Tag Archives: prayer

Prayer on the silver screen

Photo by Leland Francisco - used under CC license

Photo by Leland Francisco – used under CC license

Yesterday morning, one of the top news stories on the BBC was that an advert featuring the Lord’s prayer had been banned by a number of cinemas. It seems to have had something of a Streisand effect by getting a lot more people talking about it than otherwise might have done so had the advert been shown without any fuss over banning it.

It’s raised a number of issues, some of which are less interesting than others. Let’s get those out of the way first.

Firstly, it’s not that the Lord’s prayer has been banned; it was an advert that portrayed the Lord’s prayer. In spite of having it passed several hurdles it did contravene some rules about political and religious advertising that were brought in earlier this year, after the plan for the advert was first mooted, but before the final ruling made recently. So it’s a bit of a muddy timeline, but the ban was in line with current advertising rules.

Secondly, it’s not really an attack on christianity. I’m a secularist as far as I agree with the idea that no religion (or lack thereof) should be privileged above any other, but I stop short of agreeing with campaigns that seek to marginalise religious voices by excluding them from the public square.

So what is interesting about it?

Well, for starters, it’s the means through which the message was being made: advertising. It’s the hallmark of a consumerist society, which, the last time I checked, christianity wasn’t all about. In the early church, the public forums were just that: forums. They were places that people went to discuss the issues of the day. And where did the evangelists go to declare their message? The forums. They used what was around them to get their message across in ways that tapped into the public consciousness. Paul’s use of the statue to the “unknown god” is a great example of this.

Whilst watching The Big Questions yesterday morning, one of the objections raised to this was that it reduced christianity to the same level as other things for which cinema advertising is used for; namely, sugary snacks. The fear was that christianity was then to become a commodity. It’s a risk, certainly, but one that isn’t inevitable if the Church uses modern means of advertising to gets its message across.

Thinking it through, I quite like the idea of advertising as a part of Church strategy. This is my thought process: We cannot argue people into coming into the Church (and by Church, I mean the body of people as a whole, not a building or any particular institution). Apologetics has its place, but I am highly sceptical about its effectiveness as a tool of evangelism. That place is as a means of countering bad arguments, both for and against christianity, and of clearing up misconceptions about christianity. The difficulty comes when there is disagreement about what one means by “christianity” and results in a lot of apologetics going down wildly misleading paths.

Instead, evangelism is far more gentle and appealing when it comes in the form of invitation. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” not “Here, let me force-feed you some doctrine, it’s good for you”. If we stretch the analogy a bit further, if people are to taste and see that the Lord is good, then the Church needs some good cooks. Yet people do have different tastes. This is why the variety of emphases across different denominations is a good thing, not necessarily a sign of division. See here for a recent take on this.

Another interesting aspect is the idea of the Lord’s prayer. Did you know there isn’t one? There are a few; and I’m not talking about translations. Read the gospels. It never appears in the gospels according to Mark or John. Luke has a short version and Matthew a longer version. Even then, if your bible has some decent footnotes, it will have references to “other ancient authorities” including other bits that aren’t in the main text.

Yet these biblical versions remain relatively unknown. Why is that? Because the version that is heard most often only goes back as far as the 17th century. It was an amalgamation of the two (including the added bits in the footnotes) and was published in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). This, then, is seen as (even if it not often declared to be) the “definitive” or “complete” version.

Here’s an anecdote to illustrate.

A few years ago, the finance team I was a part of had a corporate training day. Part of this was about memorisation and a point was made that we all can memorise things, even if we think we can’t. To show this, we were asked to recite the Lord’s prayer. And everyone in the room recited, word perfect, the BCP version. As far I know, only myself and one other person were practicing christians. To everyone else, was a little chant that had become incorporated into the cultural psyche.

As an aside, it often strikes me as odd that this is often chanted en masse, which rather rips it from the context of Matthew where immediately beforehand Jesus said “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypcrites ; for they love to stand pray in the synagogues…But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” If you ever struggle to understand why I abhor liturgy, this is probably the most concise summary explaining why.

Back to the point. What this corporate training day showed to me was the danger of dilution. If something becomes commonplace, it’s impact can be lessened because it is seen as an everyday thing. One of the reactions I read was from a vicarbot (@AJWtheology) on Twitter who posed this:

The question is not, “How could anyone find The Lord’s Prayer offensive?” The question is, “How could anyone not?”

There are many commentaries on the Lord’s prayer and I won’t add to them here. For a nonconformist perspective, I’d recommend Roger Forster’s book on the subject (disclaimer: Roger & I are part of the same local congregation). I would just bring out the term, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. That is one of the most revolutionary calls ever made in human history. If, instead of monotonously chanting it, we took it to heart and made that a heartfelt plea, then christians would be seen not as a harmless anachronism in the modern world, but as a subversive movement. It’s not one that sets out to destroy the world and replace it with a new ideology, it’s a movement that we invite you to try out.

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Book Review: Prayer by Roger Forster

Disclaimer: This book was a gift from my church which I received at a newcomers evening (though I have been involved with the network since 2002, I have been attending this particular congregation since last autumn). Roger and Faith Forster began the church and are still present and very active in the life and management of it. I was not asked to review the book so, as ever, this review is wholly of my own initiative.

As the title of the book states, this is a book about prayer. Subtitled ‘Living in the breath of God‘ this is a sort of short guide to everything you might want to know about prayer within christianity. There’s little to nothing here of any other religion and it’s not really an academic text, detailing theory of prayer, it’s developmental history or anything like that. Rather, this is a devotional book that seems very much aimed at the person who is already a christian or who is looking at christianity seriously with an eye to conversion.

Roger starts with a fairly straightforward look at ‘why we must pray’. I would hope that most would find this opening unsurprising. If one were to survey a wide group of christians and ask for a set of reasons and some scriptural backup, then you would not be far off reproducing most of the contents of the chapter. Most, but not all. Because Roger is a charismatic christian, in just about every sense of the word. As such, we get to see what the subtitle is about – the breath of God harks back to the term pneuma which can be variously translated as breath or wind or spirit. So to pray is to live in the Holy Spirit.

As one might expect from a preacher with many decades of experience, he manages to make use of alliteration in his answer to why: communication, communion, command, co-operation, compassion, continuation, confrontation. Though if you want more details on each, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

With it fairly well drummed into us that prayer is a necessary part of the christian life, Roger turns to how we must pray. Roger focuses on some particular examples, though he limits himself to only looking at the New Testament. One could expand this to a whole book in itself and I’m sure you could pick any number of other examples that are omitted here.

Of course, one could hardly have a book on prayer without discussing the so-called Lord’s prayer. This follows on in the same vein as the previous chapter, with a phrase by phrase dissection of the prayer. Of course, one might ask ‘which version of the prayer?’ The version that most people seem to know (I recall a very odd training day at work when it was the one thing that everyone knew off by heart) is the version from the Book of Common Prayer. Of course, that’s a mongrel version, combining elements of both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel. Roger focuses on the two biblical approaches, warning against mindless chanting of it, which negates its validity as a genuine prayer. He picks up his preacher’s alliteration again when looking at 3 possible ways one understand and pray the Lord’s prayer: Eschatologically, ecclesiastically and emotionally. There’s also a neat comparative between the versions in Matthew and Luke, as well as a little bit on textual criticism on the differences between them, though unfortunately, in my view, no discussion on Luke 11:1 from which it has been suggested by others that what we know as the Lord’s prayer may actually be something Jesus copied from his cousin John.

As an aside, there are a few general theological stances made in the book that it might be worth noting. One that caught my eye in particular, given some recent reading was that Roger seems to advocate the more Calvinist view of imputed righteousness. This was partly a surprise as I know from conversations with him that he’s not particularly keen on Calvinism, and indeed one of the things that marks Ichthus out from other charismatic churches is that it is known for being far more Arminian in its soteriology. The idea of imputed righteousness is then linked (by way of an opposite) to imputed sin, which is of course linked to the idea of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). The reason this is particularly interesting is that recently the church hosted an American anabaptist speaker who talked about nonviolent atonement and was very set against the idea of PSA. You may be read more about that on Ben Trigg’s blog here.

The next chapter looks at the question of prophetic prayer. As something to a build up to this, please do see this preparatory post on ‘what do we mean by prophetic‘. Roger uses the term prophetic a lot, though he doesn’t really define what it is, which is a little frustrating. But one can get a fairly good grasp by inference throughout the chapter. It’s really an expansion of one part of his opening chapter. Specifically, he takes a Johannine view of abiding in God and God dwelling within us. This symbiotic relationship is then expressed through prayer in as much as we are allowed to participate in the conversations that go on within the Godhead. So prayer is not a list of asking God for things and having one reply out of: A) Yes, B) No or C) Maybe. It is far more symptomatic of an intimate relationship.

Following on from this, we get a chapter from Faith Forster, though why the book doesn’t then have dual accreditation is a mystery to me. She starts by defining 4 types of prayers. 1) Petitions and supplications, 2) Outpourings, 3) Intercessions and 4) Thanksgiving. Though even after having read it, I’m still not sure what the difference between 1 & 3 is supposed to be. She then takes another look at the Lord’s prayer with a different pair of spectacles on.

From here on in, the book looks at prayer as a weapon in spiritual warfare. Though it is not one of the named “Ichthus distinctives” those of you who are familiar with the church will note that it is one aspect of christian theology that gets a lot of attention; more so than in other denominations. To some this is welcome, though I know that others find it offputting. I confess, while I largely agree with the shape of the theology as it is taught, I do think it is rather over-emphasised at times, almost to the degree that personal responsibility can seem to be glossed over in favour of the power of ‘dark spirits’. But this is not a book of the occult, certainly. Rather, I think Roger and Faith’s aims are to shine a light into the darkness (again, a Johannine theme)

In conclusion, the christian book market is loaded with books on prayer. If you wanted, you could look at it from any number of perspectives. Of those that I’ve read, I would still say that Pete Greig’s God on Mute is one of the few “must-reads” that I would recommend.  But this is well worth reading, if only because you may have an interest in reading about prayer from a charismatic point of view, if you are more used to an ecclesiastically conservative way of looking at it.

Ultimately, it’s not so much a book to be read as to be applied. If you finish it, put it aside and think “well that’s interesting” then perhaps Roger will be sorely disappointed. As I’m completing this review some time after finishing reading it, perhaps the question that ought to be asked is: has it changed my prayer life? If I’m honest, the answer is probably ‘no’. That which I agreed with I probably do anyway and that which I disagreed with, I didn’t find convincing enough to make me change.

A word on the typesetting. This might seem harsh, considering I know who did the typesetting, but it really could do with a review. The book is littered with typing mistakes, the most common being a lack of spacing after punctuation. I just flicked the book open near the beginning and straight away on page 3 I can see the following:

“We are meant to communicate because God is a communicating God.There is a discipline in silence, but there is no discipline in non-communication.”

No space between the sentences. But please don’t let that detract you. If you want a book on prayer, this is as good as any, and certainly more practical than Rowan Williams’ Being Christian.The only omission I think there this is on the topic of the angry prayer, the lamentation, on which I wrote recently as a guest writer for the Big Bible blog.

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.

Bideford council and the 2 views of secularism

I have written before about what I believe to be the proper meaning of secularism. Last week, a ruling was made by the High Court about Bideford Council to the effect that prayers would no longer be allowed as an item on the agenda at the start of their meetings. The complaint had been brought about by the National Secular Society (NSS) under a claim that a former council member had been forced to partake in prayers. 

The High Court eventually ruled on an issue that was not brought up by NSS. So far as the case went that had originally been brought, the NSS lost. The former councilor’s human rights had not been breached as had been claimed. The judgment hung on the fact that prayers were not explicitly allowed by an earlier Act of Parliament. They were therefore not considered to be part of the Council’s official business and so the judge ruled against the council.

By extending the logic used in the ruling, if the serving of tea and biscuits at these meetings was not explicitly allowed then they too ought to be banned from council meetings. As has been pointed out by others, the ruling is not as landmark a case as the NSS would like it to be, as the scope is extremely limited.

What it has done is stir up a renewed interest in the role of state and religion which often seems to confuse people endlessly. This, I believe, is that while there is are loads of people who couldn’t give a toss either way, as well as many reasonable moderates, the loudest voices are those with an agenda to push. In this case, we have the NSS on one hand and we have conservative christians (such as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey) on the other.  

My own view is that moderate secularism comes about as a consequence of the Golden Rule. Bideford Council never forced or coerced anyone into participating in prayers. Had they done so, I would not have been in support of their defence. If we are to do to others as we would have them to do us, then we should never impose our beliefs or specific “religious” practices on anyone. 

The fallacy that has been used by those who supported the NSS’s case can be demonstrated as follows: Let’s say we have 4 individuals, all with different beliefs. 

1. Prays to Jahweh
2. Pray to Allah
3. Prays to the Flying Spaghetti Monster
4. Prays to no one. 

By misrepresenting the Bideford case as a compulsion to make someone pray to an entity they did not believe in, the NSS portrayed it as person 4 being forced to comply with person 1’s beliefs. This did not actually occur, but if it had then there would be very minor human rights issue (how often have the NSS campaigned against human trafficking?). So while the moderate secularist would advocate that no one party can impose their views on another, the NSS seek as a default that person 4 be allowed to impose their views on all others. This is done by grouping together 1,2 & 3 as being “religious” and then seeking a non-religious alternative as being the view that ought to be predominant.  

In other words, the ultimate aim is to create an out of sight, out of mind political culture. As an aside, it is interesting to note that while it may be reasonable to state that we live in secular culture, the same cannot be said of our political system. One phrase I often hear used to describe Britain is a liberal, secular democracy. Of these 3 words, I don’t think any of them accurately describe our politics. We presently have a Conservative-led government which is demonstrating that it values the pound more than the person, thus dispelling the myth that government is liberal. The head of state, the queen, is unelected and is also outside of the jurisdiction of some laws (for example, she cannot be sued), which shows that the idea of democracy is a joke. Then, to top it all off, the queen is also the head of a national state religion, which puts pay to the idea of the state being secular.

Conclusion 

I don’t buy into the rhetoric that says that christians in this country are being persecuted. If so, then you might as well say that a fruit fly buzzing past your ear is a persecution. It does a disservice to those places (and here I am thinking of the Sudan and Nigeria) where people have been murdered for being christians. The particular case in Bideford is really of limited importance. What is important is that the extreme and intolerant voices be exposed for the folly that they put forth, and to actively push to change our politics to become more liberal, secular and democratic, so as to be a fair reflection of the society it purports to serve.

On worship, liturgy & evensong

Introduction

As promised earlier, here’s a collection of thoughts in relation to christian worship. There are a few sources for this, which I will endeavour to incorporate into this post. It began last week with a sermon at church, a copy of which is here. As is the practice in my church, the housegroup the next week looks at the same subject, but in a much more informal environment. So I will be including some of the discussion we had there into this post, as well as some discussions I had with a few Anglicans regarding evensong (which I kept incorrectly referring to as “evening song”) and my experience of attending one as part of a flashmob outside St Paul’s cathedral, at the OccupyLSX camp.

Unless otherwise stated, assume all opinions are my own. I have attempted to be as fair and representative as possible, though I doubt I have been successful in all of this. This is, for the most part, an exploration of my own thoughts and feelings on subject matter, guided by the discussions mentioned above. Any mistakes that remain are purely my fault. Please feel free to join the discussion via comments or by any response, which I will be happy to either include as a guest post, or link to if hosted elsewhere.

This has ended up quite long, though I have chosen not to break it into several posts. Instead, I have simply included headed sections to ease your navigation and break it up a little bit, if one part interests you more than any other. My hope is that you will find each section interesting enough to motivate you to read the rest.

What is worship?

Before we can look at expressions of christian worship in particular, we need to consider the general notion of worship.

One of things mentioned in the sermon is the proposition that everyone is “programmed” for worship. It might be articulated as “designed” or as an “inherent tendency.” I don’t want to worry about the semantics here; I do enough of that most of the time anyway. So when I talk about “worship” I do not always have in mind any kind of religious ceremony. Instead, I mean the prioritising of ‘something’ in your life so that the majority of your spare time & energy is devoted to the pursuit of this goal.

One thing I asked the housegroup was “What’s the first thing you do when you get home; and what does that say about you?” My idea behind this is that while we can try and bring little acts of worship into our working day, your real priorities are betrayed by what you do as soon as you get a free choice. I’m sure a case could be made to say that I worship work, given that in any given day I spend more time there than I do anywhere else. In between work and home I have my commuting which I tend to fill with reading (or occasionally a Sudoku puzzle or sleeping, depending on what sort of day I’ve had). But when I get home it’s “me time” and I have a completely free choice as to what I do. In the past, I’ve ended up watching far too much tv. I would come in, take my shoes off and put the tv on, where it would then stay on for a couple of hours until I go to bed.

I realised that this was getting in the way of my own personal time with God, whether it be reading the bible, doing any wider study and from prayer. So I took to a slightly unusual habit. When I left my house in the morning, I would put the tv remote control underneath my bible. That way, when I got home, in order to turn the tv on, I’d have to pick my bible up. This is simply a methodology I developed to deal with a self-discipline issue I had; I’m not saying everyone has that same issue, though it did seem to be common amongst those in my housegroup that the tv could be a major draw. For those that were married and/or had children, the first thing they would do would often be to talk to their families.

One way to identify what it is that you worship is to ask yourself how you view other people. If it’s money you worship, then you may see people as debtors, creditors, potential sources of future income or competitors. If it’s sex you worship, you can view people as potential partners or rivals. If it’s sports you worship, you will want to find out who else supports your team and who supports your rivals, or has no interest in your given sport(s).

Christian expressions of worship

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he answered “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Matt 22: 37, NRSV). Christian worship is the expression of this love. An analogy I like to use (the flaw in which will be obvious, but I hope you can see past it) is of illness. If a person has the kind of love that Jesus describes, then worship will be the symptom of that love. My own view is that there are strong parallels between this and the relation between faith and works, which is described in James. If you have faith, works inevitably follow. If you have love, worship will inevitably follow.

A point made in the sermon was that the start of worship has to be a correct understanding of God. Now this is always a lifelong process, I think. There has to be a distinction between worshipping God and worshipping our idea of God. Now I get told by various atheists quite often that I worship a magical sky fairy or a figment of my imagination. However, such views are rarely based on any level of sensible thinking, and a theology no more advanced than that rejected at Sunday school. I don’t profess to have a perfect understanding of God, but I would claim to have an understanding slightly better than such puerile jibes suggest. Personally, I am highly suspicious of anyone who would claim to have such an understanding, since one thing I am convinced of is that God is beyond human comprehension. There is a saying often applied to quantum mechanics which I think is applicable here: “If you think you’ve understood it, you haven’t.”

It is for this reason that I support the idea that all christians should be amateur theologians. This doesn’t mean we all have to talk in obscure multisyllabic words that no-one can comprehend; quite the opposite really. When I say this I mean that all christians should regularly study their bibles, challenge themselves and check what they believe against the available evidence.

So, having made our most honest attempt to understand God, and constantly revising that view as we learn and understand more, what next? Well, it’s pretty much up to you. How do you react to receiving grace and forgiveness?

On the notes provided to me for housegroup, there is a statement that, “Worship isn’t just singing songs on church it is also about our lifestyle and surrender to God. Every Godly action that comes from a surrendered heart to God is true, authentic worship.” At one point in a previous week I ended up observing a conversation I have had many times on the question of ‘is it really worship when you don’t really feel like it?’ When most christians talk about love, this is not a reference to a woolly emotion; it is a far more fundamental desire of the heart. Emotions are like the waves that kicked up by the wind that froth on the surface and are easily visible, but true love is the ocean current that is underneath, providing a far greater force, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

There’s a very famous phrase Jesus uses when talking to some of his followers in the garden of Gethsemane where he says “the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.” (Matt 26:41, Mark 14:38) As a side note, it’s interesting to note the Greek in Matthew & Mark for this phrase is identical, but in the KJV they have minor differences in the translation. Anyway, I think helps to illustrate what I have not been clear in expressing; that it is possible to worship when, on the surface, we are just too weak, either physically or emotionally, to express what our inmost being desires.

A reservation

I tried to articulate on facebook and twitter some reservations though I don’t think I worded it particularly well. When it comes to worship, a lot of very high churches make this synonymous with something known as liturgy. This is form of chanting where all the words are dictated in advance and where this is no free expression to worship from the heart. In talking to many Anglicans, they are completely perplexed by the idea of worshipping freely. I know this is disputed by some clergy friends, but their view is not backed up by the evidence I have from talking to members of the congregation. One friend I was talking too recently had been so ingrained with the idea of liturgies that he found it incomprehensible that someone could pray from the heart, making up the words as they naturally came to you. This left me wondering whether or not they were worshipping at all, or merely taking part in ritualistic religion; but it is not for me to judge.

If worship is a natural thing for a person to do, then the expression of that worship should also be natural. This may be taken to the extreme end, and Paul wrote to the church in Corinth pleading for orderly worship, as it seems the place was quite chaotic. But there is a difference between orderly worship and worship which is put in a straightjacket.

The expressions that worship take will probably be highly influenced by the society which we inhabit, along with its social norms. In the English society I inhabit, it is really very natural to sing. The X Factor is one of the most popular programmes on tv, and is mostly about singing. At a football or rugby match, the crowd will engage in singing en masse, so singing in churches shouldn’t really seem that unusual. But chanting doesn’t fit naturally into our society. The closest I could find was poetry-reading, but even then, it will only ever be one person. You don’t find poetry readings where hundreds of people adopt a monotone voice and speak in unison.

It is because of these shamanistic overtones and the dissuasion from free thinking that make me extremely uncomfortable with liturgy. Please note, this is not an objection to the words themselves; it is merely the form I have qualms about. Most that I have read are extremely truthful.

There is a second side to my reservations. I have long opposed the idea of regarding christianity as a religion. The best articulation of this comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote on the 30th of April 1944:

“…theology rests on the ‘religious a priori’ of mankind…if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless – and I think that this is already more or less the case…what does that mean for ‘Christianity’? …. how can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?”

Once we acknowledge that our society is increasingly secular, there are 2 choices christians can make. One is to become more religious, focussing on God as something disassociated from the world, or to become more secular by engaging with the relevant issues of the day that concern ordinary people. The former simply alienates the church from society, making it less and less relevant; the latter puts the church back in the public eye and allows the church to be relevant, giving it a voice with which it can then educate people about the gospel.

So anything which makes the church seem more religious or mystical, or other such objections to modernisation I view as an obstruction to the great commission.

A report from Flashmob Evensong

With those reservation noted, I was uncertain about a fairly impromptu evensong outside St Paul’s cathedral. The thinking behind it was that because, at the time, the building was shut but that this shouldn’t prevent the scheduled services from taking place.

I thought I’d have to make a decision by 6pm in order to get down to St Paul’s cathedral on time. I was talking to a couple of people of twitter about this, and one chap said he would equally uncomfortable and one chap from my church was also possibly going to go along late. The other thing that swung it was empathy for the organiser, who blogs and tweets under the name The Artsy Honker. Having organised many events where people have not turned up having said they would/might, I know how much of a kick in the teeth it is to spend time and effort organising something that turns into a damp squib. Since I hate the feeling myself, I decided to do what I could to avoid inflicting that on someone else.

The meeting place was given as “outside M&S” though when I looked on a store finder for M&S, the closest it had was London Bridge, another mile away, so I was at a bit of a loss as to where to go. St Paul’s is a pretty large building and takes a fair few minutes to walk around. I tweeted a couple of folks who were around and between us, we just about managed to meet up. I was stood immediately outside the door, and to identify myself said that I would hold a stick of celery in my hand such is my eccentric wont.

Still being decidedly uncomfortable, I tried to stay as near to the back as possible. Someone was going round giving out hymn sheets. Having grown up in a baptist church with a mixture of ancient hymns and 80s Graham Kendrick, I was able to know 3 of the 4 hymns that were to be sung. Standing in slightly the wrong place, The Artsy Honker thought I was part of the choir, and asked what I sung. I bit my tongue and resisted saying “loud and out of tune” and opted for “bass or baritone.” To be honest, my range varies depending on the song, as there are some ‘in-between’ notes that I just can’t hit. So when the hymns came along, I gave it my gusto, although trying to sing above the noise of the London traffic and general hubbub was certainly a challenge. When it came to the liturgy, I maintained a dignified silence and chose to listen and to offer my own prayers silently. It was interesting that at one point, there was a recitation of the Apostles Creed, which I have written about recently.

The reaction we got was quite encouraging. A few people approached once the singing had started and asked what was going on. So those of us at the back did our best to give a brief explanation. People came and went every few minutes, though I would estimate the core was about 25 or so people, though at times there may have been double that in attendance. I think I was the only person wearing a tie, and I’m sure I was outnumbered by those wearing dog-collars.

There were a couple of readings with one notably coming from the Apocrypha, which prompted one person to say something “[I dread to think what my dad would think if he knew we were reading from this.]” Given the very short notice, the guy who was asked to speak didn’t have time for a full length sermon, but just gave a 5 minute talk. The chap himself, I discovered, was the bishop of Buckingham. He was the opposite of your stereotypical milky tea & cucumber sandwich style vicar, although his beard was of the kind only found in high churches or some university departments.

Afterwards, a few of us went of the pub. To be precise the person who suggested it (whom I shall not name) may have wasted as much as a millisecond between the service ending and making the suggestion. We hung around for a little while first (mainly because I had to go and visit a cashpoint) but it was good to meet, if ever so briefly, a few of the folks I had only spoken to on twitter. I caught a couple of extra people there too.

One of the subjects that was discussed at the pub was the issue of “high” and “low” church. What I hadn’t realised was the extent of the difference in how various people view and define “high” and “low.” Growing up, there was something jokingly dubbed a happy-clappy scale.

An approximate scale of happy-clappyness would have a papal mass at 0 (high church), while a day at Revelation church (where you get greeted by drum n’ bass DJ in a giant old warehouse with no seats and a sound system to rival the Brixton Academy) would be 10 (low church). The church I grew up in was about a 4, although it had been a lot more charismatic when my parents joined; it just got old and conservative later on. My current church I would say is about a 7. There is the occasional dancing the aisle, the guitarists are sometimes allowed to finger-tap and there is the odd bit of clapping every now and then.

I would have put the evensong at 1 on this same scale. Yet one of the Anglicans I was talking to seemed to have a similar notion but the scaling was completely different. To them, there was a wide of liturgical-based worship, with those that use incense in a completely different class from those that don’t.

Such talk is all a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not suggesting that any one form is inherently superior to another; that’s not what I mean when I say have reservations. I’m sure plenty of people will have issues with some of the forms of worship that go in the more charismatic churches.

Closing word

This went on for a lot longer than intended, and there are thousands of posts more that could be said about worship. I hope if you’ve read this far you’ve found it interesting and at thought-provoking. I know my views on liturgy are not shared by all, but I hope you haven’t found it offensive, that was not my intention. Please do comment, and let me know of any response posts so I can post a link to them.

French-style secularism?

While I was munching breakfast, I came across this story that hit Twitter a few times from the Telegraph, about prayer being banned from the streets of Paris.

What an outrage! This is a suppression of freedom of expression, it’s stigmatising those who pray and discriminating against those of a religious persuasion!

Or is it?

On closer inspection, it turns out the problem is not really about prayer at all. It’s a traffic issue in one particular area of Paris. The headline of banning prayer is a misleading one, as prayer is not really being banned. There is nothing to stop me (apart from the cost of the train fare!) from walking the streets of Paris and praying silently while I do so. I am apt to do this around London quite often, but I doubt many, if any, are aware of this. So this legislation is not supposed to deal with prayer in general, but is solely against Muslims who are too numerous in one area to fit into a small mosque.

This is not an example of the Thought Police in action; the root cause is a gathering of one particular religion in an area that holds up traffic on one day of the week. It would be interesting to visit the scene in question just to find out how bad the issue is. To quote the article, “the prayer problem was limited to two roads in the Goutte d’Or district of Paris’s eastern 19th arrondissement, where “more than a thousand” people blocked the street every Friday.”

However, there are issues raised by this that ought to be considered with due sobriety. For one, there is the understanding (or lack thereof) of the term ‘secularism’ by Claude Guéant. According to the report (if we are trust the content & the translation) “praying in the street … violates the principles of secularism.”

I have outlined my own views on secularism before and why I would describe myself a mild secularist. This, however, seems to completely miss the point of secularism, which is to remove (if there ever was any) religious privilege. One of the architects of secularism was Martin Luther, as his reaction against the overt political power and lack of accountability afforded to the Roman Catholic Church; though it is worth noting that his 95 theses were posted not long after the reign of the Borgias, which is one of the most shameful of periods in Catholicism.

But Luther’s intention was never for an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that we have evident in the thinking of one French minister, and possibly the wider government. It also begs the question why any action needs to be taken on such a wide scale, and why it is not limited to the time and place where the problem occurs.

If the problem was solely due to traffic, then it should have been sorted out as a traffic issue, not as one of religion. I’m trying to avoid going down the “thin end of the wedge” route, but I can’t escape the possibility that some French Muslims may well have just cause to think the wedge was already feeling quite thick by now.

As a side note, there is a march for this French kind of secularism happening in London on Saturday. I couldn’t attend if I wanted to, as there are major engineering works on the routes into and out of the capital this weekend. I won’t say any more about that now, as I can’t better the well-balanced piece that came out of Theos earlier this week.

Voices from the London riots

News moves fast. I started writing this at 22:16 on the 8th of August.

I have to admit I do not know the underlying reason behind the riots. I cannot put myself into the mindset of those who choose to express themselves through violence, with scant regard for others. There seems to have been (at first sight, pending an investigation) a great injustice with the killing of Mr Duggan by the police.

Below are just a few of the comments and eyewitness testimonies that I have gathered off facebook and twitter. I do not agree with all of the statements, and find some of them positively vile, though I include them only for reasons of demonstrating a range of views. The identities of all involved have been removed, as I have not requested permission to repost. If anyone objects to these, then please let me know and I will remove any offending comments

“The worst terrorism London has seen yet. The Met should be ashamed (how much taxes do we pay towards the Met?) London should be ashamed.”

“Surely looting is just another word for stealing isn’t it?”

“Just hoping all my friends and family are safe.”

“riot police on our road, downstairs neighbour just told us to ‘get our knives ready’ – brilliant”

“Where are the police? The whole of Clapham junction has been ransacked.”

“Wanted…Jo Frost & one humungeously large naughty step to be deployed in London.”

“If you’re going to set fire to any house in London please make it the Big Brother house.”

“the government should buy up all the old coal mines etc and anyone convicted of this rioting be sent to work down them. Riotous jobsworth hooligans!!”

“Wish people would stop criticizing the emergency services, especially Police. I’d like to see them do a better job!”

“My friend’s dad goes to hackney to reassure her. His car has been torched.”

For my own part, I have not seen any violence. I work in London, and in the late afternoon, we could hear a lot more sirens than normal. There was no sign of trouble on the trains or anywhere within sight during the later part of the evening rush hour. I remember watching the cars burn in the race riots on Marsh Farm around 20 years ago and have no desire to see that.

From the news and from the social networking sites, I see actions of violence, greed and hate. I read comments of condemnation and fear. There is very little love around. I am ashamed to say that some of the more vile comments above came from those who profess to be christians.

I have no fear of returning to work in London tomorrow. I shall not however be staying late into the hours of darkness. I am reminded of 1 Thessalonians 5:5. “for you are children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night nor of the darkness….for those who sleep, sleep at night and those are drunk get drunk at night.” There is a kind of thoughtlessness that is akin to a kind of drunkenness which seems to be present in these pockets of unrest.

To my christian viewpoint, the first course of action is to pray. I think most christians would agree with me on this (I hope). But it is not the only thing we can do. These problems seem to be related to community problems, and if any entity has a tradition of being at the centre of a community, it is the church. Where the churches can be in the geographical centres, stand up to the violence and demonstrate love, then that will be more effective than any amount of street preaching.

Words of condemnation do not help. In order to demonstrate love, we first ought to recognise that those who loot, steal, burn and destroy are just as loved by God as you and I. They are deserving of no less love and grace than that which has been bestowed on us.