Wednesday, 29 February 2012

What the ABC said next

According to the  Daily Mail, the Archbishop of Canterbury has "declared" that the law has no right to legalise same-sex marriage or assisted dying. The Mail claims that,

"Dr Rowan Williams said a new marriage law for gay couples would amount to forcing unwanted change on the rest of the nation.He also said it would be wrong to legalise assisted dying because of the threat it would pose to the vulnerable and because it would go against the beliefs of most people". 
 Now, I don't know what the Archbishop has or hasn't said, but if, as it seems, the Daily Mail is claiming that Rowan Williams makes this declaration in his speech on human rights to the World Council of Churches, then one wonders how they reached their conclusions?
This is the section from which the Daily Mail - and The Telegraph (the usual culprits!) seem to have drawn their conclusions. Dr Williams said of the formulation of human rights laws:

"it may take time for a society to realize that its practice is inconsistent – with respect to women and to ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. Law may indeed turn out to be ahead of majority opinion in recognizing this, but it has a clear argument to advance – that the failure to guarantee protection and access is simply incompatible with the very idea of a lawful society. But this falls short of a legal charter to promote change in institutions, even in language. Law must prohibit publicly abusive and demeaning language, it must secure institutions that do not systematically disadvantage any category of the community. But these tasks remain ‘negative’ in force. If it is said, for example, that a failure to legalise assisted suicide – or indeed same-sex marriage - perpetuates stigma or marginalisation for some people, the reply must be, I believe, that issues like stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law, the gradual evolving of fresh attitudes in a spirit of what has been called ‘strategic patience’ by some legal thinkers. "
Rowan Williams always writes and speaks in ways that are extremely careful and nuanced. Even by the widest of definitions, he does not say in this speech that the law has no right to introduce same sex marriage or assisted dying. What he does say is exactly what is in the text - that he believes stigma and marginalisation have to be addressed at the level of culture rather than law, or even that he thinks they must be first addressed at the level of culture, thus requiring "strategic patience". I don't entirely agree with William's former point. I do believe that stigma and marginalisation need to be culturally challenged, I also believe that we need good laws to prevent the discrimination that arises out of stigma and marginalisation. Whether bringing in same sex marriage is a good law, or whether it is a law in line with newly evolved cultural attitudes, or whether it is  a step which is necessary to  prevent discrimination, are separate issues. Regular readers will broadly know my views on the issue, and also that I acknowledge that others  hold strong views.

Poor old Ro-Ro seems to be rather prone to people putting words in his mouth and publishing headlines about what they want him to say rather than what he actually did say. It looks a bit like the Shariah Law fiasco all over again. If anyone can find a different source for the Mail's claims about what the ABC said, please send me the link. Meanwhile, I strongly recommend you read his lecture on human rights and a faith based attitude to human rights- it makes interesting and worthwhile reading.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Interior Freedom

I can recommend this Ignatian Lent resource. Above Kevin O'Brien talks about freedom. My favourite thought so far, one which relates to the L-shaped Lent post on discovery below is that as Christians we discover not so much who we are, more whose we are.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Christian rights?

The All-Party Parliamentary Group named Christians in Parliament has published a report titled Clearing the Ground, and subtitled it: Preliminary report into the freedom of Christians in the UK. It makes some recommendations as to how various conflicts around the rights and responsibilities of people of faith might be handled. There have beem claims recently that Christianity is being forced out of the public square in the UK and concerns that there is a rise of aggressive secularism which refuses to tolerate expressions of religious belief. We have had some cases quite rightly brought to law, but also others which seem trivial and vexatious - such as the plumber who was apparently sacked for having a palm cross on his dashboard.
I don't agree with everything in this report. For example, it seems to recommend that there should be a right for those of faith to refuse full access to goods and services. I can't see that having strong religious or moral views is a legitimate basis to discriminate against others in this way. I do agree with certain parts of the report though, and in particular I agree that all conflicts should be looked at on a case by case basis and that there should be a requirement for reasonable accommodation of religious belief - which I blogged about when the Equality Bill was passing through Parliament in 2009.
I was particularly struck by this line in the report and I am quite certain it is one that will not receive anything like enough attention,
"Too often the Church is defined by what it is opposed to rather than what it stands for. It is essential Christians provide hope and a vision for society that goes beyond defending their own interests and defends the good of all."
To let go of our animosity towards those we may think are our enemies, to empathetically see and feel life through the eyes of others, to place the needs of others over our own and to stand up for them to be treated justly is not easy. It is, however, the way we are called to behave if we profess to be Christian. We are not really called to transform the unjust structures of society for ourselves, we are called on to transform them for others.
That is always worth remembering.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Looking outwards

I enjoyed reading this take on Lent by Jane Williams. It looks at how the temptations Jesus faced in the Wilderness - the temptation to produce food, the temptation  to gain power and the temptation to be invulnerable - translated into a ministry that focused on "feeding" others, teaching powerlessness and accepting vulnerability. She suggests that,
"there is really no point at all in a Lenten discipline that isn't about reimagining the world so that it revolves less about our own desires and more about the good of all."
Lenten discipline could be seen as egotistical and the introspection of Lent as pride. Looking inwards is futile unless we look outwards as well.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

An L-shaped Lent

 One of the ideas associated with Lent is that of detaching ourselves from the world and going to a place of isolation to be tested, just as Jesus did for those forty days and forty nights that we used to sing about in a particularly lugubrious hymn  that got us all in the mood for unrelenting misery when I was a child!  I think that now we tend to downplay this idea of Lent as a period spent fasting in a wilderness and replace it with more positive themes such as growth and renewal. I am actually very much in favour of this, but at the same time we should recognise that the wilderness is a profound metaphor and can be a location where we encounter God.
 I've been thinking recently about two books which could be seen as having a Lenten theme. One of these is The L-shaped room, written by Lynne Reid Banks in the 1960s and the other is The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad. Most people will have heard of these (very different) novels. The first tells the story of an unmarried pregnant woman who flees to the L-shaped room, a place which is her wilderness  but where she also learns empathy as well as suffering anguish, meets others who are marginalised, and finally reaches a place that involves greater self knowledge and acceptance. The L clearly stands for loneliness but also for life, learning and love, possibly all these L words represent the message of Lent.
         The Secret Sharer is a novel narrated by a young captain anxious about his first voyage. He rescues a fugitive called Leggat,  generally seen by critics to be his doppelganger, the part of himself that he fears but must both accept and transcend. The sea is the narrator's wilderness. Ironically, at the start of the story, he believes it will be a place of refuge,
"I rejoiced in the great security of the sea as compared with the unrest of the land, in my choice of that untempted life presenting no disquieting problems."
But the sea, which  it is clear he has fled to in retreat from himself, actually forces him to confront himself. Isolated in the huge expanse of the ocean, he can no longer distract himself with all the busyness of life. Solitude forces himself to greater self knowledge, just as fleeing to the L-shaped room forces Reid Bank's narrator to know herself and others more deeply. Strangely enough, in The Secret Sharer the captain's cabin is also L-shaped. The L-shape symbolises our inability to completely know ourselves, part of the room is always hidden and it represents the things we need to discover.

 Wildernesses are often painful places to be, places of seeming exile, but paradoxically the wilderness often is the place where God and the self can be discovered.  I am not sure we should deliberately manafacture wildernesses in Lent or at any time. Most of things we sacrifice in Lent are token gestures  anyhow, but the wildernesses  and the sacrifices that we all face at different points in our lives can cause us to turn to God, to find that we belong to God and help us to learn surprising lessons about life and love.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Covenant rejections

As you may have realised, I've kind of lost interest in the Anglican Covenant recently.  I've come to feel  that, in the face of less than wholesale support, it really will lack teeth and I question whether it will have much impact either for good or for ill if it is adopted. I do know people who mount a strong case to say that it will have a pernicious stultifying effect on the Chuch and Communion as a whole, and they may well be spot on.  I don't think we know what the Covenant would do until we have it,  which given its potential seems a good enough argument against it in itself.

Anyway, news has just come in (via Facebook) that Rochester diocese has rejected the Anglican Covenant.- apparently along with three other dioceses today. If this news is true, then the "score" so far is ten rejections to five adoptions. It is, of course, early days but it is also true to say that enough dioceses have now voted to possibly give some indication of the general mood of the Church of England on this issue. For the Covenant to be rejected on home turf would surely be seen by some as disloyalty to Rowan Williams, that is what makes these figures even more significant.
Another case of wait and see.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Faith, secularism and society

Interesting discussion  between Dawkins, Nazir Ali and Gledhill about  the role of religion in an increasingly secular society.Meanwhile Trevor Philips stands by his claims that Christians who want exemptions from the Law are as bad as Muslims who wish to impose Shariah Law on British society.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Defender of faith?

 The Queen delivered an address to a multi faith gathering at Lambeth Palace yesterday and already groups such as Anglican Mainstream have offered a slightly skewed version of what she said. The Queen did not acutally say that the Church was unappreciated - she said that the concept of an established Church is often misunderstood and under-appreciated. She explained that people fail to appreciate that, as the established church, the Church of England,  has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country." Her Majesty was also keen to promote the idea that the Church of England should foster a society for "those of other faiths and  indeed people of no faith to live freely" -which is not quite, as some reports have claimed, an attack on secularism.
The whole tenor of the Queen's address reminded me of the statement Prince Charles once made, that he did not want to be the defender of the faith but rather the defender of faith. I think the Queen has offered a good defence of faith (whether Christian or not), describing how it can "act as a spur for social action" and reminding us that,
 "religious groups have a proud track record of helping those in the greatest need, including the sick, the elderly, the lonely and the disadvantaged. They remind us of the responsibilities we have beyond ourselves."
Perhaps the Queen has been reading Matthew 25: 35  , or maybe she has been informed by her awareness of the role of service. Either way her words are much needed.  It is time that society woke up to the gift of faith, the valuable things that  those of us who are people of faith, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, have to offer. The Queen's words offer a vision not of battlelines drawn but of bridges built, not of taking offence but of offering service, not of one privileged religious elite but of a society where all can learn from a diversity of faiths and beliefs and where all have a place, believers and atheists.
Amen to that!

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Thank God for atheists!

 I couldn't help but be amused listening to this little discussion between Giles Fraser and Richard Dawkins. If you haven't heard this already, Dawkins is asserting that most people who self identify as Christian are not actually so because they cannot, for example, name the first book of the bible. Then Fraser suddenly asks Dawkins to give the full title of The Origins of the Species - and it is quite fun to listen to him stutter and stumble as he is unable to do so.

I have a lot of time for atheism (honestly!) For a start, all the people I live with, AKA my family, are either atheists or agnostics. I would hate to live in a society without a diversity of views and I would hate to live in a theocracy. I am glad of a degree of secularism because I think curbs the intolerance to which societies with a religious basis are often prone. The problem is that atheism itself can become an all consuming ideology. A "fundamentalist" atheist can come across as ever bit as narrow, joyless and prejudiced as a fundamentalist of any other ilk, and, dare I say it, when atheists assert the  absolute superiority of their beliefs they can be just  as "irrational" in their aridity and lack of perspective as those they decry. The militant secularism which we observe today takes itself terribly seriously and often seems to have had a sense of humour bypass.

Perhaps that's why I couldn't resist a chuckle at Richard Dawkins expense and I recommend this clip to brighten up your day!

Giving and trusting

One of the most important things my faith has taught me is that unless you give, and give selflessly, you will never be truly whole. It is a message that is woven into Christ's life and teaching; it turns the "make sure there is something in it for you" philosophy of the world on its head and reveals that you cannot gain your life unless you lose it.  I am convinced that most of us are not very good at giving. I once read that all of us, deep down, are fearful that one day we will be left with nothing, destitute on a street corner or alone with nobody to love us. There is a fear at the heart of all of us that if we give too much away (whether love, time or  money) we will lose out,  be hurt, or simply get nothing in return. In contrast, the Gospel tells us that there is nothing we can give away that does not enrich us more.
 I think this challenging message is worth pondering on Valentine's and every day. It is the message of what it is to love. It is also the message of what it is to trust.  If we find it hard to trust, it will be difficult to give. The concept of giving and not counting the cost is valid for everyone, whether partnered or single and no matter what our circumstances are. It sounds very idealistic, but amazingly it actually works in a very practical sense. It is pure freedom, it completes us, it makes us whole. Our capacity to give also reflects our awareness of how much we have been given, another lesson we have to learn is that we can't out give God and that the heart of God is pure abundance.
Before I sound too pious, the lesson of giving (and trusting)  is one that I am very bad at learning, or rather, having learnt it, God has to keep teaching it to me again and again and again!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The problem of getting along!

It has been one of those weeks in which I have barely had time to draw breath. Blogging has gone out of the window, although I have to admit it was rather a relief to have an excuse not comment while  Synod moved another slow and torturous step closer to consecrating women bishops with still the possibility of further setbacks and conflicts to come. I do now believe that we will get to a position where women can be bishops with only a code of practice as provision for those opposed - a provision which already represents a considerable concession on the part of women in the Church and which, it should be noted, is not available in other provinces around the Anglican Communion. In July 2011, I was privileged to attend a talk by Bishop Victoria Matthew of Christchurch in which she described the way that it has been possible to work graciously with those opposed to women's ministry despite the lack of even a code of practice. The talk was hosted by WATCH but it would have be of great benefit in allaying the anxieties of groups such as Reform and Forward in Faith, although sadly I do not think it was generally attended by many who are opposed to the current legislation under discussion in Synod.
While Synod conducted its business with all the speed of a glacier in slow motion, the increasing divide between church and state became more evident with the ruling that Bideford Council had acted unlawfully in including prayers on its formal agenda. This ruling has been described as creating delight and dismay in equal measures. Well, I felt neither delight nor dismay,  rather a mixture of thoughts and feelings. After reading the details of the ruling, I did conclude that a sensible and appropriate decision had been made. It is not the case that "prayer has been ruled unlawful", simply that prayer should not be included on the formal agenda of a Council meeting which individuals are summoned to attend. Councils are free to have a gathering  for prayers, to which councillors are cordially invited, prior to the start of a formal meeting. It seems to me this is right and proper - the freedom of religious belief does not include the freedom to impose those beliefs upon others.
At the same time, I felt that this was a case which should never have gone to law. We are seeing a worrying number of cases (over issues such as the wearing of crosses, the displaying of a palm cross on a dashboard etc) ending up in court rather than being resolved through good sense and decency. It is true that sometimes we do have to dig our heels in over a point of principle, but that point should not be reached before we have first thought long and hard about our motives and whether there is any way in which we might compromise. In many cases I suspect that the lack of ability to compromise is on both sides and I wonder how far people just become locked in an ideological battle - which undoubtedly they see as a legitimate "point of principle"?
I was not surprised to read that the issue of prayer before council meetings has caused conflict elsewhere. When Portsmouth Council allowed a Muslim imam to say a prayer (which seems to me only fair if there are to be Christian prayers), one Christian councillor walked out of the meeting, later saying 'I do not believe we are praying to the same god'. In Shropshire another councillor called someone "disgusting" for wearing headphones during prayers in which he did not wish to participate.
My final verdict is that there is no end of the ways that we can manage to treat each other with contempt and fight to the death over our differences of belief and identity and there is nothing like the issues that exist around religious belief to bring those less than admirable instincts to the fore. It reinforced the point that law is needed only because we are so very fallible and unable to exercise innate decency to each other. A recourse to law almost always speaks of our failure,  in that light a win is not really a victory.
Delight? Dismay? We've been here before and we'll be here again.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

God's "Yes"

The gospel reading for today (Mark 2-1-12) is the story of the paralysed man who reaches Christ by being lowered down through the roof. It is one of many tableaus in the gospel that immediately captures the imagination and conjures up a striking visual picture. We can picture the crowds, the heat, the desperation of the friends (or, as Jesus saw it, “their great faith”) the disapproval of the teachers of the law and the drama of the man who came in through the roof turning into the man who walked out through the door!

The second New Testament reading is the wonderful description of Christ as God’s YES ringing out through history and creation,
“ not one who is yes and no, On the contrary, he is God’s “Yes”, for it is he who is the “Yes” to all God’s promises.” (2 Cor 1:19-20)
The connection between the weekly bible readings is not always obvious, but this matching is inspired. The passage from Mark offers us a contrast between the “can do” attitude of the friends of the paralysed man, yes-men who were determined to do whatever it took to bring their friend to Christ, and the “you can’t do that” attitudes of the teachers of the Law, who were very much no-men, with a mindset eager to find objections.
The passage also speaks of barriers - the attitudes that build up barriers and the attitudes that break them down. First of all there is the physical barrier of the crowds and the physical barrier of the roof. God often seems inaccessible, and the journey of faith too full of difficulties until we acknowledge a need so strong that we seek a way through, even if it seems completely unconventional. Secondly, there are the other barriers, the barriers set up by other people who are quicker to define blasphemy than they are to see grace and more willing to see problems than solutions. Thirdly, there is the barrier of sin and the difficulty of accepting forgiveness. The reason the paralysed man wanted to get to Jesus was obvious, he wanted to be able to walk again and was tired of being crippled, but Jesus healed his inner paralysis first because that was the greatest need. The irony is that inner paralysis was also the greatest problem afflicting the teachers of the Law, they just didn’t know it!
This passage tells us that the message of the gospel challenges negativity and paralysis of mind and spirit and offers a ringing affirmative to forgiveness, freedom and hope.

Mr Catolick on Synodical poppycock!

I always find Mr Catolick rather scary . This article Church must make women bishops MPs say, gives some more details on the subject of his mewlings. It will be interesting to watch events next week.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Petition in support of London Clergy

Synod 11 -so much warmth and support.

If you feel able to sign this petition in support of the London clergy , please do so!

You may also be interested to read that Nick Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury, has given an interview to Ruth Gledhill of The Times saying he used to think marriage was only a heterosexual matter, but he says:

“I’m no longer convinced about that. I think same-sex couples that I know who have formed a partnership have in many respects a relationship which is similar to a marriage and which I now think of as marriage."
I wonder how much Nick Holtam's attitudes have been influenced by his own marriage. There was opposition in some conservative quarters at his appointment, given that his wife's previous marriage ended in divorce, and some would consider it not a legitimate marriage.
It is important to note that the issue of civil partnerships being allowed on religious premises is distinct from the debate over whether same sex couples can be described as "married". The law has now changed to allow CPs on religious premises, but the Church of England has exercised its right to disallow them. It has said the matter can only be decided by General Synod, yet it has given no indication as to when, or whether at all, it will be put before General Synod. The issue of  whether civil partnerships (which confer almost all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage) will or should able to be legally termed "marriage" is a separate matter recently thrown into relief by the Government’s declaration of its intention to pass legislation to allow full marriage equality in the near future.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

London Clergy sign letter about Civil Partnership

More than one hundred clergy in the diocese of London have put their names to a letter asking that, just as  the Church of England allow priests to conduct civil partnerships if they so wish. They are asking that clergy should be allowed to exercise discretion and act on their conscience in this matter, just as they can choose whether or not to remarry divorcees. It is heartening to see so many clergy signing this letter, and it may make the current position, which I believe is that they are unwilling to allow the matter to even go before Synod, to be less tenable.
The response of the Bishop of London, Richard Chartes is to recognise that this "arises from a proper pastoral concern and it is right that it continues to be discussed openly", while still asking for prayerful and respectful debate, something which is entirely appropriate and not discouraging. It is worth noting that the Church's current position is not only that civil partnerships cannot be conducted on Church premises, but the Church of England does not officially carry out blessings of civil partnerships.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Do dogs have souls? (Part eighteen)

We can learn so much from dogs, can't we? No, I'm not suggesting that we should all jump into a great heap of leaves, I'm  just suggesting that a little more of the exuberance, perseverance and zest for life wouldn't go amiss at times... It sometimes occurs to me that dogs will be very much at home in heaven!