Monthly Archives: September 2014

A Voter’s Manifesto (part 1 of 5)

With the general election not terribly far away, it seems like the right time to think through who to vote for. The main parties have yet to publish their official manifestos, though the rhetoric and negative campaigning has already begun. I have tended to be a tactical voter, depending on what constituency I have lived in over the last few general elections. This is not my preference, however. I would want to vote for someone I can believe in, whose policies I can endorse and who I could trust to fulfil their promises and be of sound judgment to make the right decisions as and when they are necessary, but which cannot be anticipated.

So what would I want to see in a manifesto? This got me thinking. Why not just write a voter’s manifesto? I’m not aiming to have anything the length of an actual party manifesto, so this is more a sketch than a detailed proposal. No doubt I will have made some omissions which may be close to someone else’s heart. That is why this is a voter’s manifesto, not the voter’s manifesto.

I had planned to get this posted before the party conference season, but as you may find, it has gotten rather long. So while most of it was drafted before they got underway, I will admit that the section on tobacco was influenced by the Labour party conference. Any other similarities are purely coincidental, though you may well see some policy areas that would not be out of place in a Conservative, Green, Labour or Liberal Democrat manifesto (and yes, there is one area where I agree with UKIP – see if you can spot it).

My aim is not to present a panacea, but to start a conversation so that others may take up the plan I outline here and expand on bits, put some more flesh on the specifics and, if they so wish, disagree with my points and present alternatives of their own. I do this because of a belief. It is a belief that the people, the demos, are those who should set the agenda in a democracy. We should not wait for the political elite to tell us what they think and then ask us to vote for them. We should be telling them what we think and ask if they will fairly represent us.

Because of the length this has expanded to, I will spread this out over 5 days. After the opening 2 sections below the plan is as follows:

Wednesday: Environment, Employment, Inflation, Transport and Healthcare

Thursday: Company Law, Corporate Tax, Personal Tax, Loan Sharks and Regionalisation

Friday: Welfare, Europe, International Aid, Housing and Utility Costs

Saturday: Education, Immigration, Tobacco & Gambling, Culture and Defence

There is no strict rationale for the ordering. Some sections depend on others, so I’ve tried to include the more foundational first, but as ever, I may well have made mistakes. So without further ado, let us begin…

Democratic reform

I include this first because it has become one of the hot topics following the referendum on Scottish independence. I make no bones about the fact that I supported the AV referendum, but the fact that we voted no on that issue should not be taken as an indication that there is no appetite for electoral reform. So while the current first past the post system should remain in place for the election of the House of Commons, I would advocate decreasing the minimum voting age in all elections to 16.

Party whips will be made illegal. I have made the case on that before, so shan’t expand here.

Funding for political parties will be made more transparent, with all donations greater than £100 being declared and made available in a public register. Any donations made on behalf of a democratically elected body must disclose the number of people represented by that body and what proportion of the membership voted to approve the donation. Any donations made by a limited company, limited liability partnership, trust fund, charity or other similar corporate body must disclose the names of the directors and/or those individuals responsible for instigating and authorising the donation.

MPs should be dedicated to their role as a representative of their constituents. As such, they should not hold 2nd jobs, with a 6 month grace period after taking their seat in Parliament. This includes any directorships or non-executive appointments. They should also be prohibited from holding shares (pension funds exempted) during their time in office so as to minimise the risk that they could be compromised by acting in Parliament in such a way that benefits their commercial interests. They shall also declare any and all commercial interests they had in the 5 years prior to their taking their seat in Parliament, which shall be a matter of a public record. If there arises any possibility favouring any of these previous commercial interests, then they shall be deemed ineligible to vote. For any matter which does favour a commercial interest (e.g. a transport infrastructure project which uses a private company) then any MP shall be banned from taking up employment or acting as an advisor to that company for a period of no less than 5 years after leaving Parliament.

Similar restrictions will also apply to members of the House of Lords. However, this will apply after the Lords has been made a wholly elected chamber, elected on the basis of proportional representation.

Debt, Deficit & Austerity

There must be an open and honest recognition of the responsibilities held by successive governments and of the private sector which was subject to inadequate regulation from October 1986 onwards which contributed to the banking crisis, which was part of a global problem caused by laissez faire fundamentalist economics.

To reduce the deficit and bring down debt levels require some level of austerity. The coalition’s measures to attempt to reduce these, which have largely failed, have been misdirected on the grounds of an ideological attack upon the poorest in society, while letting off those who were most at fault for causing the crisis.

As a matter of principle, then, measures to reduce the debt and deficit should be borne by those who bear the most responsibility. This is not to victimise portions of society or to engage in any kind of “banker bashing”. Rather it is about restoring a balance to the economy through restitution levied upon those who created the imbalance.

Many of the measures elsewhere in this manifesto are directed towards this. Some spending will have to be pared back and further taxes raised. Anyone who tries to sing a different hymn is selling a fairy tale. Spending on those who are in need will not be subject to austerity measures, for those who cannot afford to lose more should not lose more. Instead, the spending on areas which cause harm must be pared back.

Tax revenues must be raised, with a marked differentiation needed to distinguish between small business owners and large corporations, which is not currently recognised to a suitable extent in the tax system. Some of the details of this will come later, but there will be a reduction in taxation for the smallest business, but this will be more than countered by a large increase in the taxation on large corporations. This is not to be punitive, but to ensure that those organisations which have historically enjoyed the privilege of paying less than their fair share shall begin to do so. Yet measures will be put in place to ensure that corporations cannot reduce the size of their workforce in order to preserve or grow their profits. Taxation must also not be passed on to the consumer.

Book Review: Harry’s Last Stand by Harry Leslie Smith

Regular readers of this blog may have noted that I don’t always read books that are particularly new or up-to-date. It’s rare indeed for me to ever pick something off a shelf above which hangs a sign called “New Releases”. Yet I went out and bought this in the week it was released (even if it has taken a few months to get round to it). Why was this so?

Like so many, I had not heard of Harry Leslie Smith this time last year. Though he has written a few previous books, I think it’s fair to say that he was not a household name. That changed with an article he wrote for The Guardian just prior to Remembrance Sunday. The quality of the opinion articles in that particular newspaper are of a variable quality, but that one stood out above the others as erudite, informed and highly emotive. Harry has followed this up with subsequent articles. It was the hope of finding more of the same that motivated me to get a closer look at Harry, his life and his take on the modern world.

One cannot escape from a theme in the book that Harry is in his twilight years. Yet age has not withered him, nor has time robbed him of his senses. Harry presents us with two books in one, but two that are intertwined. He gives us his autobiography, taking us from his working class upbringing in Yorkshire during the Great Depression, the death of his sister from tuberculosis in a workhouse, the divorce of his parents, life during the Second World War and the hopes that came after as the country was rebuilt following that devastation. The other book he gives us is an extended opinion piece on recent and current political and social affairs. This latter aspect makes it very much a book of “now”. I don’t know what the outcome of the 2015 general election will be, but it seems likely that there will be some change from the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. As such, the searing invective against the coalition may become dated fairly quickly. In fact, I hope it will. I think Harry would hope that it will too.

The back cover states “I am not a historian, but at 91 I am history, and I fear its repetition.”  Harry’s Last Stand is then very much a work of prophecy. That is not to say it predicts the future, but rather Harry has learned from the past, observes the present and warns of the future.

One of the ideas that jumped to my mind as I was reading this was related to a talk that Dr Naomi Millner gave at the Greenbelt festival, where she said that testimony fills in the gaps left by more academic study. Near the start of the book, Harry states that it is quite possible that some right-wingers may choose to dismantle his arguments. As I read, I could see that if one wanted to by critical, where the gaps in Harry’s writing were. Yet this shouldn’t be read primarily alone. Harry’s is a voice of testimony that supplements the evidence which damns the coalition. There are times at which Harry’s rhetoric is a little loose and he doesn’t give careful citation to his sources, but this should not detract from the overall thrust of the argument.

At the time the welfare state was established, the country was not in good shape. We were rebuilding after the devastation of the 2nd World War, but this meant that good men and women were able to look afresh and build a society where the ravages of the depression need not be repeated. A country where people could be given the opportunity to live dignified, comfortable lives, knowing that the state would support those in need when they needed it, rather than condemning them to the poor house. It the hope of this better world was what Harry fought for. Yet our modern leaders have not heeded the lessons of the past, kowtowing to the interests of big business (in whose pies many of the cabinet have their fingers dipped), what we are witnessing is the demolition of the best of British society by Conservative ideology, the greed that it lives for and which fuels it.

Written with both great eloquence and some plain-speaking forthrightness, there is much to learn here. Yet as someone with just a third of the life experience of Harry, I cannot say I fully grasp the depths of misery that his family endured during the 1930s. I hope I never understand them. As today’s political elite become tomorrow’s has-beens it will be someone from my generation that take the helm. Whatever their political leanings, it would be my hope that they are not ignorant of history. While this is not a comprehensive study, it fills in with humanity what is left out of the academic tomes.

The book ends with some very practical policy ideas. I may engage with some of these in a later blog post, as I couldn’t do them justice in this short review. These include the introduction of e-voting, lowering the voting age, recording spoiled ballots and advocating a change away from the first past the post system.

As you’ve probably worked out, this is a very UK-centric book. While it may be of some interest to those from elsewhere in the world, this is very much for a British audience. But other than that, I cannot think of anyone within that subgroup of humanity to whom I wouldn’t recommend it. As a political polemic, it is probably the most important piece of prose produced in recent years.

How to vote on the matter of killing people

Below is the content of a letter I have just sent to my local MP, Tessa Jowell, ahead of tomorrow’s debate and vote in the House of Commons on whether to launch air strikes against Islamic State.

“I am writing to you with respect to the recall of Parliament to vote on whether the UK should join a campaign of air strikes against Islamic State (also known as ISIL) in Iraq.

My representation to you is that when it comes to a vote, that you should vote ‘no’.

No one would deny that IS are a threat and that they have committed acts of evil. Yet to sanction air strikes sends out the message “one kind of killing is barbaric, but another is acceptable”.

When one human kills, they not only terminate the humanity of another, but they erode their own. Nomatter how barbaric the methodology and ideology is that lies behind Islamic State, they remain human beings. They had childhoods, they had mothers who loved them. They may have committed acts which lessen their humanity, but we should not deny them of their lives. To do so lessens our humanity.

The methodology and ideology may be different, but we should not be fooled into thinking that air strikes are any less barbaric than beheading. It is simply a method that allows for a distance which reduces the visceral feeling of killing a fellow human being.

It is my understanding that the party leaders of the three main parties have already promised the support of their parties, in advance of the Commons debate. My wish is that you would heed not only my representation but also those of other constituents and that the voice of those of us opposed to government-endorsed killing are fairly represented in the debate.

If you have received other representation then I would be interested in knowing how many are for and how many are against the proposed air strikes.”

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I bought this some time ago, but have put it off due to the comment of the staff member who sold me the book. I happened to have bought it at the same time as Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and the person behind the counter complimented me on the choice of such a great pair of books. Having hated Lively’s work, I feared that The Night Circus would be similar, so I put off reading it for a few months, not least while I focused my fiction reading on with The Forsyte Saga.

I must say from the start that while I do agree with the maxim ‘never judge a book by its cover’ I am often prejudiced by a cover as to whether or not to buy a given volume. It might be the name of the author, the title or the design which entice me, but having not heard of Morgenstern or the book to any great extent, it was the cover design that made it pass from bookshop shelf to my shelf.

The opening passage of the book seems to have escaped from the subconscious mind and couldn’t help but be written. In a marvelous introduction, Morgenstern ignites the flames of the imagination with the concept of this circus that appears out of nowhere and which only opens at night.

From here, though, we suddenly go off on an apparent tangent. We are taken to the mid-late 19th century and an illusionist who goes by the stage name, Prospero. Only he is not an illusionist as such. You see, The Night Circus verges into the realm of magical realism. Prospero does “real” magic and tours theatres putting on a show whereby he performs his magic, but tries to make it seem as though it is an elaborate illusion, the converse to his fellow performers who put on shows of illusion, but try to pass it off as magic.

It is no great spoiler to say that Prospero is soon introduced to a daughter he never knew he had. And so the story really begins for The Night Circus is her story. Names are an odd thing in this book, for while they are used it is made clear that are often little more than labels which may or may not be someone’s real name. So we begin to get to know Celia Bowen, our protagonist. Yet does not every protagonist also have an antagonist? Well, in this black and white fiction there is, and we are introduced to our antagonist by the mysterious man in grey.

Between the man in grey (who I must say reminded me somewhat of the early glimpses of the man in black from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series) and Prospero, a contest is agreed. But they will not be the ones to compete; rather it is their protégés. Celia is Prospero’s, but the man in grey has none, though this is soon fixed with Marco, who is to become the aforementioned antagonist.

Around this point I began to feel as though I had been duped. After the grand opening, where was the circus? This was turning into a narrative of two young people, Celia and Marco, being trained in magic by their respective mentors. I know a friend of mine who started reading it said she gave up after it finding it boring. I wonder if it was around this stage that she did so. But rest assured, the circus does re-emerge and does form centre stage (quite literally) for the remainder of the book. For it is this contest, of which we know little other than that the two competitors are bound to each other in it, which gives rise to the circus as the arena in which the contest is to take place.

But this is no battle. We do not know the rules, but it is not any kind of a one off fight. It is ongoing over many years. Indeed, the years that go by give rise to probably my greatest gripe about the book, in that Morgenstern has fallen into the modern fad of using a nonlinear timeline. Admittedly, it is not as annoying as others that I’ve read, but I do tend to take an instant dislike to authors who think it makes them a clever writer, rather than make them a nuisance to their readers.

As the story jumps back and forth through the late 19th century, on to the early 20th and then back again, we meet a number of other characters along the way who play their part in the circus. There is the grand clockmaker, whose work is altered by Celia, using her magic to improve things here and there. There is Bailey, a young farm hand who has a chance encounter with the circus one day and who develops something of an obsession with it.

Morgenstern presents us with an idealised circus. It struck up in me thoughts that I recall always wanting to go to a travelling circus when it came into town, but never being allowed to, as my parents didn’t like the idea. So as a child, I never went. In a way, I’m glad, because the wonder that it promised would always be greater than that which we probably find upon entering the big top. So what Morgenstern gives us is the near-perfect circus, with acts that are more spectacular than any we’ve ever seen, with sweets that are sweeter than any that really exist, with nights more memorable than any we really remember.

All this brought back to mind what I thought was possibly an influence on the writing. The vivid descriptions of the illusionists in full flow made me think of the great ball scene from The Master and Margarita with Prospero in the role of a less malevolent version of Woland.

The bulk of the novel gives us insights into the life of the circus and the interplays between the various characters, though daren’t say too much for fear of spoiling it. Though one may rightly guess that the contest comes to an end, but how it does so is up to you to find out.

Morgenstern’s writing style is eminently accessible, which makes it a fairly quick read for a book of nigh on 500 pages. If anything, I felt that reading it over the summer was the wrong time of year to do it. It has a more autumnal feel to it. So given the time that this review is being posted, then I would certainly recommend it as a book for now, particularly if you are in need of a bit of gentle escapism.

Liberal? What do you mean by that?

This is a kind of follow-up post to a comment I made in my attempt to summarise a few of the talks at Greenbelt. In particular, it was my note that Linda Woodhead’s definition of liberalism was little different from a statement of individualism. After posting it, I was pointed to Eddie Green’s blog on the subject where he made a similar objection to Linda’s usage. In it, he gives a very condensed history of liberal theology. Given the extent of that history, I don’t think anyone could do it justice in the space of a blog post, so I shan’t endeavour to improve upon Eddie’s take. Nor is this really a response to Eddie’s, as I partly agree with it, but it is more a launching pad to explain my own usage of the term liberal, particularly as it applies to theology and church life in general.

With the history noted, I first of all recognise that we are shaped by it, but need not be constrained by it. So some uses of the term liberal may have drifted from what they were originally intended to mean. Depending on the precise context, I tend to use it in one four senses, listed below. I think it is also helpful in each case to identify what we might mean by its opposite, as Eddie rightly notes, the term ‘conservative’ is not always apt. This is another example of a phenomenon I have tried to articulate before, whereby we define what we mean by means to saying what we don’t mean; a sort of chiseling away by means of ridding ourselves of various negatives instead of asserting a positive.

In what follows below, please note that I am not advocating a binary liberal/not liberal viewpoint on each topic. There are grey areas and people can be nuanced, complicated mixtures of each. So this comes very much with a sense of “-ish” about it, where I am aiming for a generally, well-rounded picture rather than pin-point precision within a narrow spectrum.

  1. Socially liberal

In this sense, I am referring to particular hot potato topics which tend to be divisive. One forum I am sometimes found at is the Ship of Fools, where such topics are referred to as ‘dead horses‘ and a whole discussion board is dedicated to them. These include whether women should be allowed to hold any and all positions within a church structure, views on homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc. I would also include, in a wider sense, the more individualist view, where one has the right to do as one pleases, provided it does not bring harm to another.

In this sense, I would call the opposite a ‘conservative’ viewpoint. Though it is worth noting that people may hold more liberal views on some topics than on others. For example, I would regard myself as liberal when it comes to homosexuality (you may find me on the list of members signed up to Accepting Evangelicals) and I endorse a fully egalitarian view of church leadership, yet I do err towards a pro-life position with regards to abortion to euthanasia. I say that quite deliberately, as I do not wholly agree with many a pro-life advocate, but I would support a sharpening up of the law to protect both women and children.

  1. Economically liberal

This can be a tricky one, as the term most often used is not really liberal, but libertarian. So while it doesn’t quite fit neatly (Hey? What does?) it ought to be addressed given the similarity of the terms. In reality, this is better described as a right-wing view.

As I wryly commented to someone the other day, a libertarian is someone who wants the freedom to economically oppress others. And if you advocate any measure that tries to stop them, they will retort by calling you an authoritarian.

The confusion when it comes to using the term liberal or conservative in this sense is that those who are most liberal/libertarian/right-wing are in fact those who are more likely to subscribe to the economic policies of the Conservative party, where the ultimate expression of liberty is to be found in free market, laissez-faire economics, such as that advocated by the likes of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman (or even Ayn Rand).

  1. Theologically liberal

This brings us back to Eddie’s analysis where I would take a slightly different, but not wholly contrary view. While it is the modern heir of the views of Friedrich Schleimacher, Albrecht Ritschl or Walter Rauschenbusch, it has moved on rather since then, for a variety of historical, philosophical and theological reasons – for good or for bad. Not least we have the rise of fundamentalism as a reaction against German liberal theology and then modern liberal theology arising as a reaction against fundamentalism. The subtle change this entails is that while liberal theology began as a methodology (c.f. hermeneutical liberalism in Eddie’s post) it is now more about the conclusions one reaches.

So when someone talks to me now of liberal theology, I am minded to think not of christians who are merely opposed to the fundamentalism, but those who have swung too far in the opposite direction and play fast and loose with theology, where a prerequisite is that one does not conform to a recognisable orthodox belief. A prime example of this would be the Jesus Seminar. One could look at one member from that group, Marcus Borg, whose views I have critiqued before. Or one could look at the catholic scholar, John Meier, whose epic look at the Jesus, A Marginal Jew, rules out, a priori, the idea of resurrection and where he joins in with the trend of presupposing that the historical Jesus must be different from the Jesus of faith.

In this sense, the opposite of liberal is not conservative, but orthodox. It is worth noting the warnings of Richard Niebuhr about overly-liberal outcomes:

“In a similar manner the idea of the coming kingdom was robbed of its dialectical element. It was all fulfillment of promise without judgement… In its one-sided view of progress which saw the growth of the wheat but not that of the tares, the gathering of the grain but not the burning of the chaff, this liberalism was indeed naively optimistic. A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

– H.R. Niebuhr (The Kingdom of God in America, my emphasis)

The above quote was made in an essay by J.B. Stump in The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought. Yet he (Stump) continues:

“…before joining with him [Niebuhr], we should remember that Christian doctrine has not been static throughout its two-thousand-year history. There was significant development in the fourth and fifth centuries as the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity were articulated in the Greek language; in the Middle Ages, it was the doctrine of Atonement that underwent significant revisions…”

So we would be wrong to think of orthodoxy as something that is necessarily fixed. We must always reserve the right to be wrong and to be corrected. Rather, I think of orthodoxy as something that is faithful, but where a change of view may be necessary. The theological liberalism at the other end of the spectrum is one that looks at orthodoxy and declares it to be old hat, and must be in need of change or updating. So the belief in the historical, literal, physical resurrection comes under fire primarily because it has been a lynchpin of orthodox belief. Yet the older form of theological liberalism, arising out of the dust settling after the renaissance and reformation, need not have had a problem with miracles. Rather, it is naturalism (or hyper-naturalism – at the exclusion of other ways of looking at the world) that gives rise to problems with the resurrection and other miracles.

  1. Ecclesiastically liberal

This is the final sense which I use, which seems sensible to me, but which others consider to be slightly idiosyncratic. While the others have been more to do with beliefs, this is to do with praxis. In particular, a liberal church is one that has a free and open worship, informed by, but not tethered to, tradition. The opposite of this would be a traditionalist, or conformist, church, whereby the practice is very much as it has been for centuries.

Dropping into a Sunday morning service, one would be immediately struck by the differences between, say, a high Anglo-Catholic CofE church and a New Frontiers church. At first glance, one might wonder what similarities there are. Are they even the same religion? Well, to that, I would answer ‘yes’. What differentiates them are what aspects of that religion they choose to emphasise and to then display as the public face of their churches.

To give an example, my parents are very much post-Anglican but after moving house earlier this year went to an Anglican church and described it as like going back in time to the 1950s; nothing had changed in the last few decades.

Another hallmark that can be used to discern between liberal and traditionalist churches is whether they have, and if so, to what degree, any level of segregationalism. This tends to be a hangover from catholic clericalism whereby the church leaders are in any way segregated from the rest of the church. Any use of the rhetoric of ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’ would be indicative of this, as would the requirement of the church leaders to wear special clothes which demarcate them from everyone else.

The more ecclesiastically liberal churches have less of this and, tending to have a more congregational approach where one may extend Paul’s great equality slogan of “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” to include “[there is neither clergy nor laity]” just as the more socially liberal (see above) may use “[there is neither gay nor straight]” and in areas where racial tensions may be running high, one might hear “[there is neither black nor white]”. Whether such paraphrasing makes for good biblical study may be answered differently by those who take differing stances on the question of theological liberalism!

So hopefully, you can see that all are in some way linked. Just to reiterate, I use these only as rough guides and recognise that individuals and groups have a variety of ways of expressing themselves and their beliefs which defy simplistic categorisation. To illustrate, let’s look at 3 case studies.

So what sort of person am I?

  1. Well, when it comes to being socially liberal or conservative, I would regard myself as broadly liberal. That doesn’t mean I adopt the label first and then, consequently, sign myself up to what might be consider THE liberal position on each issue. Rather, I consider each on their own merits, think about them and arrive at my own conclusions, and then look at who happens to be my nearest neighbours.
  2. In terms of the economics, I am left-wing. I’ve written about that before so shan’t further elaborate on that here.
  3. In terms of the theological, I would say I am mostly orthodox. The only chink in this is that I do not affirm the historicity of the virgin birth. I simply find the evidence for it to be unconvincing and that I do not think that it is a necessary prerequisite for an incarnational theology. It is not that I reject it as a consequence of the rejection of the possibility of miracles, as seems to be the case with some. Rather, my hermeneutical liberalism doesn’t lead me to the creedal conclusion. I’ve given a sketch of my theological approach before both here (recently) and here (a few years ago).
  4. In terms of ecclesiastics, I am most definitely liberal. I am no great fan of traditionalism and find freedom in worship to be far more preferable to liturgical chanting. Part of the reason I am part of the charismatic church rather than a conformist is because the charismatic gives more room for the Holy Spirit, whereas I’ve found more traditionalist churches, by dint of their rigidly scripted services, make no such room for the Spirit to move and may even, in some cases, verge on the warning of quenching the Spirit.

So that’s roughly where I stand. On the balance of the above, I would choose the epithet ‘liberal’ but I hold onto it very gently, willing to let go in case by doing so I end up aligning myself with views and practices which are less than helpful or faithful.

Another example

I had the mixed pleasure of visiting a different church a few weeks ago. It was a part of the Nigerian denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God. What sort of church were they?

  1. Socially fairly conservative – Though very welcoming on a Sunday morning, one need only do a little reading around to find that the official line of the church is at times very homophobic. That said, they do have egalitarian leadership. I’m not sure on their stance on other divisive issues.
  2. Economically right-wing – they place great value in personal wealth and seem little interested in matters of social justice. The posters currently adorning the front of the church depict a woman dreaming of a bigger home with a quote from Isaiah 55:8-9 above it.
  3. Theologically liberal. Linked to the above, they have taken a view that endorses the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. This is not something I would regard as orthodox.
  4. Ecclesiastically liberal. As with most pentecostal churches, their expression is about as far removed from the traditional idea of the English church as one could hope to find. This is loud worship, unscripted, with all joining in. It’s not for everyone, but one would be hard pressed to call it staid.

So here, we would see them mostly as ‘liberal’. Yet because of their socially conservative values, they are sometimes branded as just being a conservative church. Yet I hope that I have shown that it’s not necessarily quite as simple as that.

Yet another look

For further contrast, it might be worth looking at a very different kind of church. This is a description that I have gleaned from a number of conversations with a colleague of mine. He attends a very high Anglo-Catholic church in a fairly rural parish. The church is part of the sub-faction of the CofE known as Forward in Faith.

  1. Socially, it is rather conservative. They certainly adopt a pro-life stance and in the wake of the general synod’s decision to allow women the possibility of becoming bishops, there have been grumblings about the church crossing the Tiber and fully converting to Catholicism in protest. Their views on homosexuality are mixed, with some members being very set against it, others are more accepting and some are affirming.
  2. Economically very right wing. The colleague from whom this information is gleaned is a staunch Thatcherite and very much epitomises the idea of “the CofE is the Tory party at prayer”. I know that’s not true in the whole CofE, as it is a richer, broader church than just that. I’m just looking at one example here.
  3. Theologically orthodox. For the most part, anyway. My colleague is actually rather theologically liberal. As he puts it: “Well, it might be true. I don’t really know. I say the creed and I pray the Lord’s prayer, but that’s because you’re supposed to, not because I’m certain of it.” In some ways, he adopts a Pascal’s Wager approach to faith. As for his particular church, I get the impression they stick fairly closely to the Anglo-Catholic line, even if the Anglo part is rather quiet.
  4. Ecclesiastically traditionalist. This is VERY high church, or “smells and bells” as it’s sometimes called. The kind of church where one might well wonder, ‘do they realise there’s been a reformation or not’. Again, to quote my colleague: “Well, that’s what religion’s supposed to be, innit. It’s less about what you believe and more about what you do. Church without the ceremony just wouldn’t be a proper church.”

Wrapping it up

That’s turned out longer than I intended. If you’ve read this far, thank you for doing so. While I doubt many will agree with me wholly, I hope you’ve found it some of it useful, or at least thought-provoking. If anything, this should serve as a guide for any of you who interact with me regularly to have a clearer idea of what I mean when I use terms such as ecclesiastically conservative, theologically liberal or orthodox.

If anything, this should help explain why I find the epithet “conservative evangelicals” to be rather unhelpful. There are some ways in which evangelical christians are more conservative than others, but there are also some in which we are more liberal. And within evangelicalism, there is great variety and a richness of diversity, without necessarily causing division; as there is in other churches too. To some, single issues may define one as conservative, but that is not my view.

As people, as churches and as Church, we walk along the way to the kingdom of God. The path may be narrow and we may stray off course from time to time, both individually and collectively. I believe that Jesus is the way, not christianity. Christianity is the searching for the way. Sometimes we need minor corrections, sometimes we need big reformations and renewals where we’ve gone completely the wrong way or forgotten things. Even then, we don’t necessarily fix everything, sometimes making wrong that which was right. So of course, I may be wrong; or rather, I may well be wrong about a number of things, as you probably well know!

So, over you now.

  • Do you recognise these 4 criteria as being fair and reasonable, or do you think a different way of looking at things is preferable?
  • Are there any issues which ‘flip a switch’ and make one automatically liberal (or otherwise)?
  • How might you describe a) yourself b) your church in such terms – and is there a difference between the two?

Book Review: Being Christian by Rowan Williams

Disclaimer: This was gifted to me by the publishers, SPCK, as a reward for making a pun on Twitter. I think it was something about their authors to food, and I mentioned Rowan-berry Williams. I was not asked to review the book and do so, as ever, wholly of my own initiative.

This little book, subtitled Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, is based on a series of sermons he gave in the final week running up to Easter, though the year wasn’t specified. Williams has identified what he sees as 4 characteristics of the christian life (a point for discussion may be whether these 4 are the best choice, though I wouldn’t say they are bad at all). This isn’t a deep theological treatise, but it has hints of depths for us all to explore. As an example, I might cite a single sentence where he sums up the entirety of liberation theology: “For many people in the 1970s and 1980s it was surprising to realize [sic] what the story of the exodus, for example, meant to people in deprived communities in Latin America.” The book is suffused with such sentences that hint that there is more to things than are shown here, even if it’s like walking down a corridor, being shown doors that are slightly ajar. We are given a fair impression of what may lay behind these doors, but we are left to explore them by ourselves.

This is aided by a number of questions at the end of each chapter which may be used either by oneself or as part of a group study.

It is worth noting the title carefully, or rather, what the title isn’t. One other review I read of it made a criticism that Williams said nothing about how to become a christian, particularly noting that there was nothing about repentance. This is not a fair representation. For starters, Williams does talk about repentance, even though it’s not a section in its own right. More than that, though, the book is not called Becoming Christian. This is not a piece of apologetics nor does it describe the ways by which one might come to faith. There is an assumption here already that the reader has some idea of what the 4 headers are about and of who Jesus is.

Baptism

Readers here should be aware that I grew up in a baptist church which had a very deep, developed theology of baptism. It is usually one area where I differ from my anglican brethren, though it was rather lovely to see that Williams didn’t advocate any of those aspects that I normally cringe at: specifically, the advocacy of infant baptism or a functional (as opposed to symbolic) view of baptism. Some of the latter is hinted at, but Williams doesn’t quite go so far as to say that baptism makes one a christian.

Rather, he gently looks at the idea of being buried and raised with Christ and what that means for the individual. Interestingly, he cannot resist jumping ahead of himself and writing about prayer at this point. What I found most interesting was a comment that prayer is not something that ought to be striven for, but is a natural reaction in the life of the christian, much the inevitability of sneezing.

Bible

This was a chapter I must say I found quite intriguing, not least because I found Williams’ take again quite unexpected. He makes a very sharp distinction between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of their historicity. Williams seems to view the whole of the OT as being an identity-creating narrative but whose historicity is unimportant.

For my part, I am unsure as to whether the historicity of the Old Testament can be downplayed quite so much. While I would agree with Williams that the primary purpose is that of a forming a cultural identity, I am less easily convinced that the historical basis is unimportant. The fact that there is a relative paucity of corroborating evidence, either in literature or archaeology should be something that troubles us. If it were somehow proved the Abraham never entered into a covenant with God then I believe that that would have a profound impact on New Testament theology.

Talking of which, Williams has no such qualms about the historicity of the NT. He emphasises the centrality of Jesus as being the primary means of revelation. For the christian life is one of listening and God’s own voice is not more clear than when speaking through Jesus. There isn’t space here for a huge discourse on source or form criticism, so please don’t come to Williams’ writing with that expectation.

Eucharist

Going back a bit to my baptist upbringing, one of the other areas I would tend to disagree with the anglican mindset regards what Williams calls here Eucharist (which I recall Roger Forster describes as being a fancy way of showing that you know a bit of Greek), but which in the low church is more often referred to as communion or breaking bread.

Williams does stick to the Anglican party line in this chapter, more than he did in baptism, by advocating a highly functional view of the eucharist, even going so far as to mention transubstantiation at one point. So you will not be surprised to read that I profoundly disagree with him on this point. That is not to reject the chapter entirely. Even for the nonconformist, there is a gentle richness here so that one can see the world through the eyes of one particular tradition. He reminds us that communion can be approached in different ways, as a remembrance of the sacrifice that Jesus made and as a celebration of the resurrection. All this, though, is enabled through the Holy Spirit. I wonder whether it occurred to him quite how charismatic this sounded.

Prayer

In this final chapter, Williams takes a slightly different approach, with the bulk of it taken from 3 figures from fairly early on in christian history: Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and John Cassian. I must admit, though reasonably familiar with Origen and having heard of, but been unfamiliar with, Gregory of Nyssa, I had never previously heard of John Cassian. As one might expect, the Lord’s Prayer plays a fairly prominent role here as a model by which we pray.

Williams has more surprises up his sleeves here. In emphasising the personal nature of prayer, Williams advocates the notion of a priesthood of all believers, again something not one might expect from a former Archbishop of Canterbury. Yet he also emphasises another aspect of prayer, whereby we do it as part of a community; a community who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Overall, I got the impression that the book tried to be a spiritual classic. There wasn’t an awful lot to tie it to the time and place in which it was composed. It didn’t speak to a particular demographic, but had a feeling of timelessness to it. However, that’s not universally true and a few hints here and there could become dated in years to come, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

I’m posting this review comparatively late to when I finished it, so can look back and see what stuck. The overriding sense I get now is that it is a book that I should have read much more slowly than I did. At less than a hundred pages, I thought I was going slowly to eek it out at one chapter per day. It isn’t a work of theology, but it should hold a mirror up to our theology and praxis and remind us of some of the basics of christian living that distinguish us from the rest of the world at large. Such reminders are no new thing in christian literature, yet I have a feeling that this will be read more times and recommended in years to come than many a more plain effort.

There is far more in this small volume than I could cover here, for to do it justice might require a page of writing to unpack each paragraph. So while it may not take you long to read, it will be hard to resist turning back to it and noting the quotes that the publishers highlight for the reader to ponder. If what I’ve touched on sounds interesting, then this is definitely a book for you.

A Friday thought: Scottish independence

For a long time, I’ve chosen to stay quiet on the subject of the Scottish independence referendum. That doesn’t mean I haven’t thought about it, even though I do not get a vote, here are a few thoughts and observations as the campaign reaches its climax.

The democratic process

The wording of the question was a problem to begin with. You may recall that the initial question was posed as “Do you agree that…” which was deemed illegal as it was too leading. So that wasn’t a great start.

This was counteracted by the decision to extend the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. In my opinion, this was a very good move and I would be keen to see it extended to other elections and referendums. I recall being annoyed that there was a general election called in 2001 as I was a few months off turning 18 and hence I couldn’t vote. Yet while my views continue to evolve, even as a 16 year old it seemed wrong to deny my age group the vote. The argument has been that we lacked enough life experience or political understanding to be able to make an informed decision. I didn’t buy it then and I still don’t. If we denied the vote simply on the grounds of not being well enough informed then that would cut out a great many adults.

However, the democratic process wasn’t all that well designed. The issue here is that the vote was given to those resident in Scotland but the outcome would be to affect those who were born in Scotland. In effect, those who were born there but do not currently live there would have a change of nationality enforced on them by a vote which they were not capable of taking part in. Also one has the issue of non Scots who live there voting, though I am not opposed to that. While they wouldn’t have their nationality changed, it is a significant enough change to warrant them having the vote. Others may disagree with me on that.

The question of the economy

Much of the debate has revolved around the economy and so the debate has been shifted from whether Scotland should be independent to whether Scotland would be better off as an independent country rather than part of a union. This was always going to be a big issue, as emphasised by one of the names of the ‘No’ campaign – better together. Though I couldn’t help but think about it in a utilitarian way: what result gives the greatest good to the greatest number of people? Was it a case that Scotland was being held back by the rest of the UK and would prosper alone, leaving the rest of the UK unaffected or was it a case of “we’re off, screw you”? I think the answer is the former, even if it has been portrayed as the latter by some in the ‘No’ camp. But then comes the crucial question: is it actually true? This is a question I don’t know the answer to and haven’t found either side convincing on.

When the polls started to narrow and the markets had the jitters, I saw some comments from market fundamentalists to the effect that this proved independence was bad for business. For some businesses, I don’t doubt that independence will have an adverse effect. But how bad it might be and for how long, will vary from business to business. Personally, I think most will be largely unaffected. If a small number of big employers were to signal their intention to move south as a result of a yes vote, then I would anticipate something akin to a ‘corporate tax war’ whereby the Scottish government would seek to keep (and even attract business) by undercutting the UK corporate tax rates. Though, of course, this would mean they’d have less in their treasury to spend on the social welfare state. Which brings us onto the currency.

The currency issue has ended up playing a much bigger part than it probably should have done. The reason I say that is that it could have been avoided if the ‘Yes’ campaign had had the courage to plan for a new Scottish currency. As it is, their presumption of a currency union backfired. If they had a firm and workable plan in place, then as part of the wider economic question, the ‘Yes’ campaign would have been far stronger. Though as one parody site put it, Alex Salmond’s plan was akin to someone choosing to rescind their gym membership but insist that they can continue to use the equipment afterwards.

It is my belief that the it was the failure to adequately sort out the currency issue that soured the rest of the debate, which has only gotten worse as the date of the referendum has drawn closer. Having failed to come up with an alternative currency, the team behind the ‘Yes’ vote were unwilling to reveal a plan B, which was seized upon by the ‘No’ team who were unwilling to say that negotiations could be entered into. Stubbornness on both sides did neither of them any credit.

The bitter campaigns

All this set us up for an ever more divisive campaign. Given the nature of the referendum that shouldn’t be a bad thing. But it was worse than divisive. It got tribalistic. As is often the sad case with politics, the desire to hold the higher ground often leads to a refusal to acknowledge a good point made by one’s opponents. There have also been cases of demonising the other side and accusations of foul play.

In my view, the onus should have been on the ‘Yes’ campaign to make the case for independence. By and large, this has been what they’ve been aiming for, though of late a few below the belt aims seems to have had more effect. The job of the ‘No’ campaign should have been to critique the proposals. Starting with the currency issue, though, the flat denialism of the ‘Yes’ campaign, jointly with the scaremongering of the ‘No’ campaign, stoked the fires that meant reason and evidence were drowned out by rhetoric and emotionalism.

The fact that the ‘No’ campaign did resort to near-threats and scaremongering did them no favours at all. It also played into the hands of the ‘Yes’ campaign by giving them room to dismiss any fair and reasonable critique as similar scaremongering. As such, the noise from both sides made it more and more difficult to assess the truthfulness of each side.

Both sides have been guilty of saying some pretty stupid things. Alex Salmond saying that Scottish independence was like ending apartheid was monumentally crass. That was matched by some comments I saw on social media likening the SNP to the BNP. They may be one letter different but their ideologies are a world apart.

The ‘No’ campaign really shot themselves in the foot when the 3 main party leaders abandoned Prime Minister’s Questions and went to Scotland in a moment of panic after one opinion poll said the referendum was closer than ever, even if the ‘Yes’ campaign did celebrate it like a landslide victory. I alluded to demonisation earlier, which was most evident here in Salmond’s cry of “Team Westminster”.

I would not deny the ‘Yes’ campaign’s claim that consecutive Westminster governments have been out of touch. I knew a similar sentiment when I lived in the north-east of England. Yet to imagine that the further away you are from Westminster, the less they care is, I believe, wrong. Having lived in London for a year, I know areas 3.5 miles from Westminster that are just as neglected by Parliament as those 350 miles away. Yet that’s not a reason to vote ‘No’. If anything, it is a reason for greater reform in our politics.

If anything, the greatest reason the ‘Yes’ campaign has is one of principle; that it is inherently correct that they should have self-determination.  But self-determination is not a guarantee of prosperity, which is why the promise of economic benefits of independence ring hollow. If there was a promise of “it is right that we should govern ourselves, and it may be tough” then that may be more honest than the vision of independence that has been sold to the Scottish people.

Yet credence has been given to the ‘Yes’ campaign by the sheer panic and late promises from the ‘No’ campaign. The mixed messages of stick and carrot have done the unionists no favours and so it is understandable that people will vote ‘Yes’ on a promise given currency (pun intended) by the flustered nature of the response.

It has been interesting how ‘left’ v ‘right’ has played out. I’ve read some comments from the ‘Yes’ campaign that to vote ‘No’ is an act of selling out to the establishment. Yet the SNP’s socialist credentials were dealt a blow when they didn’t bother to turn up to vote on the latest bill going through to abolish the bedroom tax. There’s a very good analysis on that particular bill here.

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are some very good reasons for voting ‘Yes’ and there are some equally good reasons for voting ‘No’. No one can know for certain what the result of independence might be, all we can do is guess. As highlighted above, some of those guesses are questionable. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, all we have is democracy on a subjective matter. If the opinion polls are to be believed, it will be a very tight vote. It may be interesting to see if a reasonable estimate could be made to see if the enfranchised 16 & 17 year olds make a difference.

Whichever way the vote goes, it will be interesting. I know that for saying that both sides have behaved badly that I have received some flak from ‘Yes’ campaigners and been accused of advocating a ‘No’ vote. I don’t advocate either side. If you are reading this and you have a vote, my only wish is that you exercise it.