Comments: opinions from the papers

"For Williams, to break communion with a Church is heart-breaking, not so much for him but for the body of Christ. For the rest of us, Rome and Canterbury remain both constantly surprising and frustrating. No wonder, in all their division, that they get on so well" -
- George Pitcher. 'Telegraph' article -

In comparing the common dilemma of the ABC and the Pope, George Pitcher here puts his finger on the spiritual nous of the ABC. Rowan, despite his inability to enforce structural unity upon the Churches of the Anglican Communion, cannot help but long for a degree of koinonia that would unite us - in spite of theological differences. This is because he sees his task as that of a 'moderator', where special gifts are required to achieve the unity that Christ prayed for.

The Pope, on the other hand, because of his unique authority in the Roman Magisterium, is able to enforce unity - without any need to seek compromise. This is the main difference between the two charisms of leadership in the Church.

One form of leadership requires obedience - to the magisterium. The other requires the grace of koinonia - which is what the ABC has asked of the Primates Conference at Alexandria. For that spirit of koinonia to have effect, though, it must be informed and brought about by Christian charity and true justice - 'Mishpat'.

Let's all pray that the Primates may return to their various Provinces with a profound desire to seek 'the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace'. And let agape be the primary motive in their dialogue with their constituents.

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 9:51am GMT

The religious slot Thought for the Day I have viewed as the equivalent of schools having to have a religious element in school assembly. Reith and the 1944 Education Act and importing what is good for us. It is not appropriate. If there is a thought slot, it should be thought from across the spectrum.

Posted by Pluralist at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 3:40pm GMT

I’m dead cheesed off with the Guardian over this one. They asked for 500 words. Cut it to 280 words (because of space in the paper) but then put the cut version on the web, thus omitting half the argument. This had the effect of making it more punchy than intended, which was emphasised by the addition of ‘our slot’ to the headline – not something I would ever say. For interest, this is what I sent them. ….

Contributors to Thought for the Day mustn’t attack the beliefs of others. It’s a basic BBC rule under which all must operate. This is not a place where Christians can fire pot shots at Hindus or where Muslims have a go at Judaism. Which is why it’s just not appropriate to have atheists doing Thought for the Day. Not that atheists haven’t important things to say – of course they have. The problem is that atheism is defined by what it’s against, that it is not theism. And to introduce such a sense of ‘againstness’ into Thought for the Day would fundamentally alter its character.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins was offered a slot on the Today programme to experiment with a ‘secular’ Thought for the Day. He told us that religious explanations were ‘childish and self-indulgent’. He called religion an ‘infantile regression’ and ‘lazy’ and signed off by insisting that “Humanity can leave the cry-baby phase and finally come of age”. The whole thing was one long assault.

Of course, lots of people will agree with Dawkins. And they absolutely must have equal access to the BBC’s airwaves to say so. But this sort of denunciation is not what Thought for the Day is all about. My wife hates football – many do – but she hasn’t been lobbying for a slot on Match of the Day to tell people why.

Another option is for atheists to have access to the slot but to be subject to the same restriction that they cannot attack others. This presents a subtler problem. For what would atheists say? Sure, as individuals they may have lots of opinions about current affairs. But this is not what contributors are there to offer. When I speak on TFTD it is not simply as a free agent, but as a representative of a body of opinion that has a definable literature, a major place in world history and billions of adherents. Shorn of their ‘againstness’, what equivalent body of thought would atheists draw upon so that their contributions would be more than simply personal opinion?

And the answer that they might speak from a ‘humanist’ perspective begs the question as to what humanism is. The philosopher A C Grayling might offer a Thought for the Day as a Stoic - drawing upon the positive teachings of Stoic philosophy but without knocking the beliefs of others. Fine. But is there really so significant a body of Stoic opinion out there such that it justifies a rolling presence on a topical news programme? Actually, no.

I wish atheists would get a life of their own and stop following religious believers around wherever they go demanding to join in. Perhaps they are incapable of leaving us alone. For atheism is parasitic upon religious belief and united only by what it is against. Just as TFTD ought not to include religious fundamentalists denouncing heathens so it ought not include atheists denouncing believers. This is a place for a very different, gentler sort of reflection – and that’s precisely why so many people continue to love it.

Posted by Giles Fraser at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 4:07pm GMT

Well said, Giles.

Also, there is (or at least has been) a slot on Radio 3 called 'Free Thought', which seems to take contributions from non-religious thinkers on an issue. But it is not as good as TFTD.

Posted by Wilf at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 5:36pm GMT

I don't see that allowing humanists a slot on TFTD, subject to the same, non-aggressive, restrictions as the rest of the contributors would be a major problem - in fact personally I'd quite appreciate it.

ISTM, anyway, that the best 'thoughts', even the existing religious ones, already adopt a humanist standpoint. No-one presents a thought these days on the basis that "God/the Bible says" do we? In fact the best ethics, like the best science, has 'no room for God' in its hypothesis. After all God is not some arbitrary despot - remember Euthyphro? Even God has to have his reasons - and they are usually such as can stand up in rational debate.

So I say bring them on (the humanists rather than the atheists!) after all it is 'Thought for The Day' not 'Religious Thought for the Day.' What have we got to be afraid of?

Posted by andrew holden at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 7:24pm GMT

I read that Pitcher means well, yet has still fallen headlong into the venus fly trap set by the sort of thinking and ideas in the marketplace spin doctoring that, say, Intelligent Design likes to use to put on dress up clothes and pretend it is science that must be given a hearing on the same footing with Darwin and modern biology.

The problem with either Benedict's or Rowan Williams's efforts to reconcile with extreme conservative believers is the difficult similarity: each leader has looked willing to reach out to those alienated believing communities, precisely at the expense of the outsider or target groups which those conservative believers most fear, most often trash talk via flat earth preachments, and most often put on display as nothing but fine exhibits (all sensationalized and titillating?) of sin, danger, or filth.

Who is on more dodgy ground? The bishop who denies the holocaust, or the pope who reconciles with him without noticing that he denies genocide ever really happened? The Nigerian archbishop who thinks that queer folks are sub-human and who has never bothered to read the burgeoning animal science about species pairbonding? Or the other English archbishop who reconciles with him without reminding him that he might need to do his homework and actually pass the reconciliation along in good NT fashion, by reconciling with Davis MacIyalla or other Nigerian queer folks at home?

Its the blind reconciling with the blind, looks to me. Alas. Lord have mercy.

Posted by drdanfee at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 7:48pm GMT

Personally, I think TFTD is unnecessary, but if it has to exist, then it should include views other than the religionist

Posted by Merseymike at Sunday, 8 February 2009 at 9:26pm GMT

Well said, indeed, Giles. The irony of atheism is of course that belief that there is no God is in itself a statement of faith. Though of course to be a full-blown religion atheism would have to develop rituals (other than slagging people of other faiths).

Posted by Nom de Plume at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 2:50am GMT

I want to address St. Mark's story about some Pharisees being aghast Jesus healed someone on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), perhaps because that same story was used this morning during the sermon at the TEC church I attend. Either 1) these particular Pharisees were pedantic beyond belief, or 2) St. Mark is using Pharisees in an exaggerated fashion to make a point.
The Pharisee branch of ancient Judaism led directly to modern rabbinical Judaism. It had hundreds of thousands of believers, believers who disagreed with each other as much as Anglicans worldwide do today. Jesus was probably in the Pharisaical tradition himself.
There are numerous prohibitions regarding Shabbat. Saving a life or healing someone is not among them. There’s a Jewish saying: “Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if s/he saved the entire world.” In this story, Jesus didn’t physically save a life. But he healed someone, made them whole. Numerous rabbis and sages over the centuries have said that Shabbat prohibitions don’t apply to ill people, if those prohibitions act against making that person better. Further, Jesus performed a mitzvah, a good deed, a kindly act.
Jesus’ earliest followers were Jews. The Gospel writers were probably Jewish. St. Mark would have known the above. So,
a) Jesus is making a point through exaggeration: The person who focuses on the trees, misses the forest, misses the larger principals of the Law, or
b) There are two stories of Jesus healing people on Shabbat. St. Mark is making a point about the specialness of Jesus – and Shabbat: Look, he is saying, Jesus uses the Shabbat itself to perform his miracles, his mitzvoth, his wondrous deeds.
Yes, it’s a minor point. But, when priests make the point that “those rigid Pharisees wouldn’t allow people to be healed on Shabbat!” during their sermons, when knowledgeable writers reinforce this point, my fear it translates to how Orthodox Jews are seen today.

Posted by peterpi at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 3:21am GMT

"...if it has to exist, then it should include views other than the religionist."

I tend to agree - but Giles does have a point about atheists generally coming along to these parties only to score points at the expense of believers. Most can't resist at least the occasional 'believers in sky-pixies and fairies' jibe.

If humanism does have something it is 'for' rather than merely 'against' (and personally I think it does - after all most religions also value the human, Christianity perhaps more so because of the incarnation) then let's hear it please.

Posted by andrew holden at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 8:45am GMT

IMO, atheists are basically shallow and somewhat lazy thinkers - content to restrict themselves to facile, first layer "explanations" and too proud to accept the humility that is required to look at the deeper unkown that faith attempts to approach. Having said that, I believe their "attention" to breaking down religion is futile and more likely to help than hurt those seeking a deeper understanding of our place in the universe.. The sooner that atheists lead others to the edge of their limited knowledge the better. The more they ridicule religion the more they increase it's visibility and desirability. Repression and "thought cleansing" do not work in the long - even the medium- term.

Posted by ettu at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 12:29pm GMT

The penny has not dropped with editors that the English language (like most others, I guess) is so subtle that any kind of editing whatsoever apart from syntax/grammar/spelling corrections is likely to alter the meaning - and very likely in a way that *less* exactly represents the thought of the original writer. To make things worse, they often do this without permission. As was my experience with the Guardian letters-page, tho' thankfully with no skewing of meaning. (The Guardian scored top marks for seeking permission to publish at all - the only organ I have known to do so.)

If the editorial constraints on TTFD are too strong, TTFD will be evidence only for the nature of those constraints and for the content of the resultant fudge, not for the actual beliefs of the contributors. Thankfully we have not yet reached that stage - but the point is that we need to be moving away from it, not towards it.

It is interesting that Jonathan Bartley cited the example of Anne Atkins. AA is someone whose conscience is strong enough to constrain her to tell truth and be honest (as she sees it). This should be a bare minumum for those either contributing to TTFD or engaging in any other kind of debate. In fact, regrettably, it is a quality rare enough to make her stand out in some company. AA's level of conscience and not caring less about popularity (since logically there is absolutely no chance that the truth will *always* or even necessarily *often* be related to what makes one popular or PC) should not be the exception but the norm, most of all for those making moral comment or comment on big questions.

Otherwise we are saying that the constraint to tell truth is *less* important than that to compromise one's actual beliefs ie the constraint to lie or tell half-truths. This reduces to 'lying is better than truth'. That is not a tenet either of Christianity or (I hope) of anything else, but it is an inevitable result of the lowest-common-denominator system, as also of a totalitarian-secular system. Moreover, only by everybody being honest can we tell what the actual proportions of people holding any belief are.

Posted by Christopher Shell at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 1:12pm GMT

I'm disappointed by the arguments for keeping atheists out, just as I'm disappointed by theists who argue in favour of 'faith' schools. Christians and other religionists should not seek to have special spaces within public space: they should compete in the public market-place of ideas like everyone else. Ethics, we all know, doesn't have to be grounded in religion. Christians have to get away from this defensive protectionism: it looks bad and is bad for us, because we badly need to sharpen up.

Posted by john at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 5:46pm GMT

'And the answer that they might speak from a ‘humanist’ perspective begs the question as to what humanism is. The philosopher A C Grayling might offer a Thought for the Day as a Stoic - drawing upon the positive teachings of Stoic philosophy but without knocking the beliefs of others. Fine. But is there really so significant a body of Stoic opinion out there such that it justifies a rolling presence on a topical news programme? Actually, no.'
(from Giles Fraser's piece)

People speak frp
om 'Christian' perspectives all the time on TftD --begging the question of what 'Christianity' actually is.

I was very surprised by Giles Fraser's piece. It's tone surprised me very much. To me, it felt defensive and rather anti-humanism and secular views.

I would like to hear a genuinely wide-ranging series of Thoughts.

Posted by Rev L Roberts at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 6:55pm GMT

"(The Guardian scored top marks for seeking permission to publish at all - the only organ I have known to do so.)"

Really? This is common practice in the fact, most major newspapers will not print a letter from someone who does not provide contact info or cannot be contacted when attempted.

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Monday, 9 February 2009 at 10:15pm GMT


Contact details must always be given, and sometimes one gets an automatic response. But out of 10 newspapers I have had letters in, only the Guardian actually rang (or otherwise contacted) me to seek specific permission.

Posted by Christopher Shell at Tuesday, 10 February 2009 at 12:30pm GMT


Interesting. I've written letters to a variety of newspapers in the USA, from the New York Times to the local county daily. All of them either phoned or (more recently) e-mailed me to confirm 1) that I was actually the person who wrote the letter; and 2) that I intended it for publication.

Posted by Pat O'Neill at Tuesday, 10 February 2009 at 3:37pm GMT


Sorry your point got lost. There are plenty of Christian NT scholars and even more Jewish scholars (e,g. Hyam Maccoby, author of 'Jesus the Pharisee') who think that the NT's representation of 'the Pharisees' is distorted. An interesting case is 'Acts', where their representation seems to be 'corrected' after 'Luke'.


Posted by john at Tuesday, 10 February 2009 at 7:31pm GMT


Looks like a national difference between USA and UK.

Posted by Christopher Shell at Wednesday, 11 February 2009 at 12:09pm GMT
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.