Saturday, June 30, 2007

Deciding against it

This is for Chris G-Z: why did I decide against converting to Roman Catholicism? Well, there are lots of areas that we might discuss, but there's only one big and determinative issue: I came to the conclusion that it wasn't what God wanted me to do. I'm quite certain if I'm wrong on that then He'll let me know(!) but for now I'm pretty sure I'm where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to do. That may change - in fact, if things with the Church of England really go pear-shaped then it probably will change - but for now I have no anxiety of soul on the question of denomination.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I confess

Another meme, about theology. This one might be a bit more interesting than usual.

I confess: to finding Christianity intellectually, emotionally and personally exciting and fulfilling - more than I ever dreamt possible.

I confess: to believing that most theology, especially most theology of the last two hundred years, is garbage. However, that theology which isn't garbage is life-saving, literally. I'd like to spend more time reading that latter sort, and sharing its insights with the faithful. Most of why I think this is because of Wittgenstein, who has undoubtedly influenced me more than any theologian.

I confess: I'm fed up of working for an established church. If the institution of the Church of England ceased tomorrow I'd feel quite excited. I'd rather be unfettered by incumbency, by which I don't mean being embedded in a parish, I mean being embedded in the clinging ivy of canon law and inherited practice. Being embedded in a parish is essential for my spiritual health, but if someone said to me that from tomorrow I would never again have to a) take the funeral of someone unknown to me; b) take the marriage of someone unknown to me; c) baptise the child of someone unknown to me; d) deal with canon law, especially with regard to churchyards - then I would sing Hallelujah. Though I should say that whilst I hate establishment, I am more and more persuaded of 'the genius of Anglicanism'.

I confess: I sometimes suspect that I'm an evangelical 'in the closet'.

I confess: I don't think you can celebrate Holy Communion properly without incense. I also think that communion is the only form of worship which isn't ultimately foreplay.

I confess: to thinking very seriously about converting to Roman Catholicism. And deciding against it.

I confess: to not believing in the Virgin Birth in anything like a literal fashion. (Though I wholeheartedly accept John 1.12-13). I believe that orthodoxy is essential, however, so this is an ongoing spiritual problem for me.

I confess: to having a very sober expectation of witnessing a revival in my lifetime.

I confess: that John Robinson's 'Honest to God' paved the way for my coming to be a Christian.

I confess: that I haven't read that much theology 'in the original'. Most of what I know about theology and theologians has come via secondary sources and conversations.

I confess: I can read Rowan Williams without struggling too much, and mostly because I think he's wonderful, as both a teacher and as a Christian man.

I confess: that the worst mark that I ever got in any school examination was for Religious Education. In my defence, I was a militant atheist at the time, and I thought it all nonsense.

I confess: that I first started reading the Bible for myself when I was about six years old. I read through the first few chapters of Genesis before getting stuck. I have now read through all of it, at least once, but I am vastly more familiar with the gospels than anything else.

I confess: that I read and enjoyed and was much persuaded by a Jehovah's Witness tract on Creationism when I was about 14. I then thought I'd read an alternative point of view and read Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. That's when my atheism became militant.

I confess: that if I wasn't a Christian I'd be a Buddhist.

I confess: to the zeal of the convert when it comes to pondering atheism. Having thrown of its intellectual shackles myself, I get a bit impatient with those who still think it's anything like a tenable understanding for human living. I don't think there will be much atheism in another generation or two.

I confess: to believing that theology is the queen of the sciences.

I confess: to believing that the Bible teaches works-righteousness when taken as a whole. Which I don't think is in contradiction to sola gratia, it just describes the form that grace must take.

I confess: to finding traditional language of hell, Satan and the demonic more and more relevant and applicable as time goes on. I'm fully sold on the idea of spiritual warfare.

I confess: to not having doubted the existence of God for at least ten years, possibly more. My acceptance of God is more fundamental in me than my acceptance of my own self. I've tried to doubt, I'm just incapable of doing it.

I confess: to believing that my most formative theological influence may be Stephen R Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

I confess: to desiring a third section of the Bible containing works of the Church Fathers, to be given equal authority with the Old Testament.

I confess: to believing that historical Christianity failed to develop a proper theology of the body, which is responsible for most of the havoc in that regard that we now experience. We need a Christian martial art.

I confess: that the idea of lay presidency appals me. It's either a redundant aim (because communion is celebrated by everyone) or it's simply an expression of immature and astonishingly impoverished theology. Priesthood is a differentiation sideways, not vertically, so what precisely is being objected to? I can't see this as anything other than being haunted by a 16th century ghost.

I confess: to believing that most people, including most theologians, have got absolutely no idea how implicated in worldly structures of thought Christianity has become. The sort of people I think do have an idea about this are Fergus Kerr and Nicholas Lash, mainly because they've 'got' Wittgenstein, and someone like Eugene Peterson - because the Holy Spirit is with him, probably via Yoder.

I confess: that I was once sorely tempted to sign up to Radical Orthodoxy, whereas now I see it as the last flowering of precisely that worldly pattern of theology. Just what is their view of Scripture, pray tell?

I confess: to once saying I would never allow a guitar to be used in worship. I have changed my mind on this.

I confess: I'm still tempted by the thought of a PhD.

I confess: that I'd like to train as an exorcist.

I confess: that if I'd become ordained sooner I'd probably be a member of Forward in Faith. The Lord's timing is always perfect.

I confess: that I am utterly convinced and convicted of my own status as a sinner. I don't expect that to change in this world, but I do trust that it won't prevent me from enjoying the next.

I confess: that when I let myself, I am prone to visions. I don't let myself very often, because they're very disruptive. They're also usually about Jesus. I don't think that in and of themselves they are theologically all that significant, although they most certainly are significant for me and my spiritual growth.

I confess: that I believe that "eternal life" is at least as much about what happens in this world as in the next.

I confess: that I have changed my mind about the role of excommunication in church discipline, mainly from reading Cavanaugh. I also confess to having absolutely no idea of how to take this forward.

I confess: to feeling closest to God when I can sing in worship, especially the Exsultet. It's a wound to me to be apart from a congregation where singing the eucharistic prayer is natural. It seems as if the celebration is always limping and fragmentary; and I'm tempted to say it's better off not being sung at all - that way at least there is a unity amongst the people.

I confess: this list has gone on too long. I could probably keep going all night, but that wouldn't help anyone.

Miami Vice

Not bad, but not particularly great either. I rate Michael Mann as a director, but this didn't gel. Looked beautiful though.

Possession and Depression

My sermon from Sunday, talking about mental illness, depression and salvation. Click full post for text. (Texts: Luke 8.26-39 and Galatians 3.23-end)

Doctor, doctor, you've got to help me, my brother thinks that he's a chicken! Well why don't you bring him in to see me then? We can't do that, we need the eggs!

We have in our gospel today the story of the healing a man possessed by demons. I would like to say something about mental illness in general, and depression in particular. As a society we have virtually lost the language of describing certain forms of behaviour using spiritual categories - not necessarily "demonic possession" - but the realisation that theology is an essential component of understanding human life. I'm a bit of a sceptic about "mental illness" as such (see this post), and I'm greatly sceptical about pharmaceutical involvement unless there are exceptional circumstances - in my view much of what we describe as mental illness is most often a spiritual issue, and it requires spiritual treatment; that is, at root, much so-called mental illness is resolvable through faith; it is caused by bad theology and it is cured by good theology. I wouldn't wish to deny the existence, in some situations, of an organic basis, which requires medication - but I think it is vastly rarer than the current medical practice would allow for. To flesh this out I want to talk about depression in particular.

To begin with, some forms of depression can be very healthy and right and necessary - not an illness at all, it is a time of spiritual adjustment to new realities. For example, if someone you love dies then it is both natural and necessary to experience loss - to expect someone newly widowed to be all bright and bubbly is manifest nonsense.

Other forms of depression can also be a response to a great sin, where the conscience cries out for release, and it needs a process of confession and absolution. The trouble with this is that it rests upon a robust account of sin, the idea that some actions are wrong and some actions are sins. In our wider culture sin is not named and people can flounder in great confusion and anguish until they are able to see clearly the situation that they are in - the naming is important, and the truth sets free.

Depression can also be born from a refusal to change to new realities in life, and is therefore about an inner dishonesty. In my experience this normally resolves around anger - anger is seen as illegitimate, it is therefore buried, and the soul is poisoned. The cure for this sort of depression is to let the anger out, to discover more about our own souls and pursue the path of honesty with oneself. The most helpful thing here is to remember that Jesus gets angry - and if the new reality is something toxic, which destroys life, which is injustice - then anger is precisely what is called for to confront that new reality and fight it. Anger has two children, hope and courage - and they are both very healing - for the poison is no longer internalised, it is no longer seen as part of the identity of the sufferer. They are no longer to blame. However, I should note that there is a problem with anger. I think anger is always a gift from God, and a sign of falsehood and injustice - but anger by itself does not say whether the problem, the falsehood or injustice, is on the inside or on the outside. Prayer is still needed.

There is another form of depression which is just as often about transference from a community, where somebody is kept "ill" - the community 'need the eggs' - and I believe that this story of the Gerasene demoniac is an example. Note carefully that the demoniac is kept chained in place - he is not allowed to wander into the desert and separate from the community, but is kept as one who is 'living dead', unclothed (no social standing) and living amongst the tombs. The demoniac is a scapegoat - note the name of the demon is 'legion' or 'mob' or 'crowd' - it is precisely the mentality of the mob that has infected him. In the description of this story in Mark's gospel the man is stoning himself, which is such a potent symbol of internalising the standards of the wider society. How many people do we know who spend their time stoning themselves because they feel that they deserve that punishment? The demoniac is functioning as a scapegoat within the social system - remember the description of the rite in Leviticus, where the High Priest lays hands upon the goat and transfers all the sins of the community onto it, and it is then driven out into the wilderness. This is a very widespread cultural phenomenon, we can see many examples of it in our own time - the one serves the many by being excluded, and then the group feels better - the scapegoat is the lynchpin of the system. What is remarkable is the word for scapegoat in the Greek rite - pharmakos - you could say humans are addicted to the drug of scapegoating, and that in our society we are no longer so vulgar as to stone people, we simply give pharmaceuticals to the pharmakon instead.

'What have you to do with me?' says the man to Jesus. It's as if he is expecting Jesus to be on the side of the established system, but Jesus is different, he is transformative and he breaks the system. He heals the man - not by transferring his sense of wrongness onto somebody else within the community (that would have kept the system in place) but by transferring the demons into a group of pigs who then die. The possession comes to an end. And what really reveals the complicity of the community is there is no relief, there is no delight in the curing of the man - instead there is fear, a sentiment repeatedly affirmed in the narrative. For how can the society carry on functioning without its lynchpin? The possessed man is healed but the community are most explicitly not healed - they are still possessed by the scapegoating process and do not know how to live without it. So the first thing they do is ask Jesus to leave - another scapegoat!

Christ is always acting to stop the process of scapegoating. And Paul has something to say about this too. His teaching from Galatians that we have just had is a powerful call to unity. He abolishes the three most important ways in which the human community separated out the clean from the unclean - racism, sexism and economic oppression - and he claims that for the Christian that is now irrelevant. Nobody is outside our circle - we are all sinners, therefore we are not kept clean by excluding the mad the bad and the dangerous - and the mad the bad and the dangerous are not isolated from us. We are all in this together, and so we can none of us be understood separately from the system within which we are a part. For the Christian, we no longer need a lynchpin - for the one who forms us was himself lynched.

The cure for possession is possession, "until Christ is born in us" - Jesus is the way the truth and the life, his burden is light, he sets us free... but hang on. There is a DANGER here, a danger that the Christian community hasn't always avoided. We could simply set up a new system, where the depressed are blamed for having a lack of faith - then called more and more strenuously to really convert - it really is still all their fault and we are still not really to blame, we are still separate and pure whilst they are unclean: a new system with new lynchpins. No. That is not the faith. The whole point of being filled with Christ is that we no longer define ourselves over against other human beings - 'we're not like those atheists/ catholics/ baptists/ 9.30 people/ 11 o'clockers/ those who haven't been born again - fill in your own definition here....' We define ourselves solely by reference to our relationship with Christ - until Christ is born in us.

This is not an experience, a special holy moment, but a dawning awareness that beneath our wrongness which occupies the dramatic front of stage in our minds, we are right with God. That God loves us, that God likes us, and that God is working to heal us and drive out our demons - that is what a living faith does - it slowly takes up our wounded hearts and minds and it brings them to Christ that they might be healed. Our destiny is to sit at Christ's feet, clothed and in our right mind, and when that happens - only when that happens - we are to follow Christ's command: 'go and tell what God has done for you' - for then the whole community is healed, and the Kingdom shall come.

Captain Sensible says

We're glad it's all over
tum tum
We're glad it's all over

For Madpriest

A man and his dog were walking along a road. The man was enjoying the scenery, when it suddenly occurred to him that he was dead.

He remembered dying, and that the dog walking beside him had been dead for years. He wondered where the road was leading them.

After a while, they came to a high, white stone wall along one side of the road. It looked like fine marble. At the top of a long hill, it was broken by a tall arch that glowed in the sunlight. When he was standing before it he saw a magnificent gate in the arch that looked like mother-of-pearl, and the street that led to the gate looked like pure gold. He and the dog walked toward the gate, and as he got closer, he saw a man at a desk to one side.

When he was close enough, he called out, "Excuse me, where are we?"

"This is Heaven, sir," the man answered.

"Wow! Would you happen to have some water?" the man asked.

"Of course, sir. Come right in, and I'll have some ice water brought right up."

The man gestured, and the gate began to open.

"Can my friend," gesturing toward his dog, "come in, too?" the traveller asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, but we don't accept pets."

The man thought a moment and then turned back toward the road and continued the way he had been going with his dog.

After another long walk, and at the top of another long hill, he came to a dirt road leading through a farm gate that looked as if it had never been closed. There was no fence.

As he approached the gate, he saw a man inside, leaning against a tree and reading a book.

"Excuse me!" he called to the man. "Do you have any water?"
"Yeah, sure, there's a pump over there, come on in."

"How about my friend here?" the traveller gestured to the dog.
"There should be a bowl by the pump."

They went through the gate, and sure enough, there was an old-fashioned hand pump with a bowl beside it.

The traveller filled the water bowl and took a long drink himself, then he gave some to the dog.

When they were full, he and the dog walked back toward the man who was standing by the tree.

"What do you call this place?" the traveller asked.

"This is Heaven," he answered.

"Well, that's confusing," the traveller said. "The man down the road said that was Heaven, too."

"Oh, you mean the place with the gold street and pearly gates? Nope. That's hell."

"Doesn't it make you mad for them to use your name like that?"

"No, we're just happy that they screen out the folks who would leave their best friends behind."

The Last Oil Shock (David Strahan)

This was a rather good overview of the Peak Oil problem, from a British perspective, and despite being pretty well informed on the subject - or so I like to tell myself - there were a number of things I learnt, particularly with regard to details about Hubbert's techniques of forecasting oil production and the influence of energy consumption on economic growth. Recommended, especially if you haven't read anything else on the subject.

Strahan is a BBC journalist; his blog is here; a relevant Guardian article from yesterday is here.


My name is

Monday, June 25, 2007


A breakthrough, I do believe there has been a breakthrough.

This evening a gay person asked if I would support them if push came to shove.

I said I would.

I pray that God will enable me to honour that promise.

It's the secondary effects, stupid

OK, let's run with this idea: we're at the peak of oil production now; and some societies have been priced out of the market for oil - for them the oil age has now passed (eg Guinea, Senegal, Central America). The West, being rich, will be able to outcompete other nations and peoples for tradeable oil. This gives the West a little longer to adjust, and those who have hardly adjusted to the age of oil will go back to previous customary practice.

Those whose cultural memories of traditional practice have vanished - ie they are two or three generations into dependency on fossil fuels - won't be able to transition back easily. They will also not be able to compete with the West on the open market - they're stuck in the middle, being too rich to do without oil, and too poor to pay for it directly. This is basically South and East Asia I'm thinking of. So what are they going to do? They're either going to react passively - in which case we are looking at vast waves of human migration as they seek food to eat - or they will react aggressively, in which case the parallels between Europe 1914 and South East Asia 2014 will loom large.

Either way, it's the secondary effects that will have most immediate impact on the West, not the initial price rise of oil.

Is Christ Divided? session 8

Click 'full post' for text of latest notes on 1 Corinthians - chapter 7 this time.

Is Christ Divided?
Notes for the house groups on 1 Corinthians.

Week eight, beginning Sunday 25 June: 1 Corinthians 7

Main themes: Marriage and sexuality

Questions to prompt discussion

1.Does Christianity have a positive understanding sexuality? Our wider non-Christian culture would undoubtedly shout 'No!' - why is this? Where has the radically disordered understanding of sexuality in our society come from? Is there anything that the church needs to repent of?
2.Is it ever permissible to seek a divorce?
3.Divorce is now prevalent in our culture, and in our church community - how do we live with this situation as Christians?
4.What does Paul mean when he says that 'the time is short' (v29)? Was he wrong, or do we just need to 'spiritualise' his comments?

Supplementary thoughts:
Paul is now beginning to respond to other questions raised by the Corinthian church in a letter to him; we can guess at their views: a) those who are single should avoid marriage; b) the married should refrain from sex; c) those who are married, especially to unbelievers, should be divorced; d) those who are engaged should not proceed to marriage. Paul goes through each of these points in turn.

Paul very rarely states explicitly that his teaching is 'from the Lord', yet he does so for the teaching on divorce in verses 10 and 11, which ties in with what Jesus says in the gospels (Mk 10.2-11 and parallels). Yet Paul seems to have a very pragmatic attitude in much of this passage, and a distinct awareness of human vulnerability and weakness - see verse 11 in particular. Another passage of relevance is Mark 12.25, within its context. Paul is also quite moderate in his attitude, seeming to allow for the possibility that he might be wrong (verses 6, 25, 40).

Much of Paul's argumentation rests on the desirability of not changing a present state (married/virgin/slave etc), in the light of tribulations soon to arrive - Paul expects the end of the world to arrive within his lifetime (see 1 Thess 4.15 and 1 Cor 15.52 for parallels), though his views moderated over time.

Notes on verses
v 1: literally, 'it is good for a man not to touch a woman', ie have sexual relations. 'Marriage' is not mentioned.
vv 3&4: Paul is very radical and egalitarian in his teaching here
v 7: it is not known what Paul's 'state' was - he was either celibate or a widower.
vv 12-16: note Paul's reversal of the direction of contamination (again, very radical!)
v 17: 'called' probably means that state in which one was converted, not a vocation to which one is summoned (cf v 20, 24)
v 19 is rather paradoxical, which was probably Paul's intent - ie 'rethink the assumptions!'

One option on the Bible question


Best film moments

Lovely excuse to waste time here. Some of my favourites: 6, 37, 71, 78, 92.


I love to walk along the edge.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Lady in the Water

Wonderful. I'm a fan of Shyamalan, and I think this may be his best yet. Of course, all the subtleties were lost on mainstream reviewers, and I'm sure it's not to everybody's taste, but as a fable and parable - outstandingly good.

May the Lord have mercy on ECUSA

Bizarre story here.

This is what got me: "Redding's bishop, the Rt. Rev. Vincent Warner, says he accepts Redding as an Episcopal priest and a Muslim, and that he finds the interfaith possibilities exciting."

I find this mindbendingly awful.

Found via AKMA; comments also at Caelius' site and *Christopher's place; and here.

5 things I dig about Jesus

Finally got tagged with this meme by Tom.

1. Jesus was a bloke - by which I don't just mean that he was male, but that he liked to have a drink with his friends and spend time hanging out with them.

2. Jesus also liked women - Mary Magdalene in particular - but he was really 'together' about it, which is a complicated way of saying that the Da Vinci code argument is complete garbage.

3. Jesus got angry. Often. Sometimes he was very aggressive about it as well, either verbally to the Pharisees, or physically as in the cleansing of the temple. I really dig that about him.

4. He got frightened, but did it anyway.

5. He transformed his friends by forgiving them after they had run away. That's still the heartbeat of the faith for me.

I don't think I'm going to tag anyone with this.

Not by our own feelings

A post going into more detail with my thoughts about 'conversion'. Click full post for the text.

My principal concern and criticism of evangelicalism lies in the way that it relocates the source of religious authority from an institution to an inward sentiment, ie the personal experience of God's activity normally described as 'conversion'. There's a sense in which this is healthy, but what I want to outline are the ways in which it is decidedly unhealthy.

It's not Scriptural.
I'm grateful for all the feedback to my question on this topic, but many of the references provided, it seems to me, are read anachronistically when they are read as justifying the emphasis upon particular experience. What I mean by that is the Scriptural understanding of 'the heart' is different to a contemporary Western understanding of 'the heart'. So far as I am aware, in the Bible, the 'heart' is the seat of judgement and will (sometimes other internal organs), and there is no division between 'the head and the heart', understood as a conflict between judgement and passions. The conflict takes place within the heart as a whole. So when we are encouraged by the prophets with the vision of having our hearts of stone replaced by hearts of flesh this is not a reference to becoming more sentimental - it is a reference to making decisions more compassionately, with regard to their effect upon our neighbour. The division current in our society between 'the head', meaning judgement and rationality, and 'the heart', meaning affections and sentiment, I believe to be wholly foreign to Scriptural categories. I could be wrong on this (please point it out if I am) but this seems to undermine many (not all) of the Scriptural references offered. I'm not disagreeing with the Scripture references as describing a change of heart (ie that which is essential to faith) but that they necessarily describe a "conversion" as it seems to be understood in contemporary evangelical culture.

One of the core texts for me is Romans 10.9, which describes, in my view, the core Christian proclamation and expression of faith, but Paul goes on to say 'For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified'. Here he's using 'heart' in the way I understand above - it is the ground of the personality, the fount of all that follows. I have no doubt that a 'change of heart' can be dramatic with profound physical expressions, as with Paul on the road to Damascus. Yet it also seems to me that the process can be gradual - we are not given much detail about how the other apostles grew in faith; I rather doubt that they all had a Pauline conversion! The dramatic and overwhelming personal experience is undoubtedly one way in which God can redeem a soul; I think it is not only presumptuous to imagine it is the only way, but Scripture testifies to diversity in this matter.

A different way of saying this same point is to say that it's a product of human culture: I'll go into this in more detail in my talks, as it's an area where I've done quite a lot of research on the context into which evangelicalism was born, but Noll puts it judiciously: "... in other significant ways, evangelicalism was itself an authentic expression of Enlightenment principles. Evangelicals... held, with Locke, that the self's personal experience was foundational for obtaining reliable knowledge. 'True religion', for evangelicals, might be recommended by tradition and by formal authorities, but until people personally experienced the love of God in their hearts, evangelicals held that their standing before God had to be in doubt". I just don't see this as legitimately derived from Scripture, and as the wider culture starts to move beyond Enlightenment principles, the influence of the Enlightenment on evangelicalism will become much clearer.

It undermines the church and causes active and profound spiritual harm in the life of Christian believers.
What I mean by this is that when the experience within a believer is given pride of place, the inherited tradition and wisdom of the church is progressively undermined. This means that the possibilities of correction to the individual will become fewer and fewer. This is really about the doctrine of original sin, and the ever-present potentiality of human self-deception. I do not wish to deny the reality, power, and salvific effect of dramatic conversions when they genuinely happen. What I object to is the use of such an experience to demarcate the Christian from the non-Christian. That is, I want to say that the testimony of a 'conversion' has no necessary and irrevocable link to the presence of the Holy Spirit within a believer. There are believers who have not had this conversion experience where the Holy Spirit is a shaping force in the life; there are those with eloquent testimony where the Spirit is absent. The root point is primarily that we are not in a position to judge between believers on the basis of such a putative occurrence.

Where there is an emphasis upon this sort of experience, and where in particular it is seen as the marker of salvation, it can cause profound spiritual harm, both in the lives of individual believers (John Wesley himself comes to mind, but I've had direct dealings with the consequences in many individuals) and also in the life of a church community (West Mersea carries scars from this). What evangelicalism sometimes seems to have become is an insistence that unless you use particularly effusive and emotional language then you are going to hell, and it therefore has absolutely nothing to say to those who are weak, vulnerable and depressed, other than asking for more and more exertions of belief. The one who is depressed is blamed for the depression; the light burden of Christ has become the crippling weight that destroys the soul. Instead of a works-righteousness there is now a creeping experience-righteousness, each of which is equally Pharisaical. I believe that the inherited traditions of the church have much richer and wiser guidance to offer in terms of shaping the ongoing life of the Christian community.

It leads to quietism (seen most obviously, in the present day, in things like the SBC statement denying global warming).
Conversion is about the shift from a 'nominal faith' to an embrace of 'true religion' - one which grips a person, which makes a difference in their life. It seems to me indisputable that this shift is essential to Christianity - it underlies all of Jesus' disagreements with the Pharisees for example, and the Scriptural instruction on this is vast. Yet what matters in this conversion is the orientation of the character; that is, what will then flow, what are the fruits? For we are also told consistently throughout Scripture that deeds count (see Rev 20.12-13 for the most explicit description of that judgement!) Before misunderstandings can run away too quickly THIS DOES NOT UNDERMINE THE PRIORITY OF GRACE! It is to say that when grace is active in our lives it will inevitably have an effect on the way that we live.

The prayers in the BCP are eloquent on this subject: "O God, the strength of all them that put their trust in thee, mercifully accept our prayers, and because through the weakness of our mortal nature we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping of thy commandments we may please thee, both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen." (Collect for First Sunday after Trinity). At the heart of the BCP's spirituality - of Protestant spirituality! - it seems to me, there is no room for any pride on the part of the Christian; there is instead an acknowledgement that we proceed solely by grace, both in terms of our inner dispositions ('will') and in terms of our outer accomplishments ('deed'). Yet the outer accomplishments still matter; the wider world still matters. This is what I think has become lost through the evangelical understanding of 'conversion', understood as the inward experience of salvation.

I believe that the Spirit is found in the interplay between the institution and the individual, and that excessive reliance on one pole will inevitably lead to idolatry. In correcting (necessarily correcting) the institution so successfully, evangelicalism has itself now become an institution in need of radical correction. In December 1789 John Wesley wrote some advice to Sarah Mallett, one of the earliest Methodist lay preachers, which included this advice: "You are not to judge by your own feelings, but by the word of God." Like many things that Wesley said, this seems to me to be right.

The Rise of Evangelicalism (Mark Noll)

Just finished this, which was a really good historical overview - just what I needed as I start to research evangelicalism more thoroughly for my autumn Learning Church series. I am now much clearer in my mind about what evangelicalism is, and what I like and don't like about it. I'm most particularly intrigued by the influence that High-Church theology had on its beginnings, mainly via the Wesleys, as I suspect that there is the stream where I would locate myself, in what Noll calls 'primitivism': "the faith thought to have been practiced with great purity in the church's very first centuries... imitation of the faith and life of early believers, ascetic practice for the self, godly discipline for society and regular participation in the church's celebration of the Eucharist".

I'm not going to say too much more in this review because so many issues were raised that I want to explore them in separate posts, but it's probably worth sharing some longish quotations.

The four key ingredients [as defined by David Bebbington]:
- conversion, or 'the belief that lives need to be changed';
- the Bible, or 'the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages';
- activism, or the dedication of all believers, including lay people, to lives of service for God, especially as manifested in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies); and
- crucicentrism, or the conviction that Christ's death was the crucial matter in providing atonement for sin (ie providing reconciliation between a holy God and sinful humans).

If evangelicals were strong in personal reassurance before God, they were weak in the formation of worldviews. If they stripped away other considerations to focus on the need for a Saviour, they sometimes also stripped away the urgency to think generally about responsible Christian life in the world. The remarkable effects from concentrating on Christian experience as depicted in Scripture were often matched by the deliberate devaluation of intellectual tradition. At the end of the day, evangelical concern for society reflected the character of the movement as a whole. It was a pietistic movement that did much good in the world. But as a pietistic movement its focused attention on the spiritual tended to edge aside, rather than stimulate, self-conscious attention to the social.

At its worst, this new evangelicalism neglected, caricatured and distorted the inherited tradtions of Reformation Protestantism. Evangelical beliefs and practices could foster a self-centered, egotistic and narcissistic spirituality and also create new arenas for destructive spiritual competition. From in-group cliches, associations and institutions, evangelicals sometimes constructed new barriers to alienate humans from each other. They could turn so obsessively inward as to ignore the structures of social evil. Most important, evangelicals could trivialise the Christian gospel by treating it as a ballyhooed commodity to be hawked for its power to soothe a nervous, dislocated people in the opening cultural markets of the expanding British Empire.
But at its best evangelicalism provided needed revitalisation to English-speaking Protestant Christianity. It breathed vibrant religious life into stagnant or confused religious institutions. It created dynamic communities of self-giving love and international networks of supporting fellowship. It reached out to many at the margins of respectable society. From authentic personal experience it provided a dynamism for addressing corporate evils. Most important, it communicated the beauty and the power of the Christian gospel in a wide variety of settings and through that gospel provided a wider range of individuals with purpose before God and meaning for this life, and it did so for the long haul.

Great stuff.


At the foot of the cross

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fantastic Four and the Rise of the Silver Surfer

"I am so hot for you right now...."

Great fun, with some very good moments.


The downside is that it gives the impression that 'Happy Motoring' can continue on the scale it is now. It won't - and the transition away from it will be ugly - but it's a sign of what might be possible at the margins. After all, if you were designing a transport system from scratch, you wouldn't design it around the car - and that's effectively the situation we'll be in after Peak Oil really kicks in. Cars will once more be for the rich; most people will take the train. Or walk. Or cycle...

A request for help

I'm reading Mark Noll's 'The Rise of Evangelicalism' at the moment - nearly finished, and there'll be a long post about it when I do - but I was wondering if people could point out Scriptural references to 'conversion', as understood in the Wesleyan/ Whitefield/ Edwards sense, ie an inner experience or assurance of salvation, the 'heart strangely warmed' etc.

I can't think of many. The 'born again' passage of John 3 might qualify, though it's a bit of a stretch; more broadly the whole 'remove hearts of stone and give hearts of flesh' strand seems relevant - but are there any others? All references gratefully received!


You did not choose me

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Amen brother! You preach it!

"Consumers demand options, but this poses a problem. Formation into the likeness of Christ is not accomplished by always getting what we want. In ages past, choice was not heralded as a Christian's right. In fact, relinquishing our choices by submitting to a spiritual mentor or community was prerequisite to growth in Christ. Believers were guided through formative and corrective disciplines—most being activities we would never choose if left to our desires. But surrendering control ensured we received what we needed to mature in Christ, not simply what we wanted."

Found here, via here.

In a strange mood - possibly helped by a large glass of red wine to my right and the awareness of two days off kicking in. Having a weekend is transforming my life - the most notable difference is a general calmness and a much happier wife! But it's allowing more things to come through that would previously have been smothered - an admission which is itself a little bit damning. "Incumbency drives out priesthood" once more.

Lots and lots of things flowing through my mind. There might be a biggie post tomorrow. But the thing is that I'm really in a very mellow frame of mind, and I don't think it's the wine....

Spurgeon on weekly communion

“So with the Lord’s Supper. My witness is, and I think I speak the mind of many of God’s people now present, that coming as some of us do, weekly, to the Lord’s table, we do not find the breaking of bread to have lost its significance—it is always fresh to us. I have often remarked on Lord’s-day evening, whatever the subject may have been, whether Sinai has thundered over our heads, or the plaintive notes of Calvary have pierced our hearts, it always seems equally appropriate to come to the breaking of bread. Shame on the Christian church that she should put it off to once a month, and mar the first day of the week by depriving it of its glory in the meeting together for fellowship and breaking of bread, and showing forth of the death of Christ till he come. They who once know the sweetness of each Lord’s-day celebrating his Supper, will not be content, I am sure, to put it off to less frequent seasons. Beloved, when the Holy Ghost is with us, ordinances are wells to the Christian, wells of rich comfort and of near communion.” “Songs of Deliverance,” Sermon no. 763, July 28, 1867, preaching from Judges 5:11.

(taken from the I-Monk's interesting series)

La la la lala la la

Found courtesy of MadPriest.


The murk has lifted.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Running out of the Bible

At that rather significant PCC meeting the other week I recommended changing the Bible that we used in our worship. I had thought this was going to be a simple and straightforward process but I was blindsided by a critique of the proposal, which made me think that a) it wasn't anywhere near as straightforward as I had expected, and that therefore b) I needed to be much clearer about what I was recommending and why. The PCC, rather sensibly, agreed to defer a decision on the matter. My thoughts haven't reached a settled stage as yet - I am still pondering what the right way forward would be - but prompted by reading this post I thought it would help (help me at least!) to set out my present thinking on the subject. Click 'full post' for text.

The presenting issue needing to be addressed was literally that we were running out of the Bible in our 9:30 service. One of the few changes made to the 9:30 since its inception was introducing a corporate reading of the Psalm set for the day, which change seems to work well. However, we have only some 40 copies of the NIV in church, and given that we are now regularly attracting 70 or more worshippers, we need to have more bibles to use (or more psalters - see below). I explored a little bit about what corporate advice was given on the subject of purchasing Bibles and discovered that a) the NIV is not authorised for use at BCP services (of which we have several), and b) that the Church of England recommends using a Bible that contains the deuterocanonical books, and makes provision for reading from those texts in its lectionary. From my point of view this led quite strongly to shifting from the NIV to (probably) the NRSV; in part my attitude was conditioned by a tacit sense that the NRSV was the 'officially approved' text, that is, in terms of wider material and usage the NRSV seems to be the one chosen by the hierarchy - so, for example, the Revised Common Lectionary is available in NRSV and (so far as I can tell) not in any other translation.

As I say, I was blindsided by wider issues being raised at the meeting. In part these were issues about the importance of 'literal translation' and so on, but more substantially it was pointed out that the provision of NIVs had been made some 15 years or so earlier, by a dearly loved curate, and that the worshipping community had now become accustomed to the NIV, not simply through use in church but also through the purchase of their own study bibles. This is by no means a trivial point, and the weight of it is what I am presently spending time pondering! I don't believe it to be absolutely conclusive, but it is certainly enough for me to believe I was wrong in considering this a straightforward question for the PCC to resolve rapidly. Hence these further thoughts, as I think out loud on my blog...

So there are various issues to explore.
The issue of translation itself: there are (simply speaking) two concerns in translation - a 'word for word' rendition, and a 'meaning for meaning' rendition. Some translations will concentrate more on the former; some the latter. Translation is very much an art, not a science, and requires judgement in order to work effectively. It's also something that is perpetually necessary, especially with regard to the Bible, because even if the original texts don't change, the language use in the receving community does - and so preservation of one translation in perpetuity leads to an ever-increasing loss of intelligibility (though that point can and does need to be qualified further). So the choice of translation as such is a judgement call, and partly a matter of taste. I don't personally like the NIV very much - but that's probably because I am less used to it, having been trained using the RSV. (NB That preference is by no means sufficient for changing the Bible being used.)

One substantial concern about the NIV, as opposed to other versions, is the absence of the Deutero-Canonical literature. This is one way in which the NIV's nature as a 'Protestant' Bible becomes clear, and this becomes a source of contention. However, I do take seriously the authority of the church on this question (something I tend to do in any case) and I therefore see it as a serious lack that we don't have use of this literature for our edification, either in worship or in private study. As an example of why this might matter, consider this (taken from here)
I would expect to use Sirach to elucidate the Fourth Gospel. Put these texts side by side:
Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more. (Sirach 24:19-21, NRSV my emphasis)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35 NRSV)
I don’t know how to expound the second text doctrinally or spiritually without referring to the first. I’m not sure that this is to ascribe “derivative” (John’s term) authority to the deutero-canonicals. It seems to me that it is more than that, because in this case the canonically disputed text of Sirach has been caught up in the canonically undisputed text of John.

It seems to me that it would be a good, positive development to be able to use the deuterocanonical literature in this way - and it certainly ties in strongly with some other theological points - but given where West Mersea is as a whole this is not a sufficient argument in and of itself.

A wider question related to translation is the thorny one about inclusive language. The NRSV, amongst other amendments to the RSV, 'inclusivises' many of the texts, in such a way that where gender-specific language is not consciously intended the translation is changed to make the 'whole of humanity' aspect clearer. Whilst my instincts are to prefer a translation which 'tells it like it is' (because where do you stop if you start adjusting!) this seems to be more a matter of translating 'meaning for meaning' being given proper prominence. Treating women as second class citizens is no longer seen as acceptable, and where a text raised up and emphasised in worship is HEARD as advocating that injustice, then the translation needs to alter. That's simply a reflection of the different cultural context within which the text is received. Given that West Mersea is a church which embraces women's ministry in various forms (including having a female ordinand currently in training) it is a little bizarre to hold on to a translation which runs against that practice.

As well as these issues about 'which translation to choose' there is the more profound aspect concerning what form of spirituality is being fostered and developed. Why have a Bible used in church at all? After all, faith comes by hearing, and the use of the Bible in worship is historically through a relationship and human communication - the speaking of the Word and the hearing of the Word. Reading of the Word came in only after the invention of the printing press and is tied up with the individualising of worship that is responsible for so much spiritual poverty in the Western world today. (Sorry, I'll try not to rant). I don't expect that point to be accepted, and in fact I do think there is a strong case for saying that use of the Bible in worship encourages a sense of easy familiarity with the text which is devoutly to be encouraged.

The thing is, there is (with some noteable exceptions) a profound ignorance of the Bible within the church (not just this church, but the church in general). Even where there is knowledge of the Bible, it can be a 'flat' knowledge, rather that the proper engagement with Scripture that is transformative. Perhaps I'm dreaming a little here, but I do think an essential task of a church is to foster lectio divina - the new bible groups are a step towards that, but so much more is possible.

A central part of such a project would undoubtedly be a more widespread use of the Daily Office - for that to be seen and accepted as simply a normal part of Christian discipleship. I am greatly encouraged when I see the emergent community embracing this ancient practice; the issue seems to be 'evangelicals of a certain age' for whom any form of corporate liturgical prayer is anathema (for it offends the great idol of individual relationship with God). This saddens me, but I'm certain that the Spirit is moving on this topic. I'm certainly greatly blessed whenever people join me in prayer, and I think the Office is irreplaceable as a means to soak the believer in Scripture.

Which brings me to where my pondering has now reached: why do we need a new Bible at all? Why not simply purchase psalters for use at 9:30 and 6:30? Well, there doesn't seem to be a 'Common Worship Psalter' as such - but the psalter is contained in both the core 'Common Worship' book itself (= "CW"), and within the Office book Daily Prayer ("DP"). One possibility is simply to purchase sufficient copies of CW for the congregation to use. This has the advantage of not just containing the psalter but also the texts for various different services, and could be used for both Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays - it would give a fair bit of flexibility and more resources if we went down that route. If we purchased lots of copies of DP then we'd get the psalter (a better version, in fact) along with some tremendously good resources in terms of canticles and so on, but we wouldn't get the orders of services that we use on Sundays. The upside of using DP, though, would be that it would be much easier to accustom people to the Office - and I do see pursuing that as carrying a great potential for blessing. We might even encourage people to purchase their own copies, for use at home - or even, for those a bit frightened of the main DP book (which is a bit chunky) the rather excellent introductory form which Tim Chesterton put me on to, called Time to Pray.

The more I ponder these issues, the more I become aware of the size of the question, and the more silly I feel for thinking it a straightforward matter. Being someone who gives great respect to church authority and tradition I was unaware of the 'third rail' aspect which discussions of the Bible can have amongst evangelicals. Yet it is precisely that authority and tradition which provides the richest standpoint from which to engage with Scripture, and which allows for a solid spiritual and Scriptural foundation for the worshipping community. The issue is what provision can we make which will most strengthen the community in its walk with God - bearing in mind that we are not simply engaging with the community in its present form, but also making decisions on behalf of those people who are coming into the faith without much background. If I was a dictator I'd say 'NRSV and DP!' - but I'm not, so I've got to keep pondering a little longer.


So, a quick summary of what I believe about Peak Oil:

- Peak Oil is a geological phenomenon and, to all intents and purposes, we are at the peak now;
- the implications of the peak are a shift from cheap and easy energy to hard and expensive energy;
- the minimum we can expect is a decade long and very hard economic recession;
- if the absence of enlightened political leadership continues then things will be much worse, especially with regard to international affairs - principally wars and mass migration;
- most of the 'solutions' are already technically possible, no new inventions are needed in order to preserve techonological civilisation;
- however, it is impossible to preserve private commuting in any shape resembling what we have at present, all automobiles will soon become worthless;
- it is fundamentally a question of values, ie how we choose to shape our lives. God is asking us what we want to give priority to, and he is forcing us to choose between alternatives. So far the West is choosing happy motoring over feeding the third world - I don't see anyway to escape that injustice - that is why I believe God's wrath is descending upon us;
- I don't see this as the end of human civilisation (unless we're really stupid) - in thirty years time I believe we will be established in a sustainable, technologically advanced and human-scale civilisation. The only question is how many people get there with us.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Jubilate deo, Jubilate deo, Alleluia.

The Forgotten Ways (Alan Hirsch)

I found this to be a very good book, although it had one or two very irritating flaws, not the least of which was an astonishingly inane jacket-quote from someone called Leonard Sweet, which would have prevented me from buying the book if I had seen it beforehand.

But that's a cavil. This is an excellent book about mission; one that I will almost certainly be sharing with the wider leadership team here. It's had quite an impact on me, not least in providing 'the fourth thing'... I've often thought that (following Eugene Peterson's analysis) there were three things in my ministry that I felt called to concentrate on: celebrating communion; teaching and preaching; and spiritual direction. However, I've also felt that there was a 'fourth thing' that was in me and that didn't quite fit with this - and I've variously called it management, or leadership, or even (before I came to Mersea and decided against doing a PhD) 'the Civil Service element' in my character. What this book has done for me - and for which I am profoundly grateful - is given me a different description of this element, and one, moreover, which gives me great peace. It is the apostolic element. Hirsch quotes Steve Addison saying:
"The apostolic role within established churches and denominations requires the reinterpreting of the denomination's foundational values in the light of the demands of its mission today. The ultimate goal of these apostolic leaders is to call the denomination away from maintenance, back to mission. The apostolic denominational leader needs to be a visionary, who can outlast significant opposition from within the denominational structures and can build alliances with those who desire change. Furthermore, the strategy of the apostolic leader could involve casting vision and winning approval for a shift from maintenance to mission. In addition, the leader has to encourage signs of life within the existing structures and raise up a new generation of leaders and churches from the old. The apostolic denominational leader needs to ensure the new generation is not "frozen out" by those who resist change. Finally, such a leader must restructure the denomination's institutions so that they serve mission purposes."

In a week of great and diverse stresses it has been very healing and heartening to read that.

There were two other elements that really resonated with me: the first, that the apostolic call isn't about pastoring as commonly understood: 'in actual practice, a predominantly pastoral conception of the church and ministry now actually constitutes a major hindrance to the church reconceiving itself as a missional agency'. The second, that the apostle is first and foremost a working theologian, one who safeguards the 'DNA' of the Christian faith. That is precisely what I have seen as most essential in my ministry so far, and the source of all the positive things that have followed (such as there have been).

A final long quotation (from Karl Barth, which the book ends with):
It is certain that we all have reason to ask ourselves each of these questions and in every case quickly and clearly to give the answer:
No, the church's existence does not always have to possess the same form in the future that it possessed in the past as though this were the only possible pattern;
No, the continuance and victory of the cause of God, which the Christian Church is to serve with her witness, is not unconditionally linked with the forms of existence which it has had until now;
No, the hour may strike, and perhaps already has struck, when God, to our discomfiture, but to his glory and for the salvation of mankind, will put an end to this mode of existence because it lacks integrity;
Yes, it could be our duty to free ourselves inwardly from our dependency on that mode of existence even while it still lasts. Indeed, on the assumption that it may one day entirely disappear, we definitely should look about us for new ventures in new directions.
Yes, as the Church of God we may depend on it that if only we are attentive, God will show us such new ways as we can hardly anticipate now. And as the people who are bound to God, we may even now claim unconquerable security for ourselves through him. For his name is above all names....

Amen. Praise the Lord!


Free in my thinking but - slave to my thoughts I am

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Tilling Statement of Inerrancy

I thought this rather good:

I believe that all scripture[1] is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.[2]
I believe that the prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit and Spoke from God.
I believe that God speaks in many and various ways,[3] and most definitively he speaks about God’s Son.[4]
I believe that as we read scripture, we are invited to approach Christ,[5] and hear the final and definitive Word God speak to us in his Son.[6]
I believe that as we read and study scripture seeking Christ, we are addressed by God, that through scripture God speaks to us.
I believe the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[7]
I believe that humans do not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.[8]
I believe that the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.[9]
I believe scripture is trustworthy and precious, deserving of my study, love, time and energy.


(This is the synchroblog for this month.) Click 'full post' for text.

Every society has purity taboos - these days they often masquerade under the description of ‘hygiene’ – but even if a situation is hygienically sound, we may still have all sorts of qualms. Any society will have these taboos, and they will be used to regulate that society, to determine who is 'in' and who is 'out' - and those who are out will be precisely not touched.

This kills. Consider - a baby that is well fed but otherwise not touched will die. A baby raised in continuum fashion will thrive, even if perpetually hungry.

And the lethality of the taboo is what engages Jesus in his life and teaching. For Jesus is the one who overcomes the taboo; who deliberately transgresses the boundaries; he is the one who gives life.

This has direct political consequences. It is a large part of why Jesus is executed. A socially constructed polity must have the scapegoat - and the purity law dictates who is to be the one marked off.

It is part of the Christian ethic, part of the task for each generation of disciples, to overcome the taboos generated by their society and touch those on the outside.

It is also a part of the Christian ethic to overcome the taboos that have been established within, and to be touched on the inside.

In each case, this is where the grace of Christ operates; this is where redemption occurs; and this is where the church can be really the church.

To be a Christian is to touch and be touched. To be untouchable is to be in hell.

"The Peace of the Lord be always with you!"

To the lost Christ shows his face;

To the unloved he gives his embrace;

To those who cry in pain or disgrace,

Christ makes, with his friends , a touching place.

Other people talking about this today:
Mike Bursell muses about Christianity at the Movies
David Fisher on Touching the Pharisees - My Untouchable People Group
Jeremiah at Models of church leadership and decision-making as
they apply to outreach

John Smulo talks about Christian Untouchables
Sally Coleman shares on The Untouchables
Steve Hayes on Dalits and Hindutva
Sonja Andrews visits the subject here
Phil Wyman throws out the Loose Lips - A "SinkroBlog"

Aeon flux

It was a strange experience watching this. I'd wanted to watch it for a long time, because it's the sort of film that is right up my street, but all the reviews were so bad I had put it off until it came on Sky. I can see why the reviews were so bad but I suspect there was a really good film here trying to get out. Apparently the studio trimmed about half an hour off the director's running time - if that was all the exposition and character development it would explain the massive imbalance between style and substance in the final product. It would also explain why someone as talented as Theron would agree to be in the film. If there is ever a director's cut released, I'd probably buy it. But unless you're a trash-film-junkie like me I wouldn't recommend watching this present version.


Right, so. Big decision taken and acted on. I've sent off a book proposal (based on 'Let us be human') to Darton, Longman and Todd.

As I've previously had several rejections from publishers, my confidence isn't especially high - though this material is much more developed than it has ever been before. I'll let you know what they say.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Your own personal Jesus

I am pondering the next sequence of Learning Church talks, which will start up in October, and the theme for the first four or five will be evangelicalism - full title: "Your own Personal Jesus: an outsider's perspective on evangelicalism".

This is my initial sketch of what I'm wanting to cover:

Before the Great Awakening
- the historical context of evangelicalism (English enlightenment - John Locke - rationality); the anatomy of evangelicalism; what are the core elements? distinction between evangelicalism and Reformed theology

The great evangelicals
Jonathan Edwards; the Wesleys; John Stott (others? Billy Graham?)

The problem with America
19th century theological drift; arminianism; Charles Finney; 20th century consumer culture; Billy Graham and the altar call? Pentecostalism?

Aspects of contemporary crisis
Wycliffe Hall? Women bishops? Gay bishops? US imperialism? Theological critique continued?

The post-evangelical future
Postmodernism as removing the conditions that led to the rise of evangelicalism, and therefore where evangelicalism is now; 'deep church'; emerging church; a survey of divisions and the lie of the land.

To oversimplify drastically I'm going to argue for the following:
- evangelicalism was born out of a reaction to a sterile and non-Christian culture, most specifically English culture after the Glorious Revolution (1688), and it has two great virtues that stand out against that background - i) an insistence on the centrality of Jesus for Christian faith, and ii) an embrace of a more affective understanding of the faith. This is the sense in which 'personal Jesus' is very positive, ie a transforming relationship, 'my Lord and my God';
- Jonathan Edwards and (especially) the Wesleys as still having vast amounts to teach us about what it is to be a Christian today;
- the corruption of evangelicalism by influences stemming from the United States in the nineteenth century, looking at Finney in particular, leading to Jesus becoming a commodity incorporated into a wider economic system, the consumer model of church - "personal Jesus" as analogous to "personal trainer", "personal assistant", "personal shopper", ie an extension of individual will;
- links between 'classic' evangelicalism and the early church - the emerging consensus.

You could say that the Johnny Cash version of the song reflects the first understanding; the Depeche Mode original explores the latter....

This is me thinking out loud. I'm posting it because - as an outsider (smile) - I'm sure there are all sorts of aspects that people out there will know more about than I do, so if anyone sees any big gaps, please do say 'hey, you haven't mentioned ______' - that's really crucial to understanding evangelicalism!

(NB I will rely on a distinction between evangelicalism and Reformed theology, which I will argue for in the first session)

Resource constraints will limit global warming

At last some thorough analysis on how Peak Oil links in with global warming - go here for the entry-site (HT Energy Bulletin).

Key argument:
- the IPCC do not take resource constraints into account in their climate models;
- all 40 IPCC scenarios assume that more hydrocarbons will be used than a resource analysis suggest is physically possible;
- a 'producer-limited' analysis suggests that CO2 will peak at 460ppm in 2070;
- the temperature rise is approximately 0.8C by 2100;
- a political 'Super-Kyoto' agreement would reduce that figure by 0.04C;
- it's more important to reduce ultimate (total) hydro-carbon use than to slow it down.

Absolutely fascinating. Lots of implications to ponder. Youtube video of his talk is below (67 minutes)


Stroodcam here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Peak Oil and Transition Towns discussed on Radio 4

Go here to listen to a good discussion of Peak Oil on Radio 4's 'You and Yours' programme - go forward to about 31 minutes in; it follows a discussion of chess.

(If the link doesn't work, go to the home page and click on either 'listen to latest programme' (today) or 'Wednesday's programme'.

(HT Stephen Rice)

Is Christ Divided? session 7

Notes for the house groups on 1 Corinthians.
Week seven, beginning Sunday 11 June: 1 Corinthians 6

Click 'full post' for text.

Main themes: 1: Lawsuits
2: Theology of the Body

Questions to prompt discussion

1.Can a Christian ever take another Christian to court? What about insurance claims? What about a car crash?
2.If not - or even if generally not - how should the wider church community be involved? (Think discipline; think also about care and relief; think about what status this gives to the church as a practical (legal?) organisation)
3.Why not rather be wronged?
4.The wicked will not inherit the kingdom - but what if they are believers? (cf Rom 7.15)
5.What are the implications of our bodies being members of Christ?
6.Why 'flee' from sexual immorality? That is, why not try and fight it?

Supplementary thoughts:
Again the theme of judgement within the church community, and therefore of church discipline, is prominent. Paul is arguing strenuously for the community being competent within itself to resolve internal disputes. Appeal to an outside authority is an appeal precisely to the world, and therefore not an application of 'kingdom values'. Compare this attitude with that advocated in the Sermon on the Mount, especially in terms of inner spiritual orientation.

The second half is really an application of this first point to practical affairs, ie what people DO with their bodies. This isn't just about sexuality, but about the whole of human life, especially economic life - and therefore justice.

"Everything is permissible" - the heresy of antinomianism may have been behind the dispute in chapter 5 (antinomianism = there is no law; a misapplication of the freedom in Christ which believers enjoy). Freedom can itself become a form of slavery, to the individual will, so Paul is making two warnings - a choice can be harmful to the wider community (we'll come back to this one in chapters 8-10) but it can also be harmful to the individual themselves - 'mastering them', like an addiction. Paul has a much stronger sense of the nature of sin than do the Corinthians, and therefore of how individual choice is inevitably compromised or overwhelmed.

Notes on verses
vv 1-6 compare with Rom 13.1-7 (!)
v 2 compare Daniel 7.22; Rev 2.26-27
v 7 'cheated' (NIV) = defrauded, ie financial dispute
vv 9-10 compare Gal 5:19-21
v 11 probably a reference to baptism
vv 12 & 13 probably quotations from Corinth
v 13 'sexual immorality', Greek porneia anything sexually illicit, fornication
v 15 'members' = limbs

Kim Fabricius on heresy

I am occasionally accused of talking too much about 'heresy' - but that's because I see heresy as bad medicine, which claims to cure but in fact cripples. Kim Fabricius has some excellent stuff to say about heretics, describing them as "theological prudes, often wearing philosophical chastity belts, who resist being ravished by revelation". Quite so.


If you want to build a ship, don't summon people to buy wood, prepare tools, distribute jobs, and organize the work; rather teach people the yearning for the wide, boundless ocean.

(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Into Great Silence

A film exploring the beauty of austerity with passionate rigour. It reminded me a lot of Tarkovsky's 'Mirror' in terms of style, but the religious sensibility was (obviously) foregrounded. A film to meditate in and on, rather than chat about - although the privy council gathered for it found it good to chat about.

There is an interesting interview with the director here.

There was such a sense of joy by the end of the film. There were many images that captured that sense - but this was one of them:


A washed out morning (picture and Rector).

Can't sleep

Do you ever get those nights when the brain won't switch off? I'm having one of those (it's now 1.43am). Done some constructive work at least - sorting out hymn choices for the next month or so - but I thought I'd share a gratuitous Ollie picture taken yesterday afternoon. He was very, very tempted to give chase! (look closely across the water)

Monday, June 11, 2007


This is a substantially expanded and amended version of my sermon yesterday, based on Luke 7.11-17 & Galatians 1.11-end (in particular, West Mersea worshippers will find it of interest). Click 'full post' for text.

The story of the widow of Nain has great human impact: a sorrowing widow; a son that dies; and then - revival.

One of the first things to bear in mind about this story is the social and economic context - that is, unless there was an economically productive male around, you were incredibly vulnerable. So a widow is vulnerable without her husband, but even more than that, a widow losing her son is doubly vulnerable, not simply in economic terms but because the son was her link to the future, a source of meaning as well as means. It is precisely this concern for the vulnerable that is the Spirit behind the prophetic teaching, calling the faithful to provide for the widows and orphans. And here Jesus' compassion and prophetic stance is clear - "his heart went out to her" - and just like Elijah with the widow of Zarephath the man of God revives the son from the dead, and gives him back to his mother. The family is reunited, means and meaning are revived.

There are a number of aspects to this story to explore. A first is simply to wonder: does Jesus experience a premonition of what is to come as he takes part in this tale? Does he consider that before too long his own mother will be outside the city wall, grieving for her dead son?

But going a little deeper than that, is there something here about our faith, about what it is to pursue that faith within a church community - and perhaps, is there a message here specifically for this church in West Mersea?

To explain what I mean by that, I'd like to talk about St Paul's conversion experience, on the road to Damascus, and in particular how he describes it in this passage from Galatians - where he describes the sort of person that he was before he met the risen Lord, and the sort of person he became after, which allowed the good news to spread. Paul says that in his former life he was extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers - but then he began to disbelieve in them. In other words, meeting with Christ began to generate disbelief in him, a disbelief in what had gone before.

The thing is, being human, we surround ourselves with customs and habits and traditions - they are useful in helping us to negotiate our way through life. And they come up in all areas of life - think of how you make a cup of tea, for example. Yet when these habits and traditions enter into our ways of worship we call them 'sacred', and these form our religions. It seems to me that part of what being a Christian means - part of what coming to know the living Christ involves - is precisely that we become less concerned about the sacred, less concerned about being religious, just in order that we might concentrate on something which is even more important - the new life offered in Christ, which relativises all of our religious traditions and sacred arts. This is the process of redemption - the light of Christ entering into all the darkest corners of our own hearts as we slowly attain to the full stature of the risen Christ.

The thing is, in so many ways, Christianity is still a very young faith. We may have been going for some two thousand years, but we are really only just beginning to get to grips with what it means to say that this man Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God incarnate upon earth. We still have so far to go on our pilgrimage; we are still discovering the depths of faith. You could say that the faith is this young man outside the walls of a town.

Do I mean that the faith is dead? Hardly that. But I do wonder how far the church is in the position of the widow - disconnected from the future - and beginning to despair.

"Young man I say to you get up." It is through being addressed by the word of the living Word that the dead come to life, that the dead are revived.

A few years ago I was told a story about one of my predecessors as Rector of Mersea, Reg East, who was a rather Charismatic individual. He had a dream, or a vision, of the island of Mersea catching fire, and the fire spreading, which he understood to be a promise of revival. I have pondered this a lot, along with a comment from a colleague that an upsurge in musical creativity is often associated with a revival - and that we are presently experiencing just such an upsurge.

Is a revival coming? I really don't know. I do know that a revival is not something that is in our control; it's not something that we can achieve. We are not called to produce a revival; we are called to be faithful. In other words, to give right glory to God, the Son who is raised from the dead. That's what being orthodox literally means - right glory. That is our task, that is our witness and that is the only true revival we can seek - to praise the God who gives life to the dead. We must worship the risen Christ, and always be aware of the danger of being caught up in our religion instead.

I do believe that, as I said in my first ever sermon in this place, the tide of unbelief has turned, that the Spirit is abroad in this country, and that we will see a resurgence of belief. I interpret the renewed squeals on the part of the atheists as being an acknowledgment, deep from their bowels, that their argument has been lost. For so long it seemed unarguable that as you matured as a person, so you left behind the childish blandishments of sentimental faith. That lie has been nailed, and we are seeing the consequences rippling down into the wider culture.

But more than this: I am certain that God is doing something special in this place: here, in West Mersea. I reflect upon the remarkable gathering of strength that is occurring here - the associate priests, the retired clergy (with some more on the way), the musical team, the way in which vocations are prospering as with pastoral assistants and lay evangelists being called forward from our midst, the lay leadership in all its forms. I reflect on the fact that, according to Bob Jackson, we are one of the fastest growing churches in the country. We do have a remarkable story to tell in that regard.

I also reflect on Saturday morning when the PCC gave a unanimous endorsement of my proposals to rearrange the sanctuary. I wasn't expecting this - I had thought that the PCC would be split, and although I thought it would be in favour, I was expecting that the majority would be insufficient to carry the proposals through - for this sort of change, it is not enough for there to be a bare majority, there needs to be a much stronger sense of widespread consent. In the end there was unanimity - even amongst those members of the PCC who couldn't be present, four expressed a preference, and all four were in favour.

This was strangely humbling. I think in part it was humbling because there has been pain associated with the change, and undoubtedly - related to this and to other emphases that I have brought to my ministry here - some cannot participate in the process, and they choose to leave.
"Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me."

I am still digesting everything that happened on Saturday morning. It is as if there was an endorsement not simply from the PCC but from the Spirit also, saying not just 'keep going' but 'go further, do more!' There is a cost to this; the challenge I face is how to ensure that the old testament heart remains a heart of flesh and doesn't become a heart of stone.

And yet; the Lord is with me. I have felt very close to Him these past couple of months - to the extent that colleagues have remarked upon it. And He has given me the ability to see farther than most. This doesn't make me infallible (hardly that!!), it doesn't mean I won't get some things completely wrong, especially with regard to details. But I have this vision of what is possible. And I must pursue it. It's been creeping up on me slowly, and it isn't something I fully understand, or can even describe. I feel frightened, and nervous, and excited all at the same time. What I am convinced of is that something remarkable is happening here in West Mersea. My task, my prayer, is that I can work out what God is doing - and then get out of the way.

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvellous things.
His right hand and his holy arm have gained him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98)