Monday, March 31, 2014

Archbishop of Canterbury spends a night with Ipswich Town Pastors

Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury spent a few days in Suffolk as part of the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese’s centenary celebrations.

During that visit, he donned a yellow jacket and spent a night with the Town Pastors, a 570-strong volunteer project which sends Christians out onto the streets across Suffolk to help vulnerable people – mostly on Friday and Saturday nights and into the early hours of the morning – to manifest the compassion and love of Christ to those who may be in need, whether smashed out of their heads from clubbing, or homeless through circumstances beyond their control.

The Town Pastors don't reason the need; they simply minister from their hearts. They give out bottles of water, bars of chocolate, or just sit and listen at 4.00am to whomever wants to talk. As a result, tense situations are defused, and violence mitigated. They have a team back at their base which keeps in touch via walkie-talkies and prays all night for peace.

BBC Suffolk wrote an article on their work in 2009.

Over the celebratory weekend, the Archbishop tweeeted this picture, and Lambeth Palace tweeted this one.The Ipswich Star covered the night, and one commenter on their site said:
These guys are amazing, people from all walks of life and ages coming out to help others. They are out until 4am or later, while most people are asleep and must feel like zombies for the rest of the weekend. The police seem to rely a lot on Town Pastors to look after people that can't look after themselves and the presence that they have in the town is clear to see. I would like to applaud the town pastors for all that they do, you are massively appreciated, I just hope there is enough funding to keep it going for as long as possible because things would definitely go downhill for all stakeholder groups if they were withdrawn. It's a shame there aren't more comments and compliments for these amazing individuals I really can't emphasise enough the difference that they make
The Archbishop also had breakfast with local farmers; met with civic groups; spoke to a tent-full of people engaged in community projects; signed choristers' hymnbooks; and answered young people's questions during the Eucharist at St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

And the issue the local media chose to highlight?

You guessed it:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Kill Your Idol banned by TfL

There is an exhibition at St Marylebone Church of the work of 20 artists' representations of the Stations of the Cross. Throughout Lent, some of these have been approved by TfL to appear on the London Underground.

But not this one.

Antony Micallef's 'Kill Your Idol' is a representation of the first station, where Jesus is condemned to death. It is the view of St Marylebone's Rector, the Rev'd CanonStephen Evans, that this work "raises important contemporary questions about the fickleness and shallowness of fame and celebrity, success and failure. About who has the power to say just who is going to be a 'hit' and who a 'miss'."

The omnipotent X-Factor celebs sit in judgment not only upon would-be global superstars, but upon us all, for they reflect the obsessions of our contemporary culture. X-Factor mania has swept the western world: it is the 1984 of the new interactive media age. It is defining and creating reality, permitting the masses to live vicariously the ecstasy of others; to fulfil their fantasies and to dream big dreams.

Antony Micallef's satire is not offensive; it is biblical. Quite why TfL deem it inappropriate for public display is something of a mystery, especially given the offence manifestly caused by previous posters. Why might this cause "widespread or serious offence to members of the public", but not those TfL-endorsed advertisements which deny the very existence of God and exhort believers to "get over it"?

Like Simon Cowell, Micallef has grasped the public mood of impotence: a pervasive lack of faith in politicians and religious leaders, universal exasperation with bureaucracy and ubiquitous frustration with the great institutions of state. There is an epistemic distance between those who wield power and those upon whom that power is wielded. The fragile social contract is in danger of being torn up, not simply because the good times are gone, but because there is a feeling that things will never get better.

Reconnecting with the marginalised; engaging the dispossessed; reversing the indifference; enthusing the cynical, jaded and despairing: these are the principal tasks which must occupy our political and religious leaders. And the remedy must produce happiness and peace: not ephemeral jollity or ignorant dormancy, but enduring happiness and the peace which passes understanding. Until the Christian faith revives the spirit and renews the heart, its perceived usefulness will be increasingly eroded by its institutional failures.

Unless our religious discourse is to be reduced to the mono-dimension of single-cause issues, there is a need for the Church to return to an understanding of its mission to preach the gospel, and to do so where the people are at and in a language they can understand. The public can tell the difference between real Cowell contention and staged angst, and their engagement is heightened when the stresses, intolerance and conflict are authentic.

The X-Factor-style jury sitting in judgment upon Christ ought not to be censored, but displayed on billboards throughout the land. It is how we judge Him today - as a desperate pop idol yearning for attention in the marketplace, instead of as the Light of the World and Saviour of mankind. 'Kill Your Idol' is a perfect metaphor for the age; indeed, it is the sort of art that the church ought to be commissioning and paying to display, for it is a comprehensible, powerful and thought-provoking language of evangelism.

As Holy Week approaches, it is worth reflecting on how we judge the Son of God today, and what precisely a modern TV audience makes of Him.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Baroness Warsi's sharia priorities

On 25th March, Government Minister for Faith and Communities Baroness Warsi chaired the inaugural meeting of the Foreign Office group on Freedom of Religion or Belief, "to discuss vision and strategy". Commenting on the first meeting of the new group, the Baroness said:
Freedom of religion or belief is a personal priority for me. Across the world, people are being singled out and hounded out simply for the faith they follow or the beliefs they hold. The persecution of people because of their faith or belief has, I believe, become a global crisis. I want to make sure we have the best advice available. This is why we have set up this new Advisory Group, made up of real experts in the field, and of those who are working every day in practical ways to defend the right to freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to working with them as we seek to move towards a world where no-one is persecuted for what they believe.
And she tweeted:

You will see that she found it "Thought provoking".

The following day, on 26th March, Government Minister for Faith and Communities Baroness Warsi chaired the inaugural meeting of the Global Islamic Finance and Investment Group, "to help Islamic finance grow globally, as well as developing London as one of the world’s leading Islamic finance centres". The Baroness said:
We expect the global market for Islamic financial services to experience significant growth over the coming years, but feedback from decision makers in the Middle East and South East Asia suggests there is a lack of awareness of the UK industry and that we should be doing more to promote the sector. There are also major opportunities to attract investment into the UK as demand for Islamic finance increases from private investors and Sovereign Wealth Funds.
And she tweeted:

And tweeted:

And tweeted:

And tweeted:

The Baroness re-tweeted the hope that "in 20 years we will look back at today's GIFIG as a major tipping point inshallah". She was palpably excited about "Huge opportunities for growth in #Islamicfinance asset management and the insurance sector", and "Identifying ways of bringing together public+private sectors to develop a mature #Islamicfinance market". She felt "we must find commonality between ethical finance and #Islamicfinance", and thought David Cameron's speech "was a huge boost to the future of #Islamicfinance". But the challenge remains: "How do you communicate #Islamicfinance to a global audience?" Because "Global industry looking to the #UK as a standard setter in #islamicfinance" so "@bankofengland the race is on! Will South Africa beat the UK in issuing a #Sukuk first?"

That's clearly a very important question. 

You see, "@bankofengland have determined that the Islamic Development Bank's Sukuk could be accepted as eligible re. Liquidity"; "The UK's planned issue of a Sukuk will be immensely helpful re. Liquidity #islamicfinance". Importantly, "This month the @bankofengland + the PRA, has published a consultation paper consistent w/ Basel Committee re. Liquidity". But we can be happy that "#UK the only major #EU jurisdiction to have authorised wholly or standalone sharia compliant banks", and the Baroness was clearly happy that "Many are here today".

But the challenges are profound: "What are the key regulatory challenges for #Islamicfinance institutions and how can we jointly overcome them?" You see, there are "Major opportunity for #Islamicfinance markets to join up with #UN principles of responsible investing", so thank Allah that we're "Discussing how world finance centres can work together more closely to develop global #Islamicfinance market", because "#Islamicfinance is part of a wider movement; a new more responsible, more inclusive capitalism". Apparently, this is "#thoughtleadership".

His Grace can't help feeling that if Baroness Warsi exuded as much fervour and zeal about the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East as she manages to conjure for sharia finance, HM Government might just begin to identify ways of alleviating the suffering, trauma and bloodshed that is occurring, as the Baroness observed last year, "on a biblical scale". It is utterly unacceptable that the only statement issued following the meeting of the Foreign Office group on Freedom of Religion or Belief was "Thought provoking". What are they going to do? When are they going to do it? How will foreign policy be geared toward the objective? 

It is good that we have this group, but its brief is vast, abstruse and discursive. There may very well be a pressing problem for Bahá'ís in Iran or the Serers in Senegal, and their suffering is no doubt profound. But until the Government establishes a group dedicated solely to the appalling plight of Christians across the Middle East, and acknowledges that this is invariably being meted out by Muslims, there is no hope of evangelic deliverance appearing anything like a political priority.

And so the Baroness's Twitter feed becomes a metaphor for her real priorities: the pursuit of religious liberty is worth a photo-tweet and is "thought provoking"; sharia finance is worth a photo-tweet and a stream of tweets, with identifiable plans, opportunities, determination, tipping points, communications and a prime-ministerial speech. This, apparently, is #thoughtleadership, and in that Foreign-Office realm of faith, the suffering God is subject to Mohammed's Mammon.  

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Clegg dismisses Andrew Symeou's Greek hell as "complete fantasy"

Yesterday's Clegg v Farage EU debate on LBC was more entertaining than enlightening. Each swatted the other with hard facts and some tedious stats, and both spouted one or two sentences they may come to regret. According to a snap poll taken by YouGov, Farage beat Clegg by 57% to 36%, which the BBC manage to interpret as a score draw.

But there was one brief exchange which irked His Grace beyond belief.

In the context of the European Arrest Warrant – the agreement which subsumes the English system of Common Law to the Napoleonic system, and permits British citizens to be extradited to another EU country, incarcerated in a foreign prison, refused an early appearance in court and required to prove that you have not committed the offence of which you stand accused – when Nigel Farage raised the appalling experience of Andrew Symeou, Nick Clegg dismissed it as "pure fantasy".

Mr Symeou spent almost a year in a hellish Greek prison accused of killing Jonathan Hiles on the island of Zante in 2007. He was extradited in July 2009 – an innocent young man callously separated from his family and shipped to face trial in a foreign court and rot in a squalid prison with convicted murderers and rapists. There was no presumption of innocence, no Habeas Corpus, no Trial by Jury. Our MPs at Westminster and MEPs in Brussels were powerless to intervene: judicial sovereignty had been ceded.

It took four years for his hearing to commence finally in 2011: the Greek authorities were not trial-ready when they issued the warrant, and nor are they obliged to be. Andrew Symeou even spent his 21st birthday behind bars. It was an appalling miscarriage of justice, and an unimaginable ordeal for the entire Symeou family.

And Nick Clegg grotesquely dismisses this as "complete fantasy".

Corpus Juris has brought an end to the presumption of innocence and the ancient rights of Trial by Jury and Habeas Corpus: unlike the UK, other EU countries are not obliged to charge you or bring you to court within 48 hours of arrest: indeed, you may apparently be detained indefinitely at the foreign prince’s pleasure. And now some Greek laboratory experimenting with your DNA may erroneously find you complicit in an alleged crime, even though your toe has never touched the dust of the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport. But when the Greek authorities demand your extradition by invoking the European Arrest Warrant, HM Government is absolutely powerless to resist.

None of this, Mr Clegg, is "complete fantasy".

Ask Andrew Symeou.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

World Vision: The Parable of the Gay Samaritan

On one occasion an expert in biblical ethics and Christian standards of sexual morality stood up to test World Vision. “Chief Exec,” he asked, “what must I do to sponsor an impoverished child in the proper Christian way that is honouring to God in accordance with His Word?”

“What is written on our website?” he replied. “How do you understand it?”

He answered, “‘Our Christian identity underpins everything that we do. Motivated by our faith, World Vision is committed to following the teaching and example of Jesus Christ in his identification with those who are poor, vulnerable or forgotten’; and, ‘Just 75p a day can free a child from the fear that poverty creates. Sponsorship keeps children protected and provides them with clean water, nutritious food, healthcare and education – everything a child needs to enjoy their childhood’.”

“You have answered correctly,” the Chief Exec replied. “Do this and the malnourished, diseased, trafficked and enslaved children of the world will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked the Chief Exec, “But what if one of your employees is gay and in a civil partnership? You see, I read in Christianity Today that you've changed your conditions of employment and now accept married gay dudes, who aren't actually married, you know, in God's eyes, but you say that abstinence outside of marriage remains a condition of employment, so how does that work?”

In reply the Chief Exec said: “A six-year-old starving boy and eight-year-old trafficked girl were going down from Djibouti to Hargeysa in Somaliland, when they were attacked by fanatical militia. They stripped the starving boy of his clothes, beat him, and then raped and mutilated the genitalia of the girl, and went away, leaving them both half dead. Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the children, he passed by on the other side. So too, Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, when he saw the children lying there, he walked on by. And also Denny Burk, professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, when he came to the place and saw them, passed by on the other side.

But a gay guy in a civil partnership, as he travelled, came to where the children were; and when he saw them, he took pity on them. He went to them and gave them bread and water, and bandaged the girl to stop her bleeding, hugging them both to comfort them. Then he carried the weeping girl and put the boy on his own bicycle, and brought them to a World Vision shelter and took care of them. The next day he took out $100 and donated it to the charity. ‘We must look after them,’ he said, ‘and I'm happy to reimburse World Vision for any lost sponsorship you may have as a result of your employing me.’

“Which of these do you think was a neighbour to the children who fell into the hands of the fanatical militia?”

The expert in biblical ethics and Christian standards of sexual morality replied, “The one who showed compassion and sponsored them.”

Jesus told him in his heart, “Go and do likewise.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

The hypocrisy and duplicity of the Law Society

Of course the guidance notes issued by The Law Society on the provision of Sharia-compliant wills do not represent a change in the law of England and Wales. No one said they did, but this seems to be the principal objection to the previous "overstated" article and the substantive assertion for it being a "non-story".

This is not just a professional trade body explaining how its members may best serve the interests of its Muslim clients within the current law. This is The Law Society of England and Wales adopting and propagating Islamic law even where it conflicts with human rights and equality legislation. Of course their recognition of Sharia-compliant wills does not confer legal right: it is for the courts to determine whether such anti-women, anti-gay, anti-kuffar, anti-illegitimate inequalities, if contested, may be enforced. But the recognition by The Law Society that such discrimination may be written into a will amounts to a de facto apologia for Sharia, and that is bound to deter all manner of gay/female/apostate/illegitimate Muslims from ever contesting a will in case it should result in community "pressure" to comply with the wishes of the deceased.

But this guidance is also not a "non-story" because it shows The Law Society to be hypocritical, duplicitous and fundamentally anti-Christian.

Two years ago they revoked a booking made by Christian Concern and others for a debate on the nature of marriage. It was part of a family values coalition, the World Congress of Families, and the colloquium was entitled ‘One man. One woman. Making the case for marriage for the good of society’.

Despite having previously agreed to host this conference at their HQ in Chancery Lane, the Law Society cancelled it at short notice and explained by email that the event “is contrary to our diversity policy, espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same-sex marriage”.

It must be observed that this new "diversity policy" was adopted before any change in the law.

Chief Executive of the Law Society Desmond Hudson said: “We are proud of our role in promoting diversity in the solicitors’ profession and felt that the content of this conference sat uncomfortably with our stance."

Funny, isn't it, that a Christian group seeking merely to debate the legal, hetero-normative and biblical view of marriage is contrary to The Law Society's diversity policy, "espousing as it does an ethos which is opposed to same-sex marriage", yet guidance issued by The Law Society on Sharia-compliant wills does not contravene its diversity policy, despite espousing, as it does, an ethos which manifestly discriminates against women, homosexuals and non-Muslims.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sharia law to be enshrined in British legal system

John Bingham reports in the Telegraph that Sharia law is to be enshrined in the legal system of England and Wales for the first time under guidelines for solicitors on drawing up “Sharia compliant” wills.

This isn't coming from agitating Muslims or Sharia-friendly legislators, but from the 200-year-old Law Society – the professional association that represents and governs the solicitors' profession and provides services and support to solicitors as well as serving as a sounding board for law reform. That the Law Society should issue guidance to its members which effectively creates a parallel legal system to that which has evolved over centuries is, as some lawyers have said, "astonishing".

Of course Muslims should be able to order their own inheritance affairs as they wish, but it should be in accordance with the law of the land, for in a liberal democracy there is one law and all are equal before it. What is quite shocking about this Sharia guidance is that it circumvents equality legislation by specifically denying women an equal share of the deceased's inheritance: “The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir of the same class,” it says. Thus do the sons prosper while the daughters live in penury: their only redemption is the dowry they attract on betrothal. There is also acknowledgement of polygamy, which is illegal in the UK. This is the Law Society of once-Christian England effectively facilitating the bartering of Muslim women like cattle. Equality can go to the lowest of the depths of Jahannam.

It is further reported that unbelievers and illegitimate children – "and even those who have been adopted" – may also be excluded from inheritance.

So the Law Society is not only upholding gender discrimination, but overt religious discrimination: "Anyone married in a church, or in a civil ceremony, could be excluded from succession under Sharia principles, which recognise only Muslim weddings for inheritance purposes."

They don't say anything about the inheritance entitlement of gay Muslim sons or lesbian daughters, but no doubt the Law Society bends to accommodate that particular sexuality discrimination, too.

All of this, according to Nicholas Fluck, President of The Law Society, promotes “good practice” in applying Islamic principles in the British legal system.

His Grace has long reported the efforts of Baroness Cox in combating Sharia-creep. And the former Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, has long warned us of the regressive nature of Sharia law and its irreconcilability to the English system of jurispridence.

Baroness Cox is of the view that the Law Society's guidance "violates everything that we stand for.” She said: "It would make the Suffragettes turn in their graves.” Bishop Michael is yet to speak, but in a sense he has already done so. He wrote back in 2008:
English law is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and, in particular, our notions of human freedoms derive from that tradition. In my view, it would be simply impossible to introduce a tradition, like Shari’a, into this Corpus without fundamentally affecting its integrity.

The Shari’a is not a generalised collection of dispositions. It is articulated in highly concrete codes called fiqh. It would have to be one or the other, or all, of these which would have to be recognised. All of these schools would be in tension with the English legal tradition on questions like monogamy, provisions for divorce, the rights of women, custody of children, laws of inheritance and of evidence. This is not to mention the relation of freedom of belief and of expression to provisions for blasphemy and apostasy.
Curiously, there is absolutely nothing about this guidance on the Law Society's website. Perhaps this ought to come as no surprise: the Telegraph reports that it was "quietly published this month and distributed to solicitors in England and Wales". But the subversion and covert manipulation are jaw-dropping:
It suggests deleting or amending standard legal terms and even words such as “children” to ensure that those deemed “illegitimate” are denied any claim over the inheritance. It recommends that some wills include a declaration of faith in Allah which would be drafted at a local mosque, and hands responsibility for drawing up some papers to Sharia courts. The guidance goes on to suggest that Sharia principles could potentially overrule British practices in some disputes, giving examples of areas that would need to be tested in English courts.

..“Non-Muslims may not inherit at all, and only Muslim marriages are recognised. Similarly, a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir, as the entitlement depends on a valid Muslim marriage existing at the date of death. This means you should amend or delete some standard will clauses.” It advises lawyers to draft special exclusions from the Wills Act 1837, which allows gifts to pass to the children of an heir who has died, because this is not recognised in Islamic law.
The growth of Sharia courts, councils and tribunals is properly a matter for the Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC MP. Those that are acting within the law may be monitored and their judgments appealed. But those which are operating unofficially, often within mosques, are now bolstered in their legitmacy by the Law Society.

It is utterly astonishing in England that centuries of Christian belief, custom and tradition must conform to every aspect of human rights legislation, while the imported beliefs, customs and traditions of Islam may trump those same rights. The integrity of our legal tradition is rooted in the moral and spiritual vision derived from the Bible. We abandon that at our peril.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Women’s ordained ministry has not stemmed CofE decline

In Westminster Hall this week the Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP led a short debate on the role and contribution of women to the ordained ministry of the Church of England. The debate celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ordination of the first women as priests in the CofE and looked ahead, both to the ongoing process to legislate for female bishops, as well as enabling them to sit in the House of Lords without delay.

Sir Tony Baldry MP responded in his capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, and contributions were made by Rt Hon Ben Bradshaw MP, Sir Peter Bottomley MP and Helen Goodman MP. The Equalities Minister Helen Grant MP was also present to hear the speeches. Sir Tony’s speech is reproduced in full below:

The Second Church Estates Commissioner (Sir Tony Baldry): I start by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) for initiating the debate and providing the House with an opportunity to celebrate the contribution over the past 20 years of ordained women clergy to the Church of England. I also thank her for providing me with an opportunity to advise the House on where the Church of England now stands in respect of women bishops, which I shall do later. We are all grateful for the presence and support during the debate of the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant).

Sir Peter Bottomley: If you will allow me, Mrs Brooke, I wish to apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I meant to rise to catch your eye after she had, and I apologise for jumping up when I did. If she had spoken, three men and three women would have spoken in the debate, which would have been the perfect balance.

Sir Tony Baldry: That is a timely intervention. For anyone reading the debate in Hansard, I should explain that, although I am effectively responding to the debate, I am not a member of the Government. I am by statute appointed by the Crown as Second Church Estates Commissioner, so I am accountable neither to the Government nor to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Indeed, as the Bishop of London pointed out to me shortly after I was appointed, I am, like the Dean of Westminster, accountable only to God and the Queen—that is how he put it. This is not a ministerial response, then, but one I make in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden was absolutely right to say that the ordination of women has unleashed an appetite in other women to come forward for ordination. She was also right to set out some of the many qualitative contributions that women have made to ordained ministry and, indeed, the pivotal role of many women clergy. We were also fortunate this afternoon to have heard some excellent and helpful speeches from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), all of whom are members of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the Committee of both Houses that considers Church of England measures when they come to Parliament—as indeed is my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden.

The right hon. Member for Exeter was absolutely right in making clear the urgency and effectiveness with which the Archbishop of Canterbury grasped the issue of making progress towards sorting out the General Synod on the issue of women bishops after its very unhappy vote. The Archbishop clearly recognised that there was a need to get a grip on that issue and get a grip he did.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is going back to Exeter this weekend, and I hope he takes back the good news from yesterday’s Budget that, between all of us, we were able to secure from the Chancellor £20 million towards repair of cathedrals. If I may say so, that indicates that the Church of England is taken seriously by Government. There is a recognition that it is sometimes difficult to raise money to repair the electrics, or the roof or guttering. That fund is meant to be put towards such problems and will be welcome news, I hope, to cathedral cities such as Exeter.

Mr Bradshaw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his letter outlining the details of that fund—it was in my postbag this morning. I congratulate him on the successful lobbying he has clearly conducted with the Government to deliver that support.

Sir Tony Baldry: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for those comments. It was a team effort. We also have to thank Lord Cormack in the other place, who brought all the deans together, who then made their views known to the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey). In due course, he made his views known to the Treasury. It was a good example, as so often happens in this place, of the House working across parties consensually and collaboratively to secure a result that we all wanted to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West, who is the church warden of St Margaret’s, was absolutely right in his comments that we all now see women priests as normal and natural, and that we all hope to see a situation in which women as bishops will equally be seen as normal and natural.

The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, who has been a great supporter of women in the Church, appropriately made the point that the best realisation of the hopes of all those who had supported the ordination of women priests, way back when she had done so in the 1980s and earlier, is the work that women priests are now doing in our parishes.

On 11 November 1992, the General Synod passed the measure that would enable women to become priests in the Church of England. That measure then received parliamentary approval in both Houses in 1993 and it received Royal Assent on 5 November 1993. On 12 March 1994, at Bristol cathedral, the first 32 women were ordained as priests to minister to the cure of souls in the Church of England. It had been possible for women to be ordained as deacons in the Church of England since 1986, but it was not until 1992 that the General Synod was able to agree the measure necessary to enable women to be ordained as priests. Since then, some 4,200 women have been ordained as priests.

Today, some 23%, or nearly a quarter, of stipendiary ministers—full-time paid clergy—are women. Just over half, or 53%, of self-supporting ministers are women. At present, some 1,245 people in England are training to become Anglican priests and of those, 594, or 48%, are women.

Therefore, it can be seen that over the past 20 years women clergy have played an important part in the life of the Church and of our nation’s life, and over the coming 20 years, I anticipate that the proportion of clergy who are women will grow. With the exception of women as bishops, which I shall say a little more on shortly, women already make a much valued contribution to every part of the Church.

There are now five women deans of cathedrals—in Birmingham, St Edmundsbury, Salisbury, Guildford and York—and of course, as has been said, Canon Jane Hedges, one of the canons whom we know well from her work at Westminster abbey, will shortly be leaving to become dean of Norwich. There are 16 women archdeacons and 51 women in the House of Clergy, where they make up 27.5% of the House of Clergy. One finds women as stipendiary canons in 16 of the 44 cathedrals and women clergy as chaplains in hospitals, hospices, prisons, schools and universities. As we know well in this House, we are fortunate to have a woman as the Speaker’s Chaplain—Rose Hudson-Wilkin. In the armed forces, four women are serving as padres or chaplains, and of those appointed as honorary chaplains to the Queen, seven are women.

Mr Bradshaw: On the Speaker’s Chaplain, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Speaker deserves a lot of congratulation for making that appointment? It was greeted terribly by some Conservative forces in the media at the time, and she has turned out to be the most fantastic chaplain to this House.

Sir Tony Baldry: Yes. I entirely endorse those comments and I think that the House would feel that the Speaker’s Chaplain has done what hopefully chaplains do in every institution. As part of the Church of England, the national Church, they are chaplains to everyone involved in the institution. Rose Hudson-Wilkin has made, and is very much making, the Speaker’s Chaplaincy a chaplaincy for everyone working in the Palace of Westminster. We all saw that particularly when—I think for the first time probably since the Reformation, or indeed ever—the Archbishop of Canterbury came to take holy communion in the Crypt Chapel on Ash Wednesday, and people were present from both Houses and from every walk of life in which people work and serve in Westminster. One felt that this was a community coming together to worship.

Women priests are now involved in every part and aspect of the Church’s life, from Lambeth palace where two of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s close team are women priests, to parish priests up and down the country. As time goes on, I think everyone expects that the proportion of women as cathedral deans and archdeacons will grow.

On Saturday 3 May, to mark and celebrate the 20th anniversary of women as clergy, there will be a gathering of ordained women clergy and others at Westminster abbey in the morning, followed by a procession to St Paul’s cathedral, where there will be a service of celebration for 20 years of women’s ordained ministry. I know that many similar services are planned across the country. For example, on 7 June, the diocese of Oxford—the diocese in which my constituency is situated—is holding a service of celebration in Christchurch.

The diocese of Oxford has always had a strong record of ordaining women, starting with 67 women who were ordained in six separate services in 1994. Of those 67 women who were ordained priests in Oxford 20 years ago, nine are still in active ministry in the diocese and many more, although formally retired, still hold permission to preach and are continuing to support parishes.

Among those first women priests still working full time in the diocese of Oxford, we have a school chaplain, an area dean, who has just been appointed our newest archdeacon, a university college chaplain, and priests in rural and urban parishes. Of the four archdeacons in the diocese of Oxford, three are women, and the diocese has seen women ordained in every sphere of ministry. There are ordained women on the staff of all three theological colleges in the diocese. The military bases in the diocese have had women chaplains, as have prisons and detention centres.

From those first 67 women ordained 20 years ago, there are now more than 250 ordained women currently ministering in the diocese of Oxford, and I am glad to say that many more are coming forward to offer themselves for priestly ministry. Every diocese could tell a similar story of the achievement of women over the past 20 years in ordained ministry. It is appropriate to reflect not only on the significant quantitative contribution over the past 20 years that women have made to ordained ministry, but on the qualitative contributions that women in ordained ministry have made to the life and work of the Church.

It is also important to recognise that there are still challenges. For example, there are still relatively few young women offering themselves for ordination—those coming straight from university—and a significant number of the current women priests are self-supporting; in other words, they are non-stipendiary.

In anticipation of this debate, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, I wrote to several people asking them whether they felt there were observations I should include in the debate, and one of them was the Speaker’s Chaplain. Rose Hudson-Wilkin made the following observations, and as she is our chaplain, I think they are worth sharing with the House:

“As we go forward, the Church must stop leaving women to feel ‘second best’; We are not tainted and the Church leadership must ensure that they do not embed a theology of taint in their keen desire to embrace all. Women must not suddenly become the scapegoat for all the ills of the Church (e.g. talk of the ‘feminisation of the church’. When we were all male leadership, the numbers of women were still higher than men).

We should not be talking of ‘fast forwarding women’—the reality is that if some of these women had been men, they would have been in senior roles! The Church of England needs to embrace the gifts that men and women bring as the future flourishing of the Church depends on this. All dioceses should look at their senior management team and begin to ask questions about what is preventing women from being included…As a Church, we must embrace unconditionally, the reality that women in Leadership is with us to stay (we should not be using the language of discernment)…I am aware of women who go to challenging parishes with very few people and through sheer dedication and the work of the Holy Spirit, make a difference.”

Not surprisingly, those supportive of women’s ordained ministry have for a long time been supportive of women being consecrated as bishops in the Church of England. As the House will know, this has been a long process, with much debate in the Church and in the General Synod. The process has not been without its setbacks and disappointments for those supportive of women being consecrated as bishops in the Church of England, particularly in the General Synod last November, when the appropriate Measure failed by a very small number of votes in the House of Laity.

Following that, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited Canon David Porter of Coventry cathedral to involve, in a process of dialogue and mediation, various groups in the Church that were concerned about both the theology and the practicalities of women being consecrated as bishops. I would hope that in that process of dialogue and mediation, the concerns of every group, including WATCH and others, were listened to and considered and that efforts were made to resolve them. It resulted in the bringing forward of a much simpler, four-clause Measure, which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the General Synod at its recent February meeting.

The General Synod also agreed that dioceses should have three months in which to decide and report their views on the new Measure. So far, 13 dioceses have met and voted on the new Measure. All have overwhelmingly endorsed the new Measure. Indeed, in the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, there was not a single vote against the Measure in any of the houses of the diocese.

Last time, 42 out of 44 dioceses supported the Measure. This time, for practical reasons, it will not be possible for the diocese in Europe to meet in time, but if the majority of the dioceses do support the Measure, it will return to the General Synod in July. I hope that if at that General Synod the Measure succeeds in obtaining two-thirds support in each of the three Houses—the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity—the Measure can be referred to the Ecclesiastical Committee of both Houses as soon as possible. I am sure that that Committee will want to meet as speedily as possible if and when a Measure comes before it and I hope that, if it finds the Measure expedient and approves it, the Measure can then go before each House separately for approval. Every indication that I have had from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House of Commons is that the House will do everything to make proper provision for a debate that is as timely as possible when the time arises. I hope that in way we can have the Measure fully and properly considered, approved and passed into law well before Christmas and that we will see the first women bishops consecrated shortly thereafter.

Right hon. and hon. Members have asked about the situation of women in the House of Lords. This House will not be surprised to learn that I have been discussing that issue with the Leader of the House of Lords and the Leader of the House of Commons. Of course, the position of bishops in the House of Lords—the Lords Spiritual—is that they are Members of the House of Lords. It is therefore a question of who is summoned to Parliament. It is not something that can simply be resolved by a Measure of the General Synod; it will require primary legislation. However, I think that it would be fair for me to summarise the position of the Government, as I understand it, thus. In terms of primary legislation, they will seek to facilitate as speedily as possible what the Church of England feels would be most appropriate in these circumstances. I think that discussions are now taking place within the Church of England. I understand that the Lord Bishop of Leicester, who convenes the Lords Spiritual, is in negotiations with various groups to give some thought to how best that can be achieved.

People have to understand that there are suffragan bishops and there are diocesan bishops. Not all the diocesan bishops sit in the House of Lords; some do so on the basis of seniority. Several issues need to be considered, but I am confident that as and when the Church of England comes forward with a proposal, the Government will give it the most serious and positive consideration.

Helen Goodman: If and when the proposal is made, Her Majesty’s Opposition will be as co-operative as possible in expediting it.

Sir Tony Baldry: That is a very helpful intervention because by definition, given the parliamentary timetable, it is likely to come towards the end of this Parliament and, as all those of us who have been here for some time know, the usual channels, for understandable reasons, tend to get a bit jumpy as we move towards Parliament being prorogued and so on. However, I think that everyone—including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who at Prime Minister’s questions made this very clear—wants the consecration of women as bishops to happen at the earliest possible moment and does not want that to be in some way overshadowed by acrimony or a debate about their not being properly represented in the House of Lords.

I make no pretence of seeking to be a theologian, but I have always been struck by the observation of St Paul that “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain”.

The resurrection is central and crucial to Christianity, and at the time of the crucifixion, the disciples, for understandable reasons, had fled. It was the women who stood witness to Christ’s crucifixion. It was the women who found that the stone was rolled away, and it was to Mary Magdalene that the resurrected Christ first revealed himself.

I quote from the New Testament: “Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre, And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain. And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him. And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away. Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master. Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. Mary Magdalene came and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord, and that he had spoken these things unto her.”

The last 20 years have demonstrated that women priests are well able to proclaim the risen Christ throughout the land and, by their ministry, have made and continue to make an enormous contribution to the life of the Church, community and the country. Today’s debate and all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed, from both sides of the House, have demonstrated and confirmed how much women’s ordained ministry is valued and appreciated.


Which is all very nice.

But it hasn't done a thing to stem the decline in weekly church attendance (full stats HERE). Dr Bev Botting, Head of Research and Statistics for the Archbishops’ Council said: “These statistics for 2012 show that weekly attendance over the past decade has not changed significantly."

But they do represent a significant change on attendance in the 1960s. Women's ministry may have brought equality and justice, but it has not - as we were so often assured - heralded renewal or revival.

Baroness and Supreme Court Judge Brenda Hale hasn't put her finger on the absent pulse of the problem, either. The Washington Post reports that she attributes the decline of the Established Church to its being so utterly undemanding: she told a recent conference at Yale Law School: “It has no dietary laws, no dress codes for men or women, and very little that its members can say is actually required of them by way of observance.”

That is a bizarre assertion: freedom from the law does not lead to church decline, corporate shame or spiritual death. Freedom from the law - be it dietary, dress or aggressive notions of equality - leads to knowledge in Christ: a glad response to God's work and the setting aside of idolatrous worldviews (Rom 1:18). The Church does not exist to convey the laws of man, and neither should it be preoccupied with the fads and obsessions of the age. Only when the focus is the Kingdom of God and the eschatological reality of the fulfilled vocation will we witness the Church's freedom to engage in decisive acts of truth-telling, and the individual's freedom to manifest a community of love. Growth will then take care of itself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ukip will disestablish the Church of England

To all those Christians - including the many thousands who daily frequent His Grace's blog - who were considering voting Ukip in the imminent Euro elections (or next year's General Election), pause your fervour.

Nigel Farage has spent many years stroking your troubled forehead and luring you into believing that he and his party understand your concerns about the systematic erosion of our Judaeo-Christian heritage and the perpetual political diminution of Christian moral values. Indeed, he has said:
“We need a much more muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Yes, we’re open to different cultures but we have to defend our values. That’s the message I want to hear from the Archbishop of Canterbury and from our politicians. Anything less is appeasement of the worst kind.”
Cristina Odone herself was impressed:
Yet he speaks not as a defender of the faith — he ventures to church only four or five times a year — but of “our identity”.

..“We have,” he says, “some very mixed values”. These include the “betrayal” of the family. “This has been the most anti-family government we have ever seen. The very fact that they pushed for gay marriage, and thought that it was important at a time when not even Stonewall was campaigning for it, shows you their twisted sense of priorities.” He is “100 per cent” supportive of stay-at-home mothers.
And His Grace was attentive:
There are votes here. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them. Very many Christians across the denominations feel betrayed by the main political parties: their "identity" is being systematically assaulted, and the occasional invitation to No10 for prominent vicars, bishops and leading Christian commentators no longer quite cuts it.

..While religion can play a role in promoting moral conduct, there is no longer agreement on which institutions are morally capable of implementing the rules of justice. Some secularising "modernisers" repudiate the idea that the Christian religion can any longer be a unifying force for Britain, but it must be observed that it has bequeathed to us our system of laws, administration of justice and our understanding of liberty. Only Ukip seems to understand and appreciate this.

Carry on, Nigel. You're doing God's work.
Or maybe he's not.

To the chagrin of some, His Grace has long been of the opinion that same-sex unions are a matter for the state and that religious groups ought to be free to decide for themselves whether to bless them or not. He is of the view that continuing opposition to this development is futile: that the battle is lost, and the development irreversible. Marriage is now ontologically distinct from Holy Matrimony, and we must get used to the new context and definition. His Grace therefore agrees with (and welcomes) Nigel Farage's "U-turn" on this: it is absurd for a mainstream party to pledge to dissolve thousands of legally-contracted unions. It is not only absurd; it would be a manifest injustice. There is a conservative argument to be made for such unions, and, indeed, a theological one. We may not all agree with either reasoning, but equality has become an immutable and infallible social doctrine, and Christians ought to adopt the vernacular lest they end up speaking Greek.

But Farage has now gone further. According to the Telegraph, he has announced that the traditional Christian wedding ceremony "should be stripped of its legal status". He suggests that "couples who want to wed in church should have to undertake two ceremonies, one recognised by the state and one a religious ceremony."

As the Telegraph notes, this would be a "French-style reform", and follows a similar demand from LibDem Justice Minister Simon Hughes. Both make an appeal for what would effectively be the disestablishment of the Church of England. Farage said: "We propose an augmentation of the civil partnership awarding it equal status to marriage and enabling it to be available to all. We would rather the legal and religious endorsements of wedlock are separate.”

This is, of course, the policy throughout most of the secular European Union. Indeed, Farage is harmonising Ukip policy to the EU norm. It is the essence of the French ‘laïcité’, which has no easy translation into English: it is not quite ‘secularism’ - as frequently defined by the clericalism it opposes - but more a term for the separation of church and state. Intrinsic to it are various Enlightenment notions of liberté, including freedom of thought, conscience, expression and religion. And it is predicated upon the post-Enlightenment settlement of the division between the private realm of spiritual belief and the public realm of political policy. Laïcité is a founding principle of the French Constitution, which states in its First Article: ‘La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale.

Far from offering a "muscular defence of our Judaeo-Christian heritage", Ukip now offers a notion of ‘positive secularism’, and Farage is going much further along the route toward disestablishment than any other political leader, including self-declared atheists Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. Ukip, which was wont to parade itself as Defender of the Faith, now seeks the separation of church and state while generously and condescendingly creating space within the public realm for religion. Under their benevolent aegis, one may be married in a castle, golf club or hot-air balloon. But if you wish to marry in a church, your service of Holy Matrimony must be followed (or preceded) by a 'neutral' secular ceremony of égalité for légalité.

Thus does Nigel Farage and Ukip embrace EU enlightened secularism, to the manifest detriment of our Judaeo-Christian tradition and heritage.

There were votes here. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of them. This announcement will do Ukip far, far more damage than one eccentric councillor who blamed the floods on gay marriage.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury unite to combat slavery and human trafficking

Some ecumenical pursuits are laughably delusory; others are supremely vital. The fight against modern slavery and human trafficking is of the latter category, and ought to unite Christians across all denominations.

It is therefore a cause of great joy that the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Pope Francis have given their backing to a ground-breaking ecumenical initiative to combat this evil. The agreement to help eradicate an injustice affecting up to 29 million people was co-signed today by the Archbishop of Canterbury's Representative to the Holy See, Archbishop Sir David Moxon, the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science, Bishop Sanchez Sorondo and Mr Andrew Forrest, the founder of the large international philanthropic anti-slavery organisation from Perth, Western Australia 'Walk Free'.

In a statement the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
“Anglicans and Roman Catholics have, since 1966, been in serious and prayerful dialogue with each other, to seek the unity that Christ wills for his church in the world. Jesus has said 'May they all be one', and this imperative has inspired and sustained the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, and the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, for many years as an act of faith.

“We are now being challenged in these days to find more profound ways of putting our ministry and mission where our faith is; and being called into a deeper unity on the side of the poor and in the cause of the justice and righteousness of God. For this reason, the new Global Freedom Network is being created to join the struggle against modern slavery and human trafficking from a faith base, so that we might witness to God's compassion and act for the benefit of those who are abducted, enslaved and abused in this terrible crime.

“Many are already engaged in the struggle and we join them with much to learn as well as much to contribute. All are called to join common cause to end this crime and suffering. The more we share the pain and oppression of the poor and suffering in the name of God, the more God will draw us closer to each other, because we will need each other’s strength and support to make the kind of difference that is needed. We are struggling against evil in secret places and in deeply entrenched networks of malice and cruelty. No one of us is strong enough, but together we are ready for the challenge God is placing before us today, and we know that he will strengthen us so that all people may live in freedom and dignity.”
Salvation is not only concerned with eschatology and eternity: it can be realised in a believer's 'freedom' and redemption here on earth, as the first-fruits of what we anticipate and hope for. The freedom we have in Christ includes the removal of psychological barriers - liberation from "the bondage of the will". St Paul often contrasts the gospel of liberty with the law that binds, because Christ came to deliver us from the incapacity to obey. The law simply reinforces our impotence, rendering us nervous paralytics.

To be free we must be able to respond as we wish. Those who are bound in will or restricted in action may be free in spirit, but they cannot be free to participate in the fullness of the created order: in Christ, we are no longer slaves, but sons and daughters. This means not only that we can do now what we could not do before, but that we may do now what we were not permitted to do before.

This effort by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope is founded upon a clear scriptural principle - freedom for captives. These modern-day slaves will be liberated from the living death of isolation, depression, shame, abuse and hatred. They will given a new life in creation and a worthy place in community. They are walking side-by-side in the footsteps of William Wilberforce and giving meaning to the term 'humanity'.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Disremembering Syria

WARNING: This article contains graphic images. 


The media have moved on.

Ukraine got invaded; Bob Crow died; Cheryl Cole was re-hired for the X-Factor; Tony Benn died; and Nigel Farage had an affair - allegedly.

We are now three years into Syria's civil war: some 150,000 are estimated to have died, with millions destitute and homeless, encamped in squalor somewhere we don't particularly care about. Whole cities and towns have been destroyed, historical treasures looted and churches bombed and burned to the ground.

Bishop Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, wrote in the Telegraph last week: in Syria, where St Paul found his faith, many churches stand empty, targets for bombardment and desecration. Aleppo, where I have been bishop for 25 years, is devastated. We have become accustomed to the daily dose of death and destruction, but living in such uncertainty and fear exhausts the body and the mind.

We hear the thunder of bombs and the rattle of gunfire, but we don’t always know what is happening. It’s hard to describe how chaotic, terrifying and psychologically difficult it is when you have no idea what will happen next, or where the next rocket will fall. Many Christians cope with the tension by being fatalistic: that whatever happens is God’s will.

..our faith is under mortal threat, in danger of being driven into extinction, the same pattern we have seen in neighbouring Iraq.

..Most people here are now unemployed, and – without work – daily life lacks a purpose. People have no way to wash and their clothes are ragged. We have almost no electricity, and depression reigns at night. But when the darkness comes, I take courage from the fact that it was not always like this.
And he ended with an exhortation and plea:
St Paul’s virtues of faith, hope and love have rarely been in greater need, or under greater pressure, as we face the fourth year of this war. But I have faith in God’s protection, hope for our future, and my love of this country and all its peoples will outlast this war. I must believe that, and I pray that you in Britain will stand with us as long as our struggles endure.
Christians are being systematically slaughtered and "cleansed" from Syria and vast swathes of the Middle East, and no one gives a damn. Some 2.5 million Syrians are queuing to register for refugee status in neighbouring countries, and in excess of 6.5 million people are displaced within. It is a sea of unimaginable suffering.

In case you missed it the first time:
WARNING: This article contains graphic images. 


Seriously: you have been warned.

It's easy to turn off: honestly, who can be bothered to make sense of the labyrinthine religio-political morass? There's Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front, not to mention Fatah al-Islam, Jund al-Sham, the Syria Free Army and the Abdullah Azzam Brigade. And let's throw in Jund al-Aqsa, the Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, Idlib Martyrs' Brigade, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade, Army of Mujahedeen, Ghuraba al-Sham, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria.

And it doesn't stop there. God alone knows who fights for the true cause of Allah.

And for the first time in many decades, Muslims are extracting Jizya from Christians - a per capita tax imposed upon dhimmis on pain of conversion or death. Haaretz reports:
..the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation. The agreement permits the Christians to follow their religious practices, but they are prohibited from building new churches or rebuilding destroyed ones.

..In return, the Christians are to be granted protection of life and property, but should they violate the terms presented, this protection is revoked.
WARNING: This article contains graphic images. 


That's the third warning you've received, so please don't complain.

What happens to those Christians who refuse to kiss the Qur'an, embrace Mohammed or voluntarily exile themselves from the land?

They are imprisoned, tortured and raped, or forced to kneel, with their hands and feet bound, in a public ceremony of beheading. Some Muslims are even reported to wash their hands in the blood.

Then there's this young girl:

It looks like a ghoulish scene from The Exorcist. Apparently she was bound, raped, and tortured with flesh being cut from her breast. A crucifix was then rammed down her throat.

One instinctively inclines to believe this picture to be a photoshopped fake, and it may very well be: it certainly appears to have been doing the rounds for a while, but no one has managed to establish the original source.

But don't waste too much of your time questioning or querying its veracity: that would be a cynical deflection. The point is that this sort of appalling savagery and barbarity is being inflicted on our brothers and sisters in Syria right now, today. If they refuse or are unable to pay the Jizya, they must convert or die. Persecution and martyrdom are the price they pay for witnessing to the Way, the Truth and the Life. We in the West can only glimpse an image of their horror. The least we can do is pray for them, and, as Bishop Antoine pleads, stand with them for as long as their struggles endure.

UPDATE: 17 March 2014

Quite incredibly, despite the politest of requests not to be deflected from the reality of the plight of Syria's Christians, His Grace has been besieged with emails and tweets informing him that the image above is, as he suspected and, indeed, clearly stated, a fake

Well, this one isn't:

And if you're not satisfied with the veracity of that, here's a video of the public beheading of three men, one of whom was a Roman Catholic priest.

WARNING: The video includes extremely graphic content

Friday, March 14, 2014

Q. When is free speech not free speech?

Q. When is free speech not free speech?

A. When it's on a BBC3 programme called 'Free Speech', and the topic is "Britain’s first and we think only gay Muslim drag queen", and the producers decide to broadcast from a mosque.

The short film above was screened to the audience, and then the presenter declared: "We were going to debate that question but today after speaking to the mosque they have expressed deep concerns with having this discussion here. The mosque were happy for us to play that video and we will talk about it on our next programme on March 25th. So we’ll move on to our next question."

Deep concerns?

Since when have the "deep concerns" of the religious inhibited the BBC's fervent advocacy for homomania?

But there wasn't a whimper of objection from the liberals and lefties and equality fanatics who were on the panel (and there was quite a few). And 'Free Speech' is supposedly "the show which makes your voice heard in the national conversation".

Unless, it seems, if you're a homosexual Muslim.

Of course, homophobia within Muslim communities is taboo: everyone knows that Islam isn’t particularly gay-friendly, but our predominantly white, PC, liberal political class won’t even debate the issue. It is the ultimate conflict in the eternal quest for supremacy in the equality hierarchy. Peter Tatchell and his disciples are more than happy to storm the pulpit of Canterbury Cathedral or picket outside Westminster Cathedral, but you tend not to see him knocking on the doors of Finsbury Park Mosque or railing against Muslim homophobia in Leicester, Bradford or Tower Hamlets.

To do so, of course, might be deemed ‘racist’, and white liberals don’t want to be tarnished with that particular brush. Only, it seems, Muslims may challenge the gay-rights zeitgeist without the risk of being called homophobic.

Issues of race, identity and sexuality tend to rouse the passions. When liberalism confronts cultural tradition and religious conformity, political conflict is inevitable. We all know that the Church of England will eventually be crushed (unless it is disestablished), and dissenting Christians will be vilified for their bigotry and intolerance (as His Grace frequently endures). But the ascendant gay lobby ignores the immutable orthodoxy of the Mosque of England at its peril. The MCB is not as benign as the CofE. There is no tolerance of gays or lesbians in any mainstream Muslim community: persecution, torture and even murder (ie 'honour killing') are rife.

If theological opposition to same-sex marriage renders some churches virulently homophobic, then the mosques are manifestly even more so. But their ‘deep concerns’ are, of course,  entirely rational, and their morality revered as a divine duty for the common good. The hypocrisy and inequality are sickening.

The Telegraph asserts: "It’s not the BBC’s job to pander to censorship or prejudice." The Spectator says this "is a good example of why the channel deserves to be shut down". Breitbart London described it as “an excellent example of how and why the BBC fails to do its job properly.” The Guardian, however, simply reports the facts, expressing no editorial view whatsoever.

It really ought to come as no surprise to any reasonable person that the mosque authorities did not want this topic debated and broadcast from their private premises. It is, after all, a place of worship.

But can you imagine the outpouring of BBC-revulsion, Guardian-contempt and lefty-liberal-odium if the 'Free Speech' topic had been same-sex marriage and the censorious host a church?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In appreciation of the Lord Bishop of Chester

His Grace got it in the neck quite a lot yesterday, following his post on the lack of behind-the-scenes communication between bishops and politicians: apparently it is okay to bash the lefty bishops who wrote to the Mirror about food-banks, but the Bishop of Chester did not merit the criticism. As one communicant wrote: "Your comment on Bishop Forster is unfair and unworthy. He is one of the few Bishops who speaks in a conservative way and amazingly for a bishop in a biblical way." And a regular reader emailed: "I was most disturbed to see you sully the valuable contribution of the Bishop of Chester on the issue of family and taxation.."

Which is rather bemusing, because nowhere were the Bishop's faithful works or personal beliefs criticised: the post was concerned solely with the communication (or apparent lack of it) between bishops and ministers of state, and the subsequent unseemly Church v State spats that appear in the (usually) left-wing press.

His Grace apologises if he picked the wrong bishop, and would like it to be noted that the Lord Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev'd Dr Peter Forster, is one of the longest-serving bishops amongst the current Lords Spiritual. He has had a long-standing concern over the way in which family life and marriage are supported in the UK, and has campaigned consistently for the recognition of marriage in the tax system. He has talked and written since 2000 about the immense social consequences of Britain's failure to do this, including highlighting the impact on work incentives for one-earner couples via the Effective Marginal Tax Rate.

He wrote an eloquent and evidence-based foreword to CARE’s latest report on the taxation of families. The charity highlighted quotes from this in a press release (to which His Grace was not party), which they headed: "Osborne’s personal allowance policy is failing families". It seems to His Grace that this was bound to embroil the Bishop of Chester in a 'Bishop v Chancellor' scuffle: indeed, going rather ungraciously for "Osborne" seems a rather purposeful provocation.

Yesterday, Bishop Peter chaired and hosted a briefing for parliamentarians on CARE’s new research on the treatment of families within the tax system. It was also attended by the (mainstream) media, think-tanks and others with specialist expertise. His Grace hears that the Bishop shared his passion and knowledge on the subject, and it is undoubtedly the case that he has worked hard on this issue in Parliament, engaging with ministers over many years. Some recent examples of this work include:
10 Feb 2011
The Bishop of Chester secured a 2.5-hr debate on the role of marriage and support for marriage in British society in the House of Lords, in which he called for the Government to strengthen marriage and take action to implement transferable allowances. You can read his speech HERE.

9 March 2011
The Bishop of Chester hosted a briefing for parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians on ‘the taxation of families 2009/10’ in Parliament.

11 October 2012
The Bishop of Chester secured a 2.5-hr debate on Child Development in which he called for the Government to implement its transferable allowance tax plans for married couples. The speech can be read HERE.

12 December 2012
The Bishop of Chester hosted a briefing for parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians on ‘The taxation of families – international comparisons 2011’ for which he provided the foreword.

11 March 2014
The Bishop of Chester hosted a briefing for parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians on ‘The taxation of families – international comparisons 2012’ for which he provided the foreword
It is manifestly evident that Bishop Peter does pick up the phone to MPs, ministers and secretaries of state. As the ChurchState parliamentary team also tweeted: "Often they do (phone ministers). And write. And speak in Parliament. Doesn't always amount to a good headline though..."

And that was the point His Grace was trying to make: there is no doubt that when these stories appear in the press, the impression given is one of a total lack of communication or of a failure to hear what the other side is saying, both of which impair perceptions and hinder mission. If you put out a press release targeting "Osborne" and have a bishop associated with your work, as sure as night follows day you can expect this to be portrayed as a 'turbulent priest' story.

Nevertheless, His Grace appears to have caused some offence to Bishop Peter's admirers, so, by way of amends and in admiration and appreciation of the Bishop's work, here below is the full text of his Foreword for CARE's report The Taxation of Families – International Comparisons 2012:

As I write this foreword, I can see and hear the birds building their nests in preparation for the spring. Nature is hard wired to give priority to the nurturing of the next generation. Human beings may occupy a special place in nature, but we are not above and beyond its intrinsic dynamic. Yet we have seen in the UK a persistent tendency to marginalise children and their parents financially.

This report, which is concerned with looking at how different families in the OECD fare in the tax and benefits system, is the seventh such review that CARE has published.

Once again, CARE continues to impress with the breadth and depth of its analysis, which this year has improved yet further. The evidence they present should be carefully considered and acted upon by policy makers, politicians, academics, industry professionals and think tanks alike.

Even when tax credits are taken into account, this year’s report demonstrates that the tax burden on one-earner married families is still significantly above the OECD average and rising. Between last year’s report – which looked at 2011 – and this year’s – which looks at 2012 - the burden rose from being 42% greater than the OECD average to being 45% greater. More disturbing than this, however, is what has happened to the tax burden on a one-earner married family with two children on average wage as a proportion of that placed on a single person on the same wage. In 2011 we were already placing a tax burden on such a family that represented 74% of the tax burden placed on a single person on the same wage, when the OECD average was just 54%.

In 2012, though, we broke through the 80% barrier, moving ever closer to placing the same tax burdens on families as we do on single people.

We cannot promote such clear fiscal individualism and not expect to reap the consequences. Far from delivering policy solutions to fix ‘broken Britain’ it would seem that the government, at least in 2012, was more interested in exacerbating our social brokenness however inadvertently by promoting fragmentation. This was a far cry from David Cameron’s promise in his 2010 General Election manifesto to make Britain the most family friendly country in Europe!

Then there is the question of work incentives. In 2012, a one-earner married couple with two children and an income between £12,559 and £35,883 would have had an effective marginal tax rate of 73%, meaning that the family would have kept only 27p of every extra pound earned. The same goes for single parents with children.

This is particularly troubling state of affairs because, at 73%, our effective marginal tax rate is actually the worst in the OECD. We are, as such, the last developed nation to be able to lay claim to the title, ‘aspiration nation,’ at least as far as one-earner married families are concerned. As someone who believes in both the importance of supporting the family and in the intrinsic God given value of work (whether it be paid or unpaid), I find it deeply troubling that families where one spouse is in full time paid employment and the other is undertaking unpaid care can be treated in such a manner.

Moving away from 2012, the report makes it plain that there is one ray on hope on the horizon. In his 2013 Autumn Statement the Chancellor committed to introduce transferable allowances by April 2015. Although the commitment is to a very modest partially transferable allowance, it lays a crucial foundation upon which we can build to challenge the damaging effects of a tax system that between 2000 and 2015 treated Britain as a mass of individuals and had no regard for family responsibility. It comes not a moment too soon.

Rt. Rev Dr Peter Forster
The Lord Bishop of Chester
February 2014

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Why don't bishops just pick up the phone to ministers?

Another bishop has bashed the Government. This time it's the Rt Rev'd Dr Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, who is of the view that stay-at-home mothers and carers are being discriminated against in the tax and benefits system. And so The Independent gleefully conveys the damning critique: "married couples with only one earner keep less of every extra pound they earn in the UK than in any other country in the developed world."

This follows hard upon the 27 bishops (actually, 35) who clobbered the Coalition over the rise of food-banks: "Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry," they wrote to the Daily Mirror.

And let us not forget Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, who referred to Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms as “frankly a disgrace". He explained to the Telegraph: "..the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart."

It gives His Grace no pleasure when the most senior Roman Catholic in England and Wales tears strips off the most senior Roman Catholic in the Government. And it must have been a cause of grief in the heavenlies when the Secretary of State's delivered a withering response (via the Sunday Politics) which was steeped in incredulity and contempt for the Cardinal's concerns: "I'm not quite sure what he thinks welfare is about," the Minister scoffed, after entreating: "It would be good if he actually called me before he made these attacks."

Quite why Cardinal Nichols chose to smear a very prominent Conservative minister in the Telegraph before discussing his manifold concerns with a co-religionist is something of a mystery. Unless, of course, the Cardinal is allowing his personal socialist-inclination to cloud his discernment and nullify expressions of basic courtesy. Christian brothers are, after all, supposed to treat one another with kindness - except, it seems, when one hails from inner-city Birmingham via the Thatcher-loathing tenements of Liverpool, and the other from ultra-Tory Chingford via the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Perhaps they simply can't be bothered to test each other's grasp of Roman Catholic social teaching.

But there is no excuse at all for bishops of the Church of England not to pick up the phone to MPs, ministers and secretaries of state before sounding brass and tinkling their cymbals in the left-wing tabloids. This is the Established Church, after all. The Bishop of Chester even sits in the House of Lords: it's not as though he lacks parliamentary nous or an extension number.

As His Grace wrote a few weeks ago: "Conservative politicians do themselves no favours when they try to lecture the Church on social thought when they clearly have little understanding of the depth and long history of Christian social thinking. But Anglican bishops do themselves no favours when they fail even to entertain the moral philosophical stream from which conservative thought proceeds. If the poor are homeless and hungry, there is nothing to be gained by bishops and politicians ranting at each other in public denunciations of their mutual ignorance."

Successive broadsides in the media render mature discussion and debate almost impossible, for each bombardment magnifies distrust, and the crossfire yields nothing but mutual enmity and loathing. And while God's holy warriors and belligerent politicians are scrapping over the definition of justice, the poor go hungry and the homeless shiver in urine-drenched doorways, wondering why God has abandoned them.        

So, for God's sake, Your Graces and Eminences, pick up the phone. It's good to talk.
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