Friday 27 December 2013

Donkeys at the Nativity

Thinking Anglicans points us to some terrible bishop sermons from this time of year.

Referring to John's gospel, the Bishop of Oxford sermonised against the Bethlehem approach and for the big picture:

This is no small town deity pushed to the edge and trying to get a mention in the weekly newspaper. This is the God whose light has been travelling towards us from the Big Bang for 13.7 billion years at a speed 186,000 miles per second.

So the cosmic becomes the literally cosmic, as so often the nativity myth is mined as if history-like.

The Bishop of Lincoln tells of a get together for clergy doing Christmas sermons (I bet that was real fun):

The group divided itself into two parts-those who favoured the topical approach and those who opted for something more traditional.

The topical preachers shared plans about how they could liven up their sermons to show that the church is trendy and up to date...

People like me could be forgiven for using the same old words, because at its heart, it's the same old and wonderful story.

We don't know what was in the minds of the shepherds that first Christmas Eve. We know that they were a group of tough manual workers-perhaps like farm workers or building-site labourers today. They had left home to go out to work on a dark, cold winter's night.

And yet out of the darkness came something totally unexpected and frightening-something so magnificent and powerful that it challenged them to leave their sheep, their livelihood, to find out more. ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened'.
 And of course this happens for us as well - think of the family...
[For which he gives a contemporary example to liven up his sermon.]

The Bishop of Bradford was into literalisms too. In an otherwise sensible sermon about oppression around the world he veered off into the silly:

Thank goodness that the people of Egypt welcomed to themselves the Holy Family on the run from King Herod’s furious infanticide.

And then, in the church:

Nothing better expresses what we believe about God here with us than our sharing in this Eucharist tonight. Jesus is here in the crib and he will be here on this table in the form of bread and wine.

Here's a rough comparison from another appalling sermon, the Bishop of Norwich:

There are lots of reasons to be afraid in the Christmas story. Who wouldn’t be afraid away from home with nowhere to stay and about to give birth? Who wouldn’t be afraid when there was a despot like King Herod around?

He wasn’t above murdering members of his own family if he took a dislike to them, the sort of thing that’s gone on in North Korea in our world today only a couple of weeks ago. The Christmas story is very up to date.

There's no comparison: one is a myth without foundation and the other is a nasty and actual little power struggle where power and terror are used against an absence of authority.

This also works both ways. The myth gaining its power in the contemporary shows that the myth is current-dependent for its power, yet these salesmen of a religion all claim dependence in the myth itself.

The Bishop of Beverley was in his sort of non-home of a minster near me (he's not a geographical bishop but a roaming one who supports those who can't accept women priests as priests) and he hasn't been paying attention:

But the word which the Oxford Online Dictionary nominated as its word of 2013 was ‘selfie’: defined as

a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

Even the coverage of the funeral of Nelson Mandela was dominated by a selfie, as the Danish Prime Minister posed with David Cameron and Barak Obama. The selfie says: ‘Look at me. Look what I’m doing. Look who I’m with’. They are fun.

No it wasn't. It was dominated by a man waving his arms about who'd obviously applied for a job as a deaf signer and was accepted without anyone ever checking he was qualified.

He was probably at the nativity with hand movements saying, "Animals above, birds came with the birders, stars in your ice; read the tea leaves tomorrow; good moaning."

Chelmsford had one last statistic:

One saviour born in a stable at Bethlehem. Countless millions of people saved. A whole world changed.

Well, there are lies, damned lies and statistics. What happened? Did I miss it?

Gloucester also mixed reality and metaphors; All the homeless, but one deliberate homeless:

That’s what Christmas is all about, the messy mix, in which God in Jesus Christ chose to live, born on Christmas Day, to inhabit the mix, to share the mess and to make a stupendous difference. Yes, because he was God with us, one homeless child at Christmas was the sign of love and the source of salvation.

No wonder this religion is in trouble. Some of its chief advocates tie themselves in rhetorical knots and add a 'donkey' into the nativity - and I can hear the comparison now between a donkey and a deity.

Time Berners-Lee's Religion on BBC Radio Four

When religious categories change the BBC doesn't keep up; and yet it insists on deciding the categories, not the religious. So when it is the case that a Unitarian minister is a non-theist (Andy Pakula), that one is excluded from the 'official' Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Four's Today on Boxing Day, whereas when one of them is a theist (Jim Corrigall; extra information: he's on the right wing of the denomination, argues even for a Christian norm) such is included. Not only that but one is introduced differently:

BBC presenter: Time for Thought for the Day; We had an alternative Thought - well, we got two sort of alternative speakers today because Tim Berners-Lee our guest editor wanted to hear a selection of voi...; he chose an atheist for an alternative Thought for the Day an hour ago. The world has not stopped spinning, although it might have done and we just don't know in the studio. Anyhow, he also wanted a Unitarian voice so the speaker here in our studio with us now is the Reverend Jim Corrigall, who is the Unitarian minister in Ipswich and Framlington [sic].

No, incorrect. Both are Unitarian voices, and ministers, one in east London and one in Ipswich with nearby in Framlingham. The latter is not the only Unitarian, and the old theological category of 'unitarian' cannot be imposed. Of course, when it comes to Buddhism, the BBC has to ditch its theists only policy otherwise that religion would not get a look-in. So the equivalent is to have had Andy Pakula on at the later time.

Earlier, Pakula: ...the BBC talks about not allowing people of 'no faith' to present Thought for the Day. Well, what does 'no faith' mean? Here I am: I'm minister of religion, leading a congregation, talking about peace and love, and I'm considered a person of no faith because I say I'm an atheist.

 Defintiion of faith? Trust. I once called myself a non-realist and, in religion, I am so still, but taking in all of the thought-worlds and my revised views I'd also be considered atheist. I never quite make it to 'real absence' when going up the transcendental road towards theism. I held a similar position when training at Unitarian College in Manchester 1989-90 and put the backs up of a number of locals in charge and thus was waved goodbye after a year. One practice report said OK about me but where would I minister? The Principal, a Buddhist orientated Unitarian, was gone soon after. His service, where I'd put my feet wrong, was Christian through and through. The worship tutor was a Pagan Unitarian minister, who outside the college played a straight bat and had alternative times for his beliefs in his church. Our read-through of the Bhagavad Gita rather than Bible class wasn't followed up the following year! Things have at least moved on since then, in that the dogmatists have lost some ground and the Pagans and obvious non-theists are now much bigger in proportion. Trouble is, the numbers are now so small that changes in proportion could become more random and simply chaotic.

But do keep up BBC and if you don't know, don't impose; ask.

Personally I'd scrap Thought for the Day just as I'd scrap compulsory Religious Education in schools.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Putting Away Xmas

It's the 24th, now, just, and it's all over for another year. Yup, I've put all the carols and Yuletide songs into computer storage until a year passes. The duplicity of having Christmas and not believing in its core myth (the deity-incarnation of a person) is finished for another year. Unitarians worship according to the commercial Christmas, somewhat restrained. So the carols come out about mid-December, while the shops are busy, and go away immediately the last service at Christmas is done. Christians (the ones that follow the script) have Advent up until Christmas Eve when just before midnight for the next day they start singing the carols. I see that Sing Your Faith (2009) has a Candlemas hymn, but I wonder if any bother with that.

My service is the first one of the new year. I wonder whether to be naughty and extend the unwanted... (I have other, more interesting ideas, however.)

I'm very dogmatic about Jesus and his birth. He was born, unnoticed by anyone than mum and dad, probably in Capernaum, and was a child like all others. He grew up to learn the building trade (probably the nearby Roman settlement had plenty of work) among the capable self-employed. I think it's possible he could speak Greek to get about the nearby town, as well as Aramaic and enough Hebrew. He was the insightful religious odd-one out of probably a fairly religious family among the locals and being a bit 'odd' and possibly spare cast himself out via John the Baptist's clan, believing in a world ending to rid of Roman oppression and bring everything to fruition, and went on himself to preach the coming of a Messiah with his own group of capable independent types, especially with the Baptist off the scene. He wasn't unique in this, but then not every last-days preacher had a Paul. If one deducts Paul, it's debatable whether the Jewish followers would have had staying power, and there would have been no Roman Empire element (although that wasn't necessary - the faith as 'Nestorian' also spread East outside the Empire and into China, where it subsequently died out, and with peculiarities into India). One point I contest is that early Christianity was significantly about the poor: it was capable businesspeople and employed as disciples, it spread along the trade routes as a badge of respectability and trust among traders and travellers and their householeds: it was concerned with the poor with the Jesus reverse ethic but the poor were added on and in. (The Victorians did so with education and leisure, but the middle class and capably literate have always run the show.)

The idea that there is some sort of strong oral memory of the birth in terms of supporting the mythic infancy texts is made nonsense by the fact that they are travelling in completely different directions regarding the Bethlehem Micah prophecy. There is no record of a census at that time, and Romans were good at keeping records. For different reasons, if like the story of the trial, the myths of the birth do not add up. They are unhistorial, if mythically ahistorical. The gospels are rapidly-made geographically and communally specific oral traditions and include two inconsistent birth narratives, both of which went into text.

The Unitarian tradition outside the United States is too weak now to 'move' and produce something more distinctive. It will remain confused with some services being Christian-like and others becoming more Pagan and green-leaved at Yule. I suspect that in the US the transcendentalist tradition will aid the move towards an increasing romantic, Pagan, festival of lights. If Sunday Assembly has legs it will sing along to pop Christmas muzak, which is about the level at which most people encounter the festival.

In Hull we used Hymns for Living (1985) again rather than a home resistance carol book (no date but well over fifteen years old) with more traditional words. The hymn book removes a few sexisms, but inconsistently, and also a few theological embarrassments, but again inconsistently. When I seek out non-Unitarian choirs, they sing the old words; using the old hymn book Hymns of Worship (1938) does not help as it has the same theological variations from those old words even if sexism was no issue at its time of production.

I don't put up a tree or decorations and I don't send cards (the latter as a waste of money matter, and I encourage others to do the same reciprocally). I'd rather do without it all. But being the music man I have to encounter it each time I do the music. However, it was noticable just how many even of the few stayed away from the Christmas services. People do that when they don't believe it. Trouble is, they are doing it anyway.

Thursday 19 December 2013

We Are All Cartoons, It Turns Out

Forget about the nativity, or Christianity, or indeed much that is mythologically otherwise regarding cosmic origins and interventions. Indeed, much of what is scientific is only a working model of evidence at our convenient level of operation. It turns out that we are, in fact, fundamentally, cartoons, and we have no gravity. We don't fall off the page. I'm using my intelligence, here, to interpret Nature, the international weekly journal of science.

Blame the Japanese scientists, who have perhaps spent too long looking at drawings of people with big eyes. Or blame Gerald Scarfe. Blame holographs for being misnamed as holograms (it's just ignorance, this).

Apparently you have to go into the areas of thinking where General Relativity - he's fought a few battles - mix it with Quantum mechanics (I've met such engineers with their slide rules and steam traction engines) where you get string theory and some eleven dimensions which are ten plus time. If this is hard to understand, imagine a cat and a ball of string and give it enough time.

But all this is only so far. The reason is due to calculating what happens at black holes. These are mysterious areas where, really, probes should be inserted, but so far they have been only observed and calculated. And in doing the calculating, these Japanese mathematical modelists can now understand black holes in a much simpler model that is but two dimensional. It's as if, when you do the common denominator, we are really editions of the hard to fathom Family Guy where the dog Brian has sensible conversations and the baby is already a fully developed psychopath.

Now as a layperson I used to think that a black hole was like this. Everything could sink into it, and nothing could get out. In it time stopped, although from within it continued as if out there had sped into high speed and, presumably, all time flashed by. The 'reality' from within, therefore, was resolved by the birth of another time and another space - therefore another universe. I'm no mathematician, but even I could see a sort of bounce-renewal theory of universes, where the debris of one universe forms the start of another. The energy out is likely to be explosive. It still allows for a borrowing theory by which nothing takes a loan, and pays back, or on a loan, explodes into activity, is slightly off smooth, forms into lumps, and leaves us with lots of galaxies and others lumps, and a mortgage to pay off. It is quite a cheap mortgage and so the lunch does seem to be something of a gift. OK, I chucked in twenty quid at the Indian restaurant this week, despite our folks having been insulted by the complaints of a nearby table, but I probably ate more. That sort of thing. The complainant was definitely two dimensional.

Remember that, in our universe, where the artist needs red to account for it flying apart, even black holes will eventually die out as all energy vibrates uselessly in massive distances from each other. Such is entropy, a sort of solitary confinement of cold final existences.

Yet, instead, rather than the loan allowing all sorts of new loans in new times and spaces, via black plug-holes, the notion now is that the material that vanishes ends up on a vast canvas like a giant Rolf Harris self-portrait asking, long ago, "Can you guess what it is yet?"

As the drawing becomes revealed, the black hole vanishes, and we all get the picture, but it is on a gravity free (drawings don't fall down) canvas of two dimensions. Personally, I would argue that the black hole still recreates because everything continues holographically even if it is fundamentally two dimensions: it only appears to be three or eleven. It's like Santa coming through the sky - she exists in two dimensions only but still leave a drink. Even time is stuck, like a selection of two dimensional slides, so don't leave her up the chimney.

Except that these Japanese have not reproduced the required number of dimensions. The two dimensions only holograph into an eight dimensional sphere with two additional dimensions. So this may be so much hooey. At least it beats the Bhagavad Gita, Quran or the Bible and the nonsense you read in them; this is much more artistic and interesting and evidence/ mathematically based.

Trouble is, other than with a cat and a canvas, I don't know what you can do with this perspective. Imagine, I suppose; and I say Happy Yuletide to visitors who read this ever more occasional and pathetically hollow blog with reinterpreted rubbish like this. Well, I get bored about religion: little happens in Unitarianism and the Anglican Church has become an ethical seriously bad joke. They have been my institutional interests. We are at a black hole time for religion, where what has been swallowed up by today's secular black hole is going to come out sometime and somewhere in a new recreation. What has been, for so long, seems to be in its intellectual death-throes. Unlike when it comes to cosmology.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Pilling Spilt

Andrew Linzey (referred to in the previous post) edited, along with Richard Kirker, Gays and the Future of Anglicanism (O Books, 2005), which basically said that the Church of England is institutionally and systemically homophobic.

The Church Times this week has a remarkably swift and to the point editorial in which it, now, basically, says the same thing. So an academic book that was on the edge of the institution has, in a sense, come in a bit, while the institution remains in contradiction with itself.

It seems I might have over reported Pilling, The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, that it advocated blessings with certain understandings done by priests but without formal liturgies to actually state that the blessing was for 'stability' and 'friend-faithfulness' between a civil partnership (never mind nmarried) couple. I was stating that a blessing, with or without a liturgy, was official and representative when carried out by an ordained person as in place of a bishop and therefore of the same authority; the Church is ducking and diving by trying to do this without a liturgy, as if in some dark corner but then could be during a standard service. The priest, otherwise committed to only using formally-approved Anglican liturgies, would invent a little of his or her own for the blessing. It's sort of duplicity institutionalised.

Ah, but I could be wrong. It may not be a blessing but rather 'marks' the partnership of the gay couple. I'm not sure what the difference is, because 'marking' is also different from the position now, where some private prayers can be said by some priest or minister with the gay couple (who must be ever so grateful for the condescending ritual of privacy on offer).

I did think that the blessing was nevertheless subject to two years of talk, and so may not come about. So is this a 'marking' that may not come about?

It could be so worded: "The marking of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit." What's that then?

I wonder if a 'mark' is rather like a baptism? Oh, that has a blessing.

Pilling is spilling all over the place. It's spilt. There won't be two years of talk. It's dead in the water already (awkward mixed metaphors). Nothing will happen. When they finally ordain women as bishops (supposing they do) there will be such an institutional sigh of exhaustion that they won't want to tackle anything so controversial for a long time. The institution can't stand the further shock. There'll have to be anarchy. This one the liberals cannot win, not for ages. They may press the case, and rightly so, but they won't themselves see any change other than the diversity of anarchy set against formal denial. Live the duplicity.

Oxford-Based Animal Ethicists

There is going to be a new academic ethical assessment of the use of animals in research by a Working Group of 18 international academics from six countries under the leadership of the Revd Professor Andrew Linzey, Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.
The project is the result of collaboration between the Oxford Centre and the animal protection society, the BUAV (

The Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics is an independent centre founded in 2006 by its director, Professor Linzey. It is the first in the world dedicated to pioneering ethical perspectives on animals through academic research, teaching, and publication. The Centre comprises a fellowship of more than 70 academics worldwide from a range of disciplines.

The BUAV, with a history of over 100  years, is an authority on animal testing issues and is frequently called upon by governments, media, corporations and official bodies for advice and expert opinion.

Email for more information and the full press release - including the list of the academics involved - contact (the email of the press release, the Deputy Director Clair Linzey).

One person of interest in Oxford and who was also a dedicated vegetarian and liver of the simple life was Bishop Ulrich Vernon Herford. He was from a family of Unitarian ministers and trained as one himself, but had an ecumenical vision and became an independent Catholic. I am reminded of him because of an article in November's The Unitarian about the Free Catholic movement by the Rev. Jim Corrigall. It has information in it I didn't know, and I'd want to express a few points differently, but it completely ignores the fact that Herford was in and out of the Kings Weigh House ordaining its ministers and priests. It is said that Herford never changed his theology, so remained a Unitarian Christian, although the ordainer of him in the Indian Church probably didn't realise this - neither checked with the other what exactly their ecclesiastical theologies implied.

Sunday 1 December 2013

Pilling Spilling

I'll be clear from the outset that I support the work of Changing Attitude as regards its influence on the Church of England. It's just that the Pilling Report rather suggests it is on a loser with the potential for institutional change. Maybe there will be progress in say two decades, but the Church is just as likely to bcome more sectarian. We don't know if it will keep its apparent majority of lay liberals who, nevertheless, let the conservatives set the agenda and walk all over them.

What the Pilling Report says is that after two years more conversation may result in unofficial blessings by some clergy for the stability and friendship of civil partnerships but without any authorised liturgy. In other words, after a report that accepted systemic homophobic evidence as evidence, and thus sort of embedded further such nonsense, the prospect is local, pastorally driven, nods and winks of blessings so long as wider authority is not seen as being given. My argument is that it is being given, because the priest is acting for the bishop, so that the absence of a liturgy (that might state explicitly that the blessing is for 'stability' and 'friendship' and excludes sex) is just embedded duplicity.

The difference between me and Changing Attitude is that I don't see an alternative Christianity as being an unconditional love of God through Christ. To me, Christianity represents a limited God: limited in power and ability (and thus the incarnational and self-emptying bit), limited in culture (very Greek, via the Greek) and limited in focus (Jewish first century culture; then universalising but via Greek first century culture). I read the current Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon in Truro, which only makes sense if you think one person's death in first century Palestine is the one for all time. I don't think that: there is no mechanism for it. Science demonstrates what mechanisms of transmission exist, and the rest is mental attitude, and there is no unconditional basis regarding what took place then, certainly to be contrasted with other and more deliberate self-givings that people make when faced with moral dilemmas up and down in time. And even if the mental construct of faith represented by Changing Attitude is to be applauded (which it is), it is just that and devoid of the historical method that would ground it and then why would one want to be a 'follower' of Christ, in submission to something of your own creation?

The difference is this: I think the moral and ethical dilemmas of Christianity are actually showing the impossibility of the religion: that the whole religion, and not just its Church, is wracked up with these unethical attitudes. It cannot escape prior doctrine and belief, cannot escape patriarchy, cannot escape homophobia. The religion is pre-set with these. What we are seeing instead is an ethically based unravelling of the religion equivalent of the times when the Roman Empire Chirstianity became Pagan Saxon England, or the Saxons converted to Christianity. There is a complete sea-change where the whole religion is intellectually bust and ethically finished.

Hilary Cotton (Chiar of Watch) says about finding places to use non-patriarchal liturgies. Again, I scratch my head. You're in the Church of England where Rule Number One is use and only use authorised liturgies and the occasional unliturgised blessing on a wink and a nod. And why does a feminist have a religion to principally follow a man deity? Well, perhaps a human deity is going to be one sex, or the other, or intersex, but the principle of one human deity is an odd one. Why not two: a man and a woman? There are many examples of self-giving women. Presumably the women in Watch regard all humans as evolved and, well, human and subject to the usual laws of evolution and living within your cultural backgrounds. And if there is a Christ-principle, how far are any of these folks going to ahistoricise the principle that they create in order to follow?

When you're out of it, you see the daftness of trying to wear a badge of following someone that in fact you don't follow. You instead have a set of principles of behaviour and aspiration, and despite being unable to meet them much of the time, you then fit these to many historical examples of people who tried as test cases, subject to the limitations and methods of history.

But on top of this, the Church of England does a very good job of embedding these patriarchal and homophobic attitudes into its system. Things might be better in Episcopal Scotland, but Scotland only does a nod and a wink that much more openly - it is still nodding and winking.