Monday, March 31, 2014

Forest Church - an expression whose time has come?

On Saturday I was speaking at the museum in Wells at an event called 'Born in a Pagan Land' Bath and Wells mission open forum born in a Pagan Land the day was looking at the relationship between Paganism and Christianity in the UK with a special focus on Somerset. which of course meant a lot was said about Glastonbury.  another speaker was Liz Williams, a Pagan who runs the shop the Cat and the Cauldron in that town. i was also joined by local missioner Diana Greenfield and Helen Bradley who have just started Avalon Forest Church. I was struck again by how much the Forest Church idea resonates with people. Christians who find God in nature and don't feel at home in conventional churches, those involved in 'New Age' therapies and spiritual practices and those who are Pagans or have Pagan backgrounds find this new - or perhaps re-discovered? - approach to Christianity makes sense and is attractive when otherwise it has less appeal. this won;t be true for everyone of course, but the way new Forest Churches are springing up suggests there are a lot of people for whom this is so.

it is interesting to note that when the Roman's left Britain where in much of Europe the church took over the civic system the Romans left, in Britain there where a lot who returned to the countryside. rural monasteries and sacred sites in nature became central to early Christianity in these Isles. i wonder if there is still something in the British psyche that means the divine is sought in nature? perhaps this is part of the Forest Church growth?

see Mystic Christ/ Forest Church for more

Sunday, June 23, 2013

exposing the Church of England plan to recruit Pagans using a Pagan church

OK if you have been reading the press over the last few days you may have come to believe the Church of England has a new policy to recruit Pagans by training pioneer ministers expressly to do this by starting a Pagan church - and that i am one of the key people doing this. Well that's what this article in the Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10133906/Church-of-England-creating-pagan-church-to-recruit-members.html certainly implies and it has drawn a lot of comment both from Christians and Pagans.  But there is a big problem with this article - it is highly misleading and there is no such Church of England policy.  I thought it was about time to expose the spin and let the real story come out.

firstly it is not a piece of research based on interviews done by the Telegraph it is actually a rehash of a radio piece done by BBC religion correspondent Robert Piggott for the Today Programme - you can listen to it here for the next 5 days http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b02x9f4j the piece comes about 1:25 into the recording - it went out just after 7.25 on the 21st June.  The background to this piece was that Robert had seen research by people like Linda Woodhead on the rise of spirituality outside of religion as a counterpoint to declining church numbers.  in particular she had recently written an article for the Church Times suggesting that the Anglican church should concentrate on the 50% of Anglicans who are non-churchgoing believers (this is the link but the full article can only be read by subscribers  http://networkedblogs.com/KGTJa. Robert wanted to explore this and particularly to find if there where ways the Anglican church was connecting with spiritual seekers. I was along with three others interviewed for this radio programme. it went out on the 21st June to link it to the Sumner Solstice celebrations at Stonehenge.

what happens in such interviews is that a several minute interview is used to produce a small piece as part of a larger article, I've done this before and knew what to expect. in the piece there was a comment from the very good Pagan academic Graham Harvey explaining that lots of people went to the solstice as well as Pagans including Christians who weren't tightly defined but more fluid. this was put in the context of growing numbers of spiritual seekers. Then the question of Anglican response was raised and i was introduced. i am an Anglican priest I research this area and work in evangelism so whilst i am not an official Anglican spokesperson on this i am often recommended as an Anglican to speak in this area.

two sentences were used from me firstly building on something that is a Church of England (along with a number of other churches) backed initiative to create fresh expressions of church within the different cultures of Britain recognizing that many people are culturally very distant from the church.  http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/about/whatis This would indeed potentially include people of different religions and spiritualities as well as ethnicities, lifestyles, locations etc. we had talked about how one would do this for spiritual seekers or Pagans and I said that one would look to 'create an expression of christian faith within that culture almost a Pagan church but with Christ very much at the centre'. i was asked whether that would look like a traditional Anglican church - i suggested not, and offered as an example the Forest churches that several groups have set up and how they would meet outdoors, might have a circle or a fire chanting and prayers and things that were very Celtic in style.

other interviews were with Andrea Campanale of CMS who train pioneer ministers, among other things.  these ministers are likely to be helping create fresh expressions of church.  Andrea and I have worked together on a few occasions, we helped run a Christian stall at the London Mind Body Spirit festival in May for instance. the third interview was from a member of an Anglican church who also uses Angel cards but who as far as i can tell has no official church role and isn't part of any programme of church outreach.

so the radio interview showed there where Anglicans seeking to express christian faith in the cultural context of religion and spirituality outside of church and that might include Pagans.  i have no problem with the radio piece - it was well researched and Robert is i am convinced quite genuinely interested in exploring this area. I also think it is very important and have argued for a number of years that the church needs to learn lessons from those expressing spirituality and religion outside of the church - especially those with roots in the New Age Movement or contemporary Paganism. i do not think this amounts to the Church of England having a deliberate policy of creating a Pagan church to recruit Pagans and training pioneer ministers to do it - the Telegraph article makes two and two equal a lot more than five. it takes the facts that pioneer ministers are being trained, some Anglicans think it inportant to engage with non church spirituality and that  one of them talked of creating something that was 'almost a Pagan church with Christ at the centre'. it takes those and assumes this is all part of the same policy of the church. it is all influenced by fresh expressions thinking, but that was not mentioned in the radio piece or the Telegraph article - i guess some may think that fresh expresions might therefore be what the Telegraph was talking about - i simply suggest you look at the site i posted above and you will find very little if anything about Pagans or spiritual seekers.

i have no problem with the radio piece, but James Naughtie's introduction was i think a large part of what lead to the Telegraph story. as part of this, having suggested Pagans might meet to 'drink dew' at the solstice (yes it's that old 'daft Pagans' insult) he then went on to say the Church of England was seeking to recruit Pagans and spiritual seekers and was training pioneer ministers to create different kinds of churches that might appeal to spiritual seekers. OK i guess you have there the phrase 'recruit Pagans' and the elements the Telegraph built there story on. having rehashed the radio piece (and quoting me incorrectly) they also made matters worse with, the frankly patronizing suggestion that 'The new move could see famous druids such as druid leader Arthur Pendragon move to Anglicanism.' i am guessing that Arthur is killing himself laughing - at least i hope that is what he is doing. 

to fill in the picture there was also a piece in the Times, behind the pay wall of course. but at least Ruth Gledhill phoned me and this managed to straighten out some of the story - it still links things into a coherent plan but at least mentions fresh expressions  http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/uk/article3797917.ece

OK that i hope at least helps explain how the articles happened and why i think they have been misleading.

i have been watching what has been happening on blogs and tweets and facebook as best i can. in one sense i was tempted to let it play out - but i have become concerned about the possible harm and misunderstanding that may come from this. i am concerned that Christians will decide i am selling out the faith or someone who will do anything to recruit church members - i have no problem with Christians disagreeing with me but i'd rather they did so on the basis of what i really think and do. i am more worried about what Pagans may think , and indeed some are thinking, that i and others are creating some deceptive fake church in order to target Pagans and recruit them. i have a number of Pagan friends and i value being part of groups in which Pagans are included. so i was rather disturbed by a story growing up that i was simply deceiving these people in order to recruit them. and for this reason felt i needed to set the record straight.

i think i need to finish very briefly by explaining why i said what i did. my understanding is that in every age and culture authentic Christianity adapts to become at home in that new context. in the west for a century and half it has done this less due to the establishment of the church - something i think was damaging BTW. i think we have been going through major cultural change from the later part of last century and the church has not adapted to this and is therefore declining. at the same time new expressions of spirituality have grown.  at present i think such expressions of spirituality and religion are addressing the lives of many though not all people today far more effectively than the church and as a Christian i think we need to ask why and learn lessons from that. i do not believe that a Christian church could adopt Paganism and remain Christian nor that a Pagan group (or individual) could adopt Christianity and remain Pagan. i do think that Paganism has much to say and offer to the world today and much that Christians can adopt - for instance whilst Christianity isn't polytheistic, the Trinity does include the divine feminine as well as the divine masculine and those, including Pagans, who have criticized an apparently male lone christian deity are right to do so, and we as Christians need to acknowledge that and recover out own tradition of the divine feminine. similarly Pagans have often put Christians to shame when it comes to the environment when St Paul time and again talks of Jesus not saving people from the world but wanting to set the whole of creation free from suffering - we need to recover this ecological vision. i could go on but i hope you get the idea - that is what i meant by saying a Pagan church - on reflection i think i should have said a church in Pagan culture or one that learnt lessons from Paganism. i do think such a church would be far more attractive to many people. do i want people to 'join the church' put like that no - i am not interested in a church recruitment plan that sound slike getting people to join a social club. However, i find the vision Jesus outlined for life, society and the future of creation deeply attractive and my belief as a christian is that God can work to change us into the sort of people who can live that vision out and i want to share that vision with others and i hope they too are attracted to it - that would be what i would mean by evangelism. i also want to live in a society in which all faiths are tolerated and given equal status. i could say more but this has been long enough. i am happy to respond to further questions and comments

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Dawkins vs Baroness Warsi - Christian Britain and its Secular detractors

Richard Dawkins has just released details of a survey designed to explore why in the 2001 Census 72% of British people ticked the box marked 'Christian'. There are two posts about this survey on the Dawkins Foundation site  Dawkins survey post no.1  Dawkins survey post no.2 . I have analysed the original survey data and my bulletin on this can be downloaded here response to Dawkins survey .  On the day this came out Baroness Warsi the Muslim conservative cabinet minister was meeting the Pope to call for the protection of Europe's Christian identity in the face of secularist attacks upon it Baroness Warsi article in Telegraph . It seems that the arguments between those who want to 'defend Christian Britain' and those who want religion to play no role in public life are an ongoing media story. This is not to everyone's liking. Giles Fraser, who on national Radio caused great amusement by asking Dawkins if he could name the full title of Darwin's Origin of Species, causing the atheist Darwnian scientist to stumble and exclaim 'oh God' when eh couldn't, has written in praise of the tradition of religious tolerance attacking both positions.Giles Fraser in Guardian . What are the issues and how should Christians respond?

Firstly simply turning this into a battle between the two extremes probably only helps the atheist secular view. Dawkins if often strident and when met with gentle humour and non-dogmatic response he often comes over badly in comparison. This is partly why there was so much delight at his radio stumble; people rather liked him being caught out. Dawkins was right that in fact the stunt did not really act as an equivalent to asking people who said they were Christians to pick the name of the first book of the New Testament from a multi-choice list. But people enjoyed it all the same.  However, one thing that Dawkins Survey carried out by IPSOS/MORI did show is that those who ticked Christian in the census do not on the whole support Christianity as a state religion. At least as a Muslim Baroness Warsi is not a member of the Church of England, but the danger is that defending the role of the church in public life appears to be defending the Church's privileges.

On the surface Dawkins poll is seeking to show that most people who put Christian in the census are not really that at all; which rather ironically leads to an atheist defining what a real Christian is.  The real agenda however, is to argue that Christianity should be a private religion with no place in public life. The idea is that by showing most people who tick Christian in the census are not really so this undermines a role for the church in the state. Anyone who follows survey data on religion will be likely to realize that most people who tick Christian rarely if ever go to church or hold Christian beleifs. however, until this survey there has been no direct comparison of such to the answering of the census question. in one sense the survey makes Dawkins case; the majority of those who ticked Christian where not regularly in church, rarely prayed or read the bible and cited being baptized as a child as the main reason they were Christians. Whist claiming these as Christian may help bishops argue for seats in the Lords i doubt it really helps the church in its day to day life. without a church tax as is the case in many European countries, this is not going to fill the church pews or fund its ministry. More importantly should we as Christians be happy simply to bless this situation and not rather hope that Christian faith play a more significant role in these people's lives?

it seems to me both more honest and also helpful for the church's ministry with those people to admit that there are many who identify with the Christian religion but have little personal faith.  But does that mean conceding the argument or with Fraser opting for a tolerant dismissal of the question? Part of the problem here is our Christendom legacy,  I can understand why Giles Fraser argues that if people want to say they are Christian who are we to say otherwise, but in the end this simply upholds a view of being Christian that saw all born in our country so simply because they were British subjects and most were baptized accordingly. i have no problem with welcoming children into the church by baptism, neither do I feel that parents must pass a faith test first. But i think feeling that this is then 'job done' is a recipe for the kind of nominal Christianity Dawkins seeks to expose.

if i don't in the end agree with Giles Fraser i do think he is right to look for a third way between the defenders of Christian Britain and its secularist attackers. I also think Dawkins survey far from proving is case actually supports this third way. Firstly it shows that at least 18% of the population are seeking to follow the Christian religion and it's teachings, but significantly a further 22% of people identify their desire to be good people with Christian faith and associate this with the Bible as the best guide there is to morality. these people may not defend Church positions in the state, though many do, but they do want to see what they understand as Christian values influencing society. This is not however support for traditional positions on things like homosexuality and abortion, but would see Christian values as important on issues like poverty, business, human rights, support for families and children. If Dawkins wants to play the numbers game and argue that moral positions informed by Christianity have no role in public life because only 40% of the population support them, what then of the views of secular atheists? Survey's suggest they are at most 15% of the population. Dawkins might well respond that they don't have a privileged position because they are secular but simply have to make their case on merit of the argument. Perhaps it would strengthen the Christian case if they did the same? it may be that be surrendering some of the perceived privilege of the church  it might find it gained more authority to speak for what are still the largest grouping in British society, those who see Christianity as the best guide to live by. after all we must remember only 23% of people voted for the current conservative government.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

i wish it could be Christmas everyday?

don't usually post my preaching - but as a sort of Christmas message to any who care to read it thought i would put up my midnight sermon from this year - didn't know then of course i would share the ending with the Queen's Christmas message - I rather like that unlikely link!

the bible text BTW was John's Gospel chapter 1:1-17 -in particular the following -  in the beginning was the word ...and the word became flesh and dwelt among us....he was the true light coming into the world...the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not over come it... to all who received him he gave power to become children of God....


The Archbishop of Canterbury on the Chris Evans show has told us not to hold out for the perfect Christmas – and for those who as Christmas eve fades and Christmas day comes close are sitting here saying to themselves ‘I’m not going through all this another year’ the quest for the perfect Christmas is indeed probably something we need to banish. It can so easily be that the pressure to have the perfect Christmas ends up as one of the factors that instead ensures everyone is so wound up that all the seasonal goodwill has dried up long before the turkey is carved.

When celebrating Christmas becomes a very expensive headache I can understand the people who say they look forward to Christmas with dread rather than joy. In spite of all that I have to confess to being one of the people who really likes Christmas, and not just because of its significance to me as a Christian. I like the tinsel and lights, and the idea that everyone is having a celebration. I even like the flashing Santa hats and the Christmas pop songs played in all the shops – though I do wish I didn’t have to hear them from sometime in November – there are only so many times you can hear Slade’s merry Christmas before it starts to get a little annoying.

If most can share in this as some of the magic of Christmas then I think for many there is also a special magic in the story that has become the Christian focus of this mid-winter festival – the story celebrated worldwide, even in places where snow and holy are not part of the equation because for them it is mid-summer.

David Cameron may want to draw on the Christian identity of Britain that was so much part of the Dickensian Christmas. That he feels the need to do so tells us how in many ways that Christian identity is far less a feature of most people’s lives. Many people however, still want to be part of the celebration of the story of the birth of Jesus and its magic along with the mince pies and presents.

And the story is magical – the miraculous birth, the angels shepherds and wise men following the star, the nativity scenes from school plays to Christmas cards. And it is also a great drama as Tony Jordan the Eastenders script writer will have shown anyone who saw his nativity series last year of the repeat this year; reminding us that at the heart of the story was a vulnerable young women who in saying yes to God put her life at risk, and a man challenged to stand by her when all the pressure was to do otherwise and doubt seemed wiser than faith.

And here as we move behind the nativity scene and start to think what the story means perhaps the deepest magic emerges, the story of a God who loves the world and wants to be intimately involved with it. Who comes not to a celebrity in a lavish palace but to an unknown woman who finds herself homeless. A God prepared to be vulnerable and in our care as part of a plan to restore love and care between all people that there may indeed be peace on earth and goodwill to all.

It is that story that at its best makes Christmas magical as a time when we do offer good will to others, when people ensure the marginalised and lonely have a Christmas dinner, the homeless are looked after; when we are generous to others in a way that is out of the ordinary. Indeed at its best the magic of Christmas gives us a glimpse into another way of living of a world that I think many of us long for – even in spite of the pressure to create the perfect Christmas.

Another of the ubiquitous pop songs played a little too often is Wizard’s I wish it could be Christmas everyday – and at this time of year someone guaranteed to be in the news, is Andy Park of Melksham in Wiltshire who is dubbed Mr. Christmas for apparently celebrating Christmas everyday since 1993, he has a new video on youtube to tell you all about it. Each day he has mince pies for breakfast, unwraps presents he has wrapped the night before and posts a card to himself through his letter box. He then goes to work – he runs his own electrical business – before coming home to a turkey lunch at 3pm and watches a recording of the queen’s speech.

I don’t know if that was what Wizard meant by wishing it was Christmas everyday but as much as I love Christmas, the tinsel and turkey are only fun because they happen for a few days only – indeed I think we already spend far too long dragging that side of Christmas out for the sake of the retail business.

But what if the care, generosity and goodwill could be for everyday of the year? What if everyday the poor the lonely the homeless and the suffering received the care they do at Christmas? What if there was peace and reconciliation all year round? The trouble is we all know how difficult that is to sustain, the economic realties that work against it, the darker side of human nature that means that greed and violence so often drive out goodwill.

If the magic of Christmas opens a window of longing for such a world then the cold realties of life sooner or later tend to pack away those dreams with the decorations.

God however has not packed away his Christmas gift. God’s love and care and commitment to all creation have not faded. In God’s mind it is indeed Christmas everyday. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Some have suggested that Mr. Christmas Andy Park is not being quite truthful about his daily Christmas, and Tony Jordan found when researching his programme that various scholars told him the familiar details of the Christmas story where also doubtful.  But as he researched further and talked to people of faith he concluded the details mattered far less than central events of the story and the impact of what God was doing in those people’s lives. Indeed if the story had been embellished – just as he himself does as a good story teller – this was to help the point get across. And so he found himself he says to his surprise like the character of Joseph coming to faith in Mary’s story in spite of all his doubts and with a cynical shepherd looking for a political revolution who instead found himself kissing the feet of a tiny baby in adoration.

People sometimes talk of the magic of Christmas as something for children that we grow out of. But John’s gospel reminds that for all who, in spite of their doubts and difficult life experiences, come to believe in God’s presence among us in that tiny baby; for all such people the miracle of Christmas is that they too are born as children of God.

Whatever the exact details of his birth, God’s word did come in flesh about 2000 years or so ago in Jesus, and his influence on those he encountered has had lasting consequences. But that is not the end of the story. Each Christmas he seeks to be born again in human form in the lives of all who will open themselves to his presence. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in him tonight not just because of the magic and the meaning of the story back in time. It is God’s life in us that can enable us to be the people who whilst we pack away the decorations to enjoy another year really do live as if it is Christmas everyday. It is that light shining in our hearts that can banish our darkest places and enable us to be people of the light in the darkest places of our world.

And so, as the carol tells us, God imparts to human hearts the wonders of his heaven. That earth may become like heaven, that the magic of Christmas may not fade but transform us and our world.

This Christmas let it be for each one of us as that carol continues
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.



the carol referenced is printed in full below - every blessing for Christmas and 2012

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight

For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel  

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mission, Maori and the Anglican Covenant

for those not in the Anglican Communion there is an international debate going on in response at least in part if not predominantly over the tensions created between liberals and traditionalists and majority world and 'western world' countries over issues of same sex relationships. a proposed solution is a covenant that creates more accountability across the communion - or from another angle more control on what have been independent churches.

this can be viewed simply as a tension between traditional and liberal Christians. There is also a very real backdrop of colonial Christianity; it is the old colonial nations that are pursuing more liberal agendas and their former colonies tat are arguing against them on the whole, though there are diffrent voices in both contexts.

the Maori Christians in the church of New Zealand have opposed this covenant by viewing the issue very differently - see http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=120448 they have i think rightly perceived that diversity in the church is not about liberals vs conservatives but the nature of the church's mission. the choice is between a church whose form and practice are dictated from a centre, and it mattes not if that is Canterbury or Lagos or Washington, and one in which each church incarnates the faith within it's own culture.

globalization, the fading of Christendom and the shift towards post-modern culture all put enormous pressure on different cultures and societies. in such a world it is understandable to seek security and a strong global identity. if you are a Christian in central Africa or much of Asia you live alongside a strong Islamic presence and the tensions often tip over into violence. being associated with 'liberal western Christians' can be a trigger that lights the volatile material in such places, this can lead to death and destruction. in our world we no longer live within our own small cultures and communities, we are increasingly global citizens.

yet as many missiologists like Andrew Walls have noted, churches have failed in may areas of the world because they failed to remain at home in the local culture. in a world in which increasing diversity exists alongside globalization we are pulled in two ways - i think history suggest the Maori have seen he issue correctly - the future mission of the church requires it to be more diverse not less in our changing world, we need another way to live together and it will not by tightening the rules at the centre, but by understanding and blessing the many edges that the chuch's mission will be strengthened. it is this principle that lead to the great diversity of early churches across the world that i believe we need to re-capture today

Thursday, April 07, 2011

does my society look big in this?

rather taken with the idea of these tee-shirts bearing the legend 'does my society look big in this?' http://www.philosophyfootball.com/new_win.html i think good Greenbelt festival wear.

OK i am by inclination a committed Christian Socialist so i am likely to think the Big Society is just another way of expressing the ideology of a small government - which i think may be driving cuts as much as a desire to reduce budget deficits. So you can see the appeal of the tee-shirt - as well is it being great fun. But how should Christians view this idea and does it have any implications for mission?

regardless of whether i am right about the ideology of the Big Society and Christians will take different views, clearly it raises an expectation that groups like churches are possibly being invited to play a more prominent role in community projects, welfare provision, youth work, health care etc. how should we respond to this?

well from my viewpoint there may be some weariness. if the churches do step in to fill roles left vacant by government cuts are we not simply supporting a policy we don't agree with? this is true but can I as a Christian not offer care to people simply on those grounds? my ideology is based on a belief that the whole of society should care not just those who chose too; it is a shared responsibility. but i do want to see care happening. i also would be an advocate of Christians doing so regardless of public policy; it is part of being agents of God's Kingdom in which the poor hear good news, the hungry are fed and the sick healed.

if you do not share my political concerns this may indeed look like a great opportunity for the church to return to a role it played for centuries of being the centre of care and education for the community. i certainly know Christians who thank that way. so perhaps whatever our ideology, Christians may find themselves united in filling those Big Society roles.

however, i don't think that solves the issue. there are i think some underlying pitfalls that may await us. i hear from some a sense that the Big Society agenda may help reverse the marginalization of churches in our public life; returning to them essential roles in the community. this may be partly true, but there are two dangers here. one is that we can even if we don't mean to, appear to be doing our bit for the purpose of gaining status and not because of our care for others. a test of this will be our willingness to be involved in care projects that are not specifically Christian as opposed to those that look as if they are rather like company charity giving; basically an advertising exercise. the other is how this new church involvement can be portrayed by those who view all church involvement in society as dangerous and to be challenged. if the church gets more involved in social projects we can expect more scrutiny from the secularist lobby wanting to catch us out. these two danger clearly fuel each other. a sense that the Big Society projects aid the church's profile is exactly the kind of evidence that will be used against such involvement.

i think for all these reasons, whatever our ideology, we need to offer care to those who need it as best we can. however this has to be based on people's need not on how it makes the church look. for both reasons the best answer may not be lots of high profile church care projects, but Christians joining in with wider based community action. this is likely to best use skill and resources as well as being clearly free of an ulterior motive. it may also be the best way to be salt and light in our society - whatever it's size.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Not Ashamed of what?

last week saw the launch by Lord Carey and others of Not Ashamed, a campaign to support the recognition of the Christian heritage of Britain and support Christians who feel they have been discriminated against for their public stance for the Christian faith - you can read more here http://www.notashamed.org.uk/leaflet.php

i think it is important to remember the positive contribution the Christian faith has made to our culture and help people make the connections between that contribution and things they may well take for granted about it that they too value. I want Christians to be comfortable about expressing their faith both in public and private. I believe just as i have found personal encounter with Christ both personally transforming and visionary for the blessing of all creation others will find this true also and want them to discover that. I am confident that God is at work in all creation bringing fullness of life and the new creation as he has spoke of it through the ages. i am not however confident this campaign actually serves those beliefs. why is that?

firstly i am not sure it has rightly understood the world we are in our the nature of the issue. it is easy to quote the 72% in the last census who said they were christian, but this doesn't mean they support this kind of understanding of what being a christian nation is - indeed the survey evidence is strongly that most who say this see it as a positive statement about loving ones neighbour but also see that as affirming the kind of policies Christian agencies and individuals are clashing with. the reality is that whilst for centuries of Christendom if it was never the case that the majority of British adults went to church often the majority of children went to church or later Sunday school and were raised in that faith. this totally collapsed during the twentieth century. this was indeed a time of great social change - but is this collapse due to the challenge to faith that change brought or due to the failure of the church to engage with that change? either way does a political campaign seeking to reverse supposed marginalisation of Christians on thee basis of our past contribution address either issue? it simply treats cultural change as a political debate and ignores whatever the extent is, and i suspect it is high, that the church has failed to engage with it.

secondly whilst there is much to be proud of in this country's Christian heritage there is actually much of which we should be ashamed. i think we need to wake up to the harsh reality that Christendom, the declaration of Christianity as a political as well as a spiritual reality as a basis for state rule as well as culture, has left a legacy which seems to have little to do with Jesus. firstly it enforced faith on its citizens banning the free expression of belief, i then instituted the spreading of faith on other nations by military conquest. it then made opposing the state religion a treasonable offense often punishable by death usually after torture. christian nations fought over faith and persecuted religious minorities. of this we should be ashamed. and i think the root of the problem is that we forget Jesus teaching that his kingdom was not of this world otherwise an army would come to defend him. and so we created christian armies and christian governments. any political campaign about the political rights of Christians based on our nations Christian heritage thus appears to be a desire to return to that which we should be ashamed. if we are to argue for the civil rights of Christians they are going to have to be argued on a different basis.

because i think both these things are true i fear this campaign far from strengthening the position of Christianity in this country actually serves to marginalise it further. firstly it makes Christians look as bad as they are feared to be by the majority of the population - there may be some wave of anti-political correctness that can be ridden but in the end it all looks like Christians defending their own power and privilege and their right to go against the wishes of society with no consequence. secondly it creates an embattled mentality amongst Christians like that amongst some sections of the Muslim population which risks becoming the breeding ground for religious and political extremism.

the Emperor Constantine who adopted Christianity as the faith of his empire was followed by Julian who is labelled by Christian history as 'the apostate'. he attempted to reverse the fortunes of Christianity and return Paganism as the official religion. many of his policies toward this end involved politics and power but his own recognition was that the real issue was the respect the Christians had in society. the reality was as Julian admitted the Pagans of his day simply did not match this and he exhorted them to do so. the christian community that had no power or privilege was at best ignored and at worst persecuted, was slandered and dismissed against all the odds had so excelled in caring for the poor and the sick, helping the outcast, building communities of care in which all were supported and in loving those who persecuted them as Jesus commanded that in the end even the Roman Empire could not resist its witness.

we can indeed by proud of this heritage, we can also point to those shining examples that have carried it forward, we can also be glad that many still speak well of the individual christian they know. but we then have to accept an uncomfortable reality just as this witness brought Christianity into the centre of Roman power so i fear it corrupted it - the persecuted became the persecutors, the philosophy of roman state religion became the churches philosophy and faith became for many not a matter of conviction and lifestyle but of birth and political dictate. in truth the various reforms and reformations whilst they have inspired some to renewed vision and witness have done little to change this. in the end perhaps though their is much to morn the collapse of Christendom is the only way for the church to find again that calling and that witness?

so let us not seek a political campaign that seeks to restore a christian nation that whilst it has enabled good has also robed the faith of its heart and much of which we should be ashamed. let us instead this Advent hear the call of the Baptist to repent and bear the fruit of repentance rather than look back to ancestors to save us and become again the people whose lives so witness to Christ in the face of whatever opposition may or may not arise, to bless those who oppose, that Gods presence becomes irresistible and no political power or privilege is needed to support faith.