Posts Tagged Christianity

THE ROAD TO CANTERBURY

The Road to Canterbury

The Road to Canterbury

Andrew Atherstone. Darton, Longman + Todd. ISBN:978 0 232 52994 4. £7.99

When Rowan Williams announced last year that he was retiring the media was abuzz with speculation over who would succeed him as Archbishop of Canterbury. The eventual choice – Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham – came as a big surprise to most observers, not least because Welby had only been a bishop for four months when Williams announced his intention to step down.

Who is Justin Welby? Where did he come from? What makes him tick? Will he be up to the job of holding the fractious Anglican communion together? Oxford don Andrew Atherstone makes a fine attempt to answer the first three questions. The jury’s out on the last one as he will need the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job and a lot more besides to sort out that mess. However, his reconciliation work in Nigeria, his background in business and his ministry in several parishes to date do allow for a certain cautious optimism.

Welby grew up in a family that had been long a part of the Establishment. One of his great uncles had been a leading post-war Tory, R A B Butler. Butler had been Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary in the 1950s and 60s. His mother, Jane Portal, was a secretary to Winston Churchill and in that role typed up the drafts of his six-volume history of the Second World War. His father, Gavin Welby, was a bit of a rake, once competing with Errol Flynn for the attentions of a millionaire heiress. Gavin and Jane eloped to America.

Justin was a honeymoon baby who parents’ marriage soon failed. Justin stayed with his father and was packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. He attended Eton from1969 to 1973 when the school was at a low ebb and headed off to east Africa for a short gap year before beginning his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge. In Kenya he spent six mont hs teaching in a secondary school under the auspices of the Church Missionary Society. He had previously shown little interest in spiritual matters, but in Kenya he met and talked with Christians and began to read the Bible and think about questions of faith.

In the months before Welby’s arrival at Cambridge in 1974, there had been a flurry of conversions to Christianity among the students. The local Christian Union was very lively, hosting visits from leading preachers, notably Rev David Watson from St Michael le Belfrey in York who led 12 people to make professions of faith in a single evening. Welby held out for over a year despite the efforts of many of his Christian friends until ‘the penny dropped’ for him and he ‘asked Jesus to be Lord of my life’. Shortly afterwards, he received a real sense of the deep love of God and began to sense a calling to ministry.

As a young Christian, Welby attended the Round Church in Cambridge which plugged him into a network of leading evangelicals in the Anglican church, notably John Stott and David Sheppard. While at home away from university, he began to worship at Holy Trinity Brompton which had become a mainstay of the growing charismatic movement. Here he was introduce to a Cambridge student who was another new Christian, Caroline Eaton, who was to become his wife.

After graduation and marriage Welby took a job with an oil company in Paris. During the holidays he became involved with a Christian group that smuggled Bibles to persecuted Christians in Hungary and East Germany using a campervan with secret compartments underneath a false floor.

The Welbys know the pain and grief of losing a child. On the way back to England, their seven-month-old daughter was fatally injured in a road accident near Amiens.

During his time as group treasurer of the recently privatised Enterprise Oil, Welby honed his management and leadership skills and began to think deeply about the ethics of finance and responsibility in business. He argued that companies are moral agents and are just as prone to sin as individuals. Biblical justice must include a sense of corporate accountability.

Although well settled in a very well paid job which he enjoyed, Welby had a growing sense of call to the ministry. In 1988 he attended three days of interviews at a Derbyshire retreat house. He was asked by a bishop why he wanted to be ordained and replied that he didn’t as he was enjoying the job he was doing. Well, why was he there, then? Because he had been called by God. What would he do if he was turned down for ordination by the C of E? He’d go back to London and take the wife out for the most expensive meal he could afford to celebrate! He was accepted. His annual salary dropped from around £100,000 to less than a tenth of that; £9500 in 1989.

He studied for the ministry in Cranmer College, part of the University of Durham. Here he became open to a wider variety of theology, worshipping and finding placements with churches that were mixed in theology, Anglo-Catholic or Charismatic in outlook.

After ordination at Coventry Cathedral in 1992, his first parish was in a working class suburb of Nuneaton in Warwickshire. Here he launched youth work, children’s holiday clubs and pioneered the use of the Alpha Course, a basic introduction to Christianity that began in Holy Trinity Brompton and went nationwide in 1993 as a way to reach the unchurched. This trend of turning declining congregations around continued in his next charge, Southam, a rural market town in the same diocese. He restored the 700-year-old building, and introduced more modern forms of worship in the morning service in tandem with traditional Book of Common Prayer early morning communion services and evensong services. Part of this church growth strategy was also due to a revival of children’s and youth outreach and rolling Alpha Course programmes for adults.

An interesting insight to Welby’s worldview can be gleaned from his regular ‘thoughts for the month’ published in the Southam Parish Church News. In this Welby expounded the line that, ‘The church is not a home for saints; Christians do not claim to be better than other folk, but they do claim that God has touched their lives and given new meaning to them.’ He had a high view of God’s grace and the necessity of forgiveness and the power of redemption and ‘a fresh start’ in the gospel message. Welby was orthodox in his view of Christ’s resurrection and made it clear that it was the job of the church to speak out on issues of social justice and in opposition to moral relativism.

Welby was in great demand for his expertise in financial matters. He had been involved with the Association of Corporate Treasurers as its personal and ethics advisor and was invited to join the finance ethics group of the Von Hügel Institute. This Cambridge-based Catholic research organisation sought to apply the principles of social justice, human dignity and ideas of the ‘common good’ in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum (published in English as The Workers’ Charter) to everyday life. This brought him into contact with Catholic economists and theologians in Europe and give him a higher view of the power of the sacraments than he had hitherto been familiar.

In 2002 he moved to Coventry Cathedral in order to direct the cathedral’s International Centre for Reconciliation. This brought him to conflict zones in Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Nigeria and Burundi. Welby focused on reconciliation work in Nigeria which he already knew from his time as an executive with an oil company. At times his life was in real danger from AK47-toting gunmen. Welby argued that the church ought to be ‘the body of reconciled reconcilers’ and Christians should not just receive reconciliation but become sources of ‘rivers of reconciliation’ to places of conflict and trauma.

By 2005, the funding ran out for Coventry’s ICR and it collapsed. The international ministry was drastically cut and a new focus was sought. This was one of the greatest disappointments of Welby’s ministry to date. He began to work out a means of reconciling differences between Christians and conducting arguments and disagreements in the spirit of 2 Timothy 2: 24-25, ‘the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone… correcting opponents with gentleness…'(Welby’s emphasis).

In 2007, Welby was appointed as the Dean of Liverpool Cathedral. Welby’s task was to overcome financial shortfalls and division and disharmony in the cathedral’s Chapter. Sorting this out was a challenge to his background in finance and his ministry of reconciliation. Some of his ideas were controversial but he did raise the cathedral’s profile in the city, reach new people and introduce a variety of forms of worship, m anage to start a theological school and envisage an ecumenical religious community. During this time he acted as an envoy to Kenya in the aftermath of violence during the 2008 election campaign and he became involved with Anglican Communion affairs in an attempt to deal with its own deep divisions and conflict. He became Archbishop Rowan Williams’ special envoy to American Episcopalians, Nigerian Christians facing persecution and murder and he facilitated a meeting of primates in Dublin in order to tackle some of the serious issues threatening to tear worldwide Anglicanism apart most notably the ordination of woman bishops and attitudes to sexuality.

After just three and a half years in Liverpool, Welby was appointed as Bishop of Durham in October 2011. He used his maiden speech in the House of Lords to call for economic regeneration in the north-east of England and for Christians to build alliances with politicians, financiers and businesses in order to bring about justice and community renewal. He made many contributions to the debate on the Financial Services Bill in which he favoured the establishment of credit unions and limits on directors’ pay and bonuses. In July 2012 he was appointed to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards where he gained a reputation as a formidable operator who took no obfuscation, waffle nor double-talk from the former ‘masters of the universe’ who ran the banking system like a Las Vegas casino. He wasn’t against banking and bankers as such, however, as he made cleare in a lecture in Zurich last October when he called for the European banking sector to be re-imagined in such a manner as to resurrect it from, ‘the wreckage of a hubris-induced disaster, to retrieving its basic purpose of enabling human society to flourish effectively.’

Welby’s time at Durham was too brief for him to have made his mark as a newly-minted bishop. He seems to have a realistic view of the parlous state of the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, ‘We are divided, often savagely. We are battered. We are weak… The church is not a rest home for saints, it is a lifeboat for sinners. And when you stick loads of sinners together, perhaps especially Anglican sinners, you don’t get a saintly church…’ He was quite impressed by the American Episcopal Church after attending its July 2012 gathering of its House of Bishops. He thought that they managed disagreement better and were closer to his own motto of ‘diversity without enmity’.

The thorny issues that plagued his predecessor haven’t gone away. Welby might be able to sort things out. He might not. Time will tell whether or not Welby will be a reconciling Archbishop of Canterbury or the man who presides over the final fracturing and schism of worldwide Anglicanism.

DAVID KERR

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Unapologetic

UNAPOLOGETIC: Why, despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense

by Francis Spufford

Faber and Faber £12.99 ISBN 978-0-571-22521-7

Book cover of Unapologetic

Click on image to buy this book!

The author of Unapologetic isn’t a bit sorry for offering this entertaining polemic. He makes an impassioned case for Christianity making emotional sense, ‘despite everything’. He is withering in his criticism of vapid nonsense like John Lennon’s Imagine – ‘the My Little Pony of philosophical statements’ – and similar offerings that assume that peace and harmony would be the spontaneously arising natural order of things between all human beings if there was no such thing as religion. As the author opines; ‘Yeah, Right!’

Don’t expect to read one of those Josh McDowell-type Evidence that Requires a Verdict tomes that try to defend traditional Christian teachings in the face of modern criticism. Curious outsiders wondering what makes believers tick are much more likely to find an answer here than in a whole stack of theological books and strident critiques from Richard Dawkins and A C Grayling. Those readers who are stumbling along the pilgrim path are very likely to find a mirror into their souls, (or maybe that’s just me).

Spufford was inspired to write Unapologetic when he realised that his six-year-old daughter is soon going to discover that her parents are weird. Every Sunday morning the go out to church. As she grows up she will hear that Christians are a pretty bizarre bunch. According to those who care enough to object, these churchgoers are weird followers of some imaginary sky fairy, but for most people in Britain, church goers are just embarrassing. We’re ‘not weird because we’re wicked. We’re weird because we’re inexplicable.’

In their eyes, ‘Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too…’ We just can’t allow things to be what they are; ‘They always have to be translated, moralised – given an unnecessary and rather sentimental extra meaning.’  We just can’t tell the difference between stuff that exists and stuff that is made up; ‘Our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world’.

Yet, in fact; ‘It’s belief which demands that you dispense with illusion after illusion, while contemporary common sense requires, continual, fluffy pretending.’ In examining this, he turns to the famous atheist bus slogan that raised a lot of controversy recently, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ Does the implication stand that enjoyment would be the natural state of anyone who wasn’t being ‘worried by believers and their preaching’? ‘Take away the malignant threat of God talk, and you would revert to continuous pleasure under cloudless skies. What’s so wrong with this, apart from it being total bollocks? It buys a bill of goods, sight unseen, from modern marketing’ – the world of advertising and beautiful Gold Blend coffee-sipping people with good looks and plenty of cash – who can get all they want by going shopping.

Spufford argues persuasively that peace is not the norm, ‘the default state of human beings’, but that it is rare. So the atheist bus slogan might be fine for such improbable people but it is totally inappropriate for those many folk who don’t fit that definition. If the slogan is true then you’re on your own if for some reason you’re not enjoying yourself. ‘What the atheist bus slogan says is: There’s no help coming.’ There’s no hope, no consolation in this ‘cruel optimism’.

To Spufford, the notion is false that the emotions involved in religious belief must be different from all other kinds of imagining, hoping and dreaming that we do; they are ‘deeply ordinary and deeply recognisable to anybody who has ever made their way across the common ground of human experience as an adult.’  Spufford seeks in this work to decode the technical jargon and theological in-talk into plain (and often profane) basic English. Sin, for example is not a list of prohibited actions you can avoid or self-indulgence in sexual conduct or doing vaguely ‘wrong’ things like eating too much chocolate. To Spufford it’s simply the Human Propensity to Fuck things Up – the HPtFtU.

This distils in a short phrase the root of the problem with people; a problem ignored by humanists, atheists and sadly, many religious liberals too who have too rosy a view of human nature. Bad things don’t just happen to guaranteed 100% bad people. Christianity recognises the real truth; human beings are neither perfect nor perfectable, we’re all prone to fuck things up. We’re all bad people who need mercy. Spufford argues that this is a much more realistic starting points for us than awe at the stars and sunsets. You can’t live in a constant State of Awe. Recognition of the HPtFtU is the start of the way back, an admission of self-discovery that you really are guilty and in need of Grace and Mercy. Everyone fails. Nobody only means well. Nobody means well all the time.

For this reason, Spufford argues, the Church is not a cosy club of really good, holy people, or weird followers of a mythical sky-pixie but a ‘league of the guilty’. The International League of the Guilty has littered the landscape with useful buildings where people can find help to strip away self-delusion and comforting illusions; we call them churches.

This book gets off to a roaring start, so it’s slightly disappointing that it loses a bit of steam towards the last couple of chapters. Still, it really picks up again near the finish. That said, it’s still a cracking good read with a great message of hope from our ‘awkward sky fairy’ who says, ‘Don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid, for more can be mended that you can know.’ If you only read one ‘religious’ book this year, make it this one.

Reviewed By David Kerr

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Putting Away Childish Things

Putting Away Childish Things

Putting Away Childish Things: a tale of modern faith

Marcus J Borg

Marcus J Borg; author of Reading the Bible for the First Time, Again and Meeting Jesus for the First Time, Again and a host of other works of popular theology has turned his hand to writing fiction.  This isn’t any old fiction, either; it is didactic fiction; a thinly-veiled attempt on the author’s part to promote his own theological perspective.

Not that there’s anything underhand or sleekit about this literary form.  The author is completely upfront and transparent about this.  He even provides suggestions for reading groups in an appendix which offers questions for readers to discuss among themselves.  That impressed me greatly, as the author has deftly managed to smuggle a lot of deep stuff into this compelling novel.

Professor Kate Riley is a popular religion teacher in a college somewhere in the American Midwest.  Her students love her classes. She loves her work, she is happy with both her personal and her spiritual life and she has had some success with a couple of her books; a scholarly look at the Epistle of James and a new one examining the differences between the two Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

It’s just in the middle of Advent that things start to go off the rails for Kate.  Her publisher has set up a number of interviews with radio stations up and around the country in order to promote her book.  These question and answer sessions introduce the reader to Kate’s liberal Christian perspective, but she falls foul of a husband and wife tag team on a Christian talk radio show, Rise and Shine, who accuse her of seeking to ‘debunk the truth about Jesus’.

Before long, she is named as Number One Un-American of the Week by an inflammatory pundit on a conservative network for ‘a secular humanist apology of a book’ that trashes ‘one of the most sacred parts of our country’s Christian heritage… at Christmas, of all times.’

Ironically at the same time Kate is beset with another problem.  One of her colleagues on the college faculty is a bit sniffy about her latest book. It’s too popular and too Christian.  He is one of those illiberal ‘liberals’ we all know; the kind who don’t want to see others doing things of which they disapprove.  This man notes that she attends church regularly and claims that this could be interfering with her teaching of religion in the college. She is condemned, not for what she actually does, but what she could do.  The reader gets to sit in on Kate’s classes and her one-to-one sessions with individual students, so we know that it ain’t so.

In the midst of all this, Kate receives an invitation to teach in a seminary as a visiting professor of New Testament Studies for a year. Conflicted and confused by the reaction of her colleagues and an organised campaign by some parent to deny her tenure at the college, Kate finds her faith coming under pressure as she wrestles with the possibilities in front of her.

As the story develops, we get to meet some other characters; Geoff,  her gay colleague on the faculty and her soulmate and confidant (every girl should have one); Frederika her minister; Martin, a professor at the seminary in question, her mentor and one-time lover (a long time ago) and Erin, a student who is a member of a conservative evangelical group on campus.

I rather suspect that any reader of this book will come with their own personal baggage, or to mix the metaphor, may read it through lenses tinted by the events and understandings of their own lives, I really identified with Erin in this story as she struggled with her faith when what she had been taught to believe came into conflict with the real world of flesh and blood human beings.

This is stirring stuff. Borg is didactic but it’s anything but preachy. I hope there’ll be a sequel. Borg introduces readers to some wonderful stuff too, as Kate goes through her daily devotions and her lectures. Not only are we treated to Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach but to a moving poem by Denise Levertov called The Avowal.  This is so powerful that it reduced me to tears.  Here it is…

As swimmers dare

To lie face to the sky

And water bears them,

As hawks rest upon air

And air sustains them;

So I would learn to attain

Freefall, and float

Into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,

Knowing no effort earns

That all-surrounding grace.

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DOUBLE TROUBLE: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

BOOK REVIEW

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman

Click on image to buy this book

Advance publicity for this little book suggested that it might turn out to be a Christian version of The Satanic Verses; a catalyst for a Christian fundamentalist fatwa against the author; well-known atheist Philip Pullman. In fact, Christians are unlikely to be troubled by this book. It is unlikely to cause major crises of faith for many who don’t already have them.

In this reworking of the New Testament story, Mary had two little boys; Jesus and Christ. It’s Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus and Jekyll and Hyde all over again. Jesus as a boy was just a normal mischievous child whereas Christ was a bit of a suck-up to his parents and the adults around him. Jesus became the itinerant preacher who took no thought for tomorrow. Christ hung around the fringes taking notes of Jesus’ sayings and occasionally ‘improving’ and embroidering them for posterity.

This works well until the Christ character is taken under the wing of an angel – though whether good or the fallen variety remains open to question. This angel persuades Christ use his notes to bring into being a great institution of authority based on a notion of received truth.

While Jesus himself is a revolutionary who believes that the Kingdom of God will shortly be revealed, the angel asks whether it is better on Earth “to aim for absolute purity and fail altogether, or to compromise and succeed a little?” Opting for the latter choice, Christ is encouraged to soften a point here, exaggerate another issue there while creating a series of newly coherent stories attractive to future worshippers.
Christ betrays his brother and then takes his place after the crucifixion in order to spread the story of the resurrection among Jesus’ bereft disciples.

This is a lovely book. Its black Cover with gold lettering, short chapters, pleasant typeface and rubric-styled headings makes it look like a prayer book or a modern version of the New Testament like The Message. In effect it’s a rewrite of the Gospels with one or two clever and interesting twists in the storyline.

The title seems to have been designed to be deliberately provocative. The Christ character does not seem to have been a scoundrel in the true sense. He isn’t Jesus’ evil twin. He did take a genuine interest in his brother’s ministry and teaching but though compromises and a misplaced sense of posterity, betrayed him and took a more calculating path that would lead to the establishment – not of the Kingdom of Heaven but of a hugely powerful Church on Earth.

Canongate Books, Edinburgh ISBN-10 1847678262

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