christianity: the religion itself is corrupting. It forces anti-ethical positions. You can just about get away with a Jesus-like focus outwards to God, though his God was a supernatural last-days nonsense. The only question is, why would you want to do it - to preserve the place of Jesus? Just let him join the list of sages of old.

In terms of a religious path or three, it comes with taking the kind of spirituality method that has grown up in Christianity and stripping it out into a religious humanism. When you do this, the issue of whether it is non-realist or realist (it remains non-realist, but it is better) actually matters less. The task is to make sacred the major narrative streams of the day provided from outside theology, rather than create a sacred-secular divide (and definitely not the postliberal rubbish of Platonic Christianity or role performance Christianity that splits religion and the secular).

So having come to such a view, I find a lot of Unitarianism just frustrating and 'gimme that old-time religion'. It's 'easy listening' religion. The idea has potential but the reality isn't there but a sort of sugary deposit.

My view is also consistent with Unitarian evolution. A star turn [in more ways than one, perhaps] of Unitarianism in the UK tells us it is not radical because it doesn't embrace questions like astrology and synchronicity. That's not radicalism. It might be plurality, and every idea has a right to be expressed and subjected to argument, but it is more consistent with Liberal Catholicism (of the early twentieth century) and its turn towards magic in ritual. I don't mind a bit of ritual - art is a good leg up. But romanticism was about as far as Unitarians could adopt the non-rational, and magic became self-destructive (as among the Free Catholics). I regard astrology as bunk, because its self-explanation is a nonsense of associations, rather like a Henry Lincoln saying this could be this and then could be that. Same as probability given the kind of 'cause' you see on Deal or No Deal and Noel Edmonds talking about 'strategy'. But in making the secular sacred, there is nothing wrong with liturgical expression, nothing wrong with the personal and the transcending, nothing wrong with shorthand theological words to express a greater oversight.

I'd like to see a new liturgical book from the Unitarians - funnily enough, I've been writing liturgies that could go into one book (and it includes one that raids the Christian tradition, and one that feels traditional but isn't), but of course plurality makes such a book difficult to produce - and I've been trying to address that through identifying the main tendencies within the movement. Unitarianism has become a church of individualist preachers: and, after all, who am I but one more individual?

The problem is that the main tendency within the movement is an absence of self-understanding, or one drawn from a decrepid past. In such a lack of sense of the future, and in the tough conditions of Great Britain, it just faces a journey towards conking out structurally, leaving a few individuals as the Last of the Mohicans. But it was warned about this long ago, and did nothing much then.

Monday 3 September 2012

C of E, Diana and Jesus the Nutter

"God an' Bennett," said Elizabeth to her father in his study. "It says 'ere, in the Daily Express, father, that the Church of England believes that Jesus could have been utterly super bonkers and a complete heading case. The very Second Person of the Holy Trinity, no less."
"Ask your husband, Mr Darcy, for who can refuse the word of a man like him, if you can go and see Mr Collins for an explanation," said her father.

At the rectory in Kent Elizabeth found the reverend gentleman in much distress, and she barely had asked the question of the truth of the matter, when he said, "My dear cousin, the Rt. Hon. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is most upset at the finding of the Church, that Our Lord and several Apostles could have indeed been somewhat at nineteen shillings and sixpence to the pound."
"But," said his other visitor, the scholarly Rev. Edward Casaubon, down for the day from Middlemarch, "let's look at the evidence. And this is something that I have discovered across the religion, indeed across the religions in my and Dorothea's actions of classifying and cataloguing. Even Camden Farebrother is forced to agree with my findings."
"Do go on,"said Elizabeth, who was texting her elder sister to let her know that she had arrived safely.
"Indeed doooo," said Mr Collins, "for a number of parishioners might actually read the Daily Express or Daily Telegraph or indeed any daily newspaper and think the Church of England has gone completely off its rocker. I am most distressed still according to the Daily Express that we do not know who killed the late Princess of Wales in her desire to travel around with that Mohammaden. I do wish they'd get on with building the Channel Tunnel so that we can visit and help sort that one out."
"Oh dear," said Elizabeth, "Lydia is going to 'ave a Mac in Tyre while on her trivels. I don't know how we can ever get over the disgrace. I shall write to her and put mee letter into an e'lope."
"Are you most distressed my dear for how you can possibly wear the embarrassment?" asked Mr Collins.
"No, more I wish to hear oh Israel what Mr Causabon has to say. And stop being such a fecking tasser."
"Well," said Causabon, "his mother thought he was a bit of a loner and she kept her eye on him for a long while. Imagine he becomes a builder in the nearby Roman city of Syphillis and then gets religion, taking his placard saying the world as we know it is about to come to an end. He goes to a wedding and starts adding to the wine to get everyone drunk, and as far as we know he never did the decent thing with Mary Magdalene."
"My wedding might with Fitzwilliam was something I'll never forget. Talk about giving me one. I was walking one leg at a time the next morning," said Elizabeth.
"That so could have been me,"said Mr Collins.
"I feel sickly," said Elizabeth.
Mr Causabon went on, "It was a close run thing as to who was barmier than the other - John the Dipper or Jesus the Nazarene. I mean, Jesus thought that by acting out the suffering servant God would actually move heaven down to earth. Mother no doubt wanted to take Jesus home: 'Yeshua,' she said, 'return to the family, put the family first.' The Jews have been wary of Messiahs ever since the Romans crushed Jerusalem. But when we get to Paul of Tarsus, no one was more off his trolley than him. Even if there was an earthquake, he got a few flashes and voices in his head on that Damascus Road and he had highly switchable tendencies. And his first letter was to Greeks in Europe, and not only that but people thought Christians were so bonkers that they wrote letters in his name after he was dead."
"I feel this is too much for my congregation," said Mr Collins, "who are likely to become mentally ill at the very thought of it. After all, the Alpha Course looking at German biblical criticism left many wanting to get drunk in the local ale house afterwards."
"I am bound to be an atheist," said Elizabeth, "after this."
"Do not distress yourself so," said Mr Collins, "and let me arrange for you to receive a bicycle so that you can return to Pemberley this very evening."
"From here in Kent, you Kent?"
"It is a very fast mode of transport," said Mr Collins. "Imagine the Channel Tunnel full of cyclists. Gosh, the Tour of France might even come into England."
"Now you are being ridiculous," said Mr Causabon. "The number of false beliefs, belief in demons, absence of reality that we modernisers are achieving, suggests a first century of psychosis, neurosis, schizophrenia, memory loss and general all-round religion. And then Mohammad in the cave: what was that all about?" wondered Mr Causabon as an after-thought.

No General Religious Right

I don't think there is a general religious right, that adds to the general set of rights. There is a right to be religious, that is to follow your religion, but not a right that covers all others. This perhaps subtle difference manifests itself in no particular right to wear a symbol of a religion, if that was to be dangerous or unhealthy or contradict a principle of revealing an identity (at certain fixed points), but then beyond these people should be free to pursue religion including religious dress. So there is an unresolved issue about Sikhs and carrying a knife and not wearing helmets on motorcycles. We have granted rights there that perhaps should not have been granted: the religion might have, for example, produced non-sharp knives to carry and designs on to helmets that suggest head coverings.

There should be no blasphemy law nor even a law demanding respect: respect is something we give freely, not told, and we cannot restrict the critic and comic. Institutional religion should set itself up freely, and people can freely restrict themselves if they want, but it cannot tell others what to do beyond the social consensus. It seems to me that the social demand to have 'marriage' as an all-encompassing legal term for the joining of two people into a strong partnership should not be undermined by special religious pleading, and whilst no religion should be forced to carry out the ceremony (and therefore this means an end to religious establishment) nor should the State nor religious groups be prevented from carrying out a straightforwardly equally applied ceremony that recognises the freely-entered strong bond (if religions have that direct function).

Nothing prevents religion from arguing its case into the public space, but law emerges through principles established both through struggle and consensus, and the general principle for law is that of liberty and equality together, each facilitating the other. Where religion denies this combination, religion should be private and for private consent into any particularl community. Such community has no collective rights over an individual, who is always free to leave such communities - but the only community one cannot leave is that of the State, and this is why liberty and equality are so fundamental.