Thursday, November 26, 2015

Stunning sermon

The best sermons are simple, telling us what we already know but may have pushed to the back of our minds or lost in the depths of our subconscious. This report of a sermon preached at the C of E General Synod, along with report of remarks made by the Queen and by the ABC is just stunning. Here is a Papal Preacher, Fr Raniero Cantalamessa telling the C of E ... that the Reformation was great, that we all would listen to Cranmer and Luther if they were preaching today, and, most importantly, preaching Jesus' own sermon, that we might be one, and pointing out that:

"“In many parts of the world, people are killed and churches burned not because they are Catholic, or Anglican, or Pentecostals, but because they are Christians. In their eyes, we are one. Let us be one also in our eyes, and in the eyes of God.”"

God is working his purposes out, as year succeeds to year. Bit by bit the fervent hopes of ecumenicists are coming to fulfilment.

As a rewarding Postscript for readers who have read this far, I commend this report of the Queen's speech at the General Synod. She is a wise woman!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mark's secret, sexy gospel

"Bairstow’s bulky frame, clad in rumpled linen pants and white cotton business shirt, appeared in the doorway. He reached over and took a mug from Sadie without looking up.
“Thanks, doll. I say, old boy, I rather like this bit about ‘spooky parallels’ between Christian right-wingers and Islamic fundamentalists.”
He was reading the first draft of an opinion piece Alex was toying with submitting to a European magazine. He quoted:
“‘ They both divvy up the world between the saved and the damned. Both have declared a holy war on secular culture and liberal democracy. They reject the separation of religion and state and seek to establish a new order based on their own interpretation of divine laws…’”
Alex sighed, and, catching a worried glance from Sadie, rolled his eyes. Aubrey’s limited social graces did not extend to a respect for privacy, and he had a frustrating habit of picking up and examining anything within reach.
“He was waiting at the door when I arrived,” Sadie mouthed silently with a theatrical shrug. Oblivious to their exchange, Bairstow plowed on.
“‘ But perhaps the spookiest parallels come in their views of the end of the world. A common scenario is a colossal confrontation in the desert in which the armies of God destroy the armies of Satan. Radical Muslims, of course, identify Israel and the United States as the forces of evil. Christian fundamentalists see Islam as the ultimate enemy…’ Hang on, that’s crap, that is.”
Bairstow paused and looked up. “A bit simplistic, to say the least.”"

The above excerpt is taken from an enjoyable novel I have just read, The Secret Gospel by Dan Eaton. It seems apt to quote that particular piece because last week some comments on this post suggested some parallels between Christian (if not Anglican) fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. (Incidentally, the scenario envisaged in the excerpt, of a humanly provoked apocalyptic, eschatological conflagration, has had a recent focus in some op-eds I have been reading recently re Daesh's ultimate aims).

The great mistake when talking about 'fundamentalism' is to talk as though there is only plurality of fundamentalisms when we include all faiths. So, Christian fundamentalism is one phenomenon, Islamic fundamentalism another, Hindu fundamentalism yet a further manifestation. Of course there are similarities and there are differences, and, potentially, there are more similarities between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism - being fundamentalisms driven by 'the book' - than between, say, Islamic fundamentalism and Hindu fundamentalism. But right now, the differences more than the similarities are manifest: I can think of no public 'fundamentalist' Christian group advocating offensive violence through terror in order to advance the kingdom of God. I can imagine there are some groups currently operating secretively who may be stockpiling weapons (though I am inclined to think they would be doing that defensively, in some isolated hideout). But the world today is confronting public Islamic groups who are advocating and enacting terror. That is a point of difference.

On Christian fundamentalism, my point is that there are fundamentalisms within Christianity and I assume the same plurality exists within Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, etc. There are, for instance, fundamentalist Muslims who are no more likely to use a gun or a bomb in the furtherance of their religious aims than I am. Daesh is one form of Islamic fundamentalism, not the only form.

In the Christian world it is easy to use 'fundamentalism'/'fundamentalist' as a dismissive description, consigning fellow believers we have little time for to a bleak outhouse on the landscape of Christian diversity. But it is not exactly rocket science to recognise that there is a difference between (say) Westboro Baptists and various conservative Anglicans who get routinely described as 'fundamentalist.' Further, though a bit more thought is called for, there are differences among conservative Anglicans; and differences between conservative Anglicans and various conservative Christians.

Some Anglicans commenting here seem concerned about how 'extreme' certain conservative Anglicans are (possibly including moi!). But my general experience of conservative Anglicans versus other conservative Christians is that we are quite a kind-hearted, thoughtful group of caring Christians, more than liberal enough to remain part of the diverse Anglican church rather than leave it! Non-Anglican conservative Christians, in my experience, often look questioningly at conservative Anglicans: "How can you stay???"

So, perhaps some nuancing in the use of the word 'fundamentalist' could assist clearer communication?

Back to Dan Eaton's novel. The Secret Gospel of its title is a controversial version of Mark's Gospel, attested in a letter discovered at the back of a (non-ancient) book in the Mar Saba Monastery in 1958 by Morton Smith (one of the central characters in the mostly fictional novel Dan has written). The letter, if a copy of a genuine ancient letter, is by Clement of Alexandria, and refers to a version of Mark's Gospel much longer than the version we know well. The letter cites some passages from this longer form of the gospel, passages which portray Jesus in a different light to what we read in the canonical gospels, including sexual overtones which would be discomforting to many Christians if it were proved that the longer version of Mark was the original version (and thus that we have lived for most of the past two thousand years with a shorter, expurgated version). Much debate has occurred over this discovery, published to the world by Morton Smith in 1974, with some convinced that the Clementine letter is a forgery, possibly made by Morton Smith himself, but if not, then by some earlier forger (e.g. the person who wrote down the letter in the back of the book). Any which way, there is also scholarly debate over whether, even if there is a longer version of Mark lost in the sands of the Middle East, it preceded or succeeded canonical Mark.

You may or may not want to read Dan Eaton's book but if you are one of several kinds of Christian or Islamic fundamentalist, it might make your blood temperature rise.

My own interest in the novel is divided between my curiosity as a student of the New Testament and my happy memories of living with Dan and his family in Cairo many years ago, the city where much of the action of the novel is based.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Praise indeed or not, as the case may be

Some cracking articles in the latest First Things.

Here is unreserved praise for Francis, the Bishop of Rome, by (not a Catholic) David Hart. Read the article here to understand why I have not used the word 'Pope' to describe Francis, and what authoritative example I follow by so omitting! (Spoiler Alert: some 'conservative' Catholics should not read what Hart says while drinking their coffee, and certainly not with a keyboard nearby).

On the other hand Wesley Hill does use the word 'Pope' to describe leading evangelical J.I. Packer. Only the intro to the article here is available, the remainder is via subscription.

Perhaps less cracking is "A Jubilee Year of Mercy" by Charles J, Caput. He begins well on mercy but eventually reaches the current thorny issue of divorce and remarriage. Call me small brained or something similar, but I am struggling to see why divorce, of all human sins, cannot be repented of. Help, anyone?

But something less than praise is being given in the Guardian for Blessed Justin trying to drag the Cof E into the 21st century. I know a quick visit to England does not make me an expert, and I did hear Linda Woodhead preach a mighty fine sermon on Simone Weil just two weeks ago, but I think keeping on going the ways things have always gone, and consulting the intellectuals of the church before throwing the rescue lifebelt overboard might just be underestimating the storm, the damage, the height of the waves and the immense possibility of drowning in the tidal waves of secularism!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scars across humanity

One of the drivers for me in vigilance about Daesh and its thuggish affiliates such as Boko Haram - vigilance that is against any acceptance or sympathy for their beliefs - is concern for the treatment of women. That women are badly treated by these thugs is now well documented. Even if no more terrorist actions against the West occurred, we should continue to oppose them because of the terror they hold for women in their own territory.

Elaine Storkey, a British Anglican theologian, has been documenting violence against women around the globe. I am pleased to note here that her latest book Scars Across Humanity is about to be launched.

"A new book by the Anglican theologian Dr Elaine Storkey, Scars Across Humanity, documents her extensive research on gender-based violence against women and the role that the church plays – for good or ill – in the struggle against the global problem. It is being launched today in the Speaker’s rooms at the House of Commons in London."

A fuller ACNS article is here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Paris is worth a Mass

Henry IV was a repeat conversionist, from Protestantism to Catholicism and back again, a few times. He is famously alleged to have said, "Paris is worth a Mass" meaning, it appears, that Paris was such a fine city to be ruler of that it was worth becoming Catholic to secure the allegiance of its citizens. Fast forward to the events of last weekend, when several terrorist actions killed 129 people and injured many more, and the question of the worth of Paris arises again. Initial responses from the international community of nations suggest Paris is worth a great deal indeed. But the question worth discussing in relation to Paris (recalling, lest we forget, Beirut the week before, Russian passengers over Sinai the week before that, tourists in Tunisia a few months back, and ...) is what response is best.

Military action is an obvious response. So obvious that France has already retaliated by bombing targets in Raqqa, the 'capital' of Daesh controlled territory (let's drop the 'IS' or 'ISIS' name). But - as commentators are observing, including Chris Trotter below and Nicolas Henin, writing in the Guardian, military reaction to the Daesh action is precisely what they have baited Western powers to do.

Some commentators are wisely urging that the first thing we do is think. Rightly so. We are fighting fire. Sometimes fire is well fought with fire (e.g. when the wind is blowing the right way, a fire burning towards a fire may stop the first fire). Other times it is a recipe for conflagration. My sense is that is the case with Daesh. Killing Daesh will spawn bitterness and bitterness will be the parent of future attacks.

If we do take up the invitation to think about things, we might think about the following excerpt from this Reuters' report (printed in our Christchurch Press today):

"George Dallemagne, a center-right opposition member of the federal parliament, traces some problems back to the 1970s when resource-poor, heavily industrial Belgium sought favor with Saudi Arabia by providing mosques for Gulf-trained preachers. 
These brought with them fundamentalist teachings then alien to most of Belgium's Moroccan immigrants. 
Pointing at Molenbeek, Dallemagne said: "The very strong influence of Salafists ... is one of the particularities that puts Belgium at the center of terrorism in Europe today."
We may debate whether the Daesh are part of Islam, representative of some genuine aspect of Islam, faithful to some part of the Quran or not. The simple fact is that most Muslims most of the time since Mohammed have been and are peaceful people. Daesh represents a strand of Islamic theology/political philosophy known as Salafism, itself a form of Wahhabism (or is it the other way round?). Wahhabism is the form of Islam to which Saudi Arabia is loyal and about which it is zealous in proclamation. Not all Salafists are jihadists. Jihadi Salafism has five important characteristics, according to Mohammed M. Hafez:

  • "immense emphasis on the concept of tawhid (unity of God);
  • God's sovereignty (hakimiyyat Allah), which defines right and wrong, good and evil, and which supersedes human reasoning is applicable in all places on earth and at all times, and makes unnecessary and un-Islamic other ideologies such as liberalism or humanism;
  • the rejection of all innovation (bid‘ah) to Islam;
  • the permissibility and necessity of takfir (the declaring of a Muslim to be outside the creed, so that they may face execution);
  • and on the centrality of jihad against infidel regimes."

Dallemagne's point is that Saudi Arabia's influence and funding undergird the spread of Salafism and Wahhabism around the world. If we in the West pause to think about a response to Daesh, are we prepared to think about engaging with Saudi Arabia, arguing against their not so benign support for the theology of Daesh terrorism?

Yes, I thought not. From Dave Cameron to John Key we see Western leaders cravenly refraining from criticism of Saudi. And, to be fair to their lack of fortitude, they are fearful of electoral consequences if we voters take our cars to the petrol pump and find their is no petrol.

Incidentally, do you remember a few weeks back when thousands of Syrians were pouring into the welcoming arms of Angela Merkel and Saudi Arabia offered to help out by funding 200 new mosques in Germany? Yeah, right!?

So our counter-theology to the theology of Daesh terrorism has some practical thinking to do. Even as we caution against military action, are we prepared to walk to work?

There is other work for such counter-theology to do. One work is to develop how we worship in a world of violence. Bosco Peters posts a large citation of a post entitled "Worship in a Violent World" by theologian James Alison. I urge you to read it. One sentence struck me in particular, as Alison points out how some worship can (un)wittingly divide humanity in two: "To the divinisation of the one, there corresponds the demonisation of the other, which is the dehumanisation of them all." If perchance the Christian community through its worship in challenging times demonises Muslims and dehumanises us all, what difference exists between us and the Salafist jihadis?

Finally, for now, thinking a little about theological aspects of the deadly situation Daesh has brought to the world, NZ commentator Chris Trotter argues that the Paris attacks are part of an apocalyptic provocation, that is, Daesh seeks to provoke Armageddon:

"And what purpose might that be? In his article “What does ISIS really want?”, published in the March 2015 issue of Atlantic magazine, journalist Graeme Wood observes that there is a temptation, in the West, to conceptualise jihadists as “modern secular people, with modern secular concerns, wearing medieval religious disguise – and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilisation to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.” 
The apocalypse! Yes. Islam, like Christianity, contains within its ranks a growing number of devout, even fanatical, believers in the “End Times”. According to the Islamic State recruiters interviewed by Wood, these end times will begin when the West launches what proves to be a disastrous intervention in Iraq and Syria. In Woods own words: “The Islamic State awaits the army of ‘Rome,’ whose defeat at Dabiq, Syria, will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.” 
If Wood is correct (and there have been many challenges to his characterisation of the Islamic State) luring the “Crusaders” to this little town on the border of Syria and Turkey is critical to the unfolding of Allah’s plan for his people. Dabiq may be 300 miles north of Israel’s “Mountain of Megiddo” (Har Meghiddohn in Hebrew) but its theological location is identical. It is held to be the place of the last, decisive, battle between the allies and the enemies of God – Armageddon. 
But, surely, no rational person could believe that such a battle is anything other than metaphorical? No rational person, certainly. But, in the Islamic State we are not dealing with rational people. 
Which is not to say that we are dealing with fools."
There is a great need for wisdom at this time. And prayer. In our eucharists we have the opportunity to worship well, to pray for Paris and all those suffering from Daesh destruction and to remember the way of the cross as the victory over the power of death.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How to fill Anglican churches?

I have been away for two months, as part of a sabbatical leave which continues until the end of the year. I have not been on such an extended break from normal routines of work and home before - my last two sabbaticals were mostly spent at or near home. It was pretty fabulous being free from those routines! (There were countervailing stresses re travel). It was good to be away. It is good to be home. But this is not a travelogue, so what has struck me as worth noting in an 'Anglican' blog?

I suspect several things will emerge from my ongoing subconscious reflecting, but here is one reflection, based on being part on several Sundays of full Anglican churches. (To keep in perspective the general state of the global church, my experiences while away have included some great services in well supported Methodist, Catholic and Elim churches).

What fills an Anglican church in 2015?

This is what doesn't fill an Anglican church: one specific style of worship. I have been impressed by congregations filling churches offering a variety of styles of Anglican liturgy, to say nothing of styles of preaching.

This also doesn't fill Anglican churches: getting everything right. OK so I am sole judge and assessor here, but I felt on occasions in full Anglican churches that if I were in charge of them, I would do some things differently and, naturally, better. (Having said that, no full Anglican church I experienced these past two months, or ever in the past, was full despite doing all things badly!)

Thirdly, what doesn't fill some Anglican churches is things done Anglicanly. I've experienced full Anglican services where things were done 'by the book' and full churches where they were not done 'by the book'. It is also doesn't seem to make a difference whether the vicar is robed, or, when not robed, whether the vicar wears a clerical collar, or a tie and shirt, or an open necked shirt!

So what does fill Anglican churches? My hunch is that what fills Anglican churches is simply that these churches do what people desire in a church. But that then leads to two kinds of Anglican church doing what people desire in a church.

(1) Anglican churches which do what people desire, though not by being distinctively Anglican (i.e. distinctive by virtue of use of Anglican prayer book services, or offering rites in an Anglican manner-prescribed robes, due solemnity).

(2) Anglican churches which do what is distinctively Anglican and that happens to suit a bunch of people, some of whom may be committed Anglicans, some of whom may be not so loyal to our denomination.

There is nothing new in these observations. But the key to understanding them in depth may be to think about what it means for people to 'desire' something from the experience of being in church. My sense having crossed a culture or two in the past couple of months, is that what we desire from church may be shaped by our culture as much as by other, hopefully Spirit-fuelled desire.

To give a very general illustration. I see enough cultural desire within English culture for certain forms of Anglican worship to explain why some kinds of services there seem able to draw a full congregation when pretty much the same approaches in NZ fail to draw full congregations.

So one question, returning to NZ, is what is going on in our culture that the churches could better connect to?

It is not a new question. It has been rumbling around 'church growth' and 'mission strategy' discussions for years now. I guess I am returning with a renewed conviction that we need further discernment of our Kiwi culture and how the gospel of Christ connects with it.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rene Girard RIP

Funnily enough I have just been reading a newspaper article wondering why France has a great tradition of celebrating intellectuals and Britain has, well, Stephen Fry (a very intelligent person but not regarded widely as an 'intellectual.') Then I learn that one of the giant intellectuals of our age, Rene Girard has died a day or so ago. Girard was one of that rare breed of intellectual giants who were also theological giants.

Here are two articles which may give a sense of the stature of the man. One an intro to his thought (here), the other a readable article on First Things (here).