Monday, May 31, 2010

Five years of blogging

My first post on this blog was uploaded on 31 May 2005. I didn't have much idea of where it was going to take me, but I think I'm one of those people for whom blogging is a natural medium and so, despite having all sorts of sympathy with those who keep it at arms length, or have abandoned it, I'm not going to stop. Rather the reverse, in fact – I have various plans for developing my blogging further, once I get fully well again.

In five years I have posted 3162 times here, of which more than a third were photos! I've also had thousands of comments – one of the most frustrating things recently has been the (hopefully temporary) loss of historical comments, when I was forced to shift from Haloscan to the new Blogger template. I still have the old comments on file, so if anyone comes across a straightforward way to import haloscan comments into Blogger, please let me know. I read and value every comment received.

A handful of highlights:
- Playing a very small role in the SPCK controversy, which led to me getting a mention in Private Eye
- Seeing some of my more autobiographical musings feed into an excellent book about ministry
- Having some of my Peak Oil posts published on Energy Bulletin

There are reams of advice on the internet about how to maximise your blog ratings and numbers, but whilst I did spend time on those a few years ago, I decided that wasn't the direction that I wanted to take the blog in. This is my thinking space (my pensieve); as such, I have no wish to see it specialising in one area rather than another. That would feel like a form of gagging or self-censorship. It will continue to be a place where I think aloud about my ministry, where I make notes on the films and books and other culture I consume, where I continue to work out the implications of our ecological crisis, where I throw up the things that amuse and delight me. (The one exception to that was setting up my 'daughter blog', where my talks and sermons get posted; I'm still musing over whether that is the right thing to have done, but so far so good.) I believe that I have a small but dedicated readership, and that's enough to keep me going.

In so far as things may change in the future, I am hopeful that I will have the time to write more substantially on theological and philosophical questions, especially book reviews, and possibly film reviews too (in other words, more reviews like this one). I hope to begin that quite soon – I have a particular debt needing paying on that score.

Thank you for reading.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

My England squad

Of course I'd take Joe Cole - I'd put him in the starting 11 - but I don't think Capello likes him. Bonkers. Anyhow:

GK: James, Hart, Green
DF: Terry, Ferdinand, Cole, Johnson, Carragher, King, Baines, Dawson
MF: Lampard, Gerrard, Barry (/Huddlestone), Parker, Lennon, Cole, Milner, Walcott
ST: Rooney, Crouch, Defoe, Bent

And I'd play as a starting 11: Green/Johnson, Terry, Ferdinand, Cole/ Barry, Lampard/ Lennon, Gerrard, Cole/ Rooney (ie both Rooney and Gerrard in the roles that they play for their clubs).

If Capello sticks with Rooney as a support striker, England to exit at the QF. If he lets Gerrard and Rooney play in their best positions, with fast wingers, then we might make the final... (but we'd lose to either Brazil or Spain).

Dennis Hopper, RIP

In memory of Dennis, one of my all-time favourite movie scenes, which I still find astonishing on the zillionth re-watch - it is absolutely pitch-perfect in every way.
Warning: contains strong language and violence.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

You can't always get what you want

I have to say I've been rather impressed with our shiny new Con-Dem Nation. It seems to be an example of grown-up politics, of rolling up sleeves and hammering out an agreement with which neither side is totally happy but with which (hopefully) both sides can live for the next five years. In other words, it seems that both sides have got their priorities in proper proportion – which brings me to what I want to say this week.

Last time out I talked about Phineas Gage, the man with the hole in his head who lost all capacity for judgement, and I promised to say a little bit more about how this fits in to a Christian world view. Everyone has a hierarchy of values, it’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others. As Mr Zimmerman once sang “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

Where people articulate and express their values then we can talk about what they worship, which is simply how we orient ourselves to what we see as most valuable. For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, we also believe that if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place – in other words, everything is given a proper place, neither overvalued nor undervalued.

So how do theologians describe the ways in which, from a Christian point of view, values can be distorted? Where the value system is severely distorted then theologians use the word idolatry to describe it. This is when one thing within the world becomes the most important thing in a person's world and everything else has to shift around it. It might be an absolutely dedicated football fan who has to go to every match that their team plays. It might be getting obsessive about a television serial and insist on watching every episode no matter what else is happening. (Once you have grasped what this is you can see it in all sorts of surprising places).

Idolatry can be understood in parallel with addiction – eg a drug addict – where the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. They gear their life around getting the money to get their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is (it doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be a mental addiction as well). An important truth about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, does give a tremendous high – it gives what it promises – but it takes away life in exchange. That is what an idol is. Mammon, for example, the god of money or wealth (an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society) – if you worship mammon, if you structure your life around mammon, you will gain wealth. That is a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy. The kick is that you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away. For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?

For most people, however, it’s not as clear as this and in practice you have polytheism, many gods. It might be – “my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them”. This is where most people actually live, navigating between different competing interests, muddling along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully, to be fully human. Another option is simply chaos. This is the position that Phineas Gage ended up in. He was driven by the momentary impulse; rather like the dogs in 'Up' whenever a squirrel is mentioned, the dogs just forgot what they're doing and concentrate on the squirrel.

So at the core of a religious tradition like Christianity lies a commitment to valuing the world properly. This is why there is such an insistence upon truth, for it is the truth that makes us free. Learning a faith is all about getting things in proper proportion, learning to see the world as it truly is – as God has intended and created it. A different way of putting this is to say: only the holy can see truly, it is only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone then our vision of the world is more or less distorted. As Jesus put it: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Next time – a bit more on idolatry, and how understanding it illuminates our cultural predicament.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

On good endings

Over the last few days, I've watched the endings of Ashes to Ashes, Lost, and also (by a quirk of fate) the 'Journey's End' episode of Doctor Who (end of series 4), which is where my eldest son and I have got to. I think that all three TV episodes ended well. (In fact, I am now open to seeing the whole of Lost again at some point (in a few years time), when I was quite sceptical of it.) So the question of endings is on my mind; most especially, the question of good endings. What is the essence of a good ending?

I would say there are two elements that apply to any story, and then something that I look for personally to gain the most satisfaction from an ending.

The first and possibly most essential element of a story ending is that it is consistent with the characters. The actions taken - and the consequences of those actions - must flow from authentic behaviour and not be mere contrivances to advance the plot. Characters must be given their own integrity, otherwise the authorial voice is overwhelming and we are no longer in story territory, but in sermon territory.

The second element is that the plot should be coherent and intellectually satisfying on its own terms, that is, the 'universe' being explored should be consistent and have its own stable framework. (Where the framework is the same as our lived existence, you have realist fiction. Where the framework is altered is a specific way, you have what is called fantasy or science fiction.) Essential questions need to be answered!

Those two elements I think are essential for anything to qualify as 'good', ie to have a certain degree of quality. For me, personally, there is a third element that I look for which 'knocks the ball out of the park' when it is achieved successfully, and this is when the creation succeeds in showing that death is not terminal for meaning. What I mean by this is that there is a framework of value which is articulated through the story which is shown to be vindicated beyond the death of the lead character(s). Of course, this is a Christian perspective. It is perfectly possible to have a high quality story that is not 'orthodox' in this sense (Un Couer en Hiver is the best example I can think of).

Where the third element is in place, then an element of grace enters in to the story, and it makes letting go much easier - for the characters themselves, and also for those watching or reading. There IS such a thing as a good death.

Things I particularly enjoyed from those three TV episodes:
from Ashes
- the destroyed Quattro, and then Gene looking at a Mercedes brochure;
- the Railway Arms, and all that was symbolised by that (and by the parallel symbolism elsewhere);
- the realistically sad note about Molly.
from Dr Who
- the final resolution of the Rose character arc;
- everything about Donna (sort of tragic).
from Lost
- Juliet coming back in the way I predicted, and the 'Go Dutch' resolution for them;
- Locke forgiving Ben, and Ben staying outside;
- Jack's redemption.

For me, the most effective treatment of these themes - and the best ending - isn't found in television, or in novels, but in comics, specifically the Sandman sequence, which is all about the nature of a good story (and therefore, by definition, all about a good ending). My three criteria are all fulfilled in abundance here, but most of all, there is a richness of allusion and metaphor and incidental characterisation that makes the re-reading of the stories an immense pleasure.

In keeping with the nature of the medium - herewith one of the many endings in the Sandman sequence (you'll have to read it to really understand it!)

Friday, May 21, 2010


Getting seriously fed up with being under the weather. Took this more than a fortnight ago, which was the last time I felt really well (feel like calling it 'Rothko in blue'). Still, antibiotics are taking hold...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On agw as a big red herring

Byron asked: "Sam, do you agree that there is a significant body of hard-core deniers who are not open to evidence? I am not saying that every contrarian belongs to this group (nor that pathological behaviour is confined to contrarians), simply that there are powerful economic, ideological and social forces leading many to a place of epistemic closure on this matter. Would you agree?"

My simple answer is 'yes'. Anthropogenic Global Warming (agw) as presented is a major challenge to the status quo, and so all those with interests in preserving the status quo will have a bias to resist the conclusions of agw. These can take many stripes; often, I would accept, there is a reactionary element involved, and there may even be some legacy influence from fossil-fuel providers funding propaganda.

However, it is also true - so it seems to me - that there are hard-core 'affirmers' who are equivalently immune to evidence, and that there are "powerful economic, ideological and social forces leading many to a place of epistemic closure" in favour of the agw hypothesis.

To my mind, agw is a plausible hypothesis with a significant amount of supporting evidence. It is less than certain; most of all, the dire predictions are much less than certain, and I tend to see bad theology in them.

Beyond this, I tend to see Liebig's law as relevant. The dire predictions associated with the IPCC tend to assume, more or less business as usual, ongoing into through the twenty first century. This seems mindless to me. There is not a hope of business being anything like usual for the next fifteen years, let alone the next fifty or hundred. That is seen most explicitly for me in the assumptions employed re: fossil fuel use, but it applies to all the other limits to growth that we are hitting (and Byron has a useful list here). If we take Liebig's law to apply to the world system as a whole (which I think is reasonable) then it seems highly likely to me that a very great number of the measures and results being sought by agw advocates will be imposed upon human society by reality. Our carbon dioxide emissions, and the whole impact of industrialisation upon the ecosphere, will substantially reduce from present levels. I see this as beyond any choice, whether that choice be made by individuals, nations or humanity as a whole. We in the industrial world are going to have to get used to using a great deal less energy, and soon (my wild-assed guess: 50% less energy in 15 years).

Which is why I see agw as a red herring. Although it makes for some dramatic pictures, the science behind agw is less certain than the science behind other ecological concerns (Peak Oil, deforestation, water scarcity etc), and the prognoses from agw are even less certain. Worse than this, they are alarmist and appeal to fear, and that has theological problems too. I simply do not see what is either achieved or achievable by the IPCC and its cohorts. Whereas something like Transition Towns (on the practical side) and the Dark Mountain project (on the human culture side) - these I find exciting, practical and inspiring.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Submitting to the material

I came back from a trip to the physiotherapist this morning – I have torn part of my achilles tendon on my left ankle – and the physio astutely enquired whether I had recently injured my right ankle. That occurred on January 6 this year, when I rather stupidly took the bike out in the snow and duly came off it, spraining my right ankle. It turns out that I have been compensating for a remaining weakness in the right ankle by using the left ankle more – and have now damaged that one. As the physio kindly pointed out to me, 'this happens as we get older...'

I'm also currently recovering from a chest infection. In my usual way I resisted going to the doctor for as long as possible, but I find that I simply can't get away with it any more. If I don't get my maladies sorted out in a timely fashion, they now get worse, not better. No longer can I just amp up the willpower, adrenaline and caffeine, and power on through whatever is getting in the way. The body simply isn't as resilient as it was, and I need to take more time and care in looking after it. 'This happens as we get older...'


I was told recently that a phrase used in teaching art is 'submitting to the material'. What this means is that in any medium certain things are possible, certain things are impossible. The materials that are being worked with dictate limits. What is possible for some blocks of marble are not possible for others; what is possible for an oil painting is not possible for a water-colour, and vice versa. For an artist to make any progress in their craft there is an essential humility that needs cultivating. It is no good having a wonderful vision for an artistic creation if the materials being employed are inadequate to the task. Actually, 'inadequate' is the wrong word – there is nothing wrong with the materials – 'inappropriate' is more precise. The inappropriateness lies in the judgement of the artist, in seeking to dictate to the material rather than cooperate with it. In a sense, what is needed in the artist is a spirit of service to the material, in order to enable the creation to emerge. Midwifery, not parenthood.


I've been pondering a similar lesson with regard to my ministry on Mersea, where I feel that I have been colliding with limits. I recently led an awayday for one of the PCCs here to talk about two things – how do we actually 'speak truth in love', and, how to discern the right way forward for differerent congregations, especially how they are to relate to each other. The most significant conclusion that I came away with was that I needed to abandon my vision for the congregations. I had seen the new congregation as being a bridge to the old one, which meant that the new service couldn't get too complicated, and also meant that I had been pushing the more traditional service a little closer in spirit to the new. (Actually, I abandoned the latter some time ago – and that abandonment led to other developments – but there was probably still some remaining tension in the congregation.) Thing is, after more than five years, the people simply didn't want to fit in with the vision – they were quite happy where they were, thank you very much – and my pushing the vision was simply amplifying friction. Letting go of it seems to be universally approved of.


I've been very struck by the nakedpastor's posts on vision, especially this most recent one when he says “The greatest danger to the church is vision. Agenda. It is an idea for the church that certain people entertain that is the greatest danger to it. It is when different people have designs for the church, where they want it to be something other than what it is, that it destroys the fabric of the community. Even the most well-meaning people, believing that they want what’s best for the church, in actuality introduce what is worst for it.”


I have found letting go of the vision quite liberating, even though I don't understand what is going on. My theology hasn't changed – I still see the Eucharist as “'the richest and fullest expression of Christian faith” - but I'm realising that my view is largely irrelevant. What I want – even, what is most true – isn't the most important factor here. I'm very fond of what Eugene Peterson teaches – work out what God is doing and then get out of the way – I just hadn't applied it in this area fully (or, perhaps, I came here knowing it and then forgot). There is something kenotic in this, an emptying out, and also something very incarnational – a valuing of the local and specific. I am becoming more aware of the need to put my own desires to one side, ease off the willpower and drive, and take more care and time in simply maintaining the body. I need to learn to submit to the material.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Two statements agreed by the IPCC

"Here are two statements that are completely agreed on by the IPCC. It is crucial to be aware of these facts and of their implications.
1. A doubling of CO2, by itself, contributes only about 1C to greenhouse warming. All models project more warming, because, within models, there are positive feedbacks from water vapor and clouds, and these feedbacks are considered by the IPCC to be uncertain.
2. If one assumes all warming over the past century is due to anthropogenic greenhouse forcing, then the derived sensitivity of the climate to a doubling of CO2is less than 1C. The higher sensitivity of existing models is made consistent with observed warming by invoking unknown additional negative forcings from aerosols and solar variability as arbitrary adjustments.
Given the above, the notion that alarming warming is ‘settled science’ should be offensive to any sentient individual, though to be sure, the above is hardly emphasized by the IPCC."
(Richard Lindzen, from here. H/T WattsUp)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

My attitude to science

(repost - thought it was relevant)
This has come up in the comments again. I thought I'd put together a list of some of the things I've written about the scientific approach, rather than retyping the wheel.

Probably the best place to start is this post: The Holiness of Stuart Staniford, as I do see something holy in scientific endeavour (not really surprising as it has such deep theological roots) and I believe it would be a tragedy if scientific research were to be repudiated in our society.

My main problem with science as it is received and worshipped in our culture is that it is apathistic, in other words it is systematically blind to what we most value. If we are to defend what we most value, we must be prepared to topple science from its perch.

That perch is embedded in a particular story. My paraphrase of that story is written up as: the mythology of science.

My longest discussion of science can be found in my Let us be human sequence, and the transcript of the relevant lecture is here.

I think what I would most want to stress is that the great majority of my criticisms of the way science is revered and estimated in our culture are valid independently of any claim for the truth of Christian faith. Which is why sophisticated atheists agree with most of them ;-)

“We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.” (Wittgenstein again)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hard choices, and a hole in the head

In the rather cheesy disaster-fest “The Day After Tomorrow” there is a very dramatic moment when the hero draws a line across the middle of the United States and tells the President 'evacuate everyone South of this line'. The President asks, 'what about the people to the North?' 'It's too late for them' comes the reply. Now, I happen to think that this film is even more implausible than most, but what this scene does is exemplify the nature of a hard choice. Sometimes we are forced to make a decision between different outcomes – to choose the least worst from a series of bad options (a bit like the general election perhaps). What comes to the fore in such situations is that we reveal what it is that we value the most and, most importantly, what we value expresses who we are. In a context of declining energy resources, who will we choose to be?

I would like to talk about an obscure railroad foreman from the nineteenth century by the name of Phineas Gage. Gage was working in the Vermont area clearing land for the building of a new railroad when he had a rather dramatic accident – a tamping rod (used in the controlled explosions) was propelled up through his head, entering just below the eye and leaving through the top of his skull. Those who were with him thought that it must have been a fatal accident, but Gage survived. That is, the physical form of Gage survived, for following the accident his personality seemed to be completely different. Whereas previously he had been sober and responsible, now he couldn't hold down a job and was delinquent and uncouth. He ended up being part of PT Barnum's travelling circus, where he was exhibited – with the tamping rod – as a modern miracle.

According to a modern neuro-scientist's reconstruction, what had happened to Gage was that his capacity to exercise judgement had been destroyed. Consider what happens in a game of chess. There are a vast number of moves that are possible at any one point in the game and a competent player will immediately discount some of those moves as being ones likely to cause a defeat. Unlike with a computer, this is very rarely done on the basis of a full analysis of all the permutations that might follow (our brains are not that efficient); rather it is done on the basis of a judgement about what constitutes good and bad moves. That is, we react emotionally to certain outcomes and rule them out.

In the same way, in order to function in our normal, daily human lives we have to exercise judgement regularly, from when we get up in the morning, through all our daily interactions and deciding when to go to bed. Without that capacity to judge and decide we relinquish something essential. The particular area of the brain that was damaged in Gage related to the ability of the brain to process information from the body, especially the viscera – in other words, our emotional reactions. What seems to be happening in some neuro-scientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition – that our emotions are an essential part of the process, that they are the means by which we evaluate information and make decisions.

This is where the great religious traditions of the world come in. For each religious tradition might be better characterised as a 'wisdom tradition', that is, they are ways of educating people's emotions so that they can make better decisions. This starts very simply, such as in teaching children to delay gratification – 'if you eat up your supper you can get pudding' – or with adults, 'if you work hard for three years you will get a degree and a better job'. It expands to include all the language of virtues and vices, that is, how to cultivate in ourselves things like courage, honesty, patience, self-control, tolerance and so on. Essentially, all the things that make for a good society flow from emotional maturity.

Sadly, in our society, this truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible (and, as a corollary, that religion was all about emotionality, fit only for women and children, not the hard-headed strong rationality exhibited by manly men.) This had the sad result that we lost our ability to judge what is good and what is not. As a society we handed over our ability to assess good and evil to the scientists – who are, of course, so very rational – and now we are in a situation where the scientists say 'if we carry on like this we are doomed' – and we lack the emotional maturity to respond to this information correctly. As a civilisation, we are like poor Phineas Gage – once we knew who we were, and were competent and capable. Now we are a circus exhibit, fit only for a world of reality TV and game shows. How to get out of this predicament – and where our historic Christian faith has something to say – I will start to explain next time.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Constitutional wish list

In the light of the fascinating post-election negotiations, I thought I'd sketch my ideal political reforms - if I was made dictator for a day:
- retain constituencies for the House of Commons, but replace FPTP with "AV" (not AV+);
- make all constituencies approximately equal in size;
- fixed terms of five years;
- potential for recall/dismissal of an MP in some circumstances;
- impose pure PR on the House of Lords (party lists);
- also have equivalent of party lists (the great and the good, eg bishops) to represent the non-voting proportion in the Upper House (eg if only 65% of population vote, then 35% of seats in Upper House are allocated to non-party Lords);
- give Upper House power to impose referendum on disputed legislation;
- bring in an English Parliament.

I am rather hoping that Cameron and Clegg can create a coalition. It would be good in all sorts of ways (and very much in the LibDem interest).

The Hockey Stick Illusion (A.W. Montford)

The subtitle for this excellent book is 'Climategate and the corruption of science' which sums up the sad tale. Montford succeeds in making a technical statistical argument quite readable, which is surely a sign of divine assistance.

In brief, and cutting out much fascinating detail, the story is this:
- until the mid-1990's the consensus on climate history was that there was a 'Medieval Warm Period' (with temperatures higher than today), followed by a 'Little Ice Age', and then, from about 1850, a rise in temperature through to today;
- in the late 1990's a group led by Michael Mann devised a new history in which those highs and lows were flattened out, and the rise in temperature in the twentieth century was emphasised - this is the 'hockey stick';
- the scientific rationale for the hockey stick was progressively investigated, especially by Steven McIntyre, and has been comprehensively demolished;
- the scientific credibility of the IPCC in this regard is less than zero;
- the 'hockey team' - ie those around Mann and supporting his work - resorted to a great many dirty tricks and obfuscations to confuse this truth. "Climategate" was simply the airing of the dirty laundry (almost certainly a leak from somebody inside who was disgusted by the attempt at covering up the truth).

The funny thing is that the hockey stick as such is pretty marginal to the question of whether AGW is true or not. It can, however, serve as something of a litmus test - anyone who accepts it reveals that they are ill-informed. For me, this is the most significant chart re AGW:

Even if we do nothing (and we won't, so this is worst case) the CO2 concentration is likely to peak at around 450ppm, roughly equal to a .7C rise in temperature.

Football predictions revisited

Hmm. Didn't do too badly...

Called the top two and bottom three exactly :)
Biggest wrong calls: Liverpool's collapse into mediocrity; WestHam's flirtation with relegation; and on the other side, Birmingham being really quite competent. Spurs did better than I expected, and I'm glad for them (definitely in Chelsea's long term interest for Man City to be kept out of the top four for a bit longer - I think they made a mistake sacking Hughes).

Now. Can Chelsea do the double? I wonder what the record score in a Cup Final is?

Monday, May 03, 2010

A little bit on Laws

With thanks to Simon Sarmiento who sent me the link. This is part of yesterday's sermon, but given the content I think it belongs on this blog more than my sermons one.

For those who haven't been following the case, a Christian working for the charity Relate had refused to provide marital counselling for same-sex couples and been dismissed for that reason. The Christian had appealed the decision on the grounds that it represented religious discrimination, and the judgement this week was to reject that argument. In other words, as seems very reasonable, a charity set up with explicit provision to provide guidance for same sex couples had the right to dismiss an employee that didn't agree with the purposes of that charity - so far so straightforward.

Lord Laws, however, in his judgement, went a little further than that – partly because the former ABC made a rather public intervention in the process. Lord Laws said this:

“...the conferment of any legal protection or preference upon a particular substantive moral position on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture, is deeply unprincipled. It imposes compulsory law, not to advance the general good on objective grounds, but to give effect to the force of subjective opinion. This must be so, since in the eye of everyone save the believer religious faith is necessarily subjective, being incommunicable by any kind of proof or evidence. It may of course be true; but the ascertainment of such a truth lies beyond the means by which laws are made in a reasonable society. Therefore it lies only in the heart of the believer, who is alone bound by it. No one else is or can be so bound, unless by his own free choice he accepts its claims. The promulgation of law for the protection of a position held purely on religious grounds cannot therefore be justified. It is irrational, as preferring the subjective over the objective. But it is also divisive, capricious and arbitrary. We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens; and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic...”

Let's leave aside his frankly rather quaint adherence to Modernist philosophical categories, especially his na├»ve use of “subjective” and “objective”, and look at the underlying logic. For I wonder how far this can be pushed.

The first thing to point out is that actually we are a theocracy – more so than Iran – for our head of state is also the head of the established church! Is the monarch guilty of discrimination when he or she takes the coronation oath? The church is involved in that, after all:

The Archbishop of Canterbury: "Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolable the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?"
The Monarch: "All this I promise to do. The things which I have here before promised, I will perform, and keep. So help me God."

The second point is that his judgement applied to Relate – a secular agency with secular purposes – what about adoption agencies? If there are Catholic agencies with Catholic purposes, are they allowed to only employ Catholics or those who accept a Catholic agenda? Or is that discrimination? How about issues such as abortion – at present a Christian doctor is allowed to refuse an abortion – will that always be the case, or will a Christian doctor be required, by virtue of working in a secular institution, to carry out procedures that he finds abhorrent – and what about euthanasia? The same thing applies. Does it even apply to a nurse offering to pray with a patient? Put differently, is the secular state in the business of mandating and enforcing a division between care of the body and care of the spirit that medical practice itself would not acknowledge? I once read that in the future christians will be marked out as the people who don't kill babies and don't kill old people – I think that there is something in that

What is at issue here is the purported neutrality of the state, an intellectual position which Lord Justice Laws seems to hold but which is, at the very least, open to question. According to the rhetoric the state is able to hold the ring as a safe space within which different interests can operate – but the rhetoric disguises two things.

1. The state has a definite agenda, a secular agenda, and it is intolerant of dissent. Following the somewhat misnamed wars of religion and the peace of Westphalia the state has progressively centralised power, and it is ultimately ruthless in eliminating opposition (for various reasons, mostly associated with the fact that our society is crashing into the limits to growth, I think that historical period is over, and the future belongs to resilient local communities like transition towns – but that's a whole other story) What we see with Lord Justice Laws is simply an echo of that position.

2. For specific historical reasons our political settlement can't really cope with assertive religious believers. This is seen most particularly at the moment with issues around the Muslim faith. The philosopher John Locke, who stands at the origin of this process, put in place the framework by which the ethics of religious belief were judged by the state – and in England, this had the consequence that all enthusiasm became suspect. If you were actively and sincerely religious then you were not quite sound, you couldn't quite be trusted – the danger perceived was that you might be tempted to pick up a mace and break open your opponents head. All sorts of cultural habits have followed on from that, and the Church of England has been happy to accept a position of pampered privilege – sadly at the price of proclaiming the gospel.

So am I arguing that Christians are suffering from persecution? If we are, then only very mildly. As Archbishop Rowan has pointed out with his customary good sense and profound spirituality, for Christians in the West to bleat about persecution at a time when more Christians in the world than ever before are being executed for their faith – this betrays a profound sense-of-proportion failure.

Nevertheless, I don't see any reason to hold back on criticisms of our political culture, mild though the situation is. To do so is simply to accept the role of neutered house pet which the political settlement imposed on the church, and very unnatural it is too. To be a Christian is to be political – as one of my favourite theologians once put it, "If you ask one of the crucial theological questions--why was Jesus killed?--the answer isn't `because God wants us to love one another.' Why in the hell would anyone kill Jesus for that? That's stupid. It's not even interesting. Why did he get killed? Because he challenged the powers that be. The church is a political institution calling people to be an alternative to the world. That's what the cross is about." (Hauerwas)