Category Archives: Short postings

These are much shorter posts than the Longer essays, often written in a hurry. Just a splurge of thoughts

On celebrating diversity within the church

What follows is the crystallisation of a few thoughts prompted by a recent Guardian article on what it perceives to be a crisis in the Church of England and how it is being taken over by a dastardly sect called evangelicals. This was followed up with a few conversations in various places on similar topics.

The thing that often frustrates me is that when Anglicans use the term ‘evangelical’ they often mean something rather different than when evangelicals use it. When one word is used to denote (or connote) different things, then a mutual lack of understanding can often, needlessly, ensue and can result in hostile, or otherwise unhealthy attitudes between members of the same faith. If one claims that evangelicalism is a “wing” of the Church of England, that’s a misleading statement. Evangelicalism is a far broader, richer, more varied church that can be contained within any denomination (even the largest of them). Rather than try to re-tread well-trodden ground to state who is and who is not evangelical, I attempted to demonstrate that the question wasn’t quite that simple via the use of a Venn diagram that I put together during the last 10 minutes of my lunch break.

 Christian expressions

The point in the diagram was not to highlight differences or to show “why I am not like you” or anything like that. It was rather the opposite. It was to celebrate the breadth and diversity of different expressions of christian identity. It was also to counter some of the overly-narrow focus that some expressions have of themselves, placing them in a broader context. It wasn’t meant to be a complete or accurate representation of all expressions of christianity, merely an improvement to that offered by The Guardian (which in turn, echoed a sentiment I come across frequently, particularly among those who have a phobia of evangelicals). If one were so inclined, you could find at least a dozen things to take umbrage with, and indeed some chose to deliberately miss the point by doing so.

To give example of a kind of unhealthy attitude referred to above,  take someone who is indoctrinated to think that a church must be liturgical in order to be whole, fully functioning, etc. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it gives rise to ecclesiastical snobbery and a hatred towards to the more ecclesiastically liberal churches that can have a well-rounded theology, with healthy worship that have no need of liturgy. Indeed just the other day I read a comment that expressed a fear of any involvement of evangelicalism within that person’s denomination, describing it as “theologically impoverished”. Such a view is not borne of understanding and love, but of ignorance and hatred.

I am not saying that evangelical churches are beyond reproach. There is a time and place for fair, reasoned and loving critique to help build one another up. Even if that sometimes takes the form a rebuke. Yet one must recall “the plank in your own eye” if you find it necessary to speak up about another church/tradition than your own (see here for a recent take on the Evangelical Alliance). Those critiques that carry the most weight come from those that can recognise the weaknesses in their own tradition. It’s fine to pick your particular strand of christian belief, be it Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, etc. but such an identity must be held to lightly, rather than clung on to in white-knuckle defensiveness.

One of the other illustrations that I like to use is that of dog breeding. You can have any number of different types of pedigrees and you have cross-bred mongrels. Pedigrees can look beautiful. But the preservation of the purity of their identity comes at the cost of poor health in some. In contrast, mongrels can be ugly things; one can spend time trying to work out the different breeds that have gone into making the dog what it is. Yet for their ugliness, they tend to be healthier dogs.

In this (yes, flawed, analogy) I’m a mongrel christian. I find my home in the Ichthus Christian Fellowship, but on the weeks when we don’t get to meet, I will regularly visit other churches. In the last 3 years alone, I’ve been to Assemblies of God, Baptist, Church of England, Congregationalist, FIEC, Methodist, New Frontiers, Pioneer, Redeemed Christian Church of God, URC and other independent churches. There are several attitudes one could take when visiting another church. One could go with a kind of sneering snobbery that seeks to see how they “do things wrong”, determined to see the bad and to leave with a smug sense of superiority about one’s own church. I much prefer to think of it as going to worship with a slightly more distant relative and seeing what good things they do that my home church doesn’t.

I’d encourage you to visit churches outside of your normal experience every once in a while. It’s possible you may find something very weird, compared to your regular worship experience, whether that be being asked to kneel in front of someone dressed in robes or seeing someone wave a flag. If you decide to not go back, preferring the ways you are familiar with, that’s OK. But at least if you go and engage with others, then you can come away having shared fellowship with a wider circle of christians than you otherwise might, and you get to experience a different part of the christian life first hand, rather than rely on 2nd hand accounts and scare stories.

Some choose to see different denominations as signs of division within the church. But try seeing it as a sign of diversity instead. Then sample that diversity. If your diet consists of knowing the nuance between different types of potato, then you’re not really having a varied diet. Likewise with churches. To taste and see just how good the Lord is, it helps to sample from a different dish every now and then.

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Today’s political madness

Between the time of starting to write this (1:38pm on Monday the 11th of July) and publishing it, I should imagine that an awful lot has happened in British politics. Andrea Leadsom just pulled out of the Conservative leadership, leaving Theresa May as the de facto prime minister. Meanwhile, Angela Eagle has launched a leadership bid against Jeremy Corybn, just a few days after he lost a vote of no confidence by the parliamentary Labour party (PLP).

I’m a some-time Labour voter, but not a member of the party. The recent fiasco puts me off even more. But if they are to have a chance of winning sufficient seats in Parliament to form a government and implement some sensible left-wing policies, then they need to have a decent strategy to win, and that seems to be lacking at the moment.

I like Jeremy Corbyn. He’s a centre-left moderate and I agree with many of his views. What I don’t like is the short-sighted vehemency of some of his supporters, who mistake a fervency of support for widespread support. Having thousands of people turn up to a pro-Corbyn rally is very different from convincing Conservative voters in marginal constituencies in England or SNP voters in Scotland. In particular (and this was highlighted last week, with the eventual publication of the Chilcot report) there is the toxic legacy of Tony Blair. The last Labour leader to win a general election propagated a war that left hundreds of thousands of people dead.

The idea then is that no Labour leader who voted for the Iraq war could ever become prime minister. Though Blair still won in 2005, after the war started. David Cameron voted for the Iraq war, as did Gordon Brown and Theresa May. So the idea that someone who voted for the Iraq war (as horrendous as it was) cannot win an election, is simply untrue.

But Blair’s toxicity is double-edged. The term “Blairite” has spread far wider than those MPs who supported Blair over Brown in the 2nd half of the last decade. It has become a pejorative term for anyone on the left who someone else on the left doesn’t like, though in particular of anyone who might subject Jeremy Corbyn to any level of scrutiny or criticism. I’ve lost the link [update: I found it], but I read a piece yesterday that referred to the author JK Rowling as a Blairite. The other side of this is now generally “Corbynista”. In my view, these very terms, used as insults, are part of the root of the problem. It is a case of “Othering” – whereby, in the desperate desire for simplicity in a complicated world, the whole view of a group of diverse people is summed up in a single word that is used to demonise.

As things are at the moment (now 2:07pm), the Tories have an open goal. The British political left’s idea of unity is “[well, if we’re disunited now, then you must agree with me in order to be unified]” – with no one willing to compromise, jostling to be an opposition of protest, rather than a government in waiting. When Gordon Brown became leader of the Labour party, he was wrong not to call a general election. My opinion is that was fear of losing that stayed his hand. There ought to be no such fear on Theresa May’s part if she were to do the honourable thing by calling an election, though it has been made more difficult since the coalition government introduced the ill-thought-out fixed-term parliaments act. Difficult, but not impossible, though.

I just pray that this whole ruddy mess gets sorted out, but that in doing so, we don’t see a further rise of the far right. Good government needs a strong opposition. The ideal situation would be for a left-wing government with a strong Conservative opposition holding them to account, but we seem to be a long way from that. For now, we need a Labour party that is willing to cooperate with itself, as well as with, inter alia, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens to hold to account and oppose whatever shape of Conservative government will emerge from the rubble.

A fresh alliance?

Last week, I read an article on the Evangelical Alliance (EA) website on the subject of diversity. This comes about a week after I did a survey for them on what it means to be an evangelical.

Both the article and the survey perturbed me somewhat. This is my attempt to articulate that discomfort.

In the survey, one of the questions was about what an values an evangelical christian should hold to. The first option there was along the lines of “Oppose same-sex marriage”. I shook my head in disappointment as I chose the option ‘Evangelicals should not do this’. It later got a bit farcical by giving the names of various celebrities and asking if they were evangelical, christian but not evangelical or not a christian. It seemed slightly valueless. Yet the article I read this week, penned by the Alliance’s General Director, spoke about diversity but didn’t mention what remains probably the most problematic issue faced by the Church in the 21st century – the acceptance of LGBT christians.

I’ve written before about the shameful decision that the EA made a few years ago when they ejected Oasis church for their leader’s stated support of the christian LGBT community.

It’s this sort of thing that gives evangelicals a bad name. To many, the term evangelical is automatically prefixed by the adjective ‘conservative’. Or for the particularly hateful, it is sometimes shortened to the pejorative term: con-evo. To someone who, like me, describes themselves as a liberal evangelical, this is somewhat irksome, as there is a kind of guilt-by-association levelled at me for being associated with those who hold views I don’t agree with. The common examples are being homophobic, opposed to women in ministry, anti-science, etc. I don’t deny that such views exist within evangelicalism. What I dispute is whether they define it or are otherwise characteristic of it. After all, such views also exist within the anglo-catholic world.

I would love it if everyone agreed with me on all things, it would make the world so much simpler and better (of course), but it’s never going to happen. I have to live and work with those who disagree with me, as do you. If we want to talk about diversity in evangelicalism, then that has to include diversity of opinion, of biblical interpretation and of praxis. Much as I might want everyone to be a liberal, overriding that is the desire for a Church (big C) that embraces both the liberal and the conservative. This is why, on the survey, I identified one of the key threats to evangelicalism as being the appointment of those who hold conservative views into positions of leadership. If the EA wants to embrace the idea of diversity seriously, then it has to change. It’s in danger of becoming the Conservative Evangelical Alliance, failing to properly welcome, respect, include and represent the views of those of us who are more liberal.

In its etymology, evangelicalism should be about bringing good news. The distinctive, defining feature should be the kerygmatic proclamation that the risen Jesus is the messiah. When Peter said that Jesus was the messiah (Christ), Jesus responded that that declaration was the rock upon which the church would be built. All else is mere window dressing. I want to be a part of a Church where the liberal can worship alongside the conservative, where LGBT are not part a hived-off community, but are fully integrated and where there can be good disagreement, where differences are set aside as we jointly focus on that which unites us.

One of the key passages that sums this up is 1 Corinthians 12:21-25

“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.”

To many christians, evangelicalism is the less respectable member. And there’s often, sadly, good reason for thinking this. Though to those that hold more socially liberal views (usually in contrast to conservative ecclesiology) the attitude towards evangelicals is often more one of ostracism than of the biblical view above of treating them with respect. Anti-evangelicalism is really quite fashionable, but it’s not helpful. So much as I call for the evangelical world to be more open, so the plea has to turn around to the non-evangelicals to be more welcoming to their brethren. We all need each other and that which ought to unite us is far more powerful than anything that divides.

Thoughts on the EU referendum

With the date for the referendum announced and campaigning underway, I wanted to try to enunciate my thoughts on the subject. I’ve written before on my desire to have a referendum. 3 years ago I said that I “would likely vote to remain in Europe”.

Likely, but not certainly. I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument from either side. So I wanted here to think aloud, as it were, and hopefully either prompt you in some questions you may not have thought of, though I’d rather like to start a reasonable discussion.

By ‘reasonable’ I have in mind cutting out a lot of unnecessary bickering, demonisation of the other and acknowledgement that there may be good reasons on both sides. I’m fine for someone to have made up their mind, but not for them to become belligerent in putting forward their case at the denigration of the opposite view.

The idea of “project fear” has been touted quite a lot. There’s a problem with it, though. It is right for the Remain campaign to point out the risks that are associated with leaving the EU and to ask questions about how those risks would be mitigated. Some of that has been worded a bit too strongly, possibly with the intention of trying to scare people into sticking with the status quo, but it is wrong for every legitimate concern raised and question to be dismissed as part of this “project fear”. Thus far, the Leave campaign has used this as a means of not answering questions which I, and others like me, want to hear the answers to.

An interesting thought I had regarding the referendum centred on the Scottish National Party (and, by inference, other nationalists around the UK). On the Andrew Marr Show, Nicola Sturgeon said that she would be on the side of the Remain campaign but that were the UK to vote Leave, then that would likely trigger a 2nd Scottish independence referendum (you remember, the “once in a lifetime” referendum that we had about 18 months ago).

So it would make a kind of sense if the SNP were to not be too persuasive in their case for remaining in the EU. i.e. be seen to be supporting the Remain case, but don’t actually try to win (rather like Manchester City’s team selection in the FA Cup). That way they get a second bite at the independence cherry, even though it would then be their intention to apply for membership to the EU.

I say “a kind of sense” because I must admit I don’t understand the view of some nationalists who want to be independent of the UK but not independent of the EU. If anyone can explain that one to me, I’d be most grateful.

Finally, I wanted to look at the theological perspective. Which of Leave or Remain better fits the maxim: Love your neighbour as yourself.

My issue with the Leave and Remain campaigns is that both have, thus far, put a large amount of stock in the idea of which makes Britain “better off”. But no one’s saying at what cost. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the UK is better off leaving. Does that mean also that our neighbours in France, Greece, Hungary  or Ireland will be better off? Or is it a case of making ourselves better off and choosing to not care about others?

When you try to dig into the matter, what does “better off” mean anyway? Is it purely a cold measure of macroeconomics, or are we factoring in the cultural and the spiritual? If it is purely economic, then one must be careful that the “better off” argument isn’t merely a form of prosperity gospel.

Possibly the strongest argument the Leave campaign has (in terms of appeal to the general public) would be that it would signal the end of UKIP. They would have achieved their aim and then all could see whether or not their myth of withdrawal from the EU being the panacea to all our ills would bear out in reality.

The strongest argument for the Remain campaign has actually come from one of the cheerleaders of the Leave side: Michael Gove. He claimed that the Conservatives have been stymied in pushing through some of their punitive measures because of the European legislation. In my book, anything that helps to tie the hands of Tories from hurting citizens is a good thing.

For now, I lean slightly inwards, but that lean is ever so slight. Those who promise than a UK outside of the EU will be a land flowing with milk and honey are not people to be taken seriously. Neither are those who speak as though withdrawal from the EU will be the end of civilisation. It’s a choice between two different shades of beige.

Persuade me, entice me, allure me to your point of view. Just don’t beat me about the head and call me an idiot. Such tactics rarely work in evangelism, whether religious or political.

A lack of concern for the dead

Recent events in the world have prompted a lot of questions. Many of those I’ve asked myself have been asked by others and many words have spilled in trying to answer them. One question doesn’t seem to have been asked, though. This is what troubles me:

Do we really care about who dies, or are we only concerned with how and how many?

When news started to come from Paris last Friday night, the reports were of multiple gunmen killing around 30 people. Next came word of a hostage situation at the Bataclan. It was worrying, it was important; that much I knew. But it wasn’t something I could do anything about. I could pray, I could wail, but I couldn’t lift a finger to prevent the deaths from happening. So I went to bed.

It was only  as I awoke the next morning that the full scale of the horror emerged.

Then came the comments and the comebacks. Why focus on Paris when Beirut had been bombed not long before, while that was largely ignored? What about the deaths in Brazil from the burst dam? It got me thinking.

To the best of my understanding, the number of people who die every day is somewhere around the 100,000 mark. For the overwhelming majority, we never hear how they died, nor is it reported as a daily tragedy that the equivalent of the population of a large market town died of old age whilst we were asleep.

Yet when a plane is blown up over the Egyptian desert or people get shot in the street, we sit up and pay attention. Partly, it’s because that’s the intent. Terrorism is meant to be noticed. But what’s disturbed me is thinking through the question of why. The media inevitably plays its part. We notice what newspaper and television editors want us to notice. In the age of social media, there is an additional pipeline into our heads, though there remains a deep suspicion about anything reported on social media not confirmed by a mainstream news outlet (conversely, there can also be suspicions of censorship if something seems to have enough traction on social media to be credible, yet it is seemingly ignored by the mainstream media).

But to simply say, “it’s all because of the media” is rather simplistic. Like it or not, we live in a consumerist society, and the media are providers of information that we want to consume; and they tailor their output in accordance with what they think we want. There’s something of a feedback loop going on, though I’m not here interested in who started it and how. I merely note that it exists.

When watching the news break on Friday night, the key piece of information that the broadcasters wanted to keep updating was the number of people killed. There seems to be something instinctive that says “[the number of people killed should be proportional to the amount of outrage I feel]”. It feels like a natural response. Yet when I think about it, in particular its converse, it makes less and less sense. If a report says that 50 people were killed in an act of violence, should our outrage be ameliorated if we later find out it was “only” 30?

Of course, it’s possible that I am guilty of projecting here, in which case this is something of a confessional as to the sickness of my mind and my morals. It certainly won’t be true of everyone, so please don’t be too offended if this doesn’t apply to you. I have a suspicion that this view may not be alien to everyone.

If there is any discriminating factor between those many deaths we don’t care about and those few that we do it is justice. If someone aged 25 is gunned down in a cafe on a Friday night, they are the victim of a violent and horrific crime. If someone aged 90 stops breathing in a hospital bed after years of heart disease, then the impact of their death on the world causes far less of a ripple; although it is, of course, felt by their family and friends.

Violence, such as that instigated by Daish (or call them what you will) is obvious to many as injustice on a large scale. But what about more small scale injustices? Are we angry about the children who die from diseases contracted as a result of drinking dirty water? Many are, but I suspect probably fewer than are outraged by Daish. Is that even an injustice, or just a fact of life?

Thinking through these questions of ethics, in particular those where there is an idea of boundaries, lines in the sand, is a troubling exercise. In the meantime, all I can try to be is a person of peace, living in a violent world that I don’t understand. When acts of hatred and violence are perpetrated against us, I try to hold on to these two pieces that I’ve written which, when holding up Daish/IS/ISIL in the place of the antagonist, it makes me all the more appreciate the depth of the cross:

Why I love EDL

Why I refuse to love my enemies

100 word ‘Thought for the month’

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to write “about 100 words” for the church newsletter. Below is what was sent and today published as a ‘Thought for the month’. For context, the name of our church is Ichthus.

The term Ichthus is a shortened form of a bold declaration: Jesus is the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, Saviour. Three terms that denote the same person but which carry different connotations. Yet Jesus did not go about introducing himself with these titles. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah came part way into Jesus’ ministry and wasn’t obvious, for it had to be revealed by the Holy Spirit. So when we introduce Jesus to others, should we immediately tell them of the conclusions of christian thought or invite them to become disciples and walk a path alongside us? 

How would you like your church? Rare or well done

I wanted to pick up and expand a little on a point I made in last week’s post on the breaking of bread. In it, I said

This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way.

This may have been open to misinterpretation, so a little more clarity may be needed. When I say that things such as robes, procession, chanting, etc are unnecessary, I mean precisely that: unnecessary. I am not saying that they are inherently wrong. My point is that they are things which, though maybe originally intended to help, can end up getting in the way. Whether one includes or excludes these things is merely a matter of taste. My only disagreement is when people insist that to have them (or to not have them) is the “proper” way to do things. i.e. that to have them (or to exclude them) is a necessity.

Let’s pick up on the word ‘raw’ for a moment. It serves us quite well by way of analogy. Beef carpaccio is raw. I’ve had it a few times and quite like it. Others I know can’t stand it. They might prefer a steak that is well done, with a peppercorn sauce on top . We can both equally claim to like beef, but we just like it done differently. The problem arises when one or other makes a claim that ours is how beef should be done. i.e. to denigrate the authenticity of the other. To me, peppercorn sauce obscures and spoils the flavour of good beef; to others, it enhances the flavour.

We each can get entrenched in our ways, but it’s good to occasionally try things from another’s point of view. To use a different, but still culinary, analogy, I can’t stand tea. But once a year, I try a cup, to see if my tastes have changed. So far, they haven’t, but as it doesn’t make me physically ill, there’s no harm in trying something different once in a while.

Last year, I offered to take part in a tradition swap, where I would swap my nonconformism for a more traditionalist expression of christianity. There were no takers. I was rather disappointed by this, as it seemed that plenty were keen for me to temporarily give up my ways and see the virtue in theirs, but they were not willing to give up their ways and see the virtue in mine (seemingly, because of a kind of snobbery that looks down evangelicalism as a lesser form of christianity).

Christianity is a great and varied thing, with many different expressions. When we get used to one, there’s a risk we closet ourselves away and think of the paraphernalia that is built up in our expression as being somehow important. Then, when we see that others don’t do X or Y that we do, there’s a temptation to think that they are in some way lacking. I’m not suggesting we should all abandon our own churches and try a different one each week. Rather, just once in a while, maybe we should put down something we are holding on to in order to test if it necessary. Then, maybe, with a spare hand, pick up something else from another expression of christianity and see if it is helpful.