Thinking Anglicans

Justification for War

As the background to the decision to remove Sadaam Hussain by force emerges, it becomes clearer that there were no grounds on which Britain or the USA could claim that this was a just war. There were no weapons that posed an external threat, and no plans to develop any.

True, Sadaam was a terrible tyrant, but the world has seen plenty of these. They aren’t often removed if the only threat they pose is to their own people, whether in SE Asia, in Africa, or in Latin America. Indeed, the USA has a shameful record of having supported some of these. Sadaam’s government was supported by the West whilst he waged a war on Iran which involved the use of chemical weapons.

We also know that the Iraqi regime gave no support to Al Quaida, and would have suppressed any act of terrorism. So, to decide to overthrow Sadaam in the aftermath of 9-11 now appears completely illogical.

It now looks as though the decision to go to war was fuelled by the failure of the USA to eradicate the sources of terrorism. The most powerful nation on earth simply wanted an excuse to show what its overpowering weaponry could do, and take the eyes of the American public away from the intelligence failures which had both allowed the 9-11 events, and provided faulty information about the dangers posed by Baghdad.

George Bush needed a victim, a scapegoat for his own failures, and found it in Sadaam Hussain. He convinced Tony Blair, but he failed to convince most of the European Union, failed to convince the United Nations, and failed to convince a million demonstrators in Britain.

It was clear from the way the war was prosecuted that this was a piece of scapegoating, rather than a liberation for the Iraqi people. Much of the infrastructure of the ancient city of Baghdad was needlessly destroyed. The army, who hadn’t been seriously mobilised in any strength, was disbanded. The ensuing power vacuum allowed looting and lawlessness on a grand scale, sowing the seeds of strong opposition to the invaders.

The idea of finding a scapegoat was always a mistake. It was an ancient idea of the Jews that once a year, in an elaborate ritual, the sins of the people could be driven out by loading them on to the back of a hapless animal, which was driven out into the desert. Surely a moment’s rational thought is enough to show that a dumb animal cannot carry the sins of human beings. A goat is quite incapable of making people good. It might, given an impressive enough ritual, have convinced people 3,000 years ago. It might have made them feel good about themselves. But today the idea of making a scapegoat of someone is morally bankrupt.

It was wrong for Christian nations to go to war on this kind of basis. As Christians — and the national leaders concerned own to a personal faith in God – we have shamed ourselves in the eyes of both other Christians, and those who hold other faiths. At the time, when the myth of the weapons of mass destruction seemed credible, a million people in our own country demonstrated against what they saw as an unjust war, and a terrible mistake. Today, we have sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind. We have set nations against us. We have driven willing volunteers into the hands of the terrorists. Though Tony Blair might claim Iraq is safer today, the world, and the West in particular, are surely less safe.

The lesson that needs to be learned is that nothing good will ever be achieved by making scapegoats. It doesn’t remove sin, or ultimately make people feel good about themselves. As Christians we should know that making scapegoats doesn’t work. Forgiveness of sins is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ.

There is a large body of literature which explores ideas of scapegoating from a Christian perspective. Much of it is indebted to the work of Rene Girard, who developed his understanding in the field of literature, drawing significantly on writing as diverse as Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedy and modern novels. For an except from Girard’s book I see Satan fall like lightning, see chapter 12 entitled Scapegoat.

See also a discussion of Girard’s work in relation to the Christian understanding of Atonement, and the implications of Girard’s theories on some current theological issues.


Celebrating fallibility

I’ve had the same mad conversation no less than five times in the last month, which is enough to suggest that others may not think the idea is so barmy, and that maybe I should take it more seriously than I do.

To backtrack a little, we’re talking about the slow disintegration of the Church of England. This is not an attractive prospect for me, and not only because I have a career and a pension riding on it. I happen to believe in a lot of what the CofE represents, which probably comes as no surprise to even a casual reader, but I am nevertheless increasingly pessimistic about its prospects for surviving in the way we have known it.

Where it affects us is whether we think there should continue to be a local church in every community in the land. In this part of the world we live in a deanery of sixteen parishes. Within living memory, each parish had its own clergyman, and Stansted also had usually two curates, so eighteen full-time clerics for sixteen parishes. These days, for the same sixteen parishes there are five full-time clergy. In fifteen years there will be three full-time clergy for the same number of parishes with increasing populations.

Back in the days when clergy were a less endangered species, it was possible for their church councils to say that, if they took care of the roof, the fête and the flower festival, the vicar could go and visit, do The God Bit and bring people to church. Those individuals who didn’t like franchising their faith to the clergy became Methodists or Quakers but, for the rest, this undemanding arrangement worked reasonably well. Reasonably well, that is, until clergy become thin on the ground, which creates a vacuum.

This empty space, to be fair, has come upon rural churches at a quicker pace than they are used to working; in fact it has come more quickly than any of us would like. Even for the most devout of us, it is one thing to recognise the gap, it is quite something else to fly in the face of old instincts and prejudices and presume to offer oneself to meet the need. In small communities this is an even larger step because, as we all know, there is nothing like a village for remembering the human frailties of its inhabitants ‘til well after they have taken up residence in the churchyard.

So, we must keep the church going, but we don’t quite know how. So we reach for widely held beliefs which are ready to hand: ‘The church is the centre of the community’ is one of these. This belief is held by sane people who hold down serious and responsible jobs. It is a view which only makes sense if the community is all Christian, and the kind of Christian which expresses its faith through formal organisations like a parish church.

The mad idea with which I started is also widely held in all three parishes, and even beyond, as I had the conversation in another diocese last week. It says that, if the parish church can put on social events in church to attract local people, somehow this will encourage them to become active members of the church, and so will stay the process of decline, now that we do not have local clergy to go and round up the lapsed.

Now I have no objection to social events and look forward to more of them in my parishes, but their provision does not address the core malaise of the church. The root problem is that most people, given free choice, do not publicly practice Christian faith. This is not just the much lamented young, it has been true for a long time. People born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s mostly are not regular church attenders for most of their lives. I know this as I bury a good number of them in the course of a year. Their offspring struggle with the language of a Christian burial ritual because it speaks using images and metaphors whose meaning just escapes them. Fewer people in church means that there are fewer individuals who feel a call to holy orders. With fewer in holy orders, there is a sense of communities being beached by the church, and so giving goes down, which in turn means fewer clergy taking on more parishes, which then see less of them, they become disaffected and the spiral goes on. If I were to stay here until retirement, I can quite see my parish growing to include half of the deanery.

There is hope for rural parishes, but the route is not an easy one, and the days of an undemanding faith are over. We need somehow to grasp the idea that people do not become practicing Christians by accident. There may even be some who choose a church because they like the cleric who serves there, but that’s not a true faith as it will evaporate when that cleric moves on and, surprise, surprise, the cleric is not God.

A local church is attractive only if it is engaged in its core business, and this is about ordinary fallible people stumbling around, along with their no less fallible cleric, trying to listen for the echoes of God’s footsteps in their own lives, and then sharing what they find with others. This is how a church is grown, and it doesn’t need a local cleric constantly to hand for that to begin.


Traces of Establishment

A couple of days ago, I found myself on the stage of the town hall in the company of the local MP, giving out ‘certificates of excellence’ to a steady stream of primary school children. Nothing unusual there, you may say. It’s the sort of thing vicars do.

But that’s the problem. It certainly fitted with the expectations of the local vicar with which I grew up, when the incumbent was part of the structure of the community, widely recognised as one of the neighbourhood’s ‘great and good’, a suitable authority figure for school prize-giving, and to be invited to civic events of every kind. He (of course) was there as the representative of the established church (and of the Establishment) in a country which described itself as Christian, no matter how small a percentarge of the population were active members of a church.

On Wednesday, however, I was giving out certificates to children, only a tiny proportion of whom would have any connexion with Christian faith; the great majority with a faith commitment were Muslim. I was part of the presenting team in my capacity as an LEA-appointed governor in a community school. That I also happen to be the local vicar is incidental.

And yet I was wearing my clerical collar, identifiably a leader in the Christian community, and a sign of continued Christian presence in and commitment to a neighbourhood where residual attachment to church and church-going is dwindling rapidly as the population changes.

In this area, there is a shortage of volunteers to take up governorships in local schools. Working for the well-being of the community in which I find myself is a natural part of my ministry, fitting with the long Anglican tradition of service particularly in the inner city. School governorship is a very practical opportunity to use my skills and experience in a field where they will be of value. It also gives me the chance to make relationships with children, parents, and colleagues whom I would not otherwise encounter – and who perhaps would rarely have any occasion to engage with someone who has a public commitment to the Christian faith.

The difference from the old days is that I cannot assume any right to that opportunity or those relationships. The old rules of establishment no longer hold. I must earn my place at the table, by whatever personal gifts I might bring and by an understanding of the gospel which connects to the hopes and fears of staff, parents, children and governors of the school. And I find myself wondering when and if I will be joined on the governing body by the local imam; when will he be the natural person to invite onto the platform, and should he be so already?