Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Holy Wednesday: hate, conspiracy, betrayal

And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:)
Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains:
Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house:
Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes.
And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!
But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:
For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.
And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect's sake those days shall be shortened.
Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Behold, I have told you before
(Mt 24:14-25).
Even as Jesus was enlightening the masses with a little sermon on the Mount of Olives, and healing the odd leper in Bethany, Judas was conspiring with the Sanhedrin to betray him for 30 pieces of silver. That's what we remember on Holy Wednesday. Funny, isn't it, that the one who betrayed the Lord should get his own day of commemoration.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests,
And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.
And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.
And from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him
(Mt 26:14-16).
Perhaps Jesus disappointed; perhaps he failed to meet Judas's messianic expectations; perhaps Judas just couldn't resist the money. Perhaps, even, he had no choice: Jesus had to be betrayed for prophecy to be fulfilled, and Judas was the vessel who was given over to Satan ("Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot [Lk 22:3]). His heart was the first to hate the Son of God, and when that hate corrodes the soul, you wish ill, plot downfall, and rejoice in comeuppance.

It's easy for us to wonder and judge with incredulity. Just how can you spend so much time in a man’s company and not get the measure of his character? How could Judas not know? How could he not believe? Had he not seen with his own eyes? How could he not trust?

The reason is that he did not love, or that he loved himself, his ambition and money far more. Judas is one of those friends who aren’t really friends: you know the sort – the superficial hangers-on; those who like to be seen with you or use you for their own ends; those who boast and name-drop, whose every conversation becomes a tedious discourse about them. The world of politics is full of such people. So is the Church. They profess eternal friendship and mouth their undying loyalty while they plot to stab you in the back. As The Lady observed, it is "treachery with a smile".

As long as Judas lined his pockets, he never really paused to consider the inevitable consequences for Jesus. That would have been an act of love, yet his proud and self-righteous heart was consumed with hate, selfishness and greed.  And that's when Satan enters in.
 
Friends are God’s gift of love: they are there to nurture and support, and also to correct and rebuke. On this Holy Wednesday, let us thank God for them, and reflect on forgiving those who have persecuted or betrayed us – even if they have caused us to weep a river of heartache and sorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Holy Tuesday: questions, qualifications, hypocrisy



When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.
Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.
He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?
Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.
And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.
Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him.
For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor.
He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.
Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you
(Jn 13:21-33).

As Jesus continued to teach in the Temple about the Kingdom of God, he talked about fig trees and throwing mountains into the sea. All you have to do is believe, he said, and what you ask will be done.

He was questioned by the chief priests and scribes about his authority to teach. He didn’t show his theology degree; instead, he responded to their questions with his own. Where did John's baptism come from? They could not answer, so neither did he. There were parables about disgruntled labourers in the vineyard and harlots in heaven. The reaction to these must have been one of irritation and embarrassment: doubtless some of Israel's spiritual leaders stormed off, as hypocrites tend to do when confronted with their own inadequacies and absurdities. The Pharisees then tried entrapment, asking whether it was lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor. Aware of their motives, Jesus’s response was unequivocal - taxes must be paid.

The Lord’s authority came from God, but he never used it to subvert the princely authorities of this world. Our citizenship is in heaven; we are merely passing through this temporal state. And while we journey, we must obey the political authorities and the precepts of our employers. Of course, we may agitate for change, but we must never do so without humility or love, which penetrates the souls of those who are being lost, for it is divine.

Religious shows of ostentation and hypocritical piety are antithetical to what the kingdom of heaven is about: by focusing on the letter of the law, we easily forget that the true substance is justice, mercy and love. By obsessing about outward adornments, we risk ignoring the spirit, the heart, the purpose of our faith. Indeed, the outward manifestation is hollow when it is more pharisaically obsessed with propriety than with loving one’s neighbour.

On this Holy Tuesday, let us reflect upon our blindness and deafness; our shortcomings, hypocrisies and inadequacies. Everything we do is dirty rags before the Lord. We construct our own whited sepulchres full of dead men’s bones, and are plagued by all manner of uncleanness, so let us take the Lord’s warnings about authority and hypocrisy very seriously indeed: we must not be outwardly what we are not inwardly, and our outward must be faithful to the inward. Many are called, but few are chosen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Holy Monday: anointing, indignation, cleansing and joy


And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her. And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her (Mk 14:3-9).
The Jewish commemoration of the Passover begins this evening, recalling the time the Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt by marking their doorposts with the blood of a pure lamb so that the spirit of the Lord might pass over their homes in the slaughter of the first-born. The Gospels record that six days before the Passover, Mary lavishly anointed her Lord in anticipation of His burial. Christ commends her for the deed, saying: “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her” (Mk 14:9).

As Jews come together around the Seder, Christians gather to watch Eastenders: Holy Monday is indistinguishable from last Monday, or the Monday before that. But today is day for reflecting on the greatest anointing of all - that of the Holy Spirit. Mary's worship at the feet of Jesus was audacious and extravagant, but it was an act of faith and love: all she wanted to do was worship in her own way, which the disciples met with protestation and indignation. It's a woman, you see. And not just a woman, but a mightily-sinning one.

And yet this woman's actions and expressions teach the men a thing or two. She understands and apprehends on a different spiritual plane. They see the perfume and immediately think about the cost and absurd waste; she gently caresses her Lord's ankles and toes, anoints them with a spiced aroma, and smells the scent of salvation. They want action; their mission is to feed the poor. She wants reflection; her heart's desire is to worship.

And so the Christ, the Messiah, is anointed not by prophets or priests, but by but by a prostitute. And that is fitting in this revolutionary kingdom of God. But we easily forget this woman. Jesus said: "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." But she invariably gets lost somewhere between the palm leaves and Eastenders.

Holy Monday is also frequently linked to the Lord’s cleansing of the Temple which had become a den of thieves. The House of God, supposedly a place set aside for meditation and prayer, had become a place of hypocrisy, insincerity, greed and lust. Nothing really changes.

Christians are called to be living sacrifice; to worship God daily in their actions and their words. This is becoming increasingly difficult in a context of increasing secularisation confronted by a compromised church. But the witness of our extravagant devotion to the Lord is wholly dependent upon the purity and honesty of our lives: and that must be marked by humility and love, not by aggressive demands for rights or assertions of pride.

Let Caesar collect his taxes and make his laws: it is for Christians to cleanse our temple and devote ourselves lavishly to the Lord, that we may find peace, joy and happiness.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A prophet on a donkey?



Benedictus qui venit in nomine domini.

There is something majestic, exhilarating and timeless about the Latin rendering of this supreme moment of joy, as the Son of God, Messiah, the Hope of Israel enters Jerusalem on a donkey.

A prophet on a donkey.

As we enter this Holy Week – the most solemn and intense period of worship in the Christian calendar – it is important to remember that it does indeed begin with supreme joy as Jesus entered Jerusalem as the fulfilment of the long-promised salvation of Israel.

To the Romans, palm leaves were a symbol of victory and of military prowess. The Jews who greeted their Messiah were simply echoing this practice, perhaps drawing on 1 Maccabees where it is recorded that the people waved palm branches to celebrate the independence of Jerusalem and Judæa.

But what kind of prophet of God or victorious king parades in triumph on a donkey?

The One who was born of a woman?

The One who was lain in a manger?

The One who emptied Himself in humility?

The one who was soon to die on a cross, where Christ's grace simultaneously fuses the joy of his triumph with the profound sorrow of his death. The Passion Gospel is forever in the background of the Hosannas of the people – a people who could never have foreseen what would befall their Messiah just a week later. They yearned for a king who would proclaim Israel’s independence from Rome; they wanted a Messiah who would be their religio-political hero; they wanted a Jesus who would fulfil their religious expectations and affirm their political agendas.

On this final Sunday of Lent, His Grace wishes to pause from temporal concerns and reflect on the fact that little has changed in two millennia. Even today, those who believe in Christ want a certain kind of Jesus; a certain type of Messiah – one who will anoint a certain certain leader, bless a form of politics or prosper a particular war; one who will be ‘on our side’ against all the opposition, foreign and domestic. We seek a Messiah who will affirm our notions of truth and ratify our interpretations of Scripture; one who will follow us conveniently as we direct our own paths in this brief pilgrimage through life.

What kind of success, wealth, reputation or respect is represented by a donkey?

The person who humbles himself will be exalted. The humility of God in human form is expressive of the humility of God in Himself, and we are made in His image: "Christ liveth in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me" (Phil 1:21); For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (2Tim 1:12). To make righteousness out of holiness, godliness, grace, religion, experience, and even of faith itself, is as legal, and as inconsistent with the way of the new covenant, as to make righteousness of holy works. And we can see but a little way into the nature of the soul, and the depths of man's heart.

Today is a day for humility; for reflecting on the fact that Jesus did not enter Jerusalem riding a fine chariot, or the equivalent of an armoured Cadillac or Rolls Royce. He rode in on a donkey, like a humble peasant on a quiet mission of peace.

And these people who today shout "Hosanna!" are those same people who will soon cry "Crucify him!". And all because they realised that the Jesus who rode in on a donkey was not the Jesus they had invented in their minds, for he had thoughts, plans and purposes which were not remotely in line with their own.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Miliband claims he would be "the first Jewish prime minister"


Ed Miliband has been in Israel, discovering his Jewish roots.

According to the Daily Mail, he said: "I would be the first Jewish prime minister if we win the election." This appears to corroborate an interview he gave to Haaretz: "In a little over a year from now, Ed Miliband could well be the first Jewish prime minister of the United Kingdom," it begins. It is undeniable that he made the claim himself: as well as this journalistic introduction, he has been directly quoted.

This is curious, because the Conservative Party gave the United Kingdom its first Jewish prime minister a while back - in 1868, to be precise; a full century before minority rights and PC quotas became a political obsession. He was called Benjamin Disraeli: an indication of his Semitic ethnicity may be found in the name. But Ed Miliband seems to be unaware of this, which is a little odd, considering his audacious appropriation of Disraeli's 'One Nation' slogan.

So popular was Disraeli with the Conservatives that they kept him as their leader for 13 years, and the people re-elected him to a second term in 1874. You may argue that he was only a practising Jew up to the age of 12, when he converted (or was converted) to the Church of England. But Ed Miliband is not an observant Jew either, and has never been: he was raised in a sceptic-humanist-atheist household, and is himself an avowed atheist. So we are not concerned here with matters of religious orthodoxy or observance, but with ethnicity.

And on that count, Benjamin Disraeli was irrefutably the UK's first Jewish prime minister.

Perhaps Harriet Harman might make a better leader of the Labour Party, at least in terms of a grasp on history. One doubts that even Ed Miliband would hail her as the first woman prime minister.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Cameron on his vicar: "I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind"


This is the Rev'd Mark Abrey, vicar of St. Nicholas' Church, Chadlington, Oxfordshire. He seems to be a quiet and unassuming sort of minister, so you won't find much written about him anywhere. Indeed, it took His Grace the best part of an hour to unearth a photograph. The Rev'd Mark happens to be David Cameron's local vicar in his constituency. And this is what the Prime Minister said of him at Wednesday's Downing Street Easter reception:
..it’s lovely to have here tonight the vicar from St Mary Abbots school, Gillean Craig, and also the vicar who looks after me spiritually in the constituency, Mark Abrey in Chadlington, who, when I often – anyone asks me about the pastoral care that many vicars carry out across the country, I remember 5 years ago when we had to mourn the loss and bury my son Ivan, I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind than Mark. And of course, Ivan would have been 12 yesterday, which has had me pause to think about that.
Now, Mr Cameron said an awful lot more in his speech, which spanned politics, religion, the law of Christ, the Big Society and Dyno-Rod. And you may read all of that for yourselves and make up your own minds what you think about it. But His Grace is going to dwell on this single sentence of tribute to a single Church of England vicar, for this speech was extempore - not carefully crafted by some Downing Street hireling. And, clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister's spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England's ministry than anything he has previously disclosed.

You see, however the Rev'd Mark Abrey votes and whatever his personal political beliefs, he has pastoral responsibility for all those who live within his entire parish. The pastoral care, prayer and support he provides constitutes an applied theology, and clearly, in the case of David Cameron, the Rev'd Mark has brought the liberating power of the gospel to bear on the actual circumstances of the Prime Minister's life. There was no imposition and no prior condition: the trappings of state and political power presented no hurdle to the vicar's compassion to weep with those who weep. The love of God - agape - reaches down to create a new love - caritas - in which humans are able, regardless of their wretched state or inconsolable grief, to behold their creator in a joy for which they are destined.

Dramatic changes in social circumstances and upheaval in our personal lives create pastoral needs. If Christian theology is to maintain any credibility at all in this increasingly secular, post-Christian age, it cannot ignore those needs. And it must adapt to human experience and observation, for, as we have seen in the lives of St Paul, St Augustine, Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer and many others, a pastoral crisis can call received theological wisdom into question, and a new integrity has to be sought which is resonant with contemporary insights into human need and suffering, as it is manifested not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the behaviour and needs of whole societies.

The pastoral nature of Christian theology - as embodied by the Rev'd Mark Abrey and thousands of other ministers all over the country and the world - is what makes its existence necessary in the first place. It is something done sacrificially and empathetically by human beings to human beings, which is why it speaks to them most profoundly and creatively when it addresses the actual circumstances of their lives., especially when they are threatened, insecure, desolate or inconsolable with grief. Consider this section of the Prime Minister's speech:
I often get my moment of greatest peace – not every week, I’m ashamed to say, but perhaps every other week I pop in to the Thursday morning sung Eucharist beautiful service in St Mary Abbots, and I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a little bit of guidance.
Who are you to judge this simple insight? Who are you to condemn the search for navigation through stormy political waters? Who are you to be offended that David Cameron calls Christ "our Saviour"? He tells us that he went on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem: "And it’s a very special moment the first time you go to the Church of the Holy Nativity; it’s a remarkable, extraordinary place, and I think something that will stay with me."

You may think he's a political chameleon and spiritual charlatan, spouting about this being a "Christian country" to try to dupe disaffected Christians into voting Tory. But is it not written that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags"? He says he wants to "do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world", and we are still waiting to hear what this might be. But please don't think that one who has mourned the death of his own son cannot taste the grief of the many thousands of bereaved parents and orphaned children whose tears are unending.

Pray for the Prime Minister, as St Paul exhorts, "For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." And pray for the Rev'd Mark Abrey, that his witness to the Cameron family may continue to be "loving, thoughtful (and) kind"; that he might be wise and compassionate, manifesting the love of God to them as each opportunity presents itself to challenge the ever-renewing secular knowledge that purports to hold so much promise for the amelioration of the human lot, but which, without Christ, is little more than self-sufficient, self-deluding hubris.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Cameron's Easter message: "Religious freedom is an absolute, fundamental human right"

"Easter is the most important date in the Christian calendar, and an incredibly special time for people across Britain and around the world. Last month I was in Jerusalem and Bethlehem and I got to see for myself the places where Jesus was born and died. It was an extraordinary experience to be in those places where so much history began.

Today, 2000 years on, Easter is not just a time for Christians across our country to reflect, but a time for our whole country to reflect on what Christianity brings to Britain. All over the UK, every day, there are countless acts of kindness carried out by those who believe in and follow Christ. The heart of Christianity is to 'love thy neighbour' and millions do really live that out. I think of the Alpha courses run in our prisons, which work with offenders to give them a new life inside and outside prison, or the soup kitchens and homeless shelters run by churches. And we saw that same spirit during the terrible storms that struck Britain earlier this year. From Somerset to Surrey, from Oxford to Devon, churches became refuges, offering shelter and food, congregations raised funds and rallied together, parish priests even canoed through their villages to rescue residents. They proved, yet again, that people's faith motivates them to do good deeds.

That is something this Government supports and celebrates, and it's why we have announced more funding for the Near Neighbours programme bringing together even more faiths in even more cities to do social action. And as we celebrate Easter, let's also think of those who are unable to do so, the Christians around the world who are ostracised, abused -- even murdered -- simply for the faith they follow. Religious freedom is an absolute, fundamental human right.

Britain is committed to protecting and promoting that right, by standing up for Christians and other minorities, at home and abroad. Our hearts go out to them, especially at this special time of year. So as we approach this festival I'd like to wish everyone, Christians and non-Christians a very happy Easter."

Sajid Javid: "I was a Thatcherite long before I was a Conservative"


Sajid Javid has been promoted to replace the hapless Maria Miller as Secretary of State for Press Regulation and Gay Marriage Culture, Media and Sport. He also become Equalities Minister (except for women, obviously, because a man can't do that). According to the Telegraph, he is "Britain's first Asian Cabinet member". Quite how Baroness Warsi feels about that is unknown, not least because she was Britain's first Asian Cabinet member, once (though the Telegraph styled her "female Muslim"; not Asian, though she is manifestly all three).

Being steeped in the Economist, Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, it is not immediately clear what Mr Javid knows about the Arts or Culture. But it can't be less than Mrs Miller, and His Grace welcomes this appointment wholeheartedly.

This son of a Pakistani bus-driver is by far among the most talented of the 2010 intake, and a great admirer of Margaret Thatcher, who is his political inspiration. A portrait of her hung on his office wall in the Treasury: doubtless it will now be transported to the DCMS. Importantly, unlike Baroness Warsi, his meteoric rise is meritocratic. He studied economics and politics at Exeter University, and was the first member of his family to go to university. This, he says, is the root of his conservative beliefs:
"My mother and father had nothing and, like many people in their adopted country, worked their way up. All they had to rely on was their drive and determination, a willingness to work hard, and the confidence to take risks in the hope of greater rewards. There were, of course, ups and downs. But whenever my parents were knocked down, in business or anything else, they picked themselves up and started again. The abiding lesson was clear to me: don’t doubt yourself and don’t stop trying.”
For those who are interested (which will doubtless be one or two upon His Grace's august blog), Mr Javid is proud of his Muslim-Pakistani background, but he himself is not remotely religious. He doesn't worship in a mosque, read the Qur'an or observe Ramadan. Ergo, he is not a practising Muslim, any more than Christians who do not attend church, read the Bible (or, some might add, observe Lent) are practising Christians. One may certainly believe without belonging, and be culturally affiliated without practising. But the only religion observed in his home is Christianity (his wife is Christian), and he is of the view that immigrants should adapt to British culture - respecting its distinctly Christian heritage and traditions.

Some are offended that David Cameron has appointed an Asian as guardian of British Culture. They clearly have no understanding of the nature of conservatism, no apprehension of British-Asian values and no appreciation of what drives Sajid Javid. He is a small-state, low-tax, regulation-cutting, patriotic, meritocratic Thatcherite: his political values are hers. All that we know of him culturally is that his favourite film is the Christian allegory It's A Wonderful Life, and his favourite music is the Christian rock band U2. He'll now need to take in a bit of Shakespeare and a few Proms, at least.

As His Grace wrote when Aaqil Ahmed became the first Asian/Muslim to lead the BBC's Religion & Ethics department, those who object - on either religious or racial grounds - to the appointment of immigrants or the children of immigrants to these influential offices of state might pause to reflect on what has become of them under Anglo-Saxon Christian types. The quality of the Christian output of the BBC deteriorated markedly under a Methodist and a Roman Catholic; indeed, between them they reduced the Faith to a toothless myth. Maria Miller's advocacy for the illiberal and thoroughly anti-British state regulation of the press and her insensitive handling of same-sex marriage eclipse everything else she accomplished while she was in office.

So, why not let the first deserving Asian to be appointed to the Cabinet have a go at redeeming the situation? 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

'Luton on Sunday' newspaper bows to Luton Taliban


The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is 125 years old this year, and Prime Minister David Cameron sent them his sincere congratulations on reaching this milestone. He praised their work for peace, their charitable endeavours and their efforts on behalf of the environment. "This is true faith in action," he wrote, acknowledging that they have also endured fierce persecution for expressing that faith. This gesture clearly touched a number of Ahmadiyyans all over the world, mindful that in some countries to be Ahmadi is a crime, punishable even by death. For the Ahmadiyya, jihad is not violence, which they repudiate: it is the peaceable struggle against the flesh in a never-ending quest for the peace that passes understanding. And blessed are the peacemakers.

In commemoration of this anniversary, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community took out a two-page advertisement in a number of local newspapers. Luton on Sunday agreed to publish this advertisement (pp4-5):


They then received a complaint from one Dr Fiaz Hussain, who is co-ordinator of the Preservation of Finality of Prophethood Forum (PFPF):


Followed by a delegation of 'Community Leaders':


And then Luton on Sunday issued this swift disassociation and apology (p4):


This is yet another example of Muslim intimidation of the media into conforming to a narrow interpretation of sharia. The advertisement was accepted by the newspaper, and there is no editorial compulsion to endorse the content or message of any such promotion.

Notwithstanding this, Luton on Sunday felt the need to issue an apology for offending "the Muslim community in Luton", as though the offence caused by such a repudiation to the Ahmadiyya community is of no consequence at all, which, of course, it isn't.

One doubts that this delegation made violent threats or even intimated that the Luton on Sunday offices might be firebombed or their staff harassed. But clearly the newspaper came under some sort of pressure to "completely dissociate (themselves) from the content of the advertisement", and this could only have come from a persuasive if not forceful assertion of the sort of narrow Sunni-sharia orthodoxy that is in force in Pakistan (via the malignant Wahhabi-Salafi strain), and which is being incrementally imposed upon or adopted by the British media.

The Ahmadiyya call themselves Muslims, and clearly some other Muslim groups are offended by this because the Ahmadiyya believe that other prophets followed Mohammed: he was not the 'final seal'. This sort of religio-identity dispute is, of course, nothing new: the Church of England calls itself Catholic (and Reformed), which irks one or two (Roman) Catholics. But newspapers and other media are not exhorted by sundry zealous priests and cardinals to dissociate themselves from advertisements which might contain this historic assertion of Anglican belief. It is surely not for Luton on Sunday or any newspaper to take a dogmatic view of the deeply-held sensitivities of one religious denomination, or to impose a moral view of religious blasphemy when Parliament has abolished the concept.

It is to be observed that the Luton on Sunday statement of apology refers only to 'The Ahmadiyya': the Islamic inquisition has clearly determined that they may not be referred to as 'Ahmadiyya Muslims', for the Preservation of Finality of Prophethood Forum (PFPF) has weighed their theology and found them quranically deficient if not heretical.

And so, once again, we observe the adoption of a sharia blasphemy code, which His Grace noted as far back as 2007. The UK now has a de facto blasphemy law which protects the Sunni-sharia assertion of Islamic doctrine vis-à-vis Allah, Mohammed and the Qur'an. And now, in Luton, the views of the Ahmadiyya can go hang with the sensitivities of Christians. Shame on Luton on Sunday for tacitly supporting their persecution.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Archbishop Justin gets handbagged by Ann Widdecombe



Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby made history by becoming the first holder of that Holy Office ever to participate in a live Q&A session on national radio. It was, despite much of the post-interview negative media coverage, an undoubted missiological success. It may have caused a bit of grief for the Archbishop's Director of Communications Ailsa Anderson, and it may have been a testing time for Press Officer Ed Thornton. But if the Archbishop is to be effective in his ministry, he must communicate the Faith succinctly, incisively and frequently by all means possible. And Lambeth Palace staff have to learn to live on the edge with all the comms expertise and sound-bite savvy of a political media machine. Spontaneous Q&A is raw, authentic and well worth doing, despite the personal costs and predictably distorted media reaction. So more, please.

But what shall we call this new media phenomenon? 'Ask the Archbishop'? 'Grill Justin'? 'Quiz Welby'?

Whatever the emerging brand, the Lambeth Palace media operation needs to be swift in its spiritual counter-response to the world's knee-jerk response. It is axiomatic in politics that a lie is half way round the world before the truth has its boots on. When it comes to religion, the world spins whole revolutions in honour of the lie while the truth disappears into the stratosphere.  

In an intense and sometimes fractious hour, Archbishop Justin covered a vast array of political topics and social-justice issues, as well as profound theological reflections about Christ and the nature of God.

There has been an array of blogging responses for those who can be bothered to consider the politico-spiritual depths of the exchange (full transcript here). For those who can't be bothered – which will be most of the world – the sound-bite impression from the media coverage is that the Archbishop of Canterbury got a good handbagging from Anglican-turned-Roman-Catholic Ann Widdecombe on abortion and women priests, and was then lured into admitting that the Church of England will not introduce same-sex marriage because it would lead to the mass slaughter of Christians in Africa. These distortions have been lapped up by the world while context, meaning and truth are lost in the ether.

His Grace will not deal with the same-sex marriage issue for two reasons: firstly, he is thoroughly sick of the issue; and secondly, a magisterial response and exposition has been written by eminent theologian Andrew Goddard over at Fulcrum. Do read it, for it is the definitive theological rebuttal to those crass assertions that Archbishop Justin's teaching is "scandalous", "severely mistaken" or "dangerously sloppy".

LBC doubtless admitted Ann Widdecombe into the debate because she is one of the most high-profile defectors to the Church of Rome, her religio-political objective now being to deride wishy-washy Anglicanism at every turn and laud the absolute rock of theological certainty afforded by the successor to St Peter. "The Church of England never seems to know what it thinks about anything," she declared, with all the righteous zeal of an ex-smoker preaching the eschatological judgment of lung cancer. Archbishop Justin graciously later acknowledged via Twitter her "effectiveness".

His Grace would have handled her questions slightly differently, probing why manifestly second-order theological issues such as gender or sexuality - the zeitgeist obsessions of the world - should trump primary theological contentions such as the essence of soteriology, the nature of ecclesiology or the meaning of communion. Does the appointment of women priests really outweigh salvation by faith? If the ordination of women as priests should become a cause of schism and the impetus to abandon the Protestant-Anglican understanding of salvation to embrace the Sacrifice of the Mass, as it was for Ms Widdecombe, what hope is there ever for fuller visible unity?

Are issues about authority in the Church as theological in the same sense as the bigger issues on which there is already clear ecumenical agreement? If they are, how exactly is it that they make a difference to our basic understanding of salvation and communion? And if they are not, why do they still stand in the way of fuller visible unity? Can there, for example, be a model of unity as a communion of churches which have different attitudes to how the papal primacy is expressed?’

The central question, of course, is whether and how we can properly tell the difference between “second order” and “first order” issues. When so very much agreement has been firmly established in first-order matters about the identity and mission of the Church, is it really justifiable to treat other issues as equally vital for its health and integrity?

There are two issues which divide as authority – the nature or indeed the very possibility of the magisterium; and primacy – the extent to which the integrity of the Church is ultimately dependent on a single identifiable ministry of unity to which all local ministries are accountable. The Church of England repudiates the language of rule and hierarchy established by decree, with fixed divisions between teachers and taught, rulers and ruled, advocating instead filial and communal holiness held in a universal pattern of mutual service.

During his conversation with Ms Widdecombe, Archbishop Justin said: "I'm not the Pope: I can't declare infallible doctrine." And later he explained: "We're not a political party: when we do something (which some members don't like), we don't say you've got to quit."

Quite.

The Church should be concerned with repentance, love and mutual reconciliation; not pride, power and ever-increasing division. The pattern of Church leadership built upon papal primacy is allied to juridical privilege and the patterns of rule and control to such an extent that it fails to achieve what it sets out to do. Of course, this is a slightly sensitive discussion, but the question of altar fellowship and of mutual recognition of ministerial offices should not be unconditionally dependent on a consensus on the question of primacy.

The historic Anglican via media seeks a restored universal communion which would be genuinely a community of communities and a communion of communions. This is not expressed as a single juridically united body, and therefore one which does indeed assume that, while there is a recognition of a primatial ministry, this is not absolutely bound to a view of primacy as a centralised juridical office.

The corporate reading of Scripture, obedience to the Lord's commands to baptise and make eucharist, or the shared understanding of the shape and the disciplines of what we call filial holiness, do not need any further test, and certainly not any imposed by a universal primate.

And so the Church of England repudiates those Roman Catholic theologians who assert that the ordination of women priests or bishops makes the Anglican Communion simply less recognisably a body doing the same Catholic thing. For many Anglicans, not ordaining women had a possible unwelcome implication about the difference between baptised men and baptised women, which in their view threatened to undermine the coherence of the ecclesiology in question. The same unwelcome implications may be drawn from not admitting women to the episcopate.

The challenge to recent Roman Catholic thinking on this would have to be: in what way does the prohibition against ordaining women so enhance the life of communion, reinforcing the essential character of filial and communal holiness as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement, that its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church as so defined? And do the arguments advanced about the 'essence' of male and female vocations and capacities stand on the same level as a theology derived more directly from Scripture and the common theological heritage such as we find in these ecumenical texts?

Even if there remains uncertainty in the minds of some about the rightness of ordaining women, is there a way of recognising that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and Evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals? In terms of the relation of local to universal, what we are saying here is that a degree of recognisability of 'the same Catholic thing' has survived: Anglican provinces ordaining women to some or all of the three orders have not become so obviously diverse in their understanding of filial holiness and sacramental transformation that they cannot act together, serve one another and allow some real collaboration.

It is this sort of thinking that has allowed Anglicans until recently to maintain a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion among themselves, despite the sharpness of the division over this matter. It is part of the rationale of supplementary episcopal oversight as practised in the English provinces, and it may yet be of help in securing the place of those who will not be able to accept the episcopal ministry of women. There can be no doubt, though, that the situation of damaged communion will become more acute with the inability of bishops within the same college to recognise one another's ministry in the full sense. Yet, in what is still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception, is it nonsense to think that holding on to a limited but real common life and mutual acknowledgement of integrity might be worth working for within the Anglican family? And if it can be managed within the Anglican family, is this a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene? At least, by means of some of the carefully crafted institutional ways of continuing to work together, there remains an embodied trust in the possibility of discovering a shared ministry of the gospel; and who knows what more, ultimately, in terms of restored communion?

At what point do we have to recognise that surviving institutional and even canonical separations or incompatibilities are overtaken by the authoritative direction of genuinely theological consensus, so that they can survive only by appealing to the ghost of ecclesiological positivism? These issues may all seem, to the eyes of a non-Roman Catholic, to belong in a somewhat different frame of reference from the governing themes of the ecumenical ecclesiology expressed. If the non-Roman Catholic is wrong about this, we need to have spelled out exactly why; we need to understand either that there are issues about the filial/communal calling clearly at stake in surviving disagreements; or to be shown that another theological 'register' is the right thing to use in certain areas, a different register which will qualify in some ways the language that has so far shaped ecumenical convergence.

These are political matters which there is no point in approaching theologically, which is quite possibly why Ann Widdecombe finds them so very attractive.

For those of us who are not Roman Catholics, the question His Grace would like to put to Ms Widdecombe and her co-religionists, in a grateful and fraternal spirit, is whether this unfinished business is as fundamentally church-dividing as our Roman Catholic friends generally assume and maintain. And if it isn't, can we all allow ourselves to be challenged to address the outstanding issues with the same methodological assumptions and the same overall spiritual and sacramental vision that has brought us thus far?

As Archbishop Justin said: "I’m not a Pope and I can’t say what the Church is going to do. It’s something we decide collectively, the Church together and we’re beginning that process."

It is good for the Archbishop to be handbagged by assertive women. But he needs to develop a way of responding robustly by swinging his manbag.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Pope Francis asks the Queen to pray for him



These are not joke captions, but real excerpts from the conversation this week between the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the Bishop of Rome.

It is good when Christians pray for one another, and especially humbling when that request is made specifically and personally rather than vaguely and generally. Roman Catholics appear to be divided as to whether Pope Francis is most humble and a great reformer, or encouraging "moral laxity and doctrinal indifference" and "the most subversive Pope in history".

The Queen, however, seems to enjoy universal praise and acclamation for her resolute Christian faith - and it comes from Christians of all denominations and from people of all faiths and none.

By asking the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to pray for him, Pope Francis is acknowledging their mutual solidarity with God, and affirming that the Queen is trying to live out her life faithfully. In New Testament terms, the intercessor lives in solidarity with Jesus: "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all" (1Tim 2:5f). Through belief, baptism and living a life of faith, the believer is reconciled to God, and intercession on behalf of others is intrinsic to the lived faith.

But in this modern era, we associate requests for prayer with some human need or inadequacy - sickness, suffering, trouble, lack of faith, etc. Or with a wider objective - peace, justice, reconciliation, etc. By granting Pope Francis's prayer request, and assuring him that she will not forget, the Queen has consented to work for him with God - effectively, to care about his person and ministry. We intercede for others because of what we believe about God as loving Father, who works directly, but also through men and women, using their cooperation.

The Queen's intercessions for the Bishop of Rome depend on her life of faith, not of words. For possibly the first time since the Reformation, England's monarch has agreed to be a channel for bringing Rome's pope closer to God; to become more sensitive to his needs, desires and struggles. Of course, neither the Queen nor the Pope may see or know the results in this life, for doubtless Her Majesty prays "Not my will, but thine, be done" (Lk 22:42).

And the Pope will be mindful that Her Majesty is a faithful Protestant, who prays to none other than God or Christ. Her prayer is communion directly with God, as her own heart inclines toward mercy, love and generosity. And Jesus promised that God would do all that we ask in Christ's name, but this means more than appending "through Jesus Christ" to the end of every prayer: it means praying as Christ himself would pray.

The Bishop of Rome trusts the Supreme Governor of the Church of England to do that: that she will abide in Christ as He does in her; that she may ask what she wills and it shall be given.

His Grace just can't help wondering what that might be.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Queen meets Pope Francis, with another outward innovation

Whenever the Supreme Governor of the Church of England journeys to the Vatican and graciously grants an audience to the Pope of Rome, protocol demands that she wear a mantilla or hat, and all non-Roman-Catholic monarchs are required to wear black, whether or not the meeting has any state formality. Thus is the theological heresy symbolised in the apparel. In 2000, the Queen wore black in the presence of John Paul II's radiant white:



Just as she had done in 1980:



And when meeting Pope John XXIII in 1961:



And when meeting Pope Pius XII in 1951:



Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother obliged in 1959:



As did Diana, Princess of Wales in 1985:



Even Margaret Thatcher wore a black mantilla when she met Pope Paul VI in 1977:



And when she met Pope John Paul II in 1980:



And when she met Pope Benedict XVI in 2009:



But on 3rd March 2014, Pope Francis made no such demand of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England:



Some may consider this utterly unimportant and of no significance whatsoever. But it is not without symbolic meaning: this new head of the Church of Rome appears to have rather more respect for the historic and theological status of the Church of England. Indeed, unlike his predecessor, now Pope Emeritus, Pope Francis seems to acknowledge that Her Majesty is Supreme Governor of a sister church and not a mere "ecclesial community" (ie a non-church), as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in Dominus Iesus in 2000 - a view he reiterated as Pope Benedict XVI in 2007:
..it is nevertheless difficult to see how the title of “Church” could possibly be attributed to them, given that they do not accept the theological notion of the Church in the Catholic sense and that they lack elements considered essential to the Catholic Church.

In saying this, however, it must be remembered that these said ecclesial Communities, by virtue of the diverse elements of sanctification and truth really present in them, undoubtedly possess as such an ecclesial character and consequently a salvific significance.
The Church of England is, of course, both Catholic and Reformed. Under Pope Francis, we are clearly moving toward a new era of ecumenism; perhaps toward acknowledgment of the validity of Anglican orders and recognition of a true episcopate in apostolic succession. Maybe even (eventually) toward a shared Eucharist.

The Queen dressed in lilac and not black means nothing to many, but to those who have eyes these are nuanced developments and very steady increments. Her visit to the Vatican was just one in a long line of Royal-Papal encounters since the Reformation:

29 April 1903 – King Edward VII met Pope Leo XIII.
1918 – Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII and then Duke of Windsor) met Pope Benedict XV.
1923 – King George V and Queen Mary met Pope Pius XI.
10 May 1949 – Princess Margaret met Pope Pius XII.
13 April 1951 - Princess Elizabeth (now Queen) and the Duke of Edinburgh met Pope Pius XII.
23 April 1959 - Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret met Pope John XXIII.
5 May 1961 - The Queen met Pope John XXIII.
17 October 1980 - The Queen met Pope John Paul II.
29 August 1985 - Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, met Pope John Paul II.
9 December 1985 - Prince and Princess Michael of Kent met Pope John Paul II.
10 April 1990 - The Duke of Edinburgh met Pope John Paul II.
3 November 1994 - The Duchess of Kent met Pope John Paul II.
17 October 2000 - The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh met Pope John Paul II.
27 April 2009 – Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall met Pope Benedict XVI.

There are still one or two apparently insurmountable hurdles in the path to Christian unity. But what are centuries to God?

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Cameron is losing the Christian vote to Ukip


Unlike, say, in the United States of America, where the 'culture wars' over issues like school prayer, stem cell research, homosexuality, contraception, abortion and pornography have given rise to the 'Religious Right', there is not and has never been an identifiable 'Christian vote' in the UK. There isn't even an equivalent of the Christian Coalition of America to issue 'voter guides', engage with moral concerns or contend for religious liberty. Despite decades of left-liberal leadership, by and large those who worship in the Church of England still veer toward the Conservative Party, and those who worship in the Roman Catholic Church still tend toward Labour. At least that's what all the surveys tell us: no doubt voting intention is rather more fluid in this age of political fragmentation and religious non-affiliation.

The Christian Socialist Movement recently morphed into Christians on the Left. By dropping the historic ideological 'Socialist' tag, the movement has begun to attract Christian Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it is now so broad in its religio-sociological appeal that it could easily embrace those on the left of  the Conservative Party (they said His Grace would be welcome to join). Their aim is to give left-leaning Christians a united voice to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves”, and who can argue with that? The group has 1,519 Facebook 'likes' and 2.520 Twitter followers.

The Conservative Christian Fellowship maintains a resolute Conservative identity: there are no plans to segue into 'Christians on the Right', not least because, thanks to decades of soft-left media inculcation and political disinformation, 'the Right' has acquired a certain political toxicity. The CCF "seeks to build a strong, relational bridge between the (Conservative) party and the Christian community". The group has 720 Facebook 'likes' and 1,005 Twitter followers.

In social media terms, the Conservatives are doing less than half as well as the Left. In terms of national religio-political engagement, the picture is less clear, not least because no research has ever been carried out into the efficacy of their theological missions of the effectiveness of their political advocacy. Both groups periodically deliver their PowerPoint presentations to interested parties; hold their church 'question times'; engage in social action projects and host dinners or drinks receptions with Christian MPs and peers. Like party-political functions, these activities seem to keep their members happy. But neither group approaches anything like the political power of Stephen Fry (142,000 Facebook 'likes' and 6,706,345 Twitter followers).

Christians on the Left is politically latitudinal, embracing broad left ideologies; the Conservative Christian Fellowship is politically narrow, focusing solely on engagement with one party. In an emerging four-party context, it remains to be seen how long this can be sustained. Quite how many right-leaning formerly-Conservative Christians have veered off toward Ukip is unknown. But when they do defect, they are lost to the CCF.

Christians on the Right in the UK have historically never had any political home but the Conservative Party. Nigel Farage has changed that. Indeed, his simple message and authentic appeal have changed it to such an extent that Conservative Central HQ really ought to deeply concerned about their election prospects. But they aren't at all.

David Cameron is losing the Christian vote because he has ceased to understand Christian sensitivities. That is certainly the view of prominent Christians within his own party, most notably Anglican Sir Gerald Howarth and Roman Catholic Edward Leigh. There are many on the right who are worried about the plight of the poor and homeless and the rise of food-banks, but few believe that a party led by public-school-educated multi-millionaires actually understands or empathises to any degree at all. Of course they can and might, but we are dealing here with perceptions, and politics is about perceptions.

But it is also about moral purpose. And Cameron's distinctly un-conservative social revolution with the introduction of same-sex marriage has offended not only traditional Conservatives and conservative Christians, but people across all faith groups. He is seemingly indifferent to the constitutional tensions and the implications for religious liberty. Add to this his sinister liberalisation of abortion law and the introduction of three-parent babies, you move toward the point where many Christians feel they cannot in conscience vote for a party which rides roughshod over their moral concerns or labels them intolerant bigots merely for expressing their historical morally-orthodoxy belief.

By surrounding himself with secularists and advancing as infallible orthodoxy a wishy-washy liberal form of Anglicanism which, he says, "fades in and out like Magic FM in the Chilterns", David Cameron has alienated many conservative Christians whose faith means more to them than their traditional political allegiance. The Conservative Party used to be a broad church, but thousands are now flocking to the Ukip Chapel where there's a revival. CCHQ is content to excommunicate these heretics, undoubtedly holding the indifferent good-riddance view that they are misguided, swivel-eyed loons, closet racists, fruitcakes and right-wing bigots.

You may very well think that, too. But His Grace couldn't possibly comment.
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