Thinking Anglicans

Swords crossed over a crucifix

The following article from the 21 November edition of The Tablet is reproduced by kind permission of the Editor.

Swords crossed over a crucifix by Aidan O’Neill

The Italian Government is seeking to appeal against a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that could lead to the removal of crucifixes from state school classrooms. A leading human-rights lawyer looks at a case that goes to the heart arguments about the relationship between Church and State.



A Secular Time

Tomorrow is just another day. Not. I am a Scot, partially by birth and partially by adoption. To no Scot whosoever, wheresoever, are today or tomorrow anything like normal days.

At Christmas Scotland strives for, and often fails at, good cheer, for the ghost of John Knox sits over all with Northumberland gloom, and mere materialism steps into the gulf even more readily than in England. Before the New Year, cheerfulness suddenly springs up in all its glory. It is natural to greet returning friends and former neighbours with cries of joy, blocking crowded supermarket aisles, while harassed shoppers ponder on just how much whisky, and lager, and ham and sausage rolls will ensure family and friends, and (even today) chance visitors will not go hungry, which actually means will not go without being stuffed to satiety.

There is a small frenzy of cleaning. Less than there used to be, but dear knows the Scots are particular at the best of times. Paintwork is washed down, floors vacuumed threadbare. And life is cleared out. The past year is reviewed. Its sorrows are brought to mind, and, in so far as they can be, dismissed. Guilt and remorse and misfortune are let go. Joys too are counted up.

There is a no-man’s-land between day and day. Most do not have to work then, but can rest. Now that time, nobody’s time, our own time, is transformed into a time of transition — part old year, and part new. It becomes Hogmanay. It starts in loss and expectation. And food and drink and dancing. It is a ceremony of letting go and drowning out — washing away if you like. And we do like it. Then comes ‘the Bells’. Midnight. The witching hour, the moment, the actual moment of transformation. The old year is finally dead, danced to death like a sacrifice. The new year is created. And the new year is beautiful, untrodden, pure. It stretches on and on. The daylight part of the First is liable to pass in a bit of a haze, even for non-drinkers, due to exhaustion. Those who managed doucely to bed at a reasonable hour of one or two in the morning set about creating a family feast. It is a day of new clothes and best dresses. The Second follows it, a public holiday in a country where most holidays are merely regional, and family and friends are visited, old jokes dusted off, and hopes for the new year counted out. And the third. From time to time Scots find themselves dragged back to their place of work on the third. Unhappy co-incidences of the calendar occasionally indicate it. That is not to say, of course, they actually do much work. It feels all wrong. And evenings are probably devoted to catching up with friends. Eating those sausage rolls before they go out of date. So, gradually, Scots re-enter life for a new start, with re-considered aspirations.

You understand it is a wholly secular time. Not.

Rosemary Hannah is a writer and historian living near Glasgow.


Ecclesiastical Committee meeting report

The Ecclesiastical Committee recently met, and a report of its proceedings is available on the Parliament website. As it says here,

The Ecclesiastical Committee is not a committee of Parliament, but its reports and their associated Measures are, for convenience, made available here. Papers in these categories are printed by order of both Houses.

Members of the Ecclesiastical Committee are appointed by the Speaker and the Lord Chancellor under the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919. Reports on proposed Church of England Measures are made by the Committee under the provisions of section 4 of that Act.

The terms of reference and the current membership of the committee are listed here.

Ecclesiastical Committee – Two Hundred and Twenty Eighth Report

This page has further links to:

Report to Parliament

Minutes of Proceedings

Legislative Committee of the General Synod: Comments and Explanations on the Church of England (Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure

Extract from Revision Committee report: amendment of the draft Measure in relation to human remains in cathedral precincts

Legislative Committee of the General Synod: comments and explanations on the vacancies in suffragan sees and other ecclesiastical offices measure and the crown benefices (parish representatives) measure

The Crown Benefices (Parish Representatives) Measure

Ecclesiastical Committee – Minutes of Evidence leading finally to:

Deliberation – Wednesday 25 November 2009 (this transcript is the most interesting part)

There is also a report about this in Private Eye but that is not available online. However, it makes the point that:

Desmond Swayne MP, who objected strongly – and revealed that David Cameron did too. “As the leader of the opposition’s PPS, I did ask him about this today and he is not content that this should be done.” Although the prime minister has always chosen the first of two names submitted to him, “that does not mean that the choice was automatic”.

And Mr Swayne is reported to have voted against the measure.


What Michael Foster really said about the Equality Bill

Additional material added

I wrote earlier about the attacks being made upon this bill. Time now to comment on some of them.

First of all, there were two reports, in the Catholic Herald and in the Telegraph, which tried to put words into the mouth of Michael Foster MP, the Minister of State at the Government Equalities Office.

These were published under strong headlines: Get ready to be sued, Minister tells Christians and Minister predicts legal battles between churches and atheists over Equality Bill were used. In one article it was claimed that

[Foster] admitted that the legislation would open the floodgates to a tide of sexual and religious discrimination cases.

The other version was only slightly less sensational:

[Foster] admitted that the controversial legislation could trigger the launch of religious and sexual discrimination cases against Christian denominations.

I was present at this press conference, the day after the Lords First Reading, and I know that he didn’t say either of those things. The purpose of the conference, limited to the religious press, was to encourage churches to support the bill.

Following a lengthy discussion with all the journalists present about the new definition of the “purposes of an organised religion” in Schedule 9, Clause 2, Paragraph 8, he showed no inclination at all to accept any modification to the existing wording – several suggestions for that were made. He was then asked if he thought it likely that, if the bill passed with the current wording, there would be a challenge to it in the courts.

Here’s what he actually said in reply:

“Both sides will want to be lining up, no doubt. Government is used to the fact that its legislation will be challenged and if we could find the holy grail of avoiding challenge outside of an authoritarian state which says ‘you can’t’, we would. But I think that people feel strongly about these issues. We can’t do anything about that and neither would we want to.”

After which, as reported by the Telegraph, he added:

“I would like to see the churches being more bold. I would like to see the faith groups stand up and be counted for what they think and to challenge secularism, if that’s what they want to challenge. The secularists should have the right to challenge the Church and if the Church’s argument is good enough – which I believe it is – then the Church should win through.”

The Catholic Herald went on to say:

He declined to offer a solution to how conflicting rights of religious freedom of employers and sexual expression of employees, for instance, could be resolved.

Nor did he deny claims made by the Catholic bishops that the Bill would allow non-Christians who work in church premises to sue for victimisation if they were offended by crucifixes on walls. Instead, he said he thought such a scenario “unlikely”, even though an atheist last month successfully sued the Italian government over its policy of having crucifixes in schools.

But in the paper handout issued at the meeting, it says this about the crucifixes issue:

MYTH: Religious organisations that display holy images in the workplace are vulnerable under the Equality Bill.
RESPONSE: Religious organisations are free to display holy images. Some people have suggested that the Equality Bill willl mean that workers will be able to sue religious organisations for harassment because they are offended by religious images ih the workplace. This is just mischief-making.
An example often used is that of a cleaner working in a care home who is offended by crucifixes on the walls – it is completely untrue to suggest that the care home would be required by the Bill to take them down. The cleaner should expect to see these images in a religious organisation.

Additional information

This suggestion first appeared in the briefing on the bill issued last June by the RC Bishops, which said this:


9. Harassment is defined as ‘unwanted conduct … with the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment’ (clause 24). The burden of proof for this highly subjective definition is reversed in legal proceedings.

10. In relation to religion or belief, the provision is only applicable to employment (clause 37). The practical consequences of this are that a Catholic care home, for example, may have crucifixes and holy pictures on the walls which reflect and support the beliefs of the residents. A cleaner may be an atheist or of very different religious beliefs. Nonetheless if a cleaner found the crucifixes offensive there would be no defence in law against a charge of harassment. To avoid this provision having serious unintended consequences, a test of ‘reasonableness’ is essential.


They told me a fairy story

They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
Till I believed in the Israelite.

(words by Peter Sinfield from Greg Lake’s 1975 Christmas record)

If your Christmas has been anything like mine you’ve heard quite a number of tellings of the birth of Christ over the last few weeks. Sentimental, imagined, romantic, harmonized, fictionalized, sanitized and idealized — that sums up so many of them.

Perhaps you’ve been told that Joseph was the best carpenter in Nazareth, with a reputation that spread far and wide. Perhaps you’ve been told that Mary was a good girl who did all the cooking for her parents, using herbs she’d grown herself (I heard that one in a service on Radio 4 last Sunday morning). No doubt you’ve heard all about the cute little donkey that plodded to Bethlehem, and the ox and the ass that nosed around the stable; and three kings who rode on camels and were most definitely called Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Maybe you’ve even heard that it was cold and snowing. And so on.

Do we, in telling the story this way, conspire with our hearers to perpetuate a fairy story? Do we perpetuate the idea that the birth of Jesus is a fairy story, just a fairy story, something that — like the idea of Father Christmas or the tooth fairy — parents use to encourage children to be sweet and good? But something which we fully expect them to grow out of by the time they are 10, and see that it is just a fairy story that they have listened to uncritically and can discard uncritically?

For it is certain that nearly all will discard the story uncritically. Very few will appreciate the subtle distinction that theologians might make when talking about ‘myth’. No, we have fed them only sentimental tosh, and sentimental tosh is what they will discard in the harsh light of the real world. And they have been given nothing on which to build a stronger understanding of faith. When they grow out of fairy stories they grow out of the fairy story we have spun them and discard the fairy story of the sentimental Jesus, meek and mild, that we told them in their childhood.

What, instead, should we be saying? We need to recover the sense that we are proclaiming the euangelion — originally the ‘good news’ proclaiming the birth of a son to the emperor in Rome, but a word harnessed by the first Christians to describe the truly great news that is the birth of the son of the emperor of all creation. We need to tell the story in a way that lets listeners and readers see the timeless truth of the Incarnation rather than a childish fairy story. It is in the euangelion according to John that, in poetic but unsentimental and timeless language, stripped of all narrative, the Incarnation is most clearly stated, and all else is commentary at best:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Simon Kershaw is one of the three co-founders of Thinking Anglicans.


The wolf shall live with the lamb

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb …
… and a little child shall lead them …
… they shall not hurt or destroy.’ Isaiah 11.6

The picture of peace which the Messiah inaugurates is not just for humanity, but for all the world.

This year it was heartening to hear that one more form of animal cruelty, the so-called ‘dancing bears’ of India, had come to an end after a seven-year campaign.

It is part of a world wide move to end cruelty to animals. In Barcelona, there has already been a vote to outlaw bull fighting, and the parliament of Catalonia, in the east of the Spain, is considering a proposal to change local animal protection laws. The people of Catalonia, who suffered intense tyranny during the time of Franco, associate bullfighting with the kind of oppression they endured at the hands of the fascist regime. As a result they identify much more with the doomed bull than with the matador. Few locals in Barcelona want bullfighting: it is far more important to have a top football team. They don’t want to be known as supporters of blood sports, and, in the approach to Christmas, the words of Isaiah sound a message which encourages their campaign.

How revolting it is then, at Christmas, to hear that the Conservative Party in Britain is proposing to allow legislation to legalise once more our own barbaric blood sport, the hunting of deer and foxes with hounds. I question whether this has wide appeal. Animal charities and the RSPB have massive support from millions of people today. It is possible that the number of people who encourage foxes by feeding them in their gardens far exceeds the number of those who might want to hunt; even if they don’t go to the lengths of a former neighbour who provided Waitrose chickens to the vixen with her cubs in the garden. Isn’t it time, as we listen to the song of the angels, to heed the message of the prophet and seek peace rather than ritualised torture and slaughter of dumb animals? And then ‘they will not hurt or destroy … for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord’ (Isaiah 11.9).

Tom Ambrose is a priest living in Cambridge.


Good news, bad news

Within three days of the good news, comes the bad news. Yes, the Word has become flesh and is dwelling among us; but there seems to be a catch: the process of full redemption and recovery is to be accomplished within human beings, resistant materials that they are, step by step. As Robert Frost once observed ‘the best way out is always through’. Indeed the whole logic of incarnation is that God’s reaction to our evil is to meet it head on, not to steer round it. If this is the nature of the operation, the fulness of any redemption brought us in this holy child is bound to be a process that works from the inside out, needing to take flesh in real people through the seemingly random and cruel processes of the world, not a magic wand job.

Reality itself is not a magic wand job. Beneath the angel strain will roll at least two thousand years of wrong. At the sharp end of that will be innocent victims who will have to take their chances in a precarious and unjust world. The fact that God counts himself among them and takes his chances like the rest of us may be some comfort, but not exactly comforting. Herod does his thing, makes his choice, and the kiddies die anyway.

‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ observed the late great Brian Clough. ‘But then I wasn’t on that particular job.’ If Brian, or indeed most of us accustomed to having what we want at the click of a mouse, ruled the world, this is how it would be: Jesus would appear, ping! every one would go ‘Aha!’ ping! Herod would have no choice. The swords would turn to rubber or something, or at least the henchmen would call in sick. Herod could wish anything he wanted, however evil, but he would be unable to vent his paranoia in the real world. That would be that.

But what would that be? That would be the Fat Controller, the manipulator, pushing the buttons, wouldn’t it? That would be God the village copper, sorting everything out with the cheery wave, a few wallops, and the occasional well-aimed Monty Python 16 Ton weight. And if the whole message of the Incarnation is that God isn’t actually any of those things, it’s disappointing, perhaps, but hardly surprising that the Kingdom of God isn’t a ‘Ping’ thing. The ping has to come from us. It doesn’t merely happen on autopilot — indeed nothing happens like that.

What’s the point of kingdom come being a slow painful internal process, you may say. There might as well not be a God at all!

Well, not quite. It there weren’t a God at all, none of this would ultimately matter anyway, on anything but a notional, intellectual level. Unjust suffering would be no more significant than any other happenstance. We would just have to conclude ‘It happens,’ like sunspots or black holes. Being Nasty might be possible to portray as ultimately illogical, but Herod, and a thousand tyrants since, have a slightly different logic of their own, and, in a Nietzschean universe where might is right, who would be able to say they were wrong?

Over and above the particular choices that Herod, or for that matter any of us, may make, the wrongness of this unjust suffering stands in contrast to the justice of God, which stands eternal. That means it is what it is, whatever we may think of it, and remains supreme on a meta level. Indeed it defines the terms in which these things happen, whilst leaving us free to choose. Herod may get away with it, but no excuse he may offer can ever be adequate. No amount of rage and spite, power and opportunity, can change injustice into justice. That really would put us in a fix, far more than being told the score and given the choice.

The Christmas story turns out to be a moral compass, not a remote control device. Power games and bullying, attempting to fiddle the books by manipulating the politics regardless of the human cost, will always be off limits — a sign that the kingdom has not quite come in us as fully as it wants to, whether we are Herod or Hitler, a world leader or poor clergy of the Anglican communion. Oh, but Herod will say, what’s the alternative? The alternative is faith, but it’s harder to live by faith than by manipulation, especially if we seemingly have the means to accomplish our will by the latter. To think and act differently, we need a renewed outlook, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit, nudging us along the way to wholeness and hope. And each step we take closer to that advances the peace and salvation of ourselves and all the world.

Alan Wilson is area Bishop of Buckingham in the diocese of Oxford.


Christmas opinions

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached this sermon at Christmas.

The Archbishop of York preached this sermon.

On Christmas Eve, he also spoke out about asylum seekers.

And Ruth Gledhill had a related post, Happy Christmas – and Keep Out!

The Bishop of London wrote for Cif belief about Christmas and climate change.

William Wolf writes in The Times that It is high time that New Year’s Day was reclaimed for faith.


One, two, three

This festival has something of a split personality. We celebrate John the Apostle, son of Zebedee and brother of James, whose mother tried to ensure a good position for her boys in the coming kingdom. And we celebrate John the Evangelist, who probably wasn’t the same person, but was the disciple whom Jesus loved, a young man who lived in or around Jerusalem and didn’t get to travel with Jesus on his teaching and healing tours, but to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother. And thirdly, there is John the Divine, author of the Book of Revelation. All of them are celebrated on this day, whether they were considered to be one person, two or three people.

The Church has generally assumed that John the Apostle was John the Evangelist, as the wording of the collect makes clear, but recent scholarship (e.g. Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which won this year’s Michael Ramsey prize) makes a distinction between them. Bauckham argues that John the Evangelist was John the Elder, the Beloved Disciple, also known as John of Ephesus, who wrote the Gospel with his name and the three epistles.

It seems that church tradition has conflated two Johns, and possibly three. I wonder if this confusion of Johns in some way mirrors the position the church finds itself in.

There is the old John, the Apostle, Son of Zebedee. He was one of the small group which had the vision on the mountain top of Jesus in conversation with the old heroes, Moses and Elijah. This was a vision that made connections with the past. And yet John, with the rest of the twelve, singularly failed to understand Jesus. They walked with him along the way, they heard him, they saw the miracles that he did, but they just didn’t get the kingdom of God or the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I know churches like that. They had a vision once. They have a powerful connection to the past. They have walked along the way, but they haven’t quite got Jesus.

Then there is the younger John, a disciple, but not one of the original twelve. This is John the Elder, John of Ephesus, possibly also known as John the Apostle later in his life. This John understands the spiritual significance of Jesus’ ministry. He can see what God is doing. His vision is of God’s present activity. He offers the key theological insight that God is Love and longs for us to respond to him in love.

I love this John. He excites and inspires me. Churches in this mode are working to identify God’s work in their communities here and now. They look for ways to live the Gospel of God’s love, even when they don’t always get it right.

And we can also include the (possibly) third John, John of Patmos, John the Divine, who wrote the Book of Revelation. This John has a great vision of the future, when at the last, God will dwell his people in the New Jerusalem.

Churches can live this future-church model in different ways. There are those churches which wait for God to sort everything out in the sweet by-and-by without really engaging with the issues and challenges. And there are churches which are looking prophetically at our world in an attempt to understand where God is taking us, and which are willing to face the murderous and killing beasts that threaten the bond between God and humankind.

This is beginning to sound like a version of the three ghosts of Dicken’s Christmas Carol.

In the Communion of Saints, St John the Apostle, son of Zebedee, St John the Evangelist and St John the Divine have a kind of heavenly job-share. Personally, I am happy to think of them as having an active role today, sifting our prayers and praying for us, guiding us and prompting us. My prayer is that they can help the Church to grow into a Body of Christ that better reflects the God who is Love with wisdom and insight and courage.

Meg Gilley is a parish priest working in former pit villages in County Durham.


Keeping justice and holiness together

When God acts decisively, as we celebrated yesterday, he is inclined to do so in a manner that (however much Old Testament prophecies might have hinted at it) catches creation unawares. A baby in a manger is scarcely a more likely incarnation of the divine than the one-eyed, slightly chipped tortoise that is the great god OM in Terry Pratchett’s novel Small Gods (it’s Christmas, I’m allowed to read trash). When the church acts decisively it follows much more obvious channels. Hence, some of the first tasks of the post-Pentecost Christian community are about getting the structures right. Matthias is appointed to fill the place of Judas, and then, lest the apostles be distracted from their preaching and prayers by the mundane, and inward facing, tasks of sorting out disputes and allocating resources, seven new posts are created, the first deacons.

There’s meant to be a clear distinction between the apostolic and diaconal roles, but it doesn’t work out. The mistake the twelve have made is in appointing men ‘full of the Spirit’. And the Spirit won’t be tied to the mundane and practical. Indeed in the chapters that follow in the Acts of the Apostles we find two of the seven heavily engaged in proclaiming the gospel to those outside the community. In fact, given that we hear little in the rest of the book about any of the original dozen apart from Peter, James and John, you could say that there’s a higher success rate of apostolic ministry among the seven than there is from the twelve.

Today we celebrate the martyrdom of Stephen, one of those seven, arrested for his preaching and condemned for witnessing to his vision of Christ at the right hand of God. Stephen discovered, as countless others have down the centuries, that you can’t separate the proclamation of the Good News from meeting the practical needs of the poor. And that inseparability is for two distinct and complementary reasons.

Firstly, churches and Christians need to uphold justice and perform good works in order to show the love of Jesus. My friend the Bishop of Peru has a simple rule that no congregation in his diocese can achieve the status as a parish until it has some practical programme of work: a school; a clinic; a project teaching skills to the unemployed. There has to be something that reaches out and lifts up the poor of its neighbourhood. If we are not showing the love of God through our practical actions how can anyone be drawn to him through our words?

But secondly, it was only when he began serving the needy that Stephen was granted his vision of Christ. Twelve centuries later St Francis of Assisi discovered that unless he could see Jesus in a leper he could not truly see Jesus. In that sense the practical tasks we undertake are as much for own benefit as for the well-being of those who are aided by them. We will not see Jesus at the right hand of the Father until we cultivate the habit of seeing him in the drug addict, the beggar, the AIDS sufferer, the sex worker or the homeless person; or in whomever it may be that we and our society are minded to neglect, condemn or despise.

Anglicans too often divide into those who neglect justice in the pursuit of holiness and those who ignore holiness in their striving for justice. In Stephen both are held together. May they be so for us too this Christmastide and beyond.

David Walker is suffragan Bishop of Dudley in the diocese of Worcester.


Relishing the Divine Glory

I belong to that generation who, back in the seventies, were theologically weaned off Christmas in favour of Easter’s role as the pivotal celebration of Christian faith. So convinced were we, that it seems odd to be attracted back to Christmas, to be called to contemplate the Incarnation anew.

No doubt, in forming the infancy narratives, Matthew and Luke were anticipating what happened in Jesus’s adult life, anticipating the significance of that later life — much as John did via his quite different prologue. They expected us to be better able to understand the later life by understanding the early life — written creatively to show the hand of God active from Jesus’s very beginnings.

Once you suspect what the evangelists were up to, it is horribly tempting to make theological hay about how God is revealed in the exquisite vulnerability of a newborn infant; in a child of unusual, if not uncertain, birth; in a rejected child, soon to be persecuted, soon to become a refugee. The clear anticipation of the pattern of Jesus’s later life is almost too obvious. But good theology stems, at least in part, from good prayer; and the challenge of re-appropriating Christmas is perhaps more than getting the hermeneutics or the theology right. The greater challenge is to think a little bit less and to wonder a whole lot more. In his notion of the second naiveté, Paul Ricoeur spoke of the need to let the creative aspects of these stories strike us, even with our critical reading strategies.

That’s why I like to ponder the verse in Matthew depicting the Magi falling to their knees, or the verse in Luke saying how the shepherds went back to their fields glorifying and praising God. As Ignatius of Loyola said, ‘it is not much knowledge but the inner feeling and relish of things that fills and satisfies the soul.’ Perhaps Christmas is an invitation to put theology temporarily on the back seat, and to try to let these stories tell themselves. The evangelists had their purposes in passing on these stories, but those purposes were served by these stories themselves, not by a study of the evangelists’ motivations. Perhaps rather than try to explain the significance of Jesus’s birth, we’d be better off asking God to let us experience that significance, to be bowled over by it, to hear, as if for the first time, just how this utterly surprising birth could be a great joy for the whole world. Again, rather than worry too quickly about the two natures of Christ, we could first ask God to let us taste and relish the divine glory as we re-imagine that infant’s birth. Who knows, we may find ourselves flopping to our knees, just as the Magi purportedly did.

Theology can wait another day.

Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham University.


Uganda: Sentamu speaks

The BBC Today radio programme interviewed the Archbishop of York this morning. Listen to what he said here:

The death penalty could be introduced in Uganda for acts of gay sex. The proposed bill is due to be voted on in the new year and has attracted international outrage and controversy. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, who is Ugandan and left the country in the days of former President Idi Amin, discusses reaction to the bill.

He refers to the wording of the Dromantine communiqué. And gives reasons for him and Canterbury not having spoken out.

Transcript of Interview


The Truth of Sisyphus

Although from Gaudete Sunday onwards we may start liturgically to direct our gaze a little more towards the first coming of Christ, the Advent backdrop never quite goes away. Thus I wonder whether at the very end of Advent, on Christmas Eve, there is a theme easily lost in the rush to mount the 6.30 Carol service and make sure the charcoal’s not damp for the Midnight.

There’s little reason to doubt that this Advent will end just as uneventfully as all the others, and the nearest we will get to the stars falling from the sky will be when local revellers dismantle the Corporation Christmas Tree. Advent is a journey never completed: instead of the logical resolution of the Season — the final in-breaking of the Kingdom — we find ourselves back at the beginning once more. Rather like a child whose pile of unwrapped presents never quite matches the excitement of the mysterious parcels, we find ourselves happy enough that Christmas Day is here, yet aware that it’s not really where the story should have gone. We get a glimpse of what is to come only through hearing of the end of someone else’s wait.

Camus’s essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’ seems to me to suggest that although Sisyphus’s task never ends, he is nonetheless happy. He has almost reached journey’s end — and that is enough. A glimpse of what might be has been given him as he nears the top of the mountain. This is perhaps a paradigm of Advent, and particularly of Christmas Eve.

It’s long been ‘correct’ to identify the Easter Dawn Eucharist as the Solemnity of Solemnities, the ne plus ultra of Christian rejoicing this side of the Kingdom. Perhaps Christmas Eve should be styled the Vigil of Vigils, where the waiting is never quite over, but briefly we peer into that other country before we are sent back to the beginning to begin the journey once more. And like Sisyphus, we find that it is enough.

David Rowett (‘mynsterpreost’) is parish priest at Barton-upon-Humber in the Diocese of Lincoln.


Equality Bill under attack

There have been some rather odd articles about this bill recently.

Telegraph Simon Caldwell and Martin Beckford Minister predicts legal battles between churches and atheists over Equality Bill and later George Pitcher Equality legislation means our very right to believe is under fire

Catholic Herald Simon Caldwell Get ready to be sued, Minister tells Christians

And various repeats in the blogosphere, of which this is perhaps the most extreme headline: The Equality Bill: Will A New Law Essentially Outlaw Evangelical Christianity And Roman Catholicism In The U.K.?

Leading to items from the lobbying organisations:

Christian Institute MP: Equality Bill will lead to legal action against churches and Equality Bill could drive faith from ‘public sphere’

Christian Concern for our Nation Act to protect employment freedom for Churches

Much of this criticism is unjustified by the facts (I was present at the press briefing with Michael Foster), and I will write more about this soon.

Meanwhile, the BBC has published a helpful reminder of the main objectives of the bill: What the new Equality Bill means for employers


O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The dream of Emmanu-el, or God-with-us is a very powerful one. Depending on the character of the God in question can make the greatest of differences to what you believe is the right or wrong thing to do. The creation myth which begins both the Torah and our Christian Hebrew bible tells of a god who creates the world as an original blessing; the world is created and it is intrinsically good. The creation myth of the Babylonian captors of Israel is a story of the violence of Tiamat the mother god slain by Marduk who spreads her butchered carcass out to create the geography of a world, a world which has been formed both in violence, and in violence against the feminine.

Before we smile too readily at these ancient near-eastern myths, we only have to consider those causes of our own day, who believe God-is-with-us. Osama bin Laden is a man of faith, in such a way as we may prefer him to have no faith at all. The last several United States Presidents have been impotent in the face of present-day Israeli atrocities, because the powerful voting lobby of the evangelical right believes that Israel has the right to that land, and is ethically absolved from how it maintains that right.

The Church of England has, by law, been the established church of the English people. While few would defend this as a meaningful title in public life, it remains the basis of assumptions in rural communities. If the Church of England represents Emmanu-el, God-with-us, whether we are signed up to the faith or not, we are currently witnessing a breach of that generation’s long-held view of that implicit covenant.

For over a thousand years, Emmanu-el meant the rights of the established church personified in the lord bishop, indistinguishable from his secular counterparts. Emmanu-el meant, for village communities, being required to gather each Sunday in churches funded by the landowners, in order to acknowledge that the pecking order of earth was ratified in heaven.

There are few rural communities now where the ancient feudal powers still exercise the same rights of patronage over the parish church their forebears built. Since the Second World War, in many places, these rights have been assumed by people of new money. These people have not been motivated by the noblesse oblige of the landed powers, but have expected the services of the church with little or nothing in return. They have expected power without responsibility.

As feudal estates have receded, with their guarantees of employment and grace and favour accommodation, they have been replaced with the new rural with the aspirations of gentry, but who do not understand the obligations with which that power was balanced in former days.

So, the notion of God-with-us is open. Formerly the Us, whom God was with, was a contact between feudal power and peasant, and each looked after the other. Our medieval churches are littered with memorials to the moneyed. As despicable as this is to the original Jesus vision, at least it is honest.

But, in these days of pastoral restructuring of the church, the voices who oppose closure of a church are not those which have contributed to its life, either by piety or by brute underwriting. They are arid voices which do not give life to anyone, but rather defend their own view of themselves and of the romantic view of the countryside which overlooks the impoverishment which made its economy possible.

We need church leaders who can articulate what it means to have God-with-us which supersedes the basis of much of what has given the Church of England, and before that, the Bishop of Rome, power in the past. It must be rooted in the character of God represented in the infancy narratives, stories from which we cherry-pick for our carol services each year, because we value attendance over conviction.

In short, we need to re-visit the character of the God whom we claim to be with us, re-visit Emmanu-el, and ask whether our practice discloses God’s character, or seeks to shore up a practice whose underlying assumptions are corrupt.

Andrew Spurr is vicar of Evesham, in the diocese of Worcester.


Uganda – further news reports

The Uganda Monitor has an article Museveni will block anti-gay Bill – reports.

The BBC says Uganda fear over gay death penalty plans.

Ecumenical News International reports World church leader concerned about Uganda anti-homosexual bill.

CBS News has Republicans Condemn Uganda’s Anti-Gay Bill, and see also Members of U.S. Congress Invoke their Faith to Oppose Ugandan anti-Gay law.


O Rex Gentium

O King of the nations, and their desire,
the cornerstone making both one:
Come and save the human race,
which you fashioned from clay.

What now, late in 2009, might be the desire of the nations?

It should be possible to answer that question, surely. After all, only last week, the nations came together. Or, at least, their leaders did. From the super-powers and the almost-super-powers, and from the tiny island states, diplomats, negotiators, heads of government, all gathered over the last week or so in Copenhagen. Nations with contrasting, even competing, experiences and priorities; nations clinging to what the comforts they now enjoy, nations aspiring to more as they grow into affluence, nations desperately fearful of losing what little they have.

They came seeking a foundation — or to change the metaphor, a cornerstone, something which would hold them together in an accord, an agreed response to the threat of changes to the climate which may alter all our lives, diminish the earth’s abundance, and destroy those who already struggle for survival. If there is a cornerstone, if not entirely neglected, it is as yet scarcely in place. Over the last few days of the conference, reports moved from gloom to hope to gloom again. Since its conclusion, there has been some rewriting of the last grim summaries. At least the meeting took place. At least there were conversations. At least something was written down. At least we are at the beginning of a road. But it is the beginning, I suspect, of a very long road, and the journey may take too long. We are very, very far from being one, even in our fears, let alone in our hopes, or in converting hope into reality.

The old story, the story reflected in today’s antiphon, is that we were fashioned from clay, from the soil, the very earth from which we still draw what sustains our physical life. As we come towards the great festival of the Incarnation, we so often focus on the divine entry into the day-to-day, earthed, ordinariness of what it is to be human. Yet now, we are also aware, as perhaps never before, of a profound disharmony between the story of the earth and its well-being and the actions of the beings who have their life on it and from it. It is, it seems, the clay itself which is in need of salvation, in need of saving from what so many of us, in our particularly voracious way of living, are doing to the soil, the seas, the atmosphere.

‘Peace on the earth’, we will read, and sing, and pray, over the coming days. Perhaps we should be praying instead, ‘peace for the earth’, for the raw material of God’s creation.

Truly, an antiphon for our time.

Canon Jane Freeman is team vicar at East Ham with Upton Park in the diocese of Chelmsford.


Uganda: today's news reports

The Archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan has issued a statement, via his press office:

“Whatever one’s standpoint on same sex relationships, the private members motion for an Anti Homosexuality Bill in Uganda is unacceptable. It could lead to the legitimising of violence against gay and lesbian people which is totally against what Lambeth 1.10 agreed in 1998 and its proposal for capital punishment against such people is barbaric.”

On the other hand another report from Wales shows that Stephen Green has a different view.

Warren Throckmorton reports Uganda National Pastors Task Force Against Homosexuality demand apology from Rick Warren. This task force claims to represent among others The Roman Catholic Church in Uganda (but not the [Anglican] Church of Uganda).

Reuters reports Ugandan gay community says prejudice to become law.

New Vision reports Govt defends need to legislate on homosexuality.

Voice of America reports Africa’s Anti-Gay Laws Spark Accusations and Denials in US.

ACNA has issued a statement. Read ACNA speaks out on Uganda anti-homosexuals bill. And also from Episcopal Café read Don Armstrong’s silence, and other news on that anti-homosexuals bill.


O Oriens

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

Today’s antiphon addresses Christ as the morning star, the rising sun, the dawn. Whichever translation is used, the image is one of the light of the sun turning the darkness of night into bright day. It echoes the words of Isaiah, who prophesied that ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has the light shined’ (Isaiah 9.2). This light has the power to bring joy as well as justice, clarity as well as re-ordered relationships and peace. This light is intended to transform both individuals and institutions.

The prophet Malachi, in trying to convince the people of Israel of God’s continuing love for them, also speaks of the rising of ‘the sun of righteousness’ (Malachi 4.2), with a beautiful additional phrase made familiar in the final verse of the great carol ‘Hark, the herald-angels sing’: ‘Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.’ The potentially dazzling light of the sun of righteousness comes not to blind, but to burn out and dissolve and so heal all that wounds or damages people and nations, all that prevents their flourishing and their right relationship with God.

In the New Testament, in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ is described as the Word, in whom ‘was life, and the life was the light of all people’ (John 1.4). Part of the enlightening action of this light was to reveal the true nature of Jesus as the Son of God and to make clear the possibility for all who believe in him also to become children of God. The light of Christ both enables a new way of being and reveals a new identity, an identity in which we are invited to share in the life of the Divine.

As we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, we are encouraged to step out of all the different kinds of shadows there may be in our lives that obscure the life of God in us — the shadows of hurt and disappointment, fading hope and growing despair, sin, loneliness, grief, regret. We are once again reassured of God’s ongoing, never-ending love for us, a love that is strong enough to overcome any kind of darkness.

By stepping into the light we turn our backs on the darkness and on our own ability to deceive and to be deceived, and place ourselves in a position to be shown more of who God is and more of who we are. As we open ourselves more and more to the light, and look more fully into the face of the sun of righteousness, all that is shadow in us is eventually dissolved and ultimately we ourselves become light.

Christina Rees is a member of the General Synod and Chair of Watch (Women and the Church).


'I stay because I love God'

Stephen Bates wrote in The Guardian yesterday (although it was only published online today):

‘I stay because I love God’

With some leading Anglicans calling for gay people to be killed (and the archbishop staying quiet), we visited one congregation to see if they’re still proud to be CofE.