Saturday, February 27, 2010


Can you tell that the family are all out at the moment?

An interesting essay about Ayn Rand.

Does ordination make a difference?

An issue being mentioned here, here and here (for starters).

I would say that ordination is primarily a separation sideways - baptism is the separation vertically.

I would also say that there is such a thing as the grace of holy orders. Have I been enabled to be a different person since being ordained? Surely.

Ordination does not elevate a person in any sort of moral or 'righteousness' sense; there is no spiritual superiority conferred. Yet there is an authority conferred.

Within the body of Christ, these are given responsibility for exercising judgement, for speaking the yay and the nay.

This is not trivial.

I sometimes think that those most concerned to deny any reality to ordination - whether called 'ontological' or not - are like Oedipus, stabbing out his eyes, because he cannot bear to see.

I wouldn't want to push that image too far :)

My views on the related issue of lay presidency can be found here.

The grammar of salvation

First posted December 29 2005; reposted as it is relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation.

A post about the structural parallels between Christianity and, Peak Oil and other groups with a tendency to ‘cult-like’ behaviour.

I have been struck by the echoes of Christianity that crop up in unexpected places, and to try and explain what I mean, I need to explain something about Wittgenstein's understanding of philosophy and language.

The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein's view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have.

Think of the expression 'I need some water'. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: 'I need some water' - where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation - ie, looking at real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

So the ‘depth grammar’ is concerned with the function that words, concepts and behaviours play in our human conversation and life. What has been striking me strongly in recent months, first from my experiences at and now from researching the Peak Oil situation, is how far there are patterns of behaviour in non-Christian environments which in fact replicate the depth grammar of Christianity. In other words, how easy it is for a particular topic to become a gospel-substitute, and how this reflects the profoundly embedded nature of Christian thought within our civilisation. As Wittgenstein once put it – a whole mythology is embedded in our language.

Consider the claim of Christianity: the world is corrupted by Sin; Jesus Christ was born to free us from that Sin; if you accept that Jesus rose from the dead and confess him to be the Messiah (ie confess Jesus as the ‘standard’) then you will be released from Sin and born again. To embrace Jesus as the Messiah is to resolve all the spiritual questions which may plague us and provide a pattern of living which leads to abundant life. There is an explicit claim of salvation – “Jesus saves!” – and the embrace of that salvation, leading to fullness of life, is what shapes the ‘grammar’ of Christianity.

Now consider, first, some of the shenanigans at The MoQ – Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality – is an account of the world, which claims to solve many of the most troubling contemporary issues. It is certainly a very useful philosophy, and one with which I have a lot of sympathy. Yet it is – inevitably – not without its flaws. What interests me is the way in which, once those flaws are pointed out, there is an exaggerated reaction, which suggests that there is something more at stake for the interlocutors than merely a dispute about philosophy. For the reaction often takes the form of ‘you haven’t understood it yet’. The MoQ is viewed like the Bible, 'inspired', therefore it cannot be wrong, therefore if you disagree with it there must be something wrong with you, you must still be in the grip of heretical understandings etc. Once you have understood it, then you're free of the clutches of alternative views and it all makes sense.

As such, it's a form of gnosticism. There is esoteric knowledge, associated with particular (pure) experiences - called Dynamic Quality in the MoQ - and once you have gained that knowledge, absorbed that insight, then you are on the inside. You share in the mysteries.

Now compare with some of the discussions that go on around Peak Oil, particularly the ‘doomers’. Instead of it being a work of metaphysics that needs to be understood, it is a combination of geology, physics and politics. Yet here there is the same tendency to describe disagreement as ‘not getting it’ and for there to be vigorous repudiation of alternative perspectives. Again, it is this emotional charge which interests me the most. With Peak Oil there is at least the possibility that lives might rest on the outcome of the debate, yet once views have been ‘scratched’ a little, it rapidly becomes apparent that the views expressed rest upon more-or-less unacknowledged presuppositions, going deeply into a particular persons view of the world. An entire weltanschaaung is in play – this is not an academic question, it is not just an existential question – these are the questions of the meaning of our life.

They are – in Christian language – ‘salvation issues’. For this is what is at stake in the discussions for the participants, this is what gives them such importance – that the resolution of a particular issue, whether it be the MoQ, Peak Oil, the virtue of Republican or Democrat perspectives, whatever – resolution of such issues takes on the penumbra of a faith. If you ‘get it’, then you are ‘saved’. Although the explicit language is starkly different, the fundamental patterns of human behaviour – the ‘depth grammar’ involved in these human conversations – seems to me to be effectively identical in each instance. This is what I mean by the ‘grammar of salvation’. An issue takes on the form of Christianity, whilst – obviously – employing a different vocabulary.

Which leads to the question of legitimacy. Christianity is explicitly talking about God, the meaning of life, the nature of our human existence. Yet the MoQ and Peak Oil make no such explicit claims – and those who are most charged to defend their perspectives are often also those who are most assertive about their rejection of Christian perspectives. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Yet it is also the way in which their language functions.

At the heart of the Christian faith – indeed, something which is held in common with other faiths such as Buddhism – is the sense that we cannot capture what is most essential in our words, our language games. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Which has the consequence, once it has been understood, of making all explicit claims to finality stand under a cloud of doubt – this could be wrong. In Christian terms, this is the process of casting out our idols, those things around which we structure our lives which are not God, and thereby diminish our humanity in so far as we gain our worth from them (ie worship them). Which leads, ultimately, to a radical uncertainty, for there is nothing tangible and explicit upon which we can rest our judgements. Here there is only room for faith – for a lived out and worked out understanding and approach to life which cannot be captured in words.

Thing is, our culture suffers from a crisis of certainty, from Descartes onwards (see Cosmopolis by Steven Toulmin for one account of why), and this crisis of certainty has its origin in the rejection of Christianity amongst the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Yet the consistent reapplication of the grammar of salvation to various issues teaches me that the longing for salvation has not gone away – it has simply channelled itself into more socially (intellectually?!) acceptable channels. Metaphysics does function as a religion - it is a kind of magic, as Wittgenstein puts it.

“Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.”

We are required to live with our uncertainty; and the only way to live with uncertainty is through faith. The only interesting question is ‘what sort of faith?’ not ‘do you have faith?’. The ability to be detached from one’s own perspective is a sign of spiritual maturity – living with uncertainty we walk by faith. Unfortunately, those who are most strongly attached to the various perspectives – those in whom is provoked the strongest ‘emotional charge’ when such perspectives are held up to sceptical scrutiny – are those who have not come to terms with the uncertainty, and they do not have faith.

Only the holy can see truly. That is what it means to believe in God, to attain perfect detachment, and that is what it means to walk with faith.

Does the internet matter?

A train of thought prompted by the Dawkinsnet kerfuffle.

I would say: it matters in the same way any other human activity matters. In the end, it will all pass away into nothingness.

The merit is what happens whilst we are working on it.

The real motorcycle is yourself.

Which is why the crass stupidity of the administrators has caused such anguish. A part of the self has been torn away.

Here is where I would say: only religious language can deal with this phenomena. "Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it."

Actually, this post is very relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation. I might bring it up front.

On being a proper scientist

I wasn't going to comment, but I think this is interesting irrespective of AGW:
"The CRU e-mails as published on the internet provide prima facie evidence of determined and co-ordinated refusals to comply with honourable scientific traditions ... The principle that scientists should be willing to expose their ideas and results to independent testing and replication by others, which requires the open exchange of data, procedures and materials, is vital."

My thoughts on the substantive issue are fairly reflected in this post.

A denatured faith

Pondering an image:

Take an egg, apply consistent heat, the 'white' actually becomes white, it changes from a liquid into a solid, from something with potential to something consumable. The egg remains an egg, but it is denatured.

The same can apply to a faith. Apply consistent pressure, before you know it, it has changed out of all recognition. It is still 'faith' - the words used might be identical - but the living content has become denatured.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The atheists didn't expect the Inquisition

Seems like the idol of reason isn't so reasonable after all. Very interesting kerfuffle going on about

Start with Ruth here, then have a read of these two posts (for a very different perspective).

So: the forum was an active community with thousands of heavily invested participants (ten times bigger than the front page) which has now not just been shut down but largely deleted. If someone came along and deleted my blog - or if some technical problem deleted the blog - I would feel bereft. It was bad enough when I lost about nine months worth of e-mails last year when my PC died. So I can understand the mental anguish that this has caused.

Also, bluntly, if Prof Dawkins doesn't make a very strong effort to fix this - and counteract the impression that he doesn't care for all the people who have rallied to his cause over the last several years - then i) his leadership of same is over and ii) the cause he has been promoting for so long has been grievously hindered.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Church plant daydream

I sometimes daydream about planting a new church here on Mersea.

It would need at least a dozen people to get it going - people who were seriously committed to a path of discipleship and spiritual growth.

It would meet once a week to do the Acts 2.42 stuff, but not necessarily on a Sunday morning.

It would also meet at other times for broader fellowship, worship and teaching - understood as supplementary.

It would be a group of sojourners, tent dwellers, maybe meeting in a home or hall, maybe even meeting in an historic church sometimes.

It would pay a fair proportion (pro rata) of the parish share, but not be committed to the financial upkeep of the historic site.

It would have a cell group structure and mentality. Nurture would be done through small groups (up to half a dozen persons). It would also multiply as a whole when it grew to, say, forty people.

It would have autonomy over its manner of life; its form of worship; its expectations for social service and behaviour.

It would not have autonomy over doctrine and sacramental discipline - in other words, it would remain Anglican. It would operate under the oversight of the Rector of the parish (well I would say that wouldn't I?) who would join in with the Acts 2.42 part, but not the rest - unless asked. It would accept the Lambeth quadrilateral as a framework for faith. However, it could sit very lightly to the Anglican acquis communautaire. It could be mostly independent of a) the inherited plant, and b) the structure of committees and processes. Although no group can operate without the formalities for long - the static latching is what enables survival over time rather than being dependent upon the passing emotions of the group.

Occasionally it would gather with the other Anglicans - and indeed the other Christians on the island - for broader worship and fellowship.

Worth exploring further?

Monday, February 22, 2010


My eldest asked me at lunch the other day, 'Dad, what is blackmail?'

I gave one answer, my mother-in-law gave a slightly different answer, which led to some investigation and an interesting discovery. From wikipedia:

"Blackmail is the crime of threatening to reveal substantially true information about a person to the public, a family member, or associates unless a demand made upon the victim is met. This information is usually of an embarrassing, socially damaging, and/or criminally incriminating nature. As the information is substantially true, the act of revealing the information may not be criminal in its own right nor amount to a civil law defamation; the crime is making demands in exchange for withholding it. English Law creates a much broader definition of blackmail, covering any unwarranted demands with menaces, whether involving revealing information or not."

Essentially the difference between my mother-in-law and I was that I was using the English Law version, whereas as she was using the stricter (earlier?) definition.

So: in common English terms, blackmail is when someone says 'do this, or you'll be sorry', ie it is the use of force to compel someone to do something that they otherwise would not have done (NB force doesn't have to be physical; I'm using it essentially as a contrast to reason, as in 'reasoning with someone'). It is treating a human being as a thing, an instrument for the will, rather than as a person. In short, it is bullying (in the news at the moment).

I was reminded of this conversation by reading Doug's post. The concept as a whole has been on my mind rather a lot over the last nine months or so.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Good management and pastoral care

Bishop Nick: "Because the dichotomy between ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’ is a false one – and a dangerous one. What some people mean by ‘pastoral’ (when asking for it in a bishop) is someone who won’t challenge, who is malleable and won’t interfere too much. But pastoral care begins with getting the administration, communication and ‘business’ right: how do you respect someone who says they care for you pastorally when they then double-book you, fail to reply to letters or emails and don’t do what they promise to do?

A bishop is called to be an accountable steward of the resources of people and stuff/things. He is not called primarily to be ‘nice’ or popular. If niceness and popularity follow, then that is fine; but episcopal leadership and ministry are not good for people who want to be everybody’s friend. The alternative to good management of the resources God gives us is, presumably, bad management. Can anybody show me how bad management equates to good pastoral care?"

Something I've been pondering a lot.

40 favourite passages (index)

I got half way through this in Lent 2009. I'm going to finish it in Lent 2010!

1. 1 John 4.7-21
2. Colossians 1.15-20
3. Micah 6.6-8
4. Matthew 7.21
5. John 5.39-40
6. Hosea 4.1-6
7. 1 Samuel 3.1-10
8. John 6.66-68
9. 1 Kings 2.1-3
10. Galatians 3.26-28
11. Luke 10.25-37
12. James 2.14-26
13. Matthew 25.31-46
14. Psalm 1
15. Romans 8.13-19
16. Psalm 127
17. Jeremiah 20.7-9
18. John 12.44-46
19. 1 Peter 1.3-9

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Scarborough talk and notes

The audio and my notes for the Scarborough conference are now posted on my other blog.

I've also put up some other audio from previous talks.

Over the next few days I hope to renew my LUBH talks there as well.

Coincidence and Godincidence

A coincidence is something that happens to occasion remark, but which is, by definition, meaningless. That is, part of the metaphysical presupposition behind using the word 'coincidence' is that there is no meaning present. There is simply a factual occurrence which happens to provoke comment and interest in those perceiving it.

A Godincidence, by contrast, is something that happens to occasion remark but which is considered meaningful by the people involved. In other words, it is taken up into a larger story, that of their own life or the life of their community. One might also talk about providence.

This is not about proving one thing or another. This is about the assumptions embedded within the vocabulary.

Asserting that something is a coincidence - often accompanied with amplifiers like 'mere' or 'just a' - is the assertion of a specific metaphysical commitment, one which, in truth, rules out every possible sense of meaning (an unacknowledged consequence).

Part of the problem that Christianity faces is that this specific metaphysical commitment has not simply passed unnoticed, but that it has passed into the bloodstream of the church.

It needs to be extirpated. We might begin, as Christians, by disavowing the routine use of the word 'coincidence' and only using it when we are consciously asserting that there is no meaning to be found in an event.

I suspect that we would need to exercise a great deal of caution in such a case.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scarborough fair

Well that was fun, what a lovely bunch of people. I suspect I might have found my "tribe" - ie people who don't think I'm just a trendy vicar ;)
I'll put the audio of my talk, and some notes, on to my other blog later today.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lots of seagulls

... but no sardines from me.


This is such a beautiful island and it gives me so much peace.

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Monday, February 08, 2010

I have a new favourite hymn

(to go with a large collection of favourite hymns)

We had it as our post-communion hymn yesterday, and it worked really well.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

New blog

I've set up a new blog, to host talks and sermons. There will always be a link to them from this blog, but the new one will be where I'll put the talks themselves. It's called, rather imaginatively, 'Elizaphanian: Talks and Sermons' and can be found here.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Why I like reading IO9:
The Phantom menace editor takes on Avatar
It's time to get serious about colonising space
A Lost timeline
Imagining the fate of data after the apocalypse

Also, via Banksy:
How to make a living playing music (most of which easily translates from 'music' to 'writing')
Dear Rock Stars... which made me think of U2 as the last of the dinosaurs. Not a comfortable thought for a fan.


On being an Anglo-Catholic: "All in all, the Anglo-Catholic tradition is that which nourishes me, and has since I first converted... It is not the only valid tradition within the Episcopal Church, or within the Christian world, or even within the entire spiritual conglomeration of paths, but it is one valid tradition. And I am grateful for it."

Time to go down the pub

Very fitting. (h/t Doug)

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Women in the Episcopate (Learning Supper talk)

This is a recording of my talk to the Learning Supper last week on Women Bishops (I accept that's probably not grammatically correct, but it is conventional). The audio quality is a bit crackly - that's because I had to drastically compress the file (one hour long) in order to make it uploadable to gabcast.

I wouldn't have thought that there is anything new here for people who are familiar with the debate.


Monday, February 01, 2010

Captain America had a point

John Hobbins links to two interesting articles here and here.

One of the things I enjoy reading in my spare time is comics - occasionally called 'graphic novels' at the higher reaches of the form, but, basically, comics, involving people who have large muscles and poor taste in clothing. One of the most interesting ones I've read recently has been the 'Civil War' sequence put out by Marvel. I won't bore you with explaining why it is that Captain America and Iron Man are slugging it out (though it IS extremely interesting social commentary) I just want to point out that there comes a point when Captain America surrenders - not because he has changed his mind about the justice of his cause, but because too many innocent bystanders are suffering because of the struggle.

The man has a point.

The dream of independence

(checking 'drafts' on my blog - and discovering some things that I never published... this was originally written two years ago! Slightly updated)

At least, financial independence. Dave W sent me to this fascinating article. I've been mulling for quite some time about how to go about a) getting some of my thoughts put out in book form (mainly this), and b) whether I might be able to generate some income out of my photo-hobby. On the latter score I did use to create a calendar some time ago, but only one person bought it, and if her reaction was the same as mine it was of significant disappointment at the quality of the end-product (even if mine is still on the wall right next to me as I type this post).

It seems to me that one of the great benefits of the cultural shift that digital technology has opened up is that the middle-man isn't needed any more. (Not in every sphere - I'm sure we'll see the return of middle-men in food distribution as a result of Peak Oil). However, for some work, and especially creative work, the middle-man adds very little of value. See Radiohead's recent experiment in that regard.

Now, with regard to a book, there are clearly some things which publishers are rather good at doing (Kim Paffenroth makes some good points here). But it's also possible to pay people directly to do such things, and not go via a publisher. I am now committed to going the self-publishing route, partly because of practicalities and timing, but partly also because of the independence that it allows. I'm going to be using this company. So far as I can tell the single thing that an established publishing house can provide is help with publicity and marketing. Given that I don't expect vast numbers of people to buy my book, and I think that I am plugged in to sufficient networks to be able to sell enough copies to make it financially viable (around 400 I guess) I see no need to amend what I write in order to sell more copies (I remain open to an editor saying that I need to rewrite something because it's incoherent of course!)

I'll let you know how it all goes - I hope to go to press after Easter.


This is great: "There’s a big difference between the task of trying to sustain “civilisation” in its current form – supermarkets and all – which is what “sustainability” has largely come to mean, and the task of holding open a space for the things which make life worth living. I’d suggest that it’s this second task, in its many forms, which remains, after we’ve given up on false hopes. (Note that this doesn’t mean organising a campaign against supermarkets, which is the default mode of a lot of what’s called activism.)"
That resonated a very great deal with me!