Paul Vallely, associate editor of the Independent, has a major interview in today’s paper with Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham.
Tom Wright: It’s not a question of left and right, says the combative priest who opposes the war in Iraq and gay bishops is there until it disappears into the paid archive.
There is also a front page (broadsheet edition at least) news story to lead readers to the interview Bishop attacks Blair as ‘white vigilante’ which concentrates on one aspect of the interview only.
There is also an editorial about the bishop and his views, which is unfortunately available only to paid subscribers. This also deals mainly with the UK political aspects, but not entirely. Here are some extracts.
A turbulent but reasoned voice that demands honest answers
29 December 2003
If it is a function of the Church to force people to reconsider their moral bearings, then the new bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, fits the bill admirably. In his interview with The Independent today, not only does he speak the truth to power by criticising George Bush and Tony Blair for the invasion of Iraq, but he confounds the easy assumption that he must also support such liberal causes as the right of homosexuals to become bishops.
…[Dr Wright’s] …analysis of the Iraq war should be taken more seriously than that from the usual left-wing suspects. And he surely cannot be contradicted when he says that, by the political uses of their religion, Mr Bush and Mr Blair have added to the perception of the Iraq war as a war on Islam. Nor can it be disputed that “America’s notorious support for Israel only exacerbates that”. For good measure, he describes the Christianity of Mr Bush’s circle as a “strange distortion”.
…This newspaper does not agree with Dr Wright on gay bishops; we cannot agree that gay and lesbian people should enjoy equal rights in some things but not others. But his thoughtful arguments deserve a considered response and demand some humility from those with whom he disagrees. There is, for example, an element of truth in Dr Wright’s observation that the refusal of the diocese of New Hampshire to compromise with the rest of the Anglican communion reflects a certain American cultural arrogance.
It is an unusual parallel to draw, but there are some echoes in the attitudes of the occupying forces in Iraq. No one will agree with Dr Wright about everything, but Mr Blair, Mr Bush and the rest of us could gain by responding to his arguments with due humility. By that, he has re-asserted the Church’s claim to relevance.
Support for the Church of England came today from an unexpected quarter: the editorial column of The Observer newspaper. In Faith values the leader writer refers to the major feature story by Rachel Cooke on the cover page of the Review section, The sleek shall inherit the Church which reviews the current state of the CofE.
Part of the editorial:
Some three million people will file into the pews of the Church of England at some stage this Christmas - three times as many as on a normal Sunday. It may be only 5 per cent of the population, but in a secular age in which Christian faith appears so out of fashion it is remarkable how well the numbers hold up every year. Christmas remains a time when the story of birth and redemption retains a remarkable hold on our collective imagination.
…People do not have to accept every canon of the Church’s creed to be impressed by its core spirit of radical toleration - a continuing gift to our national culture. Some of the millions in church this weekend will not be attending because they are regular practising Christians. Rather they come because they feel the spiritual dimension of Christmas should be acknowledged and they know this radically tolerant church will welcome them, even if they don’t turn up again until next Christmas.
Such tolerance, though, is under siege. It is even attacked by evangelists within the Church who see it as too accommodating to what they portray as amoral trends in civil society, such as homosexuality. It is regrettable for both believer and non-believer that such trends tend more towards the Old Testament age of retribution, revenge and intolerance that threatens our modern plural and largely secular society.
… If we all could subscribe to greater tolerance, it’s hard to dispute that the world would be a better place. If Christmas can help that message alone, it is more than worth its keep.
In her feature story, Rachel Cooke says much that is worth reading. Two small excerpts:
What I found surprised and moved me. For one thing, there are still lots of them out there (one million people every Sunday). For another, they are often far more tolerant than their critics, sometimes soaringly so. As for the institution itself, in our uniquely grasping culture, I can think of no other that offers so much in return for so little.
But in any case, this is not a numbers game. The very best thing about the Church, whether you choose to make use of it or not, is that it values the few as much as the many. I felt this, powerfully, on the night I showed my Godless face at St Mark’s, when there cannot have been more than £10 in the collection tray. For this reason alone, we must pray that the evangelicals do not, after all, storm off into the dark night, rattling their own coffers loudly. Ask most clergy which they would rather - a packed house, or a handful of the elderly or the lonely or the lost - and you will find that this is not a deal any of them are willing to cut.
Headlong into Christmas we all seem to rush, but it is still advent and the hurry, whilst certainly to do with preparation, has little to do with penance. It might not have been the kind of preparation John the Baptist had in mind when he told people, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’. What preparation though would he be demanding of us today?
John challenged people to prepare themselves but also to look around at those in need and help them. Who are those most in need in our midst? Surely no one these days actually has nothing. Social security provides a safety net. The homeless shelters take people in, and feed them, and even help with clothing. But, do you know, there are actually those who have nothing. There are even people whom the shelters will not take at all? There are those in Britain, not just in major towns and cities but in your town on your streets, on your doorsteps who actually have nothing, not even food, and are hungry?
These people are asylum seekers. They have committed no criminal act. Routinely now, those who through no fault of their own, did not know that they had to claim asylum the moment they got to immigration control, but only found out even an hour later are denied all benefits. They are also prevented from working so they cannot earn their keep, as many would happily do. And these are not economic migrants, they are almost all from countries with which we have either been to war, or which have massive abuses of human rights. (Otherwise we would expect to see many more from the poorer African countries.) Many come highly educated, as many as 30% actually have a degree. In many cases, they cannot even be returned to their countries of origin, because it is not safe to send people back to places like Zimbabwe, Somalia, and Iraq. Their basic human rights were denied them in their home countries and they come here and find that they denied them here as well.
They are expected to have perfect knowledge of how the asylum system works here, before they arrive, even if English is not their first language — not that it gets explained to them at any stage.
So we have people now, without benefits, without work and without shelter, because the shelters only take in those for whom the state will pay for a bed, i.e. people who are British. We have managed to create a whole new underclass in our society, and one which generally gets nothing but vilification and blame from the media, as if they did not already have enough with which to cope.
So if you ask me what I think John the Baptist would be saying, I think he would be talking to us about asylum seekers. We might want to recall that Christ himself was a refugee in Egypt, that his family were even visitors to the town where he was born. And are we not to treat every asylum seeker, every refugee as Christ?
If you really want to help, if you really want to make a difference, then that would involve sharing money perhaps, but more importantly time, that is — getting involved directly; helping groups to distribute food, to dispense advice. But perhaps most important way of all, the way everyone can help them, is by not judging them before they have met them, and attempting to see behind the headlines, the rhetoric and the tinsel to see what life is really like for those who are marginalised on your streets this Advent and Christmastide.
And the latest news from the streets… the government want to take away Christ from his asylum seeking family — all for his own good you understand, because otherwise he would be destitute, too. And immediately with birth we see crucifixion as well.
‘Go on, ask him for something this Christmas’ says the Churches’ Christmas advert.
The baby Jesus, dressed in an unlikely Santa suit, rather than the traditional swaddling clothes makes us think, and will probably cause anguish and confusion to the parents of thousands of children. The Christmas poster from the Church’s Advertising Network has again prompted all kinds of disapproval. Even the least of the criticism complains about the apparent desecration of a beautiful old master picture of the nativity.
But it does its job. It was intended to surprise, and, with gentle irony, make people think about what we have done to the festival which marks the birth of God’s Son. The meaning can be distorted or lost in all the events and all the products which claim the title of “Christmas” but have little to do with the Christian celebration of the incarnation.
The poster, of course, just adds to the confusion. But it’s only intended to point people to the places where the real message of Christmas is proclaimed — in churches of all denominations throughout the land, all marking Christmas in their own special ways.
All churches acknowledge that Christmas began with the best Christmas present in history, God’s greatest gift to the world.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
So, for the real message and meaning of Christmas, celebrated in carols, in scripture, in teaching, in drama and liturgy, come to church, and have a real Christmas. Ask him for something.
Two weeks ago, the Church Times paper edition’s web page contained an article by Sarah Meyrick, about various new web-based British church organizations, which mentioned Thinking Anglicans. This is now on the CT website.
To read the whole article, follow this link and scroll down to Partaking or plotting?
The portion about Thinking Anglicans is reproduced below.
As Sarah concludes:
All these websites give people at the grassroots a chance to track events as they unfold, and to explore tricky issues with an audience far wider than could have been dreamt of in pre-web days. For the movers and shakers, they are a means of taking the temperature of the Anglican Church at a time of turmoil.
At its best, the internet provides a way of fostering community and broadening the horizons of its users; at its worst, it allows people to become narrower in outlook and to plot damage. I suspect the outcome in this case lies in how much - if at all - the different networks communicate with each other.
Extract from Partaking or plotting?
Sarah Meyrick on church groups that campaign on the web
…Meanwhile, www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk has taken a different approach, by creating a discussion forum, intended for “tolerant, thoughtful and understanding exploration”. Visitors post their views through weblogs or “blogs” - comments on news and issues - with a gentle lead from the founders. This is a clean site, which owes much to the well-established www.anglicansonline.org.
Simon Sarmiento, one of the founders, says blogging is a uniquely powerful tool of communication (see below). “We wanted to give people the chance to share their opinions,” he says. “With blogging, all you need is a computer and a phone.” The site, which began life in August, now registers 500 page impressions a day.
Having lived for ten years in the North-East of England, I returned to Dublin (which I had left in 1990) just over three years ago. The Dublin I had left was really still a provincial town, and its inhabitants lacked the self-assured arrogance of those of some capital cities. But its community was also still far from being at ease in the modern world: the 1980s were marked in many ways by very public struggles in which the Roman Catholic church fought, and generally vanquished, what people elsewhere took for granted: contraception, divorce, homosexuality.
When I returned I encountered a very different city, and a very different country. The demure city whose pulse was hardly in evidence has become an in-your-face, secular, materialistic community. Churches in urban parishes which had attracted 90 per cent of the population to their Masses are now lucky if the get 10 per cent. A new RC archbishop feels the obvious need to begin his prelature by offering apologies to all and sundry on behalf of his church.
Anglicans have been beneficiaries, to some extent. For the first time in over a century or so the Church of Ireland is growing, and in some parishes it is growing fast. Young affluent-looking families (who will often still be declaring they are ‘Catholic’ on the census form) make the Anglican cathedral or parish church their spiritual home. And why? Because, as one said recently in a TV interview, ‘here is a denomination which understands the new millennium and can combine the spirit of the new age with the best of the old tradition’. And another said that ‘Anglicans manage to be religious without being obviously unreasonable’.
Maybe that’s too rosy a picture, and maybe the more familiar pattern of decline will return. But I don’t believe that a born-again dogmatism — whatever its direction — is a likely agent of continuing growth. Fundamentalists comfort those who cannot quite face the world as it is; but most people whose main instinct these days is to give religion a miss will run a mile if they sense a dogma around the corner. We need to speak a different language — still capable of being expressed in thees and thous, by the way — which engages the mind, refreshes the senses and shows the way forward.