Nigel Farage, Citizenship, Christianity and identity.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying, exploring and celebrating national identity.

Make no mistake I get a great thrill when England do well at sport. The 2003 Rugby World Cup Final,and the Ashes victory in 2005 are two of my top sporting memories.

Sadly I haven’t got a great football memory for I watched the 1966 World Cup Final in my nappies and ‘we’ haven’t had much (any?) significant success at the round ball game in the intervening forty-nine years!

I would put alongside my solely English successes the British and Irish Lions series wins in 1989, 1997 and 2013, the G.B. Coxless Four (Steve Redgrave et al) winning Olympic Gold in Sydney as sporting events which transcend my ‘Englishness,’ and yes, at Ryder Cup time, I become decidedly Pro-European.

It seems I am capable of more than just one nationally defined identity, even though at heart I am English.

To give it a theological analogy I experience my Englishness as imminent and,my British, and European identity as transcendent.

And, I suppose it was for this reason that Nigel Farage’s decision to describe the S.N.P. as racist (and UKIP as English) felt so uncomfortable. Its a bit limited and tribal, don’t you think?

Of course for the Christian national identity is problematic. I would want to stress that this does not, should not, mean there is anything wrong in affirming a national identity. Bonhoeffer was always ready to let his readers know that he thought of himself as a good and loyal German. St. Paul was keen to acknowledge and affirm his status as a Roman citizen (see Acts 22, 25).

However it does mean that we Christians should  first and foremost acknowledge our status as subjects of ‘the Kingdom’ and this implies accepting that the kingdom is not just ‘out there,’ but here, on earth, in our midst.

The Kingdom unlike national identity is in fact both transcendent and imminent. And, one of our basic Christian duties is to help grow The Kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven.’ Amongst other things this might mean (to paraphrase one of the Taize chants) working for justice and peace whilst trusting in the Holy Spirit. Justice and peace are of course relational assets.

If we are serious about justice and peace we need to transcend basic binary and competitive definitions of identity.

We also need to take St. Paul’s words to the Philippians seriously,our citizenship is in heaven,’ (3, 20). As latter day apostles we are sent as ambassadors, to spread the good news and, to make disciples of all nations, to be living sacraments, pointing the way to a better more Godly way of being.

We would do well to hear once again Paul’s words to the Galatians: ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave nor free, there is no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,’ (3, 28).

These words are surely a rallying cry for justice and peace?

But what do they mean for contemporary British Christians?

How do these words help inform our sense of identity and inclusion, our mission to the world, and maybe even the electoral choices we make? 

GAFCON, leadership and the night collects.

Bishop Nick Baines recently (on April 19th) wrote an article responding to the recent meeting of the GAFCON primates. I agree with most, perhaps even all, of  Bishop Nick’s critique for, there is something deeply worrying about the Men from GAFCON seeking to pitch their tent in ‘our’, Church of England, midst. Apparently they want to offer some form of yet to specified parallel structure for disaffected Anglicans.

The quote below is a fairly long extract from Bishop Nick’s thought-piece,The Real Church of England.’

‘For a long time I have wondered if the Church of England ought not to be a little more robust in countering the misrepresentation and manipulation (of reality) that emanates from Gafcon. I am not alone. But, I have bowed to the wisdom of those who (rightly) assert that we shouldn’t counter bad behaviour with bad behaviour, and that we should trust that one day the truth will out. I am no longer so sure about the efficacy of such an eirenic response. I think we owe it to Anglicans in England and around the Communion to fight the corner and challenge the misrepresentation that is fed to other parts of the Anglican Communion. (I was once asked in Central Africa why one has to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. I was asked in another country why the Church of England no longer reads the Bible and denies Jesus Christ. I could go on. When asked where this stuff has come from, the answer is that this is what a bishop has told them.)

The Gafcon primates say:

We are uniting faithful Anglicans, growing in momentum, structured for the future, and committed to the Anglican Communion.

Which means what – especially when they claim ‘gospel values’ and speak and behave in ways that do not reflect values of honesty, integrity and humility? And on what basis is the bulk of the Church of England reported (within Gafcon circles) as being unfaithful? And who writes the stuff they put out? Who is directing whom – who is pulling whose strings? And what would be the response if I wrote off as “unfaithful” entire provinces of the Anglican Communion where there was evidence of corruption, love of power, financial unfaithfulness or other sins? Does the ninth Commandment still apply today, or only where convenient? Is sex the only ethical matter that matters, or does breaking the ninth Commandment get a look in?’

Bishop Nick asks a lot of questions; many of them intriguing and, demanding of further inquiry.

To draw on the Message Bible looking at GAFCON is like: ‘squinting in a fog, peering through a midst,’ (1 Corinthians 13, 12). +Nick is right, we need to know ‘who is directing whom – who is pulling the strings?’

The GAFCON bishops pitched up, with their tent, but who drove them to the campsite?

By continuing to ask these questions the hope must be that ‘the weather clears and the sun shines bright. We’ll see it all then, as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly as he knows us,’ (Message Bible 1 Corinthians 13, 12 continued).

Asking who is pulling the strings is an important question because it takes us into the world of transparency, and illumination. It also takes us away from the world of politics and back towards the ethics of Christian community, and this is a reality that Church of England worshippers pray for in the night collects each and every Sunday:

‘Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord,’ and, my favourite night-time prayer:

‘Look down O Lord from thy heavenly throne, illuminate the darkness of this night with thy celestial brightness, and from the children of light banish the deeds of darkness, through Jesus Christ our Lord.’

When I look at GAFCON it’s all a bit murky. The GAFCON bishops accuse the Church of England of being far too accepting of what they believe to be ‘deeds of darkness,’  especially in relation to issues of human sexuality, but equally it seems clear, to me, that they operate under ‘the darkness of night.’ 

‘Who is directing whom – who is pulling the strings?’  That is the unanswered, unresolved, question.

What the Church of England needs is a few high profile conservative leaders to publicly state, without equivocation, that whatever the outcome of ‘our’ Church of England discussions on sexuality, aligning with, or sitting under the jurisdiction, of GAFCON is a complete and utter no-no.

We also need more bishops to speak out loudly and, dare I say so, with a little bit of righteous anger.

Unlike Bishop Nick I do want to bring this issue back to sexuality, or more precisely homosexuality, because that is one of the two issues, that GAFCON members, and traditional conservatives in the Church of England, most object to (in reality I suspect it is their biggest driving issue).

Apart from the shady politics of who is directing whom – who is pulling the strings, attitudes to homosexuality, is the reason why I would react most strongly to churches ‘getting into bed with’  GAFCON.

And my reasoning is straightforward: Michael Ramsey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, argued in the 1960’s that laws to criminalizing homosexuality, irrespective of the sinfulness (or otherwise of homosexuality) are highly unjust, or put another way antithetical to Christian legal–ethical standards. Was he wrong?

Across whole swathes of Africa laws have recently been passed making homosexuality and, in some cases, failure to report ‘known homosexuals’ a criminal offence, and it gets worse, because the sentences sanctioned by law are horrendous. Churches, and church leaders, have, tragically, endorsed and encouraged such laws. Services of thanksgiving for these laws have been hosted, hysteria has been whipped up, hatred encouraged. Blood has been spilt, lives have been lost.

Should churches in this country really be seeking to pitch their tents next to the men (but not women) of GAFCON? I  for one don’t think so.

Should conservative leaders and bishops speak out against recent GAFCON initiatives, yes.

 

 

Passion and prayer; lessons from my ‘phony’ General Election

As I watch the news and read the newspapers I can’t help but feel a little distant from ‘real life.’

I know that there is a General Election campaign taking place and yet, I feel one step removed from it. I feel passionately about some of the big political issues and I get irritated by the diet of vacuous statements cooked  up by the political spin doctors on behalf of their political masters: ‘fully costed’ is the most unpalatable of all entrees.

So why do I feel ‘passionately one step removed?’

It’s because I live in the normally safe conservative seat of Buckingham and, this year, my sitting M.P. is standing for re-election as Speaker of the House of Commons, under the catchy strap-line Parliament’s speaker, Buckingham’s voice.’

By convention none of the major parties stands against the speaker so, my choice will be limited to The Speaker, UKIP and the Greens. Last time round ‘Blue Dolphin Man’ stood, but I don’t think he is planning a second bite of the cherry. Oh well.

I may, or may not vote (I probably will).

So I am finding the whole General Election experience deeply frustrating. It is as though I have an itch which I can’t scratch. But, perhaps my ‘Buckingham experience’ is a bit of a metaphor for Christian life?

We Christians are deeply embedded in our communities and, hopefully seek out ways to serve the community, but sometimes we feel slightly separated from community?

We have to live within the law, whilst experiencing some laws as unjust; and, this applies to cannon law as well as to secular law.

We inhabit this world, whilst praying each and everyday for the coming of another world: ‘thy kingdom come on earth as well as in heaven.’ 

We enjoy the good things of this world, but take care not to idolise them.

And we sit and watch, not quite on the sidelines, but not necessarily in the heat of things, observing undeliverable pain and harm.

And isn’t this part of the point, that we follow a Saviour who observed the world, passionately and prayerfully (Father forgive them…..) from a cross? But, we also follow a Saviour who rose again.

So what can we do whilst we sit and observe? Well we can feel passionately about people and the situations they find themselves in and, we can pray.

Passion and prayer even in the face of apparent powerlessness might be the only tools at our disposal.

But, they might be the only ones we need? 

Traditionally speaking……..

Neil Diamond wrote a love song called ‘No Words.’ The lyrics to the last verse go as follows:

‘There are no words that can solve life’s mystery or explain God’s eternal plan.’

As a lyricist Diamond knows that words go beyond straightforward dictionary definition and that value is either added to, or subtracted from, a specific word or phrase through common usage.

Words can be used positively, or negatively, defensively and aggressively, passionately or with fear and trepidation, with, or without, nuance.

Words can be used to build up, or put down and they often are, especially in the context of high stakes debates, like those around the Church’s response to same sex marriage.

Frequently our understanding of how a word is being used is gained through identification with the philosophical, or even theological, orientation of the word-smith; their ‘world or kingdom view.’

Words although neutral in their dictionary definition obtain potency through  use. When we add nuance and subjectivity to a word we imbue it with the power to include or exclude. A fairly ordinary word can be used for ideological purposes.

Take a word like tradition. Tradition is often used in Church circles to defend a particular ‘conservative’ position. The Oxford English Dictionary defines tradition as:

‘The transmission of customs and beliefs from generation to generation to generation, and the fact of being passed on in this way.’

This is the factual definition of tradition and, it provides no insight whatsoever into its qualitative characteristics. These are added through use, and use, to state the obvious, is in the hands of the user!

Users tend to put boundaries around words, implying an acceptable limit to their use. But, of course all of this implied, for rarely do those adopting a particular word or phrase define their terms; for to do so would be to render the boundaries of definition somewhat porous.

In the debate over Same Sex Marriage those who are opposed to any movement towards the offering of liturgical rites to same sex couples will often describe themselves as traditionalists. In claiming the right to refer to themselves as traditionalists they add nuance and a sense of perceived morality to the basic term. Traditionalists frequently refer to those in favour of same sex marriage (myself included) as revisionist, liberal or progressive. The offering of a ‘mirror term,’ is a useful, deflecting,technique and, we all do it, don’t we?

I don’t mind owning up to the progressive-liberal descriptor but, would want to jettison revisionist. Furthermore, as a supporter of same sex marriage, I  would also want to describe myself as a traditionalist.

‘How’, you might ask ‘is this possible?’

Well, returning to the idea that words have a qualitative dimension, as well as an objective or factual one, I would like to offer two characteristic features that can legitimately be identified with the word tradition, in its specifically Christian context:

The first is that tradition contains a series of practices, as well as beliefs, passed down as a gift, through the generations. In the Christian tradition these include our basic doctrines, described in the Catholic Creeds (orthodoxy), and our essential Christian practices : Baptism, Eucharist, Prayer and the Reading of Scripture (orthopraxy).  We might add to this list rites, rituals, the lives of the saints and, liturgy.

These gifts should be nourished, cherished and enjoyed. They bind us together, foster our identity, tell our story and, create our Christian distinctiveness. They are our salt. They have been given to all Christians and are practised by liberal-progressives and conservatives alike.

The second characteristic is that tradition contains a history to be critiqued and, crucially, a future to be discerned.

Critics of mine often ask me ‘what right have you to throw away, or jettison, two thousand years of tradition.’ The assumption behind this question is, of course, that tradition, or the historical dimension of history, is in and of itself an expression of morality and, right judgement. But, is this necessarily true?

I clearly don’t think so, and as a progressive-liberal traditionalist I strongly believe that the Spirit ultimately ‘leads us into all truth.’ Critiquing our history is the job of discernment, which may, or may not, lead to change.

One final point: I would like to suggest that using new methods of reasoning and engagement with and through Scripture has always been part of the tradition.

Regarding tradition as something fixed and immoveable is, paradoxically, to stand defiantly against the tradition, isn’t it?

Bishop Josiah and the ‘Ramsey Formula.’

I have been following the announcement that the Nigerian Bishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon has been appointed Secretary General of the Anglican Communion with interest.

The appointment, and the statement issued by Bishop Josiah defending his position in relation to Nigeria’s homosexuality laws, leave more questions open than answered.

In his new role Bishop Josiah can legitimately be asked to clarify how he responds, theologically, to political manoeuvrings in countries with an active Anglican presence. He is no longer a bishop with a national, but rather one with a pan national, mandate. The job presumably demands an interest in, and response to, global issues.

I hope that during his time in office Bishop Josiah speaks out against institutionalised state sponsored injustice. The fact that he will be domiciled  in London (he starts his new ‘job’ on 1st July) provides him the sort of distance from immediate context frequently required by those seeking to exercise the prophetic voice.

Bishop Josiah says that he has never endorsed Nigeria’s anti homosexuality laws and has stressed that he has on various occasions been misinterpreted. My own reading of his statement and the quotes attributed to him lead me to accept what he says.

I wish he hadn’t used the unhelpful ‘love the sinner hate the sin,’ line but that’s just personal antipathy to the phrase. (It is not clear he is actually referring to homosexuality per se).

But the lack of clarity in his statement leads to one important, and unanswered, question:

Do the demands of justice require Church leaders to speak out against injustice, as opposed to simply the withholding of active support? 

I suspect they do.

So I hope that Bishop Josiah is loud and vocal in speaking out against homophobic laws. I hope that he will be equally outspoken on issues of poverty and that, he will seek alongside other church leaders to hold western governments to account when they fail to make, or seek to reduce, commitments to poor countries.

Bishop Josiah may well hold homosexuality to be a sin.

If he does, would this be a problem in taking a stand against some of the cruellest laws passed in recent times?

I don’t think it would, and I would cite a giant of the Anglican tradition Michael Ramsey in making my case:

Archbishop Ramsey’s theological reasoning was central to the decriminalization of homosexuality in this country, for without the support of the bishops Lord Arran’s bill would have failed, but at the same time he never wavered from his conviction that homosexuality was sinful (it is futile to speculate what Ramsey’s position would be in our current Church of England debates) as can be seen by his opening remarks in the House of Lords:

‘I would uphold the belief that just as fornication is always wrong so homosexual acts are always wrong.’

Ramsey also theologically reasoned  that it was wrong –unjust– that the law should be used to discriminate against a particular group of people irrespective of whether their behaviour was considered sinful.

So how did he get to this position. His replies to Lord Brocket (in a speech) and Suzanne Goodhew,the wife of an outraged Conservative M.P., in a letter provide the answer:

To Lord Brocket:

‘My support of this Bill has been increased by hearing, among those who have opposed it during these debates, what I can only call a really lopsided presentation of morality—a presentation which quotes the Old Testament, which takes the line that sexual sins are apparently the worst of all sins, and that homosexual sins are invariably the worst sort of sins among sexual sins. I think that such a presentation of morality is lopsided and is going to be rejected by the people of the new generation, who need a better presentation of morality to win their respect and admiration.’

And to Suzanne Goodhew:

‘When we look at the list of sins there given, one or two of them have to do with sex: but the rest have nothing to do with sex at all. It seems to me that an enlightened Christian morality does require that we avoid suggesting that sexual sins are necessarily more terrible than others because Christ does not suggest that. Equally, we need a well thought out principle as to which sins should be crimes and which should not.’

Ramsey in referring to remarks made by his predecessor as Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher also said in opening the debate in the House of Lord’s:

‘He (Fisher) argued that the existing state of the law creates fear, secretiveness, despair, and deeper involvement in some homosexual practitioners, who would like to be free to make themselves known and be helped, but dare not, lest they expose themselves and their friends to criminal proceedings.’

Ramsey’s decision to lead the debate in the House of Lords was based on four strands of ethical reasoning:

  • Bad law creates fear and despair, leading to terrible consequences
  • Sexual sins are no worse than other forms of sin
  • If it is valid to legislate against a particular category of sexual sin – homosexuality – it follows that all other forms of sexual sin (fornication being Ramsey’s example) should also be legislated against
  • Selective cherry-picking of Old Testament texts

Whether or not one agrees with Ramsey’s view on homosexuality (and clearly I don’t – although I probably / possibly would have done in the mid 1960’s) his reasoning has stood the test of time.

It should be the minimum standard that we expect from all Anglican leaders, not simply as an intellectual process, but also as an exercise in prophetic ministry, irrespective of their personal views on the ‘sinfulness’ of homosexuality

It would be my  hope that when announcements are made about people promoted to senior positions in both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, it is made clear that the appointee both affirms and will seek to actively apply the ‘Ramsey Formula.’ There should be no room for ambiguity.

And, that brings me to my final complaint:

The way that senior appointments are made and, their ‘elevation’ communicated.

There seems to be an attitude of ‘we know best.’ There is little transparency and an absence of accountability. It should be clear that an appointment from the global south will be treated with caution by many in this country. No attempt was made, at the time of his appointment, to reassure the LBGTI community and those who stand alongside them in solidarity, that Bishop Josiah may turn out to be a friend. The response from the Church has been entirely reactive and, this must be wrong.

Across the entirety of the Anglican Communion we need leaders who actively, demonstrably and prophetically pursue the demands of justice. Don’t we?

Transparency and accountability should sit at the heart of the appointment process. Shouldn’t they?

Three challenges posed by Maundy Thursday: love, service and knowledge

Maundy Thursday 2015

Readings:

John 13, 1-17 & 31-end

1 Corinthians 11, 23-26

Homily:

There are some passages from the gospels that really get to you; and, this is one of them.

The account we have heard of the last supper, from John’s gospel, is a converting story.

Every time I listen to it I am drawn closer to an understanding of Jesus as both fully human and fully Divine. I can’t quite comprehend how, as the epistle puts it, ‘on the night before he was betrayed,’ Jesus not only feeds but, cleanses his apostles. Yet he does. And, the apostles include a friend who is to reject him, Simon Peter, his betrayer Judas Iscariot and ten others who simply go AWOL.  In serving his friends he does something utterly remarkable. He shows himself to be both the ends and the means for the possibility of redemption is through the cross and, our destiny if we choose to accept it, is to be with Christ.

But, Jesus also does something even more remarkable: he provides all Christians, with the supreme example of what it means to be heirs to the apostolic tradition. We too are called on to wash the feet of those most in need, to relieve others from the burden of sin and worry, to prove that we care, to bring something of the kingdom of God to earth.

‘By this everyone will know you are my disciples that you have love one for another.’ The Church is called on, commanded to, model love and service, yes to the wider world, but also internally; for Jesus’ audience in this passage is not the wider world but, his inner circle of apostles to whom he says; ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love each other, just I have loved you.’

This is no mere sentimentality for the epitome of love, Jesus, has just proven his love for Peter the rejecter, Judas the betrayer and, the other ten who simply get up and take their leave.

Can we love those who we might think reject, betray or abandon the Church we claim to love?

Maundy Thursday means ‘Commandment Thursday,’ taking its name from the Latin Mandatum.  As we learn in the book of Acts (Acts 2, 46 &47) many came to the Lord simply because the Church dared to be the Church; to be a community of love and service. This is one of our modern challenges: to create a community so distinctive, so loving, so infectious, viral even, that many will be attracted.

Love enacted through service is one of our Maundy challenges.

A second challenge is to examine our identity. Look at what John says about Jesus: Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.’

Jesus knew he was both from God and was of God. Confident in his identity he was able to throw off his outer appearances; his robe. As Christians our identity is in Christ. This Easter I hope and pray that we will all gain a fresh appreciation of our identity as followers of Christ; heirs to the apostolic tradition. This will involve throwing off parts of what we might regard as our characteristic identity, in order to love and serve others. Are we up for it? Dare we even look? These are Maundy Thursday questions.

So here we have it, three key concepts: love, service and knowledge and, two audiences: our fellow church members and the rest of the world.

What John seems to be saying through this passage is simply this:

As Christians our vocation is love, actualised through service, and rooted in knowledge.

If we can cling onto these three, grow in these three, reveal Christ through these three, the kingdom of God will grow on here on earth as in heaven. And, that’s a promise!