Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cathedral questions: a theological response

In the unfolding saga of quake damaged Christchurch Cathedral, we seem to be edging towards the possibility of "restoration" becoming the probability of "reinstatement" (see my post last week). Not inconsiderable details of finance and safety need to be sorted. The tide of public opinion may or may not support the lean towards reinstatement in Miriam Dean QC's report, commissioned by the government: so far letters to the Press are running in favour of demolition and a new build.

I find in conversation with people that all sorts of things are being said about the cathedral, including whether we need to have one at all. Here are a few responses to questions/suggestions being made ...

Do we need a cathedral?

Naturally there is theology of "church", both people and building, as a starting point. The latter, I think, is pretty important because we the people of God are frail creatures. When we gather we like a roof over our heads (in most climates there is rain!) and walls (in temperate or colder climates for warmth, if not for other reasons such as protection from marauding insects, wild beasts or bitter winds). Roof and walls make a building so - despite some people going on at length about the church being the people and not the building - the reality is that most of the time most of the people of God gathering as church gather in a building. From that basic perspective of protective shelter, a cathedral is the largest building in a region for God's people (albeit God's Anglican/ Catholic/ Orthodox/ otherwise people). One observation I make about our (wonderful, I like it very much) Transitional Cathedral is that, at around the 500+ seating mark, it is not large enough for some of our diocesan purposes (large funerals, larger gatherings for multiple ordinations). That alone is reason for us to do something constructive about returning to the larger cathedral in the Square (with its capacity, from memory, for 1000 or so to be seated).

Cathedrals, however, are not only "the largest church in the diocese" but also the cathedra or seat of the bishop, that is, the bishop's church, for gathering people for instruction and guidance, that is, for gathering the largest congregation from across the Diocese on certain occasions, meeting together in the largest building of the Diocese fit for such purposes.

But gatherings for instruction and guidance are a witness to the wider community: this body of people believe certain things to be true and wish to testify to their truth by visibly moving from other places of ordinary life to this place of extraordinary life, a place dedicated to worship of and witness to the God of Jesus Christ. So cathedrals are involved in the mission of God. Their existence and their use by Christians sends out a message to the community: God exists, God is worshipped, God has revealed truth to humanity.

(Supposing it could be squared legally with respect to recent court judgments about the cathedral in the Square) why not sell the damaged cathedral to the city council/government for $1 and head out to the suburbs to build a cathedral with a decent carpark?

In my view this mission of cathedrals is enhanced by being in a prominent place in the Diocese - often this will be in the largest city of the Diocese (as it is in this Diocese of Christchurch) and prominence can be a feature whether a cathedral is built in the recognised centre of the city (e.g. Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson), on a hill overlooking the city (e.g. Nelson, Auckland), or near to a "seat of power" (e.g. Wellington). I am not familiar enough with the location of cathedrals in New Plymouth, Hamilton or Napier to comment on the "prominence" of their locations.

I am strongly of the view that the Anglican Diocese of Christchurch having title to the most prominent location in the city of Christchurch should not under any circumstances give up that title. All Christians in Christchurch and Canterbury have a stake in the continuation of public witness to the people of Christchurch and Canterbury - a public witness to the God of Jesus Christ through the presence of the Anglican cathedral in the Square.

If we were to reinstate the cathedral, what might a theology of reinstatement look like?

Preliminary considerations, pointing both to the value of the past and of the future ...

A starting point here, I suggest, is some reflection on time. As Christians we live in time, past, present and future. "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8). God is the one "who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (Revelation 1:8).

The past includes: we remember with thanksgiving what God in Christ has done for us on the cross, the saints who have gone before us, bearing witness to God and handing on the deposit of faith to succeeding generations.

The present is the existential moment in which we obey (or disobey) the revealed will of God, including obedience to the Great Commandment (which leads to worship of God) and the Great Commission (which leads to our missional engagement in the world around us).

The future lies before us and asks of us faithfulness: faithful bearing of the faith (continuation of tradition, what has been handed down to us as God's people, especially preserved in Holy Scripture) so that future generations may share the blessing we presently share, expectation of God's leading us forward, by fire and by cloud. Jesus Christ is the same tomorrow as today but the circumstances of the world keep changing. So today's English may not communicate the gospel tomorrow. Today's liturgical arrangements likely will look different tomorrow because they are not the same as yesterday: the future lies before us and teases us about our adaptability!

When we move from general consideration of time to consideration of what we see God's people doing in respect of time, in relation to structures (including buildings, and how we organise ourselves as the people of God), we see both "reinstatement" and "newness."

Nehemiah famously seeks permission to "reinstate" Jerusalem, its walls and its temple. In this way God's people act presently to face the future with the assurance the past provides. By attending to the temple and rebuilding it, they show faithfulness to God: the temple God promised and provided for was in ruins, by rebuilding it, they demonstrated their love for God.

Yet Jesus comes and charts a new way, so "new" that the temple he comes to build as a replacement for the existing temple (now Herod's temple rather than Nehemiah's) is his "body" (John 2:21). His message, the gospel has a quality to it which requires new structures: new wineskins for new wine (Matthew 9:17). In the end, the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles leads to the "partings of the ways" between Jews and Christians. The old wineskin of Judaism cannot contain the new wine of Jesus the radical, reforming rabbi.

A theology of reinstatement?

Within the specific culture of Aotearoa New Zealand, we have considerations about the past which are valued. In Maori culture, whakapapa (genealogy) is important: through knowing and remembering our whakapapa we both honour our ancestors and anchor our own identity. This accords with Christian life, both the literal genealogies of Scripture which enable us to know who we are as God's people, as well as the chains of spiritual heritage which draw us into the life of God (Nana took me to Sunday School; my godfather gave me my first Bible ...). But there are also Pakeha considerations. We were not created from nothing. We came from somewhere (mostly from various places in Europe). We brought the Christian faith, continuing a journey begun in Jerusalem, moving through Athens and Rome to Britain (principally) and other European parts. Our churches, whether a small wooden "Selwyn" church or a great stone one like the Christchurch cathedral, connect us with that greater story. A (non-church going) friend recently mentioned the possibility that reinstatement of the cathedral in the Square would be appropriate honour and respect for our ancestors. In Christchurch and Canterbury terms, that respect, integrated into our larger story as the story of a specific Anglican settlement could mean we reinstate the cathedral as a means of telling that story, not only to ourselves "today" but also to our grandchildren and their grandchildren "tomorrow."

If we were to follow letters to the Press in recent days and build a new cathedral, what might a theology of new cathedral-ness look like?

On a practical level, NZ is a violent place with respect to buildings. Many of our older buildings have been destroyed through fire and through earthquake. We have not hesitated after such disasters to build new buildings, as fire resistant or as quake resistant as contemporary technology permits. For churches rebuilt after fires, floods and earthquakes, there have been opportunities to retell the gospel  with new architectural language, to translate the gospel through the language of buildings into a tongue understandable "today" (when built) and hopefully for a long time "tomorrow" as subsequent years go by. (Yes, of course, some such buildings have been brilliant architectural translations of the gospel and some we are ashamed of!) In respect of Christchurch cathedral, we have a building which captures something of the ecclesiastical zeitgeist of the nineteenth century Church of England, notably marked by pillars impeding the view of the congregation when the cathedral is full!

A brand new cathedral could capture the ecclesiastical zeitgeist of the somewhat different "Anglican Church in Aotearoa New Zealand and Polynesia" (21st century version). That zeitgeist, incidentally, includes various breezes of the Spirit inspiring late 20th and early 21st century liturgical developments. Those liturgical developments, we might usefully remember, are not solely about fashions and fads of the age (so that a cathedral designed to their dictates would look pretty out of touch by 2115). They are about the church of today rediscovering forgotten aspects of the ancient church of yesterday. The key to a brilliant new cathedral in the Square would be architectural capture of timeless liturgical elements, continuing creedal truth and distinctives of South Pacific Anglicanism!

What about a hybrid, an old-new cathedral which retained aspects of the old with fresh elements?

Anglicans, it is said, are keen on the "via media", so perhaps this would be a very Anglican-solution! What is not quite clear to me yet is whether the Miriam Dean report recognises and supports this possibility as a way forward.

Then there is the thoughtful letter in this morning's Press which takes issue with business leaders saying the damaged cathedral is an impediment to development of new builds around the edge of the Square. Not so, our letter writer says. The damaged cathedral is a drawcard tourist attraction!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Time to Change the Church's Nonsensical Calendar?

Today 28th December is Holy Innocents' Day, when we commemorate Herod's slaughter of the innocent children around Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-18).

This coming Sunday 3 January 2016 we celebrate Epiphany, when the Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus (Matthew 2:1-12).

This is back to front. It is time for a change!

Incidentally, on the question of the dating of Jesus' birth, David Weintraub, writing in the Washington Post, argues that a particular planetary phenomenon (the way Jupiter appears above the horizon at certain points in astronomical cycles) explains the details of the Wise Men's journey, and leads to this date:

"The portent began on April 17 of 6 B.C. (with the heliacal rising of Jupiter that morning, followed, at noon, by its lunar occultation in the constellation Aries) and lasted until Dec. 19 of 6 B.C. (when Jupiter stopped moving to the west, stood still briefly, and began moving to the east, as compared with the fixed background stars). By the earliest time the men could have arrived in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus would likely have been at least a toddler."

Now, if (or "IF") Jesus was born around 6 BC and the Wise Men showed up while Herod was still alive, that is, at the latest, by 4 BC, then Herod's malevolent calculation that he needed to slaughter infants up to two years old was no speculative guess but a careful regard for the testimony of the Wise Men, "according to the time that he had learned from the wise men" (2:16).

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas

May this day be a celebration of Christ's birthday to all readers, none of whom I expect to be reading here for a day or three to come, or even longer if your holidays take you from the Internet. Which would be a true holiday!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Cathedral Reinstatement? "Repair, restoration, and reconstruction."

It sounds very much like we are moving forward on a "reinstated" cathedral in Cathedral Square, Christchurch. Miriam Dean QC has made a report on the possibilities of the cathedral being reinstated or replaced, without a firm recommendation for either option. Responses from the Church Property Trustees and the Great Christchurch Building Trust indicate satisfaction with the report. But there is work to be done on costs, fundraising, safety.  A further report is indicated as coming at the end of April 2016.

On the possibility of "reinstatement" rather than replacement, Miriam Dean seems to be suggesting that the cathedral could be reinstated to what it once was by a mixture of repair, restoration and reconstruction.

"The diocesan statement noted that according to the report, reinstatement would require repair, restoration, and reconstruction."

I take that to mean that some parts of the building a repairable, some parts need painstaking restoration, and other parts (presumably the West end and tower in particular) would need reconstruction.

A Stuff report is here. I think this one is different/updated, here .

A TV One report is here.

A Taonga report is here.

Bosco Peters offers a reflection here.

I hope, post Christmas, to offer some thoughts on a theology of reinstatement ...

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Poetic challenge to prayers for peace

"I suspect that last Christmas the tubby old pope 
Prayed for peace on earth. Well, what a hope.

If he's looking for method of wasting his time he 
Might as well pray for snails not to be slimy.

There were wars in abundance from Congo to Yemen
As it was, is and shall be, eternally, amen."

Joe Bennett has been very badly served by our Christchurch Press this morning! He has written a poem summing up the year, but it has been printed as a piece of prose. My excerpt above restores the poetic structure of his rhyming couplets.

For non-locals, Joe is kind of "resident atheist" lurking in our Fairfax media. He has never let an opportunity go by to have a go at God and the above is his latest example.

But he does have a point, does he not? That we - not just the Pope - have prayed and prayed for peace on earth, prayed to the Prince of Peace to bring his peace-making reign to fulfilment and yet this year has not been a year to see progress towards peace among the nations.

We can rejoice that there are stories of progress towards peace in people's hearts as they find God and experience the peace which surpasses all understanding. But it is an awkward fact that despite praying and praying, the world is not a happy place this Christmas.

Moreover, it is a bit less happy for Christians than last year. Christmas, for instance, has to be celebrated in secret in Brunei by Christians and not at all by Muslims.

What would you say to Joe if you met him out strolling with his dog in Lyttelton this morning? It would be fine if you just said "Good morning, Joe," because I imagine he would be a doughty debater were you to take him on in an apologetics match, the Power of Prayer versus the Cynicism of  his Rhyming Couplets.

What would I say? I think I would offer this, perhaps after asking if Joe would like a coffee, as there would be a bit of "unpacking" to do with each of the following ripostes:

- Fair call to draw attention to the unanswered prayers of Christians.
- What might God say to praying Christians about the outbreak of wars and our responsibilities for preventing/ending wars? Wars do not start by themselves. Christians may not have started certain current wars but Christians are players in the geopolitics of oil and arms selling. God is generally reluctant - it would appear from experience - to answer prayers the pray-ers could answer for themselves.
- Christians will always look foolish in any attempt to rationalise the mystery of God and God's ways with the complexities and travails of the world. It is true - noting something else he says later in the poem about Muslim faith in the face of Haj pilgrims dying - that faith has a persistence to keep believing against evidence to the contrary. But our faith as Christians is not in a God who never answers certain prayers but in a God who may not answer our prayers today but will answer them tomorrow (i.e. in the end).

Incidentally, for another take on Joe Bennett versus theology, see this post made on Liturgy a couple of months back.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Waiting expectantly

Yes, waiting for Christmas (of course!!).

But also waiting for a much anticipated announcement about the future of our cathedral in the Square.

Sometime tomorrow (23 Dec) we will have news of (1) the arbitrator's proposal, (2) the Church Property Trustees' response, (3) the Great Christchurch Building Trust's response.*

On a recent overseas trip through Asia and Europe, I was struck by the extraordinary interest shown in the future of the cathedral.

*This morning's Press says the announcement will be at 4.30 pm.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Solve Christmas Present and Lenten Studies 2016 Question with One Purchase

Theology House Publications is once again pleased to offer to you and for your loved ones a set of Lenten studies for 2016. Nota Bene that Lent comes up fast in 2016, Ash Wednesday is 10 February.

Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley (Waikato, NZ) and myself are co-authors of six studies exploring the theme of 'Stewardship' in Mark's Gospel. All info re costs and ordering are at this link. Our office closes around midday on 23rd December and re-opens on 5th January.

But if you want these as Christmas presents, you will need to act fast and order today ...

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Scottish Way Forward for Our Church in 2016?

Dean Martyn Percy in his essay bursting onto the Anglo-Blogosphere this week - see previous post - does not offer a way forward for the Communion as the Primates gather in January 2016 (IMHO) but he does say some important things along the way. In churches such as my own, wrestling our way towards General Synod, May 2016, with questions dividing us about how we remain faithful to the gospel as a message of God's welcoming love as well as of kingdom living according to God's Holy Word, Percy has a point to ponder. The simplest way to get the point to you is to cite a longish section from the essay (accessed from Modern Church's home page here). My comments are italicised.

First, what is arguably the most workable compromise in a church in which people of opposing views wish to find a way to stay together and live with those opposing views:

"Yet other churches have faced the divisive issue of sexuality with a bit more nuance. The Church of Scotland, for example, deemed that same-sex relationships were a ‘matter of liberty of conscience, guaranteed by the Church, on matters that do not enter into the substance of faith’. Here, the question of same-sex relationships was left to the liberty of conscience of individuals, congregations and their ministers."

The advantage of this way forward is mutual respect and affirmation of "the other":

"Thus, a few might say that they cannot support same-sex relationships, and never will. But a quieter majority of others might think otherwise, and therefore affirm such relationships. The liberty of conscience applied here is still a matter of beliefs and practice, but not one that ultimately divides members of the church, who are all mutually affirmed as still ascribing to the core substance of Christian faith."

Percy is not satisfied with what happened in the final decision making of the Church of Scotland. I would part company with him on this criticism. I think it too much to expect churches not to reaffirm "the 'traditionalist' line ... as the normative-default position." I think ACANZP would divide badly - with an "unholy row" if we went the Percy way rather than the Scottish way:

"That carefully worded phrase, which was supposed to bring peace to the Church of Scotland, almost succeeded. Almost. The intention in the drafting of the ‘liberty of conscience’ clause was to accommodate revisionists and traditionalists alike, liberals and conservatives. In many ways, it aped that beloved Anglican ideal – an ‘ecclesial DNA’ of inclusive dynamic conservatism that characterises the polity of the church.

Unfortunately for the Kirk, however, when the debate on sexuality took place at the General Assembly in 2014, the ‘traditionalist’ line was reaffirmed as the normative-default position. Although the Kirk subsequently permitted congregations and ministers to opt out if they wanted to affirm civil partnerships. This was done to ‘keep the peace of the church’, of course – and avoid an unholy row."

That was a pity, because there are two problems with this compromise, and they are ones that the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Anglican Primates, would do well to avoid next month. First, the concession maintains discrimination and perpetuates an injustice against lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and so runs contrary to the spirit of the 2010 Equality Act in the UK. Second, and despite initial appearances, the two interpretations of ‘liberty of conscience’ are not in fact symmetrical. They appear to be chiral, so to speak; but there is one crucial difference to note."

Percy offers the following allegory to support his position on the importance of symmetry rather than asymmetry in churches inclusion of same sex partnerships. Does it work? Does it help the argument he is making?

"And here, an allegory may be helpful. There is a world of difference between going to an ordinary restaurant and requesting a vegetarian option, and going to a vegetarian restaurant and asking for a steak, medium-rare. The first scenario is fine and has sense – no decent restaurant menu is without vegetarian options. But we would rightly regard the second scenario as nonsense. Indeed, potentially rather offensive to vegetarians – and entirely against the spirit of the restaurant.

Yet by making heterosexual relationships the exclusive and traditional default position, the Kirk effectively chose this second scenario. The relatively small numbers of traditionalists and conservatives who reject same-sex unions and gay marriage in churches, are, in effect, dictating the menu for everyone else.

In this allegory gay people are fully part of the mainstream of the population. The majority are usually quite happy to eat vegetarian food; just not all the time. But that same majority would not think of insisting vegetarians occasionally ate meat. That would be non-sense."

The next paragraphs are particularly aimed at the situation in the CofE, with regard to its role as "national church", a role no other Anglican church has in the Communion. But there are sentences which pertain to life in ACANZP. I have underlined those:

"Living with Diversity: 

One key ecclesial question flows simply from this allegory: how might churches manage to live well with constrained differences and minorities? Moreover, in a way that does not stigmatise minorities, and caters for them in a nondiscriminatory way?

Is this a recipe for diversity of practice that inexorably leads to irreparable disunity? Not really. The Church of England already knows how to live with this kind of reality. Some of the more catholic-inclined clergy and congregations already exercise their liberty of conscience on women priests and women bishops. They’ve opted out, and reasonable (some would say overly generous) provision is made for them. Some of the more evangelically inclined clergy and congregations don’t always hold services that technically conform to stricter interpretations of canon law on robing or liturgy; they also exercise a liberty of conscience.

In neither case are these clergy or congregations cast out. They are catered for; or even permitted to self-cater. And although both these groups might claim to hold more firmly to the truth than others, no-one is asked to dine elsewhere, so to speak. No established church can afford to de-nationalise itself on an issue that is now treated as a matter of equality and justice by the state. Civil partnerships and same-sex marriages, and those entering into these unions, enjoy the full protection of the law, and majority affirmation by the population as a whole. For any national church to turn its face away from those who are full and equal citizens, and have their unions and marriages recognised as such, effectively augments a process of de-nationalisation and privatisation. It is a route-march towards a tribal church.

The church becomes, in effect, a sad and unwelcoming restaurant with a rationed menu, where the diners who tried to order a meat dish were made to feel terribly guilty. Or more likely, quietly asked by the sullen owner, or embarrassed waiter, to take their custom elsewhere. The diners duly leave. In effect, this is the adopted position of the Church of England by the current Archbishop. But a national church must cater for the whole palate of the population. That is what a broad church does."

Whether we Kiwis think we have become or are becoming a "tribal church" is a moot point!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Percy v Welby: one of them should apologise!! [Updated]

[For update, see below]

Is Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, becoming Leader of the Opposition to ++Justin Welby's leadership of the Government of the C of E and Anglican Communion? Earlier this year there was strong Percy opposition to a plan to train bishops in management skills. Today Martyn Percy bursts onto the Anglo-Blogosphere with an essay in Modern Church,* summarised in a fisky way here, which has another go at ++Welby's leadership. (There is also a notice in Thinking Anglicans). [*You will get to the essay via this link.]

The essay is explicitly timed to broadside the gathering captains of the Anglican fleet at the forthcoming Primates' Meeting in January 2016.

No holds are barred as Percy calls on the ABC to apologise for this and that (England's exporting prejudice against homosexuality in the nineteenth century, inviting ++Foley of ACNA to the Primates' Meeting). In one purple passage he makes hay with Anglican statistics to cast doubt on whether the future of global Anglicanism is weighted towards Africa or not. Yeah, right! Basically he is telling ++Justin what to do, how to go about it, and what a numpty he will be if he doesn't follow Percy's manifesto. Here he is, for instance, commenting on the possibility that the Communion might devolve to something akin to the manner in which Eastern Orthodox churches populate the world, often with overlapping jurisdictions:
"The Archbishop needs to understand that there is a theology of Communion: a delicate relationship between geography, catholicity, ontology, theology, authority and pastoral oversight. Pushing the Anglican Communion to a more dispersed ‘Orthodox’ paradigm would cause irreparable damage to Anglicanism, licencing schismatic-churches in all but name."

The Archbishop needs to understand. That is interesting language coming from a lesser ranked clergy. I wonder how far I would get in synod if I started a speech with "The Bishop needs to understand ..."?

There seems to be no point of potential weakness in the planning of the Primates' Meeting on which Percy fails to pour scorn:
"There will undoubtedly be valiant attempts to construct some much-needed rapprochement for the Anglican Communion at the Primates’ gathering. At the forefront – or at least facilitating – is Canon David Porter, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s appointee for reconciliation. Porter is an Irish Presbyterian by background, and an Evangelical-Anabaptist by conviction. But he will have his work cut out to fashion some theological unity, in what is essentially an Anglican-catholic problem of polity."

But the great weakness in Percy's essay is its failure to offer a better way forward than what the ABC is offering. His compelling critique of Anglican failures re sexuality (and of C of E failures in particular) offers no specific recipe or remedy for unity on these matters. His alternative to a possible "Orthodox like" future for the Communion is this:
"It is possible that the Commonwealth, rather than the Orthodox Church, might serve as a better model for the future of global Anglicanism."

Er, that would be the Commonwealth that regularly suspends or expels errant members? Such a Communion no doubt would need a Covenant to help it understand which members should stay and which should go! And would that be the Commonwealth that bit by bit, year after year increasingly becomes less and less relevant to its members?

Oh, and apparently some poetry will fix our problems. Yes, it's there in the essay and if I don't tell you the page numbers you might be drawn to read Percy's breathless prose. He is a very readable writer. In his breathless prose, incidentally, many fine and telling observations are made: there are a number of things about Anglican approaches to homosexuality which are not going well and Percy rightly challenges his own church and the Communion to do better. But that is not the main point of the essay, which concerns how the ABC is going to lead the next Primates' Meeting as part of leadership of the Communion. The incidental points are hammered home but the essay's main thrust becomes a feather duster flailing in the breeze. A hammer nailing home its main point, that the ABC is wrong, wrong, wrong, this essay is not.

[Update] A comment from Nick alerted me to the following passage in the essay which I had not paid close attention to. This is an extraordinary critique (at best) and attack (at worst) on the work of ++Justin Welby.

"On the surface, a businessman-turned-Archbishop, with skills in negotiation, may seem like an ideal person to resolve this for the church. But we should be wary, and probe deeper. Negotiating and achieving results in business is often based upon intrinsic and extrinsic inequalities in power relations. The new company seeking to buy the larger, older, but now weaker competitor may be in a much stronger position than others. In business, risk, aggression and decisiveness are often rewarded – handsomely. But these are not necessarily the characteristics one wants to the fore in ecclesial contexts. Especially now. Moreover, the Archbishop, can do little to re-narrate his background – as a privileged white male; Etonian, upper-class; and related to titled people, who has little experience of powerlessness. Indeed, in terms of powerlessness, it is hard to see how he can enter into it, let alone comprehend it. His negotiations as a businessman in sensitive areas of Nigeria, whilst winning plaudits in the media, are not the same as the work of reconciliation, and arguably not the right ‘fit’ for the church, where first-hand experiences of powerlessness are often important for shaping episcopal ministry. Indeed, any ordained ministry."

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

As Christmas Approaches We Might Ponder Ancient Lessons

(I nicked this off Steve Bell's website, Grace for Muslims).

Christmas is a conspiracy to convince Muslims that Jesus is the Son of God

Strange though the headline may seem, it is what some people think.

But then the West may not be treating Christmas quite the same as other parts of the world. A Tweet alerting me to the existence of this Kiwi Christmas play suggested that the slightest religious should not attend it. I suppose it got past the censor ...

Keeping up with reading on Islam, here is Ross Douthat.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Theological Meat on the Bones

There is always theological meat on the bones of Themelios, one of the best value for money theological journals, i.e. it is free. The general site is here and the download address for the latest edition is here. Don Carson has a thoughtful and detailed editorial on disputable matters, and disputable matters feature in subsequent articles and in the wide ranging review section.

I dispute some of what I read in this edition. Offering the link is not an endorsement of all arguments therein! Michael Bird, as it happens, just this morning, writing about the death of one of the NT greats of  the last century, I. Howard Marshall (1934-2015), mentions a couple of difficulties for some of us re Themelios:
"I remember the committee of the Tyndale Fellowship rejoicing that TGC was taking over the journal Themelios (which otherwise would have simply folded), but Howard wryly lamented that it was such a pity that he could not write for the journal any more, since authors had to be both Calvinists and Complementarians, of which he was neither."
Neither am I!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Timing is Everything: Luke's Advent and Christmas Dates

We had better say something about Advent and Christmas since it is that time of the year, again!

So here is a tiny thought about how Luke goes about his history of "Advent and Christmas" (that is, of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ), a thought prompted by observing something in a recent Sunday gospel reading.

Consider this:

The most precise date which Luke gives in the first part of his gospel is in Luke 3:1-2 where he writes, "In the fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea, and Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias rule of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." 

Nevertheless this only gives us - his readers many years later - a date between 26 and 29 AD because we are not confident how the years were counted when (as here) "the fifteenth year of the reign of" is mentioned. My point for this post is that Luke seems very confident about fixing the date for the beginning of John's ministry to a particular year.

If we go back to the previous significant event, the birth of Jesus, Luke 2:1-7, we find Luke much less particular about a certain year: "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (2:1-2).

"In those days" is vague.

"A decree went out [from Rome to the Empire]" is suggestive of a lapse of time for both communication of the decree and organisation of the registration.

(There is also an associated problem with Luke as historian and chronologer because the only attested censuses of Roman citizens were 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD, none of which fits well with Jesus likely being around 30 years of age when crucified and the crucifixion taking place in 30 AD+/- a year or two. Even if we propose a regional census, then the mention of Quirinius as "governor of Syria" raises questions because his known governorship dates do not tie in well with when we think Jesus was born, i.e., according to Matthew, in the time of Herod the Great, no later than 4 BC. My point here, however, is not dependent on whether we can find a combination of "census" and "Quirinius, governor of Syria" which fits other chronological details about Jesus' birth).

If we go back further, to Luke 1:5, we find also a general period of time in connection with the conception and birth of John the Baptist: "In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest ..."

In fact the lack of an attempt by Luke to cross-reference this period to something as specific as (say) a census or another person's rulership or governorship means that this part of Luke's history is the vaguest of the three on when the significant events of John's miraculous conception and subsequent birth occurred. Except, of course, we could argue that we can work backwards from Mary's pregnancy to John's conception, because  the conception of Jesus is linked to the "sixth month" of Elisabeth's pregnancy (1:26, 36).

So, what is going on for Luke when he moves from the general vagueness of 1:5 to less general vagueness in 2:1-2 through to the specificity of 3:1-2?

It must be possible - noting Luke 1:1-4 - that Luke in his diligence as historian (of a time, let us remember, less interested in dates than we are) finds a chronological nugget when he asks about the beginning of John's ministry and a lack of calendrical detail in the memory of those who told him about Zechariah and Elisabeth, and Mary. It must also be possible that Luke is not quite as diligent as some would like him to be, especially given his impressive claim in his Preface in 1:1-4. It has been noticed, for instance, that the chronological detail in Luke 3:1-2 is not matched by any great concern for the date of Jesus' death and resurrection. We go through most of Acts without a clear sense of which year (e.g. of the reign of X and the governorship of Y) significant events occur in. (It would be jolly useful for NT scholarship if we knew clearly when Paul was converted (Acts 9) and when the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) took place.) Luke, of course, might remonstrate with me on this point by saying that he put down every date he did know and didn't make up dates he lacked information on!

But my question about dates relating to the events we read of in Advent and Christmas readings also concerns the literary character of Luke's Gospel. It is well known and widely agreed that Luke's Gospel consists of three kinds of material:
- Markan (sourced from Mark's Gospel as a source for Luke's Gospel),
- Q or Matthean (material not drawn from Mark but shared in common with Matthew, for which (a) most scholars think Matthew and Luke drew on a common source, no longer available to us, called "Q," but (b) some scholars think Luke used Matthew as a source for this material),
- Lukan material unique to his gospel (sometimes called "L").
On this division, Markan and Q or Matthean material is widely known in the Christian community. This likely reflects a wide sharing of the oral traditions about what Jesus said and did which circulated before initiatives to write this material down were taken. By contrast the purely Lukan material, L, is much less clear as to its origins. We can readily imagine a parable such as the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) widely circulating in early Christian communities - it is easy to remember, easy to pass on to others.

But what about Luke 1 and 2, where virtually every aspect is unique to Luke? Only the fact of Jesus' birth, its location in Bethlehem, the growing up place for Jesus being Nazareth, and his mother and step-father's names being Mary and Joseph are common to Matthew. (Note how different the Matthew and Lukan accounts are: divine encounter with Joseph v with Mary, wise men v shepherds, flight to Egypt v no flight, Nazareth as safe destination after Egypt v Nazareth as place of departure prior to birth in Bethlehem). Presumably Luke's investigations draw him towards either the family traditions of Zechariah and Elisabeth and Mary and Joseph or those who knew those traditions well. But was it difficult for Luke to nail down some details for the year in which John the Baptist and Jesus were conceived?

If Luke was writing around 80 AD and investigating in the decade before that, then for someone to cast their mind back from (say) 76 AD to 26 AD (if that were the year when John the Baptist began his public ministry) is plausible. A seventy year old witness could be imagined to say, "Ah, yes, that was the fifteenth year of Tiberias ..." But to go back another 26+ years is that much further. If the respective family traditions failed to include specific dates, how would Luke have found out when John and Jesus were born? They were not born to famous families. There were no birth certificates. True, Jesus' birth might have been included in the registration at Bethlehem, but Luke is unlikely to have had access to those records (supposing they were archived somewhere in Syria or Rome).

So Luke's diligence may have hit a barrier of ignorance in respect of the critical year of the conception of both John the Baptist and Jesus.

A final thought, coming from C.F. Evans' fine commentary on Luke. When we look at that extraordinary set of details about who was reigning and ruling what when John the Baptist appeared, in Luke 3:1-2, we find Luke operating in two modes as historian.

First, there is Luke the "secular historian" who tells us what any other historian could have told us, that at such and such a time a bloke called John the Baptist began a ministry which impacted on Jewish society. But those details run on, "... the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (3:2b). This is, secondly, Luke the historian of salvation reporting what secular historians could not have told us, that in John, God was at work and through John the word of God came to Israel.

All celebration of the past through Advent and Christmas is a celebration of what people could see and hear in the ordinary way of everyday life, including wild eyed preachers on the fringes of society and puking, crying, pooing babies being born as well as a celebration of what can only be seen with the eyes of faith, that the preacher is preaching "the word of God", that one of the babies born was "the Word become flesh" (John 1:14).

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I am Rapidly Becoming A Revisionist [UPDATED]

One argument in comments on this, a recent post has been the question of whether going "full Trump" (banning Muslim refugees/immigrants) is a good/bad/indifferent/terrible idea.
Two thoughtful pieces pointing out that there is more to Trump's idea than meets the idea (or, alternatively, more for objectors to Trump to think about) are here and here.

Some would say I already am a revisionist (in the sense of a former conservative having lost his way and woken up on the dark side of liberal Christianity/politics) but I think I am revising some views because ... I have very much appreciated an excellent set of comments over the past week on a couple of (diverse) issues, Anglican Communion futures (and pasts) and justified war, or not, in Syria/Iraq against Daesh. The rocket scientists among you will have worked out that my lack of response to comments for a few days means I have been in "conference mode" - at the Association of Aotearoa New Zealand Biblical Studies annual conference in Auckland - so able to keep an eye on comments coming in, limited ability to spend mental effort on composing responses. Back on terra firma and with a time opportunity ... here goes!

Anglican Communion Futures

I readily and happily concede - as pointed out via a comment drawing attention to a David Virtue post - that the position of the Anglican Church of South Sudan and the Sudan is nuanced in a way that my post last week did not realise. That is, in aligning with ACNA and cutting ties with TEC, nevertheless that remain firmly in fellowship with those bishops and dioceses within TEC who are (to coin a phrase, not) standing firm. Thus my question whether the AC might be divided in three by the end of January 2016 is overly simplistic!

I also take on board a comment made today: it is helpful to maintain this distinction: "I have come to see the Question whether there are circumstances justifying a province in planting missions in another province as different from the Question whether there are circumstances justifying a province in leaving the whole of the Communion for a part of it. That is, our judgments about ACNA and GAFCON may reasonably differ.".

General and Particular Questions of Just War

It has been very provocative (in the best sense) to have the variety of views coming in re possible justifications for going to war v Jesus' own example and teaching justifying never going to war, inter mixed with views on the particular question of whether Britain and other Western countries participating in air strikes against Daesh is justified (either morally or in utilitarian terms), meshed against comments re whether some dastardly agenda ("the great game") is being played out in a manner which the Western allies fail to understand, or, alternatively, are running in a manner hidden from their own citizenry.

Funnily enough, in the light of comments urging us to consider the difference it might make if all churches united to call for peace and non-violent resolution of the conflict, rather than offer justification for war, I happened to chance on an old schoolmate at Auckland Airport yesterday who told me about a group of Kiwis praying for the leadership of Daesh with interesting results so far re news that one key leader has converted to Christ. (I don't have a link to that news ... does anyone reading here have it?)

How might my own views have been revised in the light of your comments?

1. I recognise more clearly the lack of clarity all outsiders have - if honest - about the right and best action to undertake in Syria/Iraq re ending the civil war, constraining if not defeating Daesh. (But I also recognise, reading elsewhere on the internet, that insiders - Syrians and Iraqis - are divided on what would lead to just and peaceful resolution.) On those grounds alone it is questionable whether any Western co-ordinated bombing should be occurring at this time.

2. I have been sobered by the question whether I can find any teaching of Jesus which I could invoke to support going to war. (Side question, Is just war reasoning Aristotle's idea, which gets lightly "Christianized" in the history of the church as it supports political leadership declaring war?). Nevertheless I have also been thinking along these lines: I do not object when the (Kiwi) Armed Defenders Squad shoot to kill a dangerous offender who threatens the lives of other people and cannot be reasonably disarmed in any other way. If, as a follower of Jesus, I accept that sometimes that kind of police action is required, should I accept that some nation state actions against other nation states (or would be nation states such as Daesh) are "police" actions of a similar kind? (Some commenters have rightly noted that governments - appointed by God, Romans 13 - have duties to protect their own citizens.)

That will do for now ...

PS on the complexity of the conflict in the ME, see this moving yet intriguing article about Israel being humanitarian and political at the same time.

PPS on the Islam that I personally have experienced and read about, an Islam of engagement with truth wherever it is found and an Islam which understands its profound links to Christianity and to Judaism, head over to the NZ Herald here.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Good Samaritan Supports Air Attacks on Daesh

It may not be the first thing which pops into our minds when we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, but it has been argued that the Good Samaritan would take part in air attacks on Daesh. The argument is hidden in Hilary Benn's cracking speech in the House of Commons the other day, in support of bombing Daesh. The speech has been widely praised by those open to the argument he makes and bitterly panned by some who are closed to the argument he makes. Crucially it appears to have swayed some wavering MPs. You can read the text here or watch the video below.

In the last part of the speech, Benn, speaking to his own Labour Party, makes the case that Daesh equals fascism and the Labour Party has always fought against fascism. It is one of the best denunciations of the terror of Daesh I have come across. Hidden within this paragraph is a reference to the Good Samaritan and the reference implies that it is Good Samaritan behaviour to refuse to ignore the threat of fascism, instead to engage with it:

"Now Mr Speaker, I hope the House will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party, we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have and we never should walk by on the other side of the road. And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us here tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt. And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion tonight."
Without going into all the arguments for just war and so forth, I think Benn has a theological point. If we take the Good Samaritan paradigm [sic] seriously, then we will not just love our neighbour in an ambulatory mode (binding up wounds after the beating up), nor will stop once we love our neighbour preventatively (guarding the road to Jericho to prevent robbers and malcontents lurking in the shadows). Where fascistic forces are intent on war, depredation of 'the other' and despicable behaviour towards women and children, it is (so the argument goes) unloving to persist in refusing to combat such evil. One response in chorus to Benn's speech has been that bombing will destroy innocent lives alongside destruction of combatants. That surely is true. But the rejoinder is that if we walk by on the other side and do not engage Daesh, innocent lives of non-combatants will still be lost, both in Syria/Iraq and in the killing fields of Paris, airspace over Sinai and wherever terror strikes next.

There is a larger set of arguments - noted in part previously on ADU - in which we need to ask, notwithstanding Benn's argument, what the "best" engagement with the situation is, with special reference to twisting Turkey and Saudi Arabia's arms in respect of their tacit (?) / explicit (?) support for Daesh.

In connection with various themes above, finally, an Economist article on ++Justin Welby's speech in the House of Lords re the air attack motion, is more than worth a look at. Not only does ++Justin think the just war criteria have been met for the UK to justify engagement, he also as a Christian theologian challenges Qatar and Saudi theologians to re-examine their Salafist theology (which underpins Daesh's justification for their thuggery).

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Three way split in Communion by end of January 2016?

News out today, from ACNA, that the House of Bishops of the Province of South Sudan and the Sudan is formalising ties with ACNA and cutting ties with TEC. This is December 2015. The Primates meet in January 2016, with TEC and ACNA represented at the meeting. By the end of January 2016 will we see the current form of the Anglican Communion in a threefold split according to "recognition" of TEC or ACNA or both?

If other provinces follow South Sudan with the Sudan's lead and start cutting ties with TEC in favour of formal recognition of ACNA, we can be sure that other provinces will confirm that they are not cutting ties with TEC. Within that group there may be some who wish to also recognise ACNA and some who will not. That's three groups. Anglican trainspotters can have fun seeing into which groups various member provinces of GAFCON and Global South fall.

The serious question is whether whatever drafted plan for the future is being worked out between the ABC and the ACO is going to be by-passed by this kind of unilateral provincial declaration. Of course no other province may follow South Sudan and the Sudan. But that province may have charted a way for new alignment to occur on a for/against ACNA/TEC/both decision. Pay attention,dear readers,to Anglican news in the coming weeks.

No wonder ++Justin has invited ++Foley Beach of ACNA to be present for some of the Primates' Meeting. By the end of January 2016 there might be more provinces recognising ACNA than TEC as a province of the Communion.

It will be an interesting meeting!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Say what? The Anglican Covenant has been found alive?!

I have been alerted to a post at the Living Church which, interestingly, has no author's name beside it. May we assume that the thoughts expressed in a post entitled "Primatial Option for the Covenant" are the collective view of the Living Church? In the post it is argued that the Primates meeting in January 2016 should express a preferential option for the Covenant. In my view post's wishes towards such an outcome are at best fantastical (it is okay to fantasize about better futures) and at worst nonsensical (it is a worry if key understandings of reality are missing from otherwise laudable sentiments).

My own judgment is that this Living Church post is at the nonsensical end of things and that is for one simple reason. It overestimates the capacity of Primates to deliver on the Covenant and overlooks the decisive lack of commitment to the Covenant by General Synods/General Conventions. The article says the Covenant is still the only game in town. I say it is dead in the water.

But there is a germ of a good idea in the article, one which I firmly agree could be on ++Welby's agenda for the meeting, and that is the concept of "degrees of communion." Maybe our future as a global organisation is a mix of communion and federation (or, I saw the other day, "confederation" used), because our reality is that we have varying degrees of communion between provinces: the most intense communion is within GAFCON, the next most intense is within Global South, there are some degrees of communion between Australia and Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia (varying through the sporting seasons, depending on whether umpiring decisions go their way or ours), etc.

From a different perspective, "degrees of communion" is also about varying degrees of impairment of communion: the ordination of women as priests and bishops has impaired communion, though for most meetings of the formal Communion it does not stop people gathering in the same room, even around the same eucharistic table, but other matters have prevented people even meeting together.

Now, how a global Anglican organisation gives expression to "degrees of communion" as it moves forward towards (possibly) another Lambeth Conference, and whether it dare maintain the word "Communion" in its title if its reality is (con)federation, are matters which could be discussed at the January 2016 meeting of primates (or Primates' Meeting). We can be sure that each primate wishes there to be as many degrees of communion as possible within global Anglicanism. But I hesitate to predict how such expression to "degrees of communion" might be given except that here I predict that the Primates will not revive the Covenant in its present form as the means of that expression.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Holy War, Just War and Merciful War

We may be at the early stages of the Third World War. This war, whether it deserves the description "world" or not, may last for Thirty Years or One Hundred Years - capitals remind us that some wars in history have lasted for a long time. The UK looks like it will vote this week to join Russia and France as European countries bombing Daesh. What is the right course of action in such an awful situation as Daesh's thuggery against local citizens of its 'caliphate' and against citizens of selected other countries?

I am also doing some thinking about war in relation to my study leave project. I am thinking about three forms of war: Holy War (with particular reference to YHWH commanding Israel to cleanse Canaan of opposing tribes), Just War (with particular reference to a theory or theories that in some limited circumstances war may be conducted justly, e.g. as a defensive, protective measure) and Merciful War (on which, to be honest, I am ignorant of what may have been previously written; but my idea is that in some (rare) circumstances, war might be conducted in order to save people from a terrible end, including saving people with whom one nation (or set of nations) has no predetermined obligation to help via treaty.

In my (limited) understanding of what is going on in the minds of national leaders either currently conducting or considering conducting war against Daesh, some elements of all three kinds of war may be involved (albeit no Western leader is going to own up to engaging in "Holy War")! That is, Holy War: there is an element of cleansing the world of terrible evil in the rationale behind going to war with Daesh; Just War: another motivation is a mixture of proportionate response to Daesh's terrorism as well as defensive and protective measures in which destruction of the Daesh command could severely inhibit its ability to organise terrorism in the West; Merciful War: unless Daesh is stopped now, even more people, particularly women, children and homosexuals, will be caught up in its evil use and abuse of people deemed to be either some kind of subservient creature or unfit for Daesh's vision of God's society on earth.

As a matter of fact, the Russian Orthodox Church has declared the Russian role in the war on Daesh a Holy War (against terrorism). [Though see comment by Andrei below re what exactly has been said].

But the last few days, as I read around the internet traps, the role of Turkey is complicating calculations of the kind that (say) theologians might be interested in making about war in these circumstances. Has it been buying oil from Daesh and thus funding it activities? Why did Turkey shoot down the Russian jet? I cannot now find the article I read recently, but one calculation is this: Turkey wants Assad ousted and wants to prevent the continuation of a fledgling Kurdish state but Russia's involvement is an attempt to save Assad and its fight against Daesh implicitly supports the fledgling Kurdish state so shooting down the jet was a signal of Turkey's displeasure with Russia's role. OK so there is speculative calculation here but it does seem worthwhile asking the question, before unleashing further bombs, what kind of damage would be done to Daesh if Turkey was brought onto the same side, without prevarication, as Russia, France and other Western allies.

So long as Turkey is an ambiguous role player - I dare not honour them with the word "ally" - is further participation in the war by Britain going to achieve much?

On paper I think I can line up arguments for war against Daesh being holy, just and merciful. In practice the politics of the Middle East is very complicated and war achieving the opposite of intended outcomes is a real possibility. What is a theologically-minded Christian to do?

POSTSCRIPT: It is a bit of a long read, but this 2009 article by Rene Girard is pertinent to the madness of the age in which we live.

POSTPOSTSCRIPT: The Economist sets out the case for and against here.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Stunning sermon

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

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

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

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

Cranmer on Cantalamessa is here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mark's secret, sexy gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Praise indeed or not, as the case may be

Some cracking articles in the latest First Things.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scars across humanity

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

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

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

A fuller ACNS article is here.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Paris is worth a Mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How to fill Anglican churches?

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

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

What fills an Anglican church in 2015?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rene Girard RIP

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Does the Anglican Communion have a Pope?

"Sort of" is the answer to the question. And I am not referring to ++Justin Welby or, for that matter, ++Eliud Wabukala. As Damian Thompson explains in a stunning Spectator frontpage article,

"Never before has the Catholic church looked so much like the Anglican Communion."

A summary of the article would be "Pope Francis looks more and more like what a Pope of the Anglican Communion would look like." Perhaps, to get the full flavour of the article we should add the descriptor 'liberal/progressive' into the sentence.

But is Damian Thompson correct in his broadside against the Pope? My own sense is that the Pope is not losing the plot at all but is playing a very clever and long game. By unsettling the church he is paving the way for change, at least in application of its teaching. He knows that doctrine will not formally change. He knows that there will be a reaction to his approach when the next Pope is elected, who will be more conservative. But he is also betting that if he gets some pastoral change going, the next Pope will not change it back. Once people come to receive the eucharist, even the most traditional next Pope is not going to get his priests to stop giving those communicants the eucharist.