Saturday, March 31, 2012

The stupid and ungodly culture of the Church of England

I've been pondering two things - the failure of the Anglican Covenant process in the Church of England, and the fate of Rowan Williams. It seems to me that both are evidence that the culture of the Church of England is incredibly stupid and ungodly. As that will doubtless come across as needlessly confrontational, I had better explain what I mean.

Take the Covenant process first. Why were the Bishops so out of touch? Why was so much effort invested - in a frankly morally dubious fashion - by the institutional establishment in pushing through a measure where there was clearly no consensus? The disconnect between the hierarchy and the rank and file - and especially, the disconnect between the episcopacy and the clergy - should really be a wake-up call to the hierarchy to carry out a fundamental review of how Bishops work. As Bishop Alan has put it, the failure is at least an "opportunity to grow up, to take stock, and to get real. It’s very sad that a large number of bishops were out of touch on this one".

With Rowan the situation is rather different. My question here is - how can someone so widely acknowledged to have remarkable intellectual gifts and personal holiness be so distorted by the pressures of the office that his ministry is considered to be a failure? (I don't believe that it has been - I'm not even competent to begin the assessment - but it is the fact that it seems to be regarded so that I find significant. That is, why is it that holiness is not valued and celebrated? It is a symptom of our profound spiritual sickness.) It seems to me that a significant part of this is the culture inhabited by the hierarchy which prevents a genuine and honest conversation from taking place - homosexuality is the presenting issue but the issues go much deeper than that. Put simply I don't believe that it is possible to be a Bishop and to tell the truth (with some honourable exceptions).

The roots of this are manifold, but I want to draw attention to one in particular - and that is the cult of overwork that has taken hold in the Church, in mimicry of the surrounding culture. It is this cult of overwork and 'busyness' that I see as stupid and ungodly. It is this cult that has radically diminished the capacity of the bench of bishops to exercise holy discernment. After all, how many Bishops do you know that are not absurdly overworked? The research is pretty clear that overwork leads to a significant decrease in productivity and is self-destructive - but appreciating that requires the application of wisdom, and it is precisely that wisdom that flies out of the window when a person is exhausted. We cannot expect our Bishops to exercise holy discernment and godly leadership if at the same time we are also expecting them to work 70 and 80 hour weeks (the same thing applies to clergy of course).

Of course, as Christians we are more than usually vulnerable to this cult of overwork because it appeals to our co-dependent culture and masochistic minister syndrome - if we are not suffering then we are not being properly godly. This is pernicious nonsense, and rooted in some very bad theology (not least the doctrine of penal substitution). It is as if we equate the way of the cross with the decision to mimic the world's obsessions, when a proper understanding of the cross would lead to precisely the opposite conclusion. The development of the stipend was originally to allow at least one person in a parish to have time for prayer; it is a sad irony that, as with many salaried posts, it has become an excuse to extract the maximum amount of labour for the minimum amount of expenditure.

In Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant novels there is one character, a thaumaturge, who carries around a small child on his back, called a croyel. The child never grows up but does, periodically die - and is then replaced by another. As the story develops it becomes clear that the thaumaturge is simply siphoning off the life-force of each successive child in order to preserve his own immortality. It's a frightening image, but one that I feel captures the way that the church treats all those who work for it - full-timers, part-timers, volunteers. What we expect from our bishops and clergy is exactly what happened with Microsoft - use up the resource until it is a dry husk and then discard and replace with another. The needs of the institution - keeping the show on the road - is paramount, and the church continues to sacrifice its children on this idol's altar. It's long time past for us to stop.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What is your Church of England future?

Originally posted April 6 2007. I thought I'd repost it following the rejection of the Anglican Covenant - this still represents my thinking.
I've been musing about Hampson's 'Last Rites' book, and in particular my development of his argument that the CofE will split into different factions (along the lines of the separate 'flying bishops' that we have already). A quiz below (hit 'full post').

Seems to me that three questions will reveal all:

1. Do you accept the notion of 'penal substitution' as an adequate account of salvation?

2. Would you receive communion from a female priest?

3. Would you receive communion from a gay priest?

If your answer is yes, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Reform, and join up with the 'Southern Anglican Communion'.

If your answer is yes, yes, no then you will be sympathetic to Fulcrum, and you will seek to keep the CofE on the road as far as possible.

If your answer is no, no, no then you will be sympathetic to Forward in Faith and you'll probably end up with Rome.

If your answer is no, yes, yes then you will be sympathetic to Affirming Catholicism and when the realignment comes you'll join in with TEC.

(There are, logically, other options, but not many people will buy into them!)

I think the issue is how long before TSHTF and the split becomes formalised. I wonder if there are plans already afoot?

Oh, and if it wasn't obvious already, I'm 'no, yes, yes'.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A few thoughts about gay parenting

This is really by way of a supplement to my previous post about civil partnerships, and prostitutes getting to heaven before the priests.

My argument there is that we need to draw a distinction between sanctioning and blessing relationships which are purely about the relationship between the parties involved, and sanctioning and blessing relationships which involve the raising of children. I believe that the wider society has a much stronger interest in the latter than in the former. Whilst there is all sorts of Christian thinking that can be considered in such cases, my overwhelming feeling is that it is for the Christians concerned to establish what is right, between them and God (and if they explicitly seek God's blessing for their endeavours then the church should enable such blessings to take place). In other words, I think it is a matter of taking their baptism seriously, and trusting in the outworking of grace in the lives of brother and sister Christians.

The latter situation, involving the raising of children, involves more factors. Two things to say about this. First, I believe that - in so far as we can use such language - it is part of God's original intentions for humankind that each child is to be loved into being and raised by their mother and father, and that there is something inevitably biological and organic at the root of this. That is, any situation which results in a child not being raised in love by their biological mother and father is the result of sin somewhere along the line (not necessarily sin by the parents - it could simply mean that one parent has lost their life for any of a multitude of reasons). I think that it is important to hold on to this as the normative model for parenting.

My second point, however, is a recognition that, in our fallen world, we have to cope with many situations that fall short of the ideal. What then? Well, we make the best we can from what we've got. We patch up our families, putting together whatever pieces work in so far as we can do so. We recognise that things aren't ideal, and we rely on God's grace to plug the gaps. As I argued before, I suspect that it may be easier for God to do his work when people recognise their own brokenness rather than otherwise ("every heart to love will come... but like a refugee"). Given this, I don't have any problems with couples of all shapes and sizes and orientations adopting or fostering children. Seems to me that if there are loving homes available, and children in need of loving homes, then everybody wins.

However, I would add a caveat to this. If we accept God's intentions as normative - that a child is to be raised by their biological mother and father - then this places a question mark against all the ways in which there is a conscious choice to bring a child into the world without their biological mother or father being the ones to raise the child, eg through artificial insemination. That would seem to be to be actively choosing against what is normative, rather than simply coping with what is not normative and redeeming a broken situation.

So to sum up my present thinking:
- blessing of civil partnerships - big yes;
- adoptions by gay couples - yes (subject to same restrictions as heterosexual couples);
- actively choosing to bring children into world without mother and father - no.

Current ambiguity still to be explored - if a gay couple with children seek church blessing - does that mean 'gay marriage'?! I think not, but I still have further thinking to do on this...!

The prostitutes get to heaven before the priests

Most people are familiar with the phrase 'the lesser of two evils'. What this means is that, in any particular situation, the choices available might all be objectionable in one way or another, and that includes the choice not to make any decisions at all and simply let events take their course. A classic example from the movies is 'Sophie's Choice' but they don't have to be that dramatic. It might simply be someone shopping at the supermarket and finding that there isn't enough money to get everything needed – so do we do without milk or eggs this week?

Christian thought describes this using the language of 'The Fall' – as I touched on in my article about assisted dying. As I said then, the importance of the story of Adam and Eve is not about particular historical events that may or may not have taken place several thousand years ago, but about the nature of the life that we are living today. As a result of living in a Fallen world, we are often in situations where there is no right answer and there is simply the choice between different evils.

There is a lot of ethical thought which the Christian tradition draws on when considering these questions (it's called 'casuistry'), but such thinking is not distinctive to Christianity. It is shared by lots of other ways of thinking, especially within governments, where it is occasionally admitted to (it's called 'utlitarianism' – the greatest good of the greatest number). What is distinctive to Christianity is an understanding that the lesser of two evils nevertheless remains just that: evil.

The way this works is to recognise the difference between the choice that is being made at any one point in time, and what is actually right and good from God's point of view. In other words, if someone is forced to go without either eggs or milk in the supermarket then their family is going to suffer from the evil of deprivation. This is not God's intention for that family. Therefore, even though a 'lesser of two evils' decision might be made between eggs or milk – and even though that decision could be readily defended by the casuists and the utilitarians – it is still a decision that is a 'wrong'. Why is this distinction important?

Well, the huge benefit that comes from treating such decisions as instances of continuing evil is that we do not lose our moral moorings completely. To recognise that having to choose between milk and eggs is an evil is a way of holding on to the notion of social justice, and therefore it provides fuel and energy to all those who seek to help build a society where families don't have to choose between milk or eggs. It allows us to hope and long for a better world.

To use a sailing analogy, it is the difference between working out the best immediate course to follow given local conditions of wind and tide, and knowing the eventual destination. Without having an eventual destination in mind, the sailor simply runs with what seems best at the time. With an eventual destination in mind, course corrections can occur over time, and tacking in the 'wrong direction' can be recognised as a necessary evil on the way to the eventual safe harbour.

Without the ability to retain a sense of lesser evils still, nonetheless, being evil, we soon lose our sense of any moral fabric at all. A good recent example is a philosophical paper arguing for the legitimacy of infanticide. When the laws around abortion were changed in the 1960s, the argument put forward was that it was a lesser evil to have safe and legal abortions than to have illegal, backstreet operations which put the lives of young mothers at serious risk. That makes sense – it probably is a lesser evil. Yet what has happened is that, without the acknowledgement that such abortions remain an evil, abortion has become just another lifestyle choice, and the logical consequences are now being seriously argued for – that where an infant is inconvenient, it is not wrong to kill them. Such are the depths to which our society has now sunk, simply because it has lost any sense of where it is going.

Which brings me to the nature of grace and redemption. As I said in my last article, I'm in favour of blessing civil partnerships in church, but I'm not in favour of 'gay marriage'. That is simply because I see the right way to bring up children as being by their natural parents. Call this the 'ideal'. What happens, however, when – as inevitably happens in our fallen world – such an ideal outcome is impossible, either through death, or divorce, or desertion? Well, then we are in the midst of our choosing whatever is the lesser evil, and those lesser evils can be seen all around us, functioning more or less well. I know of many cases where broken families are put back together with others, and where real security and love can become possible again. I've even been privileged enough to speak God's blessing in such situations, to allow a second chance and a remarriage in church. This is what Christians call redemption. Redemption is simply when God takes something which we have broken and builds something good out of the pieces. It is not an endorsement of what has gone wrong before; it is not saying 'you were right to choose the lesser evil'; it is simply God saying 'I am not going to let you go and I will work with you to bring something good out of this situation'.

Which is how we are to understand what Jesus did. If we look at Jesus' own ministry, he was normally to be found amongst those who don't fit, those who are broken and very aware that they don't meet the standards of what is socially acceptable. Why? My sense is that Jesus spent his time with those who have experienced pain and brokenness for the simple reason that they didn't indulge in the illusion that they were perfect; rather, they were the ones that were extremely conscious of their own failures, the ways in which they fell short of God's intentions for them. They knew that their choices of the lesser evil were still evil – and so they longed all the more for their eventual destination, when things would finally be put right. In contrast, the ones that Jesus criticised the most were the ones who believed that they had all the answers, and that they were 'right' – in other words, that their choices of lesser evils were not evil, and so they felt able to be self-righteous, and they used the 'ideal' as a club with which to beat all those who fell short. That is why Jesus is so astonishingly abusive to them – they had become vessels of merciless judgement rather than grace. There are, of course, those with the same attitudes today.

There is a wonderful Leonard Cohen song called 'Anthem' which expresses this eloquently: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in”. The light gets in, because it is those who are broken who recognise the need for genuine non-judgemental love, love which gives without a thought of receiving, love which sees what is wrong but loves anyway, love which can redeem what has gone wrong and graciously build something new. This is what Jesus offered, and that's why I try and follow him. Then Jesus explained his meaning to the religious authorities: “I tell you the truth, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do.” (The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verse 31)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Going to Eli - the tension between the institutional and the vocational

The prophet Samuel is called at a time when 'the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions'. Yet clearly the institutional life of the religious establishment continues as before - Eli continues to minister at Shiloh. When Samuel hears the call from God, his instinct is to go to Eli, for this is the way in which his understanding of God has so far been formed. Eli's reaction is to tell Samuel to go back to sleep. It is only Samuel's persistent response to God's calling that breaks through Eli's habits and assumptions, and then Eli is able to genuinely minister to Samuel, giving him the correct guidance, and midwifing the birth of Samuel's own distinctive prophetic ministry - a ministry that begins with the pronouncement that Eli's sons, faithless priests at Shiloh, would soon be dead.

There is much that is worth pondering in this story; what I would like to tease out for now is the tension between the requirements of the sanctuary, and the requirements of responding to God's call - the tension between the institutional and the vocational.
The circle on the right represents all that it means to respond to God's call to minister in his name; to find life in serving him and become the person that God calls one to be. It is the path of life in all its fullness. The circle on the left represents all that it means to serve a particular religious institution, whether that be the sanctuary at Shiloh or the church today. Clearly it is God's intention for those circles to harmonise, so that those called by God to minister in his name are enabled to do so through the life of the institution.

Sometimes, however, God's intentions are not fulfilled. Sometimes the institution develops in such a way that the glory of the Lord departs from a place or institution. When this happens, continued service to the institution is not necessarily what is called for from the ministers. To do so is to become a Pharisee, one whom Jesus described as those that "nullify the word of God for the sake of [their] tradition." Clearly this was the situation with Samuel, when the word of the Lord was rare. In such a situation God calls forward the prophets - those whose awareness of vocation is so distinct that they are enabled to speak the word of God independently of the institution, and to criticise the institution from God's point of view. Put simply, when an institution falls away from true worship, it moves to the left of the picture; in response, God calls prophets to return the institution to the right of the picture. The role of the prophet, paradoxically, is to make it possible for the priest to do their job.

The place of the prophet is not a comfortable one. By definition, the prophet's role is to come into conflict with the institution, to repudiate its present practices and call those within the institution to repentance. The temptation for the prophet is to collapse into cynicism about the institution, to relish the pronouncements of doom against it, yet to do so is to fail in fulfilling God's purpose. The role of the prophet is to build up and edify the church, not to tear it down. It is to heal the church and bring it back to a living and active faith, not to arrogate to itself a role as judge and executioner. This is why Jeremiah is so archetypal - his love for the people of Israel abided throughout his ministry.

Where are we now in the Church of England? I am aware of far too many cases where the priorities of the institution have been catered for at the expense of individual vocations. When this happens, the minister either endures a life of quiet desperation or else falls out of ministry completely, normally through ill-health of one sort or another, or early retirement, or by seeking refuge in a non-parish role (the numbers of which multiply exceedingly). This is part of the inheritance of Anglican Christendom - Herbertism - and this is what has to be repudiated.

What, specifically, might this mean? I think, for me, it means questioning the perceived institutional needs, in the name of God. For example, the financial predicament of the Church of England, linked to the ongoing decline in numbers, provokes mortal terror in the heart of the existing establishment (apparently). There is then a subsequent push towards growth, using (often) business and management techniques - for they, obviously, are the very models of successful institutions. I see this as 'going to Eli', when what the church most needs is to say 'speak Lord, for your servant is listening'. That is, the very root of our problems is a turning away from God and a being captured by worldly agendas. More worldly concerns will not lead us out of our morass. More visions and agendas and bright ideas are not what we need. Our path is and can only be one of renewed faithfulness and humble waiting upon God. It may be that in his infinite wisdom God has decided that the particular institution called the Church of England has outlived its usefulness as a vessel for enabling the spread of the gospel. I hope not - but the only hope for the Church is if we return to our spiritual centre, and remember what it means to be human.

The fate of a holy man in the Church of England

This is by way of some brief thoughts about Rowan's resignation:

- I think I'm as delighted by his resignation as I was by his original appointment; principally because I believe he has earned the right to some happiness (language that I'm sure he'd repudiate, but I think it's true nonetheless);
- for me, the high point of his ministry was the visit to Zimbabwe - some clear and courageous leadership, with an unambiguous meaning;
- whereas the low point, and the tragedy of his time, was his treatment of Jeffrey John. I think that the worst general consequence to this was that it obscured the truth about the power struggles going on, and enabled a continuing aversion to honesty by the house of bishops. We are way past the time when an honest and adult conversation should be had, and the continuing deceit on this issue repeatedly damages the church. Rowan, on principle, placed unity ahead of truth, and we are still dealing with the consequences of that decision (I think it is also the principal ground for why the Covenant will likely be rejected in England - Rowan's natural constituency doesn't trust him, and therefore it);
- Rowan has many immense gifts, gifts which are much more apparent on a personal level than when mediated by distance or writing. What he has not had is 'serpent wisdom', and I would associate this with his lack of parish experience. By his own life and witness he has called the church to be more faithful; by his unworldliness he has allowed the bullies to dominate. Pious language has its place but we also need to recognise our fallen context;
- in sum, what I see in Rowan's ministry is the fate of a holy man in the Church of England. Misused and abused - and bullied into collusion with the misuse and abuse - we didn't get the best of him, for the simple reason that as a whole church we have lost sight of the one thing needful. So alongside the delight for him personally is an immense sadness for what might have been.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Tell me again - Leonard Cohen and the problem of suffering

Long time readers may recall a long and eventually fruitless argument I had with Stephen Law about the problem of evil. My concluding thoughts are here, and a link up is here.

Time and reflection haven't changed my thoughts much. I still think that the 'answer' to the problem of suffering is a life lived, and that the intellectual analyses rather miss the point. Most crucially, I believe that the essential path is to be like Job - to tell God that you have a bone to pick with Him - but to accept the answer that isn't given, and pray anyhow. Or, as Elie Wiesel describes, "It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty'. It means ‘He owes us something'. Then we went to pray."

I'm listening to Leonard Cohen a lot at the moment, and this theme runs through so many of the songs - I see Cohen as articulating the only faithful response that is possible. Consider this:

I don't smoke no cigarette
I don't drink no alcohol
I ain't had much loving yet
But that's always been your call


Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can't move this thing alone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

The troubles came, I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains so I hastened to behave
There were chains so I loved you like a slave

And most clearly of all, this:

First official review of my book

"I would highly recommend this book to anybody seeking to explore the spiritual ramifications of the crises our industrial civilization faces. It is concise and well-written, and possesses the unique strength of being written by one of the few people I am aware of who has an equally solid grounding in Christianity and theology on the one hand and in the issues of resource depletion and the limits to growth on the other."

I say: thank God the first one was so positive; it'll set me up for the later ones! Much gratitude to Roy Smith for his kind words. Full review here at Energy Bulletin.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

'Gay marriage' and the blessing of civil partnerships

My latest Courier article

There is much fuss at the moment about the status of marriage, whether the Church of England should be obliged to bless civic partnerships in church, and whether the state should allow something which is described as 'gay marriage'. This is definitely one of those arguments that is generating more heat than light, but I hope I can add a little bit of the latter rather than the former.

The first thing I want to say is that, amongst the very few mentions that Jesus makes about marriage, that we have recorded in the gospels, one of the most important is to say that 'there is no giving and receiving in marriage in the resurrection' – in other words, marriage is principally a this-worldly arrangement, and is not part of our eternal nature. So what is at stake in these arguments is not quite as important as it is sometimes made out to be. Put bluntly, civilisation will not come to an end if our society chooses to redefine how marriage is understood. The Bible records a great many diverse marital arrangements through history, and life-long monogamy is only the most recent form.

From an anthropological perspective it is possible to see that monogamy developed because it provided the most long term peace for a society. In human history 80% of females have succeeded in reproducing and passing on their genes, whereas only 40% of males have achieved the same. That is because in the animal kingdom the 'alpha' has greatest access to mating opportunities, and those males who don't measure up have no chance to reproduce, and get eliminated. This also means that violent conflict is inevitable, as one alpha overthrows the next. What monogamy meant – and it is something that only became possible with the development of agriculture and permanently settled land – is that most men gain a chance to reproduce. Where monogamy is enforced – that is, where female adultery is taken seriously and has consequences like public shaming or being stoned to death, as described in the early part of the Bible – then the great majority of men have a stake in the maintenance of a stable society, and the level of internal violence within a society is greatly reduced. This allows for the establishment of laws and the much more rapid development of culture. Yes, this is completely patriarchal and sexist, but the gains that have come from monogamy have not been trivial, and should not be trivially set aside.

There is a second way in which society has needed to regulate sexuality, and that is because the wider society has a stake in how children are raised. Everyone suffers the consequences if children are raised without the sense of emotional security and trust that is provided by a stable family framework. Until the advent of modern contraceptive technology there was a fairly reliable link between sexual relations and conception – and that meant that the wider society had a significant stake in the regulation of sexual relations, and this was what lay behind the stigma of illegitimate birth. Our technological development means that we are in an unprecedented situation – the link between sexuality and procreation has been made optional, and our theologies and ethics are still catching up with what that means.

For example, the root of the ban on contraception in the Roman Catholic church goes back, via Aquinas, to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught that each element of the human body had a particular purpose, and that right behaviour lay in conforming our desires to those purposes. The purpose of the sexual organs was reproduction; therefore, any use of those organs for purposes other than procreation was wrong. If that basic assumption is rejected – if, for example, you believe that the sexual organs may have a role in “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one [partner] ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity” (1662 Prayer Book) – then a wider understanding of sexuality is acceptable, and so is contraception.

This also means that some aspects of sexuality need not be so tightly regulated by society, and that some sexual expression that was previously forbidden may now become acceptable. Homosexuality is one such. Now there are, of course, a small number of Scriptural texts – often misunderstood – that would seem to argue against the wisdom of this change. I would be quite happy to discuss such texts, their meaning and their applicability, at another time – maybe in another column, if that would be of interest. If sexuality has a place in providing cement for a relationship, however, irrespective of the needs for procreation, why should such a relationship only be allowed for heterosexual couples? The general acceptance of this line of argument is what has led to the development of civil partnerships, and the pressure on the Church of England to allow such civil partnerships to be blessed in church. It is what has led our Prime Minister to lead calls for accepting 'gay marriage'. It seems to me that there is a confusion of thinking here.

In previous times, where there was a direct link between sexuality and procreation, where that understanding guided the ethics of a society, and where society had a great stake in the raising of children, the society established strong boundaries around the expression of sexuality. We no longer live in such a society, and so it seems to me that we need to distinguish between two forms of relationship: one in which the mutual society of the two partners is the central element, and one in which the raising of children is the central element. The first is effectively a civil partnership, the second is what has classically been understood as a marriage.

I believe that society can sit very lightly towards the former, and that we can celebrate human love and affection wherever it can be found. Whilst there are undoubted gains in the quality of a relationship where it is intended to be life-long, should such relationships break down, the pain and suffering is principally restricted to those directly involved. In so far as the church might be able to assist such relationships to flourish, that would seem to me like a worthy Christian endeavour. At the moment blessings of a civil partnership in church are forbidden, but should I ever be in a position to vote on the matter, I would happily endorse them.

The latter form, however, is different. It does still require more profound social involvement, for we all have a stake in the raising of healthy children. I am not convinced that it makes sense to move from what is already available – civil partnerships – to an acceptance of 'gay marriage'. Here is where I have some sympathy with Aristotle, for I would argue for the normativity of a child being raised by both its parents and, at least for now, that means a mother and father, a heterosexual relationship. Biology may not be destiny entire, but a proper respect for our biological inheritance would suggest that the procreation of children is not a core part of a gay relationship. This is why I think the government is confused in its thinking – there is no need to redefine marriage in order to enable a full equality for gay people.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

God and Mammon - a response to some comments

Byron has very kindly engaged with my God and Mammon declaration; herewith my response to some of his comments.

#1. Agreed, as long as the first commandment is always also kept in the context of "a second, which is like it". How is the second "like" the first? I understand Christ's words here to offer the second command not as a supplement (how can any love supplement the wholehearted, uncompromising and totalising obligation of the first?), but as an explanatory and expansionary gloss on the first. That is, we love God wholeheartedly in and through loving our neighbour as ourselves. This offers a greater depth to the diagnosis and analysis of idolatry, which will therefore likely (or perhaps by definition) be in breach of the second commandment as well as the first. But I doubt we're on significantly different ground here and I don't think you've denied any of this in how you've expressed yourself which is clearly intended to be brief and sharp.

Actually, I suspect we are on significantly different ground here. I view one of the most dire problems that the church faces, and which vitiates all of its attempts to engage critically with the world, as salt and light, as being due to the evacuation of the sense of the first commandment into a comfortable affirmation of the "second, which is like it". There is a reason why Jesus says that the first commandment comes first. The first commandment contains a distinct meaning, which cannot be disregarded. Yes, there is an intrinsic link between love of God and love of neighbour - and where there is no love of neighbour then that is a clear sign that the love of God is deficient - but I believe that Christians have become very comfortable with the idea that by doing good works for our neighbours we are doing all that we need to do in order to love God. No. That is false, and a heresy. I go into this in some detail in chapters three and four of my book - which is the real intellectual heart of it - but for now let me say that if we get the first commandment right, the second naturally follows; the inverse is not the case, and, indeed, the inverse is eventually self-defeating.

#2. Is there really any necessary tension between obedience to the first commandment and seeking the good of a local political economy? I refuse to accept that unfettered economic growth is actually good for a local political economy when considered with a wide enough lens. Your phrasing seems to imply that Mammon is simply to be equated with "the needs of any local political economy", apparently denying the possibility of faithful Christian discipleship in this sphere. In contrast, and as stated above, I take it that genuinely loving God will involve a disciplined, creative and humble engagement with the needs my local community, including its political economy.

OK, some clarification, although I'm happy with my wording (for the moment). I believe that we are called to pray and work for the good of the city in which we find ourselves (Jeremiah 29.7). There is an important little word here: 'may'. There is nothing wrong with material wealth and prosperity - I believe that God calls us to the land of milk and honey. Furthermore, I believe that we are called to work for the particular goods that enable human flourishing (see below). Yet what is most crucial is to recognise that, however wonderful, such prosperity is secondary and can most assuredly be gained when the first commandment is given priority. That is what I see as a hallmark of the Old Testament prophets, and their insistence upon right worship. My point, therefore, is to insist that the good of the local political economy must, like everything else, be placed into a proper context. My point might be paraphrased as 'nobody who loves local political economy more than Jesus is worthy of being his disciple'.

#3. Are wars "inevitable" when base human appetites are systematically fostered? I would suggest that conflict may thereby become far more likely, though there is nothing truly inevitable in the realm of human actions and the form of the conflict may be either hot or cold, depending on circumstances and opportunities.

Short answer: pretty much, yes. There is a reference here to 'the American way of life is not negotiable' which I see as a stark example of idolatry in action.

#4. You introduce here the concept of growth for the first time (I presume you are more concerned with the concept of growth than simply the language of growth). As you know, I share your deep concerns about this ideology and its (spiritual, social, political, ecological) consequences. However, picking out growth alone may appear somewhat selective. The ideology of economic growth as a primary, even highest, political good is one form in which the idolatry of Mammon takes in our society, though it does not exhaust this idolatry. It is quite possible (though perhaps somewhat more difficult) to repudiate growth while maintaining an idolatrous service of Mammon. Embracing some form of zero-growth economics does not automatically solve the love of money (though it may of course help, and may be an important part of repentance of such idolatry in certain circumstances).[Additonal comment snipped]

This I see as the heart of the declaration - the rest is preamble. I am concerned with both the concept and the language of growth - it is through our language that the idolatry spreads and is enacted, so I think being careful about our language is of the essence of the battle that we face. Moreover, I do not see the idolatry of economic growth as the source of all that has gone wrong in human nature - that's the Fall; nor do I believe that overcoming this idolatry will lead to all things being fixed. My contention is that this is the battle for our time. The is the fight that we have to face, in our generation.

The analogy with the Barmen declaration is instructive. The trigger for that was the rise to power of the Nazi party. A sense of national pride presumably has some place in a healthy personality, under God; the problem comes when it is turned into an idol - as happened. I don't imagine that Barth and his friends believed that they were going to address all the problems of the world through their action, they were simply pointing out that the underlying tensions and idolatries had broken out into the open in their day, in a particularly toxic form, and that Christians had to make a stand, and decide who and what they were going to choose (Joshua 24.15).

My point is equivalent. The idolatry of Mammon has been prevalent for generations; it is not a new issue. What is new is the wider context, that is, we have gone past the limits to growth. To pursue growth in this context is radically self-destructive; to use their own jargon, continued economic growth has negative marginal utility. To pursue growth will make things much, much worse. The only way through this crisis is by abandoning our desires for more growth.

Furthermore, 'growth' is an abstraction, it is a calculation and a mathematical figure entered into government ledgers. What human beings need are homes and jobs, schools and hospitals. The provision of those things may or may not generate 'growth' - but they are worthy goals in their own right. I believe that it is the veneration of the abstraction, at the cost of a blindness to reality, which most reveals this contemporary idolatry.

[Additonal comments snipped]
I also think even the idolatry of Mammon is only part of the picture. The roots of our ecological predicament are complex and involve multiple strands. The libido dominandi is at play. Technocratic hubris and the triumph of instrumental reason over sophia. The myth of progress. A falsely absolutised division between humanity and the rest of creation. A failure of political representation. An attenuation of moral imagination. And so just as selecting climate change as the only relevant symptom is too narrow, so selecting the love of money as the only relevant cause is as well. Yet, in either case it is possible to accept that for polemical purposes, some simplification may be tolerated, provided it is acknowledged as such and is then supplemented with a broader and deeper analysis. In effect, the pedagogic and communicative path through which to confront our predicament is a tactical decision, amenable to multiple solutions, which may vary based on contextual factors.

I agree with almost all of this - and my own 'broader and deeper analysis' is in my book. I'm not really wanting just to be polemical with this though. I am really coming to the view that this is indeed status confessionis - that is, it is a salvation matter, and 'it is our blindness to this that constitutes part of our predicament'. Not, necessarily, at all times and in all places, to reject 'economic growth' - but here, and now, for us. I believe that God is repeating Deuteronomy 30 to us in our own time.