Monday, December 29, 2008

What can we learn from all this?

The year that came from hell
It is no exaggeration to say that 2008 was a hell of a year and there are few of us who walk away from it without some kind of wound or, at least, a heightened sense of anxiety. At a meeting the other day a colleague leaned over during one of those dead-time moments and whispered that a friend who last Christmas had been the epitome of success had that very morning filed for bankruptcy as a result of a real estate deal gone badly wrong.

Each day the news from either side of the Atlantic (and Pacific) seems to bring another sad story of a business or chain of stores seeking protection or closing down. In the USA the auto makers teeter on the brink of ruin, while in the UK we have watched that venerable institution, Woolworths, close its doors for the last time. Japan reports a whopping drop in export production, in China there are fears of unrest because of lost jobs, and in some countries there is denial that things are that bad at all. Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the pile of world prosperity are being hit the hardest.

For years now we have crowed about the arrival of globalization, and while we have focused on the positives of this movement within planetary culture, we have forgotten that if we internationalize the economy then when it tanks it will tank globally. Among the earlier victims of this new kind of world emerging a generation ago was world socialism and the Communist bloc, could it be now that the capitalism of the 'free world' as we have known it is being weighed in the balance (and found wanting)? It is because we have no answer to that question that our fears are magnified.

And the news has gone on being either bad or worse. I have in the last few months found myself praying as one appalling thing after another comes up on the media, "O Lord, please give us some good news, please, please, please..." I had often wondered how it must have been for my parents' generation in England to live through the first three years of World War Two when the news each day was one of backs against the wall, retreat, and one defeat after another as Britain sought to hold tyranny at bay. While this is nothing like as bad, I think I now have an idea.

Back last summer people were keeping their worst fears to themselves, but I have discovered there are now people of influence who are prepared, in private at least, to express them. There was a particularly grim face on a very successful man I met with several months ago who not only declared that he thought things would get worse for quite a while before starting to improve, but also that he feared massive civil unrest on the streets of Britain and the USA -- now there's a comforting thought!

Add to this the black humor of friends who have now decided to postpone retirement because, as they put it, their 401k had been reduced to a 201k, or to see well-endowed universities scrambling because their endowments have suddenly plummeted and something grips us inside. Even though I knew there would always be ups and downs, for the first time in my life I have come to realize just how fragile the economic gods we have worshipped really are. The whole financial system upon which we have depended all our lives has demonstrated that it has feet of clay, and with that realization comes fear and lack of confidence.

However, the other day when we went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company's latest take on Hamlet in the West End of London, the streets were crammed with shoppers, and the same was true in Cambridge yesterday when I slipped into town to buy socks to replace the increasing number of holey ones among my aging collection. Yet on the streets there wasn't the lightheartedness that normally goes with after-Christmas sales and coming off the holiday season, rather the mood was a somber one of let's get the things we need and want while we can and while the prices are low, or put another way, "Eat, drink, and be merry..."

Silver Linings?
An array of black thoughts has been churning in my mind for so long that some days ago as a spiritual exercise I began trying to see if there are any silver linings in these glowering economic clouds that have put down the mighty from their seats. The Boomer materialist in me doesn't like the idea of hardship and discomfort, and I truly hope that things will not be as bad as the Cassandras suggest. Yet I also realize that there are a lot of us who have lived so long with seemingly endless prosperity that a little sabbatical from plenty might be healthy.

My sense is that this is not just a rather deep pothole which is rattling the undercarriage of our world, more a significant turning of the page. We have come to a major intersection, and this is reality check -- a reminder to us that the world's idols have feet of clay. For a long time we have been coddled and now that the tide has been going out we have to dig deep and ask some really fundamental questions about the sort of people we are, the lives we should live, and the values that will shape them. Society as a whole is being asked to do the sort of inner hard work that the bereaved have to do when they lose a partner, a parent, a sibling, and to build a new life for themselves in the wake of it.

A lot of us have been used to paying lip service to the idea that life is about more than things and their accumulation, and then having placated our consciences with our words have got on with the business of getting more. Now the opportunity of living more simply is before us and once again we are being asked how we are going to handle our patterns of consumption. Are we ready to ask ourselves whether having lots of things has actually been good of us, and what we might be able to do to begin cutting our cloth somewhat differently?

Living more simply and frugally
I have entertained private thoughts for a long time that it is the height of madness to build a national or a global economy on a throwaway materialism that uses every instrument in its toolbox to urge us to consume more percentage points of stuff every year. I am not an economist, but I think we should consider whether the affluent consumerist way isn't one huge Ponzi scheme as we borrow from the future to fuel our present. And I mean all of us, because whether we like it or not we are all implicated.

If I ever made New Year resolutions this year one would be for the rest of my life that I will try not to consume just for the sake of consuming, or to purchase things that can only be discarded when they go wrong rather than being repairable -- these would be a start down a different pathway. The trouble is that right now that is almost impossible.

Now is the time for renewed economic responsibility, and perhaps we Christians should be working on removing whole trees lodged in our own eyes before encouraging our fellow-citizens to work on the logs in their own. Several bishops in Britain have been castigated by the press for making pronouncement about economic things in which they have no expertize. Actually, they are asking ethical questions, and while they may not understand all the macro-economic implications of their words they have asked us to consider whether the emperor has clothes.

A time of hope
If this is a time to question the pattern of our lifestyle, then it is also a time for hope which comes with a fresh beginning. That may sound a weird thing to say as we consider that throughout the world before this whole crisis winds down millions will have lost their means of livelihood, so I write advisedly. Yes, this has been a huge hiccup in the way our culture organizes itself and governments have been doing their best to find a way through, and they deserve the fervent encouragement of our prayers. But perhaps we should see this time as an opportunity.

Here is the opportunity to launche into a major overhaul of the world we inherited from our forebears and have made a bit of a mess of. Here is a massive and exciting challenge for the rising generation of late cohort GenXers and the Millennials -- to reconstruct a different kind of world that is governed by a fresh vision and set of values, and we might say that it wouldbe helpful if it had a smaller carbon footprint. The task for those of us who are older is to be there for them, prepared to roll up our sleeves and work alongside them on this truly massive project. The is a 'Marshall Plan' of huge proportions. As Christians play their part in this, they are the church seeking to be the leaven, for there are facets of this that have a truly Kingdom flavor.

In a way, if global reconfiguration for the 21st Century began with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, could it be that 2009 is the year when the great 21st Century task facing the US, UK, and all the nations together actually comes into focus in the wake of this great economic bruhaha?

I have been rereading John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address which he delivered on January 20, 1961. I was a high schooler in England when it was delivered but despite the fact tha America was a long way away and I never thought I would be part of it, Kennedy's words challenged me to an idealism that has never fully gone away. It is fifty years since those words we await the arrival on the scene of another visionary president -- and coincidentally, his Inaugural Address will be delivered on January 20. Whatever our varied political biases, we are obliged by Scripture to wish him well and pray for him as he takes on leadership with expectations laid upon him that no man nor woman could fulfill. It is within this environment that we are called to be the Church of God for a different kind of culture.

Perhaps we should bring into the present Kennedy's words from the steps of the Capitol a half century ago: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility—I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world." If this signalled a turning point in 1961, how much more in 2009? While Kennedy spoke to the fifty States of the Union, this year Obama will speak to (and perhaps f0r) a listening world.

Meanwhile, while Presidents are important we are the followers and the family of the Prince of Peace, called to live as part of this generation at a most difficult time. What sort of fire are we going to light so that its glow might be seen around the world?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

"Rowan's Rule"

Rowan's Rule: The Biography of the Archbishop, by Rupert Shortt.
(London: Hodder and Stoughton. 2008)

Rowan's Rule is a fascinating book, not only tracing the life and ministry of the present incumbent of Augustine's Chair, but also seeking to introduce us afresh to one of the most complex individuals. The book confirms what I have been saying about Williams for a number of years: that he cannot be pigeon-holed by simplistic labels and shallow formulas, especially those that might be polarized and polarizing.

Rupert Shortt reckons that Williams is probably the most brilliant Archbishop of Canterbury since Anselm, while at the same time being one who wears his intellectual capacity humbly. This is a huge claim to make when there have been incumbents such as Michael Ramsey of recent memory, and Thomas Cranmer of the Reformation years. The reader will have to judge whether Shortt has succeeded in backing up his assertion, but he certainly makes a strong case.

The Archbishop is a man who in conversation with those who lack his ability treats them as equals and listens to them with great care and an open mind, always willing to modify his own views if a case is made to justify it. Many who are as gifted take great delight putting interlocutors in their place, but not Rowan Williams; indeed, it could be that he is prone to take a little too seriously some of the input that he receives. This is a mark of Archbishop Williams' genuine godliness, and a humility that is, perhaps, his greatest strength. It is probably that humility is one of his qualities that is least understood either in or beyond the church.

There is little doubt that the Archbishop occasionally misspeaks, and in recent years he has occasionally handled things flat-footedly, but these shortcomings should be seen in light of the onslaughts that have been launched against him -- often way out of all proportion to the 'offence' that he might be accused of committing. A lesser man would have fired back withering broadsides in response, but not Dr. Williams. Instead, he has worked to listen to all points of view, taken on board what he can, and whatever difficulties he has been dealing with to keep as many people at the table as possible. It has been a kind of crucifixion, but he has borne it with great grace.

Being in the presence of Rowan Williams is like being with a transparently holy Orthodox monk or patriarch. This is hardly very surprising given the amount that he has drawn upon Orthodox spirituality and wisdom in his own thinking and personal Christian discipleship. The fruit of a recently sabbatical was a substantial book dealing with Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and it stands as evidence of his significant grasp of Russian culture and spirituality, into which he began to dig when he was undertaking his doctoral work -- to the extent that he taught himself Russian.

Yet having been immersed in the treasures of Orthodoxy, Williams has then mediates them to others with a distinctly Anglican appreciation and focused by an Anglican lens. But in a way it is much more than Anglican because his earliest perceptions were shaped by the noncomformist Chapel culture of his native Wales in which he was reared until his teens. In the Williams family tree are several minor leaders of Welsh noncomformity, as well as the likelihood of poets and hymnwriters. Poetry, it seems, is well imbedded in the Williams DNA!

One of the points that Rupert Shortt seems determined to make is that despite his willingness to undertake academic exploration and theological surmise, Rowan Williams not only owes a lot to Orthodoxy (with a capital 'O'), but is also theologically intensely orthodox in terms of his trinitarian faith that is focused on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and mediated to us through Scripture. While he will rhuminate in an exploratory manner over issues and doctrinal challenges, his faith is catholic, and he is not prone to press his intellectual inquiry upon then church, or to go off on wild goose chases after theological notions that curry favor with the present age but lack roots and foundations in that which the church has received.

It seems there was a time when Rowan considered the possibility of celibacy and the religious life, but he always seemed to enjoy the company of women, they enjoyed his, and eventually he settled down to marriage with a woman whose theological acumen is an excellent match and foil for him. Jane Williams is the daughter of an evangelical bishop, and her own teaching ministry now takes place as part of the theological training college that is within the nexus of Holy Trinity, Brompton. However, Jane Williams, it seems, is not without her worries for her mate. She believes that she lost her own father to the stresses placed upon him by the church, and is fearful that she could lose her husband in much the same way.

Her fears are easy to understand because Rowan Williams has the heart of a poet, and composes sensitive and perceptive verse in both English and Welsh. While I am sure he has had to develop a certain thickness of skin to deal with the things that get thrown at him, he has not grown the hide of a rhinoseros that can protect his inner being from the darts and arrows that get aimed in his direction. Being Archbishop of Canterbury is the most onerous of offices, especially in our time, and maybe the question this raises is whether he will step down from the task before he reaches normal retirement age. I suspect that if he did Oxford, Cambridge, or maybe an American university would create a chair for him so that he might finish out his ministry within the context of academia, a setting in which he is very much at home.

Meanwhile, he toils away seeking to hold the Anglican Communion together in some kind of way. Several years ago he admitted to me that it was the Communion that kept him awake at night, and since then the ongoing riot that is international Anglican life has intensified rather than subsiding. As I read Shortt's latest book on Rowan, again and again I found myself thanking God that he had called such a man to this challenge in our era.

In 2002 I was deeply disappointed by Rowan Williams' appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, but as the years have passed my assessment of him has altered. His tenacious grace has done an enormous amount to keep this fractious family of Christian churches at least on speaking terms despite the pressures of those at either end of the theological and ecclesial spectrum, as well as the actions of the occasional bomb-thrower. Maybe the best that can be done at a time like this is to keep people talking wherever possible -- and there is no better person than Rowan Williams to keep the conversation going. The final outcome of these wrenching years will probably not emerge on Rowan's watch, I suspect, but the trajectory that Anglican life will take for generations is now being set.

I find that the example of Rowan Williams calls forth from me a generosity of Spirit, and a desire in my own small way to try to emmulate his humility and gentle kindness. Although Rowan is prepared to think outside the box in ways that I consider to be tempting providence, in many respects there is not so large a gulf between his brand of catholic Anglicanism and the charitable evangelicalism which I hope occasionally characterizes my faith.

Historians are likely to spend generations picking over the archiepiscopate of Dr. Rowan Douglas Williams, but there can be little doubt that this intellectual giant and gracious pilgrim is one whose whole heart is in the business of seeking to enable the church to maintain the unity of the Spirit within the bonds of peace.

Friday, September 05, 2008

The Church of England after a Year Back

St. Andrew's Church, Impington, Cambridge, approx. 1900

Yesterday was one of the wet and windy days that seem to have been the trademark of what passes for a summer in Britain, but there was a brief sunny break early in the evening which gave me an opportunity to take the dog for a walk. We went to a favorite place, one of the ancient trackways northward out of our village along which cattle were driven to market for hundreds of years. As we turned the slight corner along the very wet and muddy drove there on the horizon, shining in the evening sun, was Ely Cathedral, nine or ten miles away.

I have often wondered what it would have been like for men and women hundreds of years ago when they saw such a massive building as they trudged toward the ancient city in the heart of the Fens. The cathedral is 175 yards long with two towers, one of which rises more than two hundred feet. There was an Anglo-Saxon abbey there before the Normans came along and started work on the present building. Next year the Diocese of Ely will celebrate its 900th anniversary, making Cambridge University look positively youthful at 800 years old next year!

These are the sort of buildings inhabited by the Church of England, evidence of the long and remarkable Christian heritage that there is in this country, and they give the illusion of Christian rootedness here. While it is an illusion to think of England as a Christian nation, folk religion still survives and it has been shaped by the established church. Whatever anyone says, the Church of England remains the church of the English people, the one from which they stay away -- and woe betide you if you threaten the church build which neither they nor their forebears attend!

Having been born, raised, and ordained here, these historic buildings are as much part and parcel of my identity as is my own name. In a very real sense the Church of England is my spiritual mother. However, coming back to be part of the life of the English church last year after all these years away I realized that I had tumbled into something that I no longer really properly recognized or understood. Some of the most difficult elements of returning to the UK have been focused on readjusting to the good old C. of E., an entity that is simple to parody and always provides an easy target for journalists when there is a slow news day.

The media trumpet the Church's shortcomings endlessly, and seldom is there any good news shared with the general population, many of whom are six or seven generations away from realistic contact with the church. That innate religiosity that pervades much of American life is just not there in this country, and probably hasn't been in the major industrial cities since the Industrial Revolution or earlier. The British people are quite happy to sing "God save the Queen," especially at football (soccer) games, but have little idea who that God they are asking to save her actually is.

The great untold story of the Church of England is that of faithful persistent ministry in season and out of season. There are impressive batallions of laity and clergy who receive very little affirmation for their constant labors, their care for the sick and needy, the conduct of worship, bouts of evangelism, and the maintenance of these expensive historic buildings that crop up in even the tiniest community littering the countryside everywhere. These are good and faithful servants, and they have their parallels in the other Christian traditions and denominations in the UK.

Alongside this very traditional continuity of the church there is also what is called "Fresh Expressions." This, I think, illustrates that the Church of England's life is not trapped in crumbling medieval piles but is seeking to reach beyond the culture of the churched to the culture of the totally unchurched. This movement has a long way to go but seems to be gathering encouraging momentum. New congregations and other expressions of church are coming into being which may not look anything like what the Church of England is meant to be, but are an open door and threshold over which the spiritually hungry might come without feeling alienated. We have Fresh Expressions leaders training at Ridley Hall, and I have to say that while their commitment to Christ and mission is rich they don't look or sound like previous generations of pastors and clergy!

It is, perhaps, too early to tell where all this is leading, but I find it very encouraging even if it is rather alien to the likes of me. But then, coming back from the USA I have found much of what the Church of England has become rather alien. I suppose that as a result of my years in the States I have become a bit of an oddity -- a liturgical evangelical Anglican. Nothing innately abnormal about that in America, but here I'm truly out of step with the mainstream of evangelicalism.

Perhaps I should say mainstreams, because Anglican evangelicalism has fragmented since I left here in 1976. When I was ordained we were a disdained minority who stuck together for comfort and fellowship. Today evangelical Christianity is the tradition with the most significant life and vibrance in the English church. It has produced some of the finest scholars (Wright, McGrath, and younger generations nipping at their heels), many dioceses realize that if it weren't for their evangelical congregations, and especially the larger ones, they would be in an even greater degree of trouble. Perhaps 80% of those training in theological colleges are of the evangelical persuasion (although there are weekend courses that produce clergy whose flavor is more varied), and if our experience in Cambridge is anything to go by we are seeing some of the fruits of Alpha training for leadership and ordained ministry.

Yet there are differing flavors of evangelical and I am not sure that I have yet worked out the lines of demarcation and nuance. At one end of the spectrum are the 'open evangelicals' who have followed the lead of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele University in 1967 that has seen itself as part of the whole church and seeks to be integrated into the church's life. Open evangelicals believe that other traditions bring an enrichment that we should learn from and not ignore. Then at the other end of the spectrum are conservatives who have maintained the historic suspicion that evangelicals have always had for the church and its structures, and have their eyes skinned for what they consider to be compromise.

This whole evangelical hotchpotch has been profoundly influenced by charismatic renewal, while at the same time in certain quarters a significant adherence to classic Reformed theology and historic Protestantism remains. Perhaps one of the most apparent things about evangelical Anglicanism here is what a colleague of mine has called "The Wimber-ization of the Church."

The average American Anglican coming to the UK often exclaims that evangelical parishes, both large and small, feel more like Vineyard churches than what they understand Anglicanism to be from their North American experience. They are right, because John Wimber seemed to have had a profound influence here 15-20 years ago, and the fruit of that is still working through. From an endless torrent of renewal songs that are often weak on content and sentimentally egocentric to the absence of a robust sacramental theology and practice, we find in many places something that only vaguely resembles the tradition from which all this has grown (although often they are merely pale imitations of the model that came across the water to them).

This is disturbing because while I recognize that there is a great need for diversity of worship styles and approaches in a country like this, you can readily reach a point where the baby has been flushed out with the bathwater. The transcendent is often missing, and in its place is something that might be described as believing in "My big bro Jesus." This clearly leads to a poverty-stricken faith very quickly, and I think we are seeing some of the fruit of this. The casual (even sloppy) also reigns supreme now in the UK generally, and particularly in evangelical environments there seem to be few means whereby believers can appropriate the presence of the great high transcendent God.

All that I am saying is probably a vast over-simplication, but I present it to make the point. If you want to worship God in an Anglican church in Britain today it is almost as if your choice is a dry recitation of the liturgy, or little liturgy at all and a great deal of real or manufactured vibrancy where the contemporary reigns supreme.

But then a wholesale abandonment of the old, tried, and true is probably a prevailing characteristic of Britain itself today. Organizations with venerable names are suddenly called something else, the traditional and historic is frowned upon, and often the great heritage from the past (with its warts as well as its plaudits) is something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Ancient-Future does not go down here as well as Contemporary-Future (and let's forget anything more than 25 years old). I suspect that some of this is over-reaction against the past, and there are signs that there might be a redressing of the balance starting to take place.

Last year when I got here I needed to find a church to which to belong. I decided to begin at a parish church in a neighboring the village where I live, but their website was down the weekend I intended to go there so I couldn't find service times. Instead, I went to another neighboring parish. The congregation was older, but no sooner had I arrived than I was welcomed, invited to coffee after the service, and made to feel at home. The worship was fairly traditional, the preaching not stunning but certainly truthful. At the coffee hour I was invited to a men's breakfast the following Saturday. Within a week I was hooked and never went anywhere else. Welcome is the parish's secret weapon, I think.

We have come to love the people at St. Andrew's, Impington, and are seeing the church gradually grow as a result of the faithful lay leadership it has. Not only that, but every now and again younger folks are appearing... and some of them are staying. St. Andrew's is not doing many of the things that are now considered de rigor here if a congregation is going to grow, but something is going on that is both lovely and intriguing. I say this about our congregation to illustrate that despite what I have said generalizations about the Church of England ought not to be taken too literalistically.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

One Year After Returning to England

After thirty-one years in the USA I have now been back in Britain for one full year, during which time I have been rather quiet online. There are all sorts of reasons for this: one is that re-immersing myself has been demanding in different ways than I had anticipated -- and all of them energy-sapping. Another reason is that I have been incredibly busy, while a third is that contemporary Britain is a bewildering place and without a good grasp on the current landmarks I haven't been entirely sure what I have been looking at.

I see this country today with eyes that are more American than British, and I have found myself being tossed about by the waves of reverse culture shock. You may think you know the country because you were born and bred here, but it has changed enough to be familiarly unfamiliar. I know that I have changed and am prepared for some friction, but what has battered at me has been totally unexpected. I lived out of England for half of my increasingly long life: this is not the country that I left and neither am I the person who left it. It is amusing to be considered strongly English when in the USA, but now that I am back here I come over as a brash (and sometimes opinionated) American.

While the economy here is going through the same ructions as the rest of the world, the Britain to which we have returned is far wealthier than the one that we left, and there are people who have been able to establish financial empires that rival those found in North America. The average person has a higher degree of affluence, but try to get this across to Brits and most of them will be insistent that it is "poor little Britain" as opposed to big wealthy America.

However, the Britain to which I have returned is seeing the full bloom of the fast-advancing secularism that was spreading across the landscape when we left. This is illustrated in all sorts of ways, not least an intense and vociferous distrust of all things religious in public intercourse. A number of times on the media I have sensed a sickening emptiness in the pit of my stomach as representatives of the chattering classes have aggressively dismissed someone's deeply held religious convictions as hypocrisy -- or suggested that they are a cover for something questionable and even malevolent. With the possible exception of certain facets of Islam, little benefit of the doubt is given to faith, and it seems to be a truism in the British mind that all religious people are narrow-minded and intolerant, dinosaurs to be discouraged until their outmoded ideas eventually go away. Meanwhile the seed that was being sown in the Sixties and Seventies is being harvested in all sorts of ways in the culture.

All this make Britain (like much of Europe) a demanding context within which to minister effectively, and figuring out how to be a mission-driven church in such a culturally demanding environment is still very much a work in progress as far as the churches are concerned. This is a challenge for everyone: Roman Catholics, Methodists, Baptists and Pentecostals, the Salvation Army, Anglicans, the whole company of Christians. It is my assessment that a large proportion of the solutions being experimented with are too contemporary and not enough rooted in the ancient, but despite that courageous folks should be given high marks for at least trying to allow the Gospel to speak to a totally different form of culture.

What I have begun to realize is how easy it is for North Americans to point the finger and declaim how poorly the European churches are doing. Having started to become engaged in the situation here I have found myself wondering whether they would be as effective if facing the sorts of challenges with which the People of God here are seeking to get their arms around.

Yet despite the regular obituaries that get written, and the seemingly endless retreat that has marked the Christian faith in Europe for a century or more, all is far from lost. Interestingly, the congregations at cathedrals seem to be growing significantly, while a new generation is arising in Christian leadership that has no illusions about our environment and is exploring the options -- even if for many in the older generation the penny has yet to drop. Experimentation is necessarily, but by its very nature you don't get everything right first time, while sometimes you might find yourself making a significant mess of things.

Since the end of the Olympics I have re-watched the eight-minute segment of the finale from Beijing where custodianship of the Olympic ideal is passed on to London several times. At the heart of the presentation was a London double-decker bus coupled with dancing and music. That piece said an enormous amount about the sort of country Britain has become -- and, as a result, the challenge that British society presents to those seeking to be faithful to the Christian gospel. Like that segment which got rave reviews in the media, popular culture here is shallow, gaudy, disposable. It is much more about pop singers and football stars than the roots and traditions of the nation. Indeed, huge numbers of Brits have been conditioned to be embarrassed by these, the positives from the past constantly being damned, or damned with faint praise.

This reflects an absolute confusion of what it means to be British, and what have been the events and values that have shaped the country. The church (and its message) is considered to be very much part of that old-fashionedness. It is a lingering embarrassment from the past, and the subliminal message is that the country will be a better place when it is dead, buried, and gone. A lot of this negativity is focused and unfairly personalized onto the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury with his scholarly language, thick glasses, and straggly beard, but there are other figures who bear the brunt as well. Suffice it to say that it is an exception for a leading Christian to be characterized in a positive manner.

The question is, of course, what would fill the vacuum if Christianity did utterly collapse? I think it unlikely that the mile-wide, inch-deep secular hedonism that is always shouting the loudest would last long -- any more than Marxist-Leninism was able to outlast the rich history and spiritual heritage of Russia during the Soviet era. Islam is constantly named as a possibility, but while it has all the pushiness of an adolescent, an awful lot would have to change very quickly for Britain to embrace the Crescent while trampling the Cross underfoot. Certainly, this needs to be flagged for careful attention, but scenarios of this kind are a long way from playing themselves out.

What I would say is that there does seem to be a real sense of spiritual hunger flowing somewhere beneath the surface of Britain, but the spiritually hungry at this point seem determined not to go to the historic places to look for sustenance. Meanwhile, as I have intimated already, the churches are still in the early stages of working out how to speak to a spiritually-empty culture that brashly asserts itself. I have found myself musing whether the period through which we are now living might be more akin to that period when the industrial revolution radically changed the face of the land in the matter of a generation or two.

If there is anything to such a theory, then with it comes the recognition that the churches scrambled in those days to catch up with the new reality of sprawling industrial cities, coalmines instead of cornfields, and a population whose whole mindset was being radically altered. It took a work of the Holy Spirit, several generations, and the genius of the likes of Whitefield, the Wesleys, for there to be any effective communication of the Gospel story to this burgeoning new kind of world.

I am sure that there are many who would disagree with me, but there seem to be all sorts of telltale signs that things are not well here as in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. The ones that leap out at me are the demise of the family, incredible levels of alcohol consumption, unprecedented levels of personal debt, petty pilfering, and a prevailing live-for-the-moment kind of mentality. I suspect that some of these things are inevitable in a country that is stressed and in the midst of a huge transition, but I suspect also that because there are no longer very many values that are generally accepted an anything goes mindset is almost bound to prevail.

While the demise of marriage and the family presents huge challenges in the long-term this is not being taken particularly seriously by a whole raft of politicians and social leaders who don't want to be labeled as narrow and small-minded. I have this notion that providing meaningful ways for couples to stay married and have fruitful relationships could very well be a means of great renewal here and should be something the churches might concentrate on.

Something that has truly startled me since getting back has been the enormous expansion in the accessibility of alcohol at all hours of day and night, encouraging over-consumption, binge drinking, and worse. Let me put it crudely: there is a lot more vomiting in the gutter going on than there was 30+ years ago, and those involved tend to be both male and female. Add to this gambling and staggering levels of consumer debt as the symptoms of a deeper problem, and it is possible to see how much a mission field this is, and how much the churches have their work cut out for them.

While there is part of me that wants to run away from all of this, another part of me is eager to roll up my sleeves and wade in the best a sixtysomething can. I might not be able to do the frontline things any longer, but there is a lot that can be done to support, encourage, and fund, while pastoring and picking up the pieces of those who have been exhausted or hurt by the inevitable hugeness of the challenge.

Jesus told his disciples to life up their eyes and look on the fields, that they are white already to harvest. They may be one of these days, but there is a lot of ploughing, planting, weeding, and tending of the crops that needs to be done before there can be bumper harvests -- but those harvests are still possible.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Scapegoating of the Archbishop of Canterbury

I wrote this little piece for Covenant blog yesterday (

I am concerned about attitudes toward this present Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems by many of those of the GAFCon persuasion to have become the scapegoat not only for his own shortcomings in this confusing crisis, but also everyone else’s. I have found myself wondering what the attitude of the GAFCon loyalists would have been if George Carey had still been the ABC — and who/what the scapegoat would have been in those particular circumstances. Scapegoating is, quite honestly, a very easy way to shrug off one’s own responsibilities for the situation.

Yes, the office of Archbishop of Canterbury does seem to have colonial overtones, but again, is the anti-colonial argument pressed because it can be used to great affect against Rowan Williams whose public persona is eminently difficult for most people to grasp (especially when the media have finished messing with his idiosyncrasy)? It needs to be asked if the office would be disdained in this particular manner if John Sentamu was Archbishop of Canterbury instead of York: I rather doubt a once-persecuted Ugandan with a huge and extrovert personality and faith would be dismissed with the scorn afforded the gentle Welsh scholar who inhabits Lambeth Palace.

One of the frightening things about the whole turmoil of events since 2003 is that it has become so wrapped up in issues of personality that the principles of theology, ecclesiology, and anything else have been molded in response to attitudes toward people rather than truths and errors. Now I realize that it is almost impossible to separate persons from beliefs and ideas, but it does seem that increasing numbers are not willing even to try.

What has grieved me more and more as this whole sorry game has played itself out is that both grace and truth seem to have become victims of the fight. I suspect that it is going to be increasingly difficult as time passes for the scars of the wounds now being inflicted to be soothed — yet seeking some kind of reconciliation has to be our priority if we are truly bearing with Christ his Cross.

There were all sorts of responses to this piece, and several of them lashed out at Archbishop Rowan. So here is my clarifier:

Either I did not make myself clear or the point I was trying to make has been missed. In the first sentence of what I said I had hoped I had made clear that Rowan Williams has his shortcomings. He is in an almost impossible position and since his accession to the See of Canterbury I have felt that he may not necessarily be perfectly equipped for times like this; let's face it, few individuals are.

However, what has happened is that Archbishop Rowan has been turned into the issue and made to accept almost everyone's blame. I state quite clearly that he has not led as I would have liked him to lead, but this pickle has been stewed up and then made worse by people on every side of the spectrum. Conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between has made this mess, and everywhere we look instead of humility and grace what we see is self-righteousness and posturing.

For saying something like this I have been roundly accused of being soft, of having lost my theological bearings, of compromising biblical truth, and so forth. Although this is untrue, people have the right to their own perceptions, but nothing could be further from the reality. It is because I am committed to biblical truth that I say what I do. Rowan Williams should not be blamed in the way he is, we should all take upon ourselves the responsibility for the chaos and the seemingly endless stand-offs that just lead to a downward spiral. The Archbishop can surely be criticized for some of what has happened, but then so can everyone from the Primates and bishops down to you and me.

Brothers and sisters, this situation is about being honest and it is about the Cross. The Cross challenges me in ways that I do not find comfortable, but without that Cross I am lost and in hopeless despair. There is nothing comfortable about the Cross for it demands of us integrity, humility, and a willingness to put ourselves under God's microscope -- whatever other people might do. The Cross is not there for us to use to hit others over the head. The truth is that we have had rather an insipid theology and practice of Cross-centered Christianity.

Let me be brutally personal about what the Cross means. I have said (and done) some pretty awful things about those with whom I disagree in these troubles, and who I believe have played a major role in bringing this crisis on the church. I have been presumptuous, judgmental, bitter, arrogant, and unkind. I have had some of the worst years of ministry I can remember, and have wept copiously. Much of what I have done has been grounded in pride and self-rectitude. However, regardless of what I believe to be the errors of others, I cannot load the consequences of my sins on anyone else's shoulders. I must take responsibility for them, and then share them with the Lord who died for me and rose again -- if I do not do this then I am of all men the most to be pitied.

I would plead with those who seem to want to blame Archbishop Rowan for everything to reconsider and look first into their own hearts. This is a case of the one who is without sin throwing the first stone...

Saturday, June 28, 2008

How I have changed

My wife has a picture that was taken of us on the damp cold March day in 1969 when I was ordained deacon in an equally damp, cold church in North London. I was looking at that picture the other day and wondering how much is left of that couple setting out on life together, grinning broadly, and with their arms around each other. Every morning when I stare at the mirror I recognize that beneath the surface somewhere is that skinny man with a thick mop of dark hair, but these days I feel the face I am looking at is more like my fathers did than that twentysomething uncomfortably clad in his brand-new clerical collar.

Today's waistline isn't anything like it used to be, my collars are several sizes larger, and I have less hair and it is turning pepper and salt gray. I am still pretty fit for a sixtysomething, but my back and knees tend to creak a little, if left to my own devices I drop off to sleep in my chair around 8.30 pm, and the beauty to whom I had been married for only seven months when that picture was taken is now a grandmother -- which, come to think of it, makes me a grandfather!

Back then I would have considered someone my age now incurably old -- but the funny thing is that despite the occasional aches I don't feel old. In some ways I feel younger now than I did ten or fifteen years ago. Certainly, our concerns are those of any couple our age, like how we fund our old age so that we are not a burden on our children, but I still have that same sense of excitement that goes with having something useful to do in God's Kingdom.

There was a similar excitement back then when we were setting out on our life's journey, and whilst a seasoning has taken place over the years there is still essentially the same flavor. I don't know how I would be feeling if I was staring down the barrel of the gun of retirement because that is not something to which I am looking forward. Spending and being spent for the Kingdom is a lot more fun!

Neither has the substance of my theological presuppositions changed much. Again, there has been a maturing and I have wrestled with my share of doubts and agonies related to the faith over the years, but at the heart is still the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the Scriptures -- which I maintain now as back then to be God's Word Written. Part of that maturing has been discovering a richness that I didn't know was there when I was first ordained, and an exposure to scholarship and attitudes that have forced me to think through my own positions very carefully, modifying some of them, but whose foundation is firmly laid and stands firm despite all my sins and shortcomings.

I think that points to another factor: I am more conscious today of my sinfulness in a way that I am not sure I was when I was young. I grieve that while I might have made some progress in the process of sanctification, there are so many flaws in my character and personality that I had believed then I would grow out of. They are still there, and like Paul's thorn in the flesh they harry me daily. I press on toward the goal of God's call, but as I perceive the holiness of God when compared to my own innate fallenness I realize just how unworthy I am of God's grace.

Most of those years since that picture was taken were spent in the USA, and coming back to England points up just how much my American experience altered me. The other day a friend was comparing me to another American who we both know and who has lived in England for a long time; he said that this individual had become as British in his attitudes to the same extent that I had let go of my Britishness to become American. Most of the time I can see it in myself, but there are occasions when I say and do something that is quintessentially "New World" and it has to be pointed out to me.

I have shed a lot of the middle class English conditioning that had shaped that newly-minted deacon in the photo, and instead a middle class American conditioning has taken its place. I was never particularly comfortable with a lot of those English attitudes that once shaped me, but it wasn't until I got back here that I recognized just how many of them I have during my American years shed.

My political bias in the 1960s was of a distinctly more radical and leftish flavor than the one I adhere to now. In those days I believed the Conservative Party for which my family had consistently voted for ever and aye was so far to the right that no thinking Christian could possibly support them and retain their integrity. By contemporary American standards I suppose my political views are now perhaps slightly in the center or, perhaps, slightly to the left, but while I have changed so have the political parties here. These days I look at the three main parties here and consider them all a bit too progressive for my liking. I am not particularly comfortable with the 'nanny state' and neither do I have a lot of time for a lot of the social engineering that is so chi-chi in all quarters. In my youth I thought I knew what the political values appropriate to citizens of the Kingdom might be, now I am far from certain!

I was talking to my old liturgics professor a while back (one of the pleasures of returning to England has been remaking links with folks of whom you had lost track), and said to him that I felt that I had left England as one who was gently radical when it came to Christian worship and had come back three decades later as a hopeless traditionalist. I was not here for the full-scale Vineyardizing and Wimberization of the evangelicals in the Church of England took place, and from whose worst excesses Anglican evangelicalism has yet to recover.

What the Episcopal Church did was to allow me to realize just how much liturgical worship can sing and it formed me away from the overly informal approach to worship that English evangelicals have tended to glory in. Interestingly, I probably have an approach to liturgy, ceremonial and ritual that condemns me to minority status everywhere. In Tennessee I was considered a snake belly low churchman, while among evangelicals here I am a tad further up the candle than most would like... and don't get me talking about the quality of the lyrics of so many of the more contemporary pieces of music that we sing -- and the endless and unthinking repetition of verses, choruses and phrases.

I don't know how the young man in the picture would respond to what I have just said because there was no such thing as contemporary music of that kind in church settings back then -- we listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones sing that stuff!

I know that the seeds of what I was going to become were there back then, but I'm not sure that I would have guessed how the youth would give birth to this older man. If God gives me another quarter century of life then it will be interesting to see how the even older man then will look back on the relative youngster I am now, and the mere babe in arms I was then. I hope to goodness that I am not a bad-tempered old curmudgeon!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Week of Weeks

The Prince of Wales talking to me together with the Principal and Bursar
after viewing the plans for new buildings at Ridley Hall

As you can see from the above picture we have had quite a week at Ridley Hall -- probably one of the most momentous and busy in the whole of my forty years of ministry.

The Prince of Wales dropped by for tea on Tuesday, and it fell to me to coordinate and stage manage the event. The Prince seemed to enjoy himself very much and had good conversations with sixteen Ridley students training for ordination in the Church of England or for youth leadership. It was valuable for the future Supreme Governor of the Church of England to meet some of those who will be ecclesiastical leaders when he comes to the throne.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that this is something that happens every day for this was the first royal visit to the college since its doors opened in 1881. It has certainly raised our profile in Cambridge, with Ridley being on the front page of the local paper twice in a couple of weeks. My impression of the Prince having met him briefly is rather different from the image that the media paint of him.

But that wasn't the end for the week, because on Thursday we had a major event at Lambeth Palace hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It kicked off among major donors and potential donors the campaign that we hope will put new academic and residential facilities for students at Ridley Hall -- the first building of its kind since 1914. Again, it was my responsibility to make it happen. It didn't help that there were torrential rains all afternoon and evening despite nothing being forecast. However, it went off well and we seem to have gathered some new friends who we believe are going to help us to make the expansion of Ridley Hall a reality.

But that isn't the end of it all. At this very moment, even as my fingers hit the keys, the Council of the College are working toward the selection of a new Principal and we were all tied up in that yesterday. Meanwhile next week we have a very important Council meeting, an Alumni/ae event with 150-200 participants, and the first lecture in a series of public lectures in memory of Professor Charlie Moule with Bishop Tom Wright as the speaker. We aren't quite sure how many visitors will be coming for that, but we have learned someone has made it the primary reason for coming from the USA.

Someone suggested to me the other day that I might be slowing down now in preparation for retirement. I had to chuckle because I have never being going so hard in my whole life. While I expect retirement will happen one of these fine days, right now it is a dirty word as there is just too much to do for the Kingdom of God!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The Challenge of Adjusting

Author Laurie R. King, in whose company I have been spending a lot of time since coming to England

During the last eight months I have been less than assiduous about keeping up my blog, and I apologize to any regular readers for this -- if there are any regular readers left! Some of you probably think that I have more or less dropped off the edge of the world, while others might be relieved they are hearing less from me! I haven't disappeared and am still here on the edge of the English Fens, working as hard as I ever have, and puzzling to adjust to the British way of doing things!

I have to confess that while there are times of great delight and satisfaction, there are also days of utter frustration. The truth is that I was in the USA for so long that I don't think or respond to life and reality as Brits do. Also, my use of North American vocabulary has been the source of entertainment to some of my colleagues at Ridley Hall.

In the midst of all this there are times of a deep and even painful missing of the United States. It is fascinating that I still dream in American, as it were. I do not remember in the nine months that I have been here ever dreaming in an English setting -- they have all been set in Tennessee or some other part of the US (last night, for example, I dreamed I was elected a US Senator for Texas -- glory knows where that one came from!). The other night I woke in the wee small hours and lay there for a full thirty seconds trying to work out precisely where I was and what I was doing here. All this, I have concluded, reflects a massive dislocation and disorientation at a significant depth in my psyche.

One of the side effects of this is the amount of mental and emotional energy I am using up as I adapt to a new life and lifestyle after three decades in the States. A by-product is that my concentration and creativity quotient are both at a very low ebb. I can just about manage to put together an occasional sermon and writing my daily devotions, but apart from what is required for my work I tend to be short of the emotional and spiritual wherewithal to do some creative exploring and branching out mentally and imaginatively.

Making major adjustments upsets the life of different people in different ways. Some may gobble up intellectual stimulation as a result of being tossed around so much, but I am finding the demands made by transitioning to be so enormous that reading serious books that are filled with significant content requires more intellectual energy than I have, and I sometimes fear that I might never get that side of myself back.

Instead of digging into works that are meaty and demanding, I am reading far more fiction than I have for a long time. Having been recently introduced by my elder daughter to the Mary Russell mysteries written by Laurie King, a San Franciscan who has some transatlantic roots in Oxford, I am devouring these with a passion. It is as if my psyche and imagination need taking care of and recharging before I am able to launch back into heavier fare.

It just was as I started writing this that I met a man who had recently gone through a similar episode, and it was a comfort to know I am not alone in attempting to garner the concentration levels and capacity to do things that make a high demand. After a heavy business schedule with much traveling globally for years and years this particular individual began slowing down as he felt the end of his career approaching. He was actually considering how he would redirect his life. This was the point at which his brain seemed to clam up, and coupled with a bout of ill health it had taken eighteen months to get his head back on so that he could read significantly and write again.

It is obviously a human shortcoming to refuse to accept that there are certain life events that leave us hollowed out and in need of recovery time if we are to be generative and creative in the future. I plead guilty to being one who finds it difficult to listen to the inner voice that prompts me to slow down a bit at times. I like to think that this fallow time for me is being a bit like a connoisseur laying down a cellar of fine wine that isn't yet mature, but will be able to be enjoyed later on.

So I have been spending the last months observing and learning again what reality look like from a British point of view so that I can eventually participate in and draw upon the seeds of ideas being stored up. In a way I suspect what I am doing is a little like adjusting to sharing my life with a new spouse, a process that probably requires meeting some of the unknown or overlooked darker and nastier sides of one's partner personality and being -- as well as enjoying the nice, sunny, and enjoyable components of their identity in a more intense and satisfying way.

The underlying truism is that this country has changed enormously since we left and this is what we are trying to come to terms with, discovering things about this land that I didn't really wish to know. Such reality therapy takes a toll. I am developing this impression that while Britain has succeeded in the material world after fighting world wars followed by a long time in the economic wilderness, the price it has paid has been its soul. The country in which I now live is wealthier and more prosperous by far than the one I left, and in true British fashion is muddling through, but it is a country that has happily sacrificed much of its historic identity.

The solid and serviceable have given away to the transitory and garish, in everything from the way people furnish their homes to the kind of lives they set out to lead. Being British today is more about supporting a soccer team than belonging to a nation. In some ways Britain feels very much like a historic building whose innards have been gutted and replaced with decor that may for the moment be fashionable but in every other respect are transient.

I hope in due course I will have some mature and constructive comments to make about this reality, but right now I'm not ready so must continue nurturing my psyche and soul with the hope that in due course I can enter into British life with the kind of verve that I enjoyed those many years in the USA.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Trying to Sell an Environmentally-Friendly House in Tennessee

A Fenland Landscape

Early this morning, soon after the sun had risen, I took Freddy, our Silky Terrier, for a long walk over the Fens where on the lodes (or drainage canals) we saw a spectacular cross-section of waterfowl. Walking in the cool English spring sunshine helped clear my brain following an unexpectedly difficult week.

Perhaps at the heart of the week was the deepening realization that in my growing sense of being settled here I had let certain guards down and had started talking and trying to relate to people as if they were Americans. Even as I turned over in my mind a little presentation I made yesterday afternoon to an essentially friendly group, I probably was a little too unguarded for most of my listeners. Americans tend to reveal more of themselves and allow themselves to be read far more readily than the British.

Three decades in the USA have left little of the English reserve with which I crossed the Atlantic in the 1970s, and now I am having to work out how to synthesize the American me with the British way of doing things and managing relationships. With this comes another level of reverse culture shock, one which after seven months or so here is not so readily forgiven by my British friends and colleagues who probably believe I have now adjusted back to this land. So, as I walked across the Fens this morning I was doing some painful reassessing of myself.

In the midst of all these ponderings I found myself gazing at an indescribably beautiful wooden house, and that got me thinking about my own house in Tennessee that has not yet sold despite being on the market since the end of last August.

I found myself ruefully wishing that I had it here in Britain where it would be not only a relatively easy sell, but I would get mucho, mucho pounds for it! Not only is housing here exotically expensive, but environmental sensitivity is far higher here than it is among the general public in the USA, An environmentally-sensitive house like ours would be in very high demand -- probably with people bidding, counter-bidding, and scrambling over one another to get it.

There sits our beautiful home in Tennessee and the only offers we have had have been derisively low -- what one Tennessee friend with a lot of financial smarts has described as carpetbagging. While we know we are experiencing the post-sub-prime blues, it does sadden us. Our home sits on three lovely acres, overlooking a beautiful valley, it is well-insulated and generates its own electricity while at the same time heating its own water, but no one seems to want it unless we are almost prepared to give it to them.

That is probably a sad commentary on environmental consciousness in the USA, especially in Tennessee, the state which we love the best and where we lived the longest. Whatever you believe about global climate change, and I think the evidence is overwhelming that it is happening, just being a responsible steward of the planet should encourage us to think in these terms when it comes to housing. What we have learned from our realtor is that some of those who have viewed it have been more concerned about the lack of granite counter-tops than the things that make the house such an energy treasure!

I suspect that we were such pioneers when we built the house as far as America is concerned that even the early adopters are wary of doing something that might make them look silly (tree-hugging wackos) -- even if it does leave them several thousand dollars a year better off each year when it comes to utility bills! But not only are the bills lower, so is your carbon footprint -- again, not a bad thing.

Yet having said that an environmentally-friendly house would sell like hotcakes on this side of the Atlantic, I was talking to a scientist researcher a month or two back who was telling me that in North America in general there are far more opportunities to explore and experiment with alternative fuels and energy sources than in Europe, and that despite all the words that come from official chatterers in this country the USA is probably ahead on the technology. The problem here, he asserted, is that regulation is out of control -- and land to do such things is very difficult to find.

I guess that on all sides of the world we are struggling to work out how to live on a small planet with such limited (and over-stretched) resources. I suspect that for the next few years the issue of food security is going to be as high up the agenda as the climate, partly because there is such a food crunch and partly because our food situation has been made more difficult by uncertainties created by the climate.

The challenges before us are enormous.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easter and Human-Aminal Embryo Research

Hybrids are made from an animal egg mixed
with human genes

Over the Easter period perhaps the biggest issue in the British news has been that of scientific research using animal-human hybrid embryos. The issue has been smoldering for a while, but legislation is being thrust with indecent haste through Parliament to allow British scientists, within careful limits, to create and use in research these chimeras. Last week in his Easter message this development was challenged by the Cardinal Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien stated, "It is difficult to imagine a single piece of legislation which more comprehensively attacks the sanctity and dignity of human life than this particular bill." The Cardinal's words hit the nail firmly on the head, and others have supported and endorsed his deep anxiety about what is going on. Bishop Tom Wright of Durham said in his Easter sermon that "Our present government (is) pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby."

Bishop Tom goes on to say, "We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Reduce such dangerous beliefs to abstract, timeless platitudes. The irony is that this secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we (it’s interesting to ask who ‘we’ might be at this point) have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people, and to play games with the humanity of those in between. Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species-bending. Look how clever we are! Utopia must be just round the corner."

For some years now I have been asserting that one of the most pressing issues before us is just what does it means to be human. As Tom Wright implied on Easter Sunday, the whole sexuality debate and controversy is merely a symptom of the confusion that prevails, for the culture has abandoned anything that approaches a Judeo-Christian understanding of humans as beings made in the image of a sovereign God, while at the same time providing no alternative to take its place. Indeed, not only has no clear alternative emerged, but those who question this so-called scientific advance are being painted (and not for the first time) as spoilers and obscurantists, and that their thinking is an attempt to draw a red herring across the path of scientific advance.

Yet what is spoiling and obscurantist about insisting that we need carefully to define our terms in order to understand where we are and what we are doing before we proceed with a particular course of action? As I have listened to the debate over this past weekend, it has appeared that the government is utterly determined to shove legislation allowing this kind of scientific activity through the House of Commons, so much so that it has little sympathy for the conviction of members of its own party who for religious and/or ethical reasons are saying, "Hey, wait a minute..."

The reasoning for proceeding with this course of action is pretty threadbare:

1. There are nationalistic commercial reasons for doing this -- we don't want to tie our scientists' hands behind their back in such a way that it prevents Britain from retaining its position as a global leader in biogenetic research. Such an argument should hardly surprise us because we live in an environment in which economics is king, and if there is an unstated definition in our society of what it means to be human it is that homo sapiens is a consumer and creator of wealth: "I spend, therefore I am."

2. The stated morality behind research of this kind is that out of it might come cures for some of the dreadful diseases that assail millions of people, old and young, around the world. Evan Harris, A Liberal Democrat MP who is a member of the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee, has said that it is right to conduct research that "might be used to treat people with terrible diseases".

There is a legitimacy to such an argument, but to date the track record arising out of so much biogenetic research suggests that the promise is more significant than outcomes and results. Besides, is it justifiable to destroy or radically tamper with life in the hope that from such activities will come positive outcomes for the human race?

In the last forty years I have been up close to many of the diseases researchers are determined to eradicated, and have pastored (and buried) many who have been suffering from them. Of course, I would love to see such horrible maladies wiped out because I have seen their consequences in the lives of sufferers and their families, but I find myself stumbling over the question of whether it is right to destroy life in order to save life. In this case, does the end justify the means? If we believe that human beings reflect God's image then it is hard to answer in the affirmative. Those who argue along these lines have succumbed to the crudest form of utilitarian thinking.

3. The third argument is that science must be allowed to advance for we stand on the brink of a whole new frontier, and we won't know what opportunities might lie just around the corner if we don't follow this path. True, but the counter-question then has to be posed whether it is appropriate for our race to find out. Just because something is possible does not make it either necessary or right. It is entirely possible for a pilot to land a plane full of passengers on a busy road or a playing field, but only in one landing in a million is it right to do so.

Behind such thinking as this, and it has been expressed variously in a number of books that I have read, is the conviction that we are on the cusp of a new evolutionary development -- and what is so exciting about it is that this time we human beings can control and direct that development (and do not have to leave it to outside, supposedly random, forces). This is a notion that is deeply ingrained in the whole transhuman movement, and that movement is of significant influence in certain scientific circles. While I am not saying that pursuing such a path of research has Frankenstein qualities, I am saying that those who enthusiastically pursue such studies either have not properly thought through the long-term consequences of their actions, or are quite happy about being in such a driver's seat.

The mentality of those who believe this line of research is right seems to reduce human beings -- men, women, babies, fetuses, embryos, -- from being flesh that reflects the divine nature into products to be used and mixed in the process of manufacture -- whether it be manufacture of cures for diseases, or ends up as being something more sinister.

Now as soon as someone says such a thing the champions of such research throw their arms in the air and say that we untutored ignoramuses are meddling in something that is not any of our business. We might respond by affirming that while we may not be experts in this field, is it appropriate for a self-appointed scientific priesthood to make these kind of decisions for the whole human race, for human-animal embryos are playing with the DNA that is at the very root of every persons' being.

It also seems that today, especially when Christians start raises objections to something that is going on, the rejoinder is that it is none of our business, and shouldn't the Church keep its nose out of areas of endeavor and discovery that do not concern it. We have to respond in this instance, "Sorry, but this does concern us very much. We are human beings, we believe there is purpose in God creating us in the way he has, and while meddling with the building blocks of life in this way may not immediately result in some terrible disaster what does it say about the value of being human?"

Let me leave the final words with Bishop Tom Wright:

"Have we learnt nothing from the dark tyrannies of the last century? It shouldn’t just be Roman Catholics who are objecting. It ought to be Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Russian Orthodox and Pentecostals and all other Christians, and Jews and Muslims as well. This isn’t a peripheral or denominational concern. It grows directly out of the central facts of our faith, because on Easter day God reaffirmed the goodness and image-bearingness of the human race in the man Jesus Christ, giving the lie simultaneously to the idea that utopia could be had by our own efforts and to the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will. The Christian vision of what it means to be human is gloriously underscored by the resurrection of Jesus, and we as Easter people should make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology as in so much besides.

…The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the final putting-to-rights of all things. In the light of the resurrection, the church must never stop reminding the world’s rulers and authorities that they themselves will be held to account, and that they must do justice and bring wise, healing order to God’s world ahead of that day. Those who want to depoliticize the resurrection must first dehistoricize it, which is of course what they have been doing enthusiastically for many years - and then we wonder why the church has sometimes sounded irrelevant! But we who celebrate our risen Lord today must bear witness to Easter, God’s great act of putting-right, as the yardstick for all human justice."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Choosing A Bishop

During the last couple of years I have found myself close to the selection of a new bishop on either side of the Atlantic, and the contrast between the two approaches could not have been more different.

On Monday morning at 11.00 a.m. London time it was announced from 10 Downing Street that Chris Cocksworth, the Principal of Ridley Hall, is to be the new Bishop of Coventry. Chris had shared this piece of news with just a handful of us in the leadership of the College before the weekend, but it would have been a great embarrassment to all if the statement of the Queen's approval of his nomination for election to the position had been upstaged. Even the people in the Diocese of Coventry did not know until a smiling and nervous Chris was brought out into the ruins of the old blitzed cathedral to meet them and the press.

There are wheels within wheels in back rooms that produce bishops here. There is a process of feeling out, approaching of candidates, checking credentials, etc., which eventually lead to the bishop-elect's name being announced and everyone applauding. It certainly means that someone of ability can be selected for the task, and while the diocese is involved in the process far more than was the case thirty years or so ago when I left England for the USA, there is still this pall of secrecy that hangs over things. However, it only takes a few months.

What a contrast to the long drawn out battle that we had in the Diocese of Tennessee when we attempted to elect a new bishop. The first stirrings of the process were in the latter part of 2004, the whole of 2005 the Episcopate Committee worked assiduously at the task, and because we took four bites at the cherry before electing John Bauerschmidt as bishop, it wasn't until October 2006 that we had a successful candidate, and then early 2007 before he came on board.

The great thing about the American process was that it is about as public as it could have been, with only those components kept confidential that needed to be. There was an effort to listen to all the voices in the diocese and to take them into account, and then it was up to the diocese itself gathered in convention to do the electing. Finally, the bishops and standing committees of the church had to endorse the election that had been made. A lot of people were involved in the selecting and making of the bishop.

I am absolutely convinced that an English style of electing would not work in the US, given the culture and history of the nation; but given the sort of House of Bishops that it has thrown up in the last couple of generations it has to be asked whether it is working particularly well. On the other hand, given how theologically detached from historic Christianity the Episcopal Church has become, I am not sure that I would want some unknown network of individuals working in private to come up with potential leaders for the dioceses.

I am delighted for our Principal at Ridley that he will soon be the youngest diocesan in the Church of England, and while we will certainly miss him here, my prayers go with him. However, the part of me that has been well-marinated in the American way of doing things wishes that the people could have a lot more say than they seem to get here.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

"Rowan Williams is a Wimp" -- or is he?

I confess to being very disappointed when Rowan Williams was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, but as is too often the case I made my judgments about him prematurely and on the basis of limited (or even flawed) information. Perhaps I am a contrarian, but as the general opinion of the leading inhabitant of Lambeth Palace has tended to slip my attitude toward him has been one of increased admiration. That is not to say that I am in agreement of all that he does and says, but I respect the manner that he has attempted to remain faithful to the radical teaching of Jesus Christ while steering his ways through today's impossible and polarized landscape.

At times I am stunned at the accusations made against him, for many of them just do not stand up under careful cross-examination. I suspect that the vast majority those who yell the loudest or throw the smelliest eggs at him have neither listened to what he is saying nor read with care what he writes. I suspect that Rowan himself would not be very patience with those who take his every word as gospel, but I suspect also it must irritate him no end when people attack him for things he neither is nor has said. While he is warm in personal conversation, welcoming, and has a tremendous consideration for those who come into contact with him, he is also one of the most significant minds of our time -- certainly there hasn't been an Archbishop like him since the time of Michael Ramsey (and Ramsey did not have to deal with such a predatory press as that which savages Rowan on a regular basis).

This is all preparation for saying that during the last few weeks my respect and admiration for Rowan Williams has grown. This is not to say that I agree with all that the Archbishop has said or done, but I stand in awe of the manner in which he has handled himself. It is when a person is under great pressure that we see of what they are truly made, and it seems to me that if you look more closely at the man behind the events of the last few weeks (and years) then the Primate of All England has acquitted himself as an intelligent, holy, and gracious Christian leader should.

Lambeth Palace was, perhaps, more than a little naive in the manner it handled the press in the lead-up to the Archbishop's now infamous lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Maybe if he had to do it again he would alter the timing of his interview to the BBC and answered some of the questions put to him with different wording, but I respect him enormously for not backtracking from the substance of what he actually said (rather than he is reputed by journalists to have said), and neither did he apologize for raising a very difficult and emotional issue for a pluralistic and multi-religious society to address. He was subsequently sorry for any pain he might have caused, and that is entirely within character, but he spoke from the basis of mature reflection on the dilemma presented to British society by a large Islamic minority in our midst.

I have since gone through the lecture the Archbishop gave with a fine tooth comb, and while I am not entirely in agreement with him, he did not say anything that a faithful and orthodox Christian need be ashamed of. It is significant, I think, that we have heard support for the Archbishop from both the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and several leading evangelical ethicists, which suggests that Rowan Williams is not so far out on a limb as the press would like you to believe -- just that he has courage to put onto the table a pressing social issue that has strong theological overtones.

Through this whole sorry business the Archbishop has handled himself graciously and firmly, and with great integrity. It is this which I find myself admiring. A couple of the days after the storm broke, he preached in Cambridge at the memorial service for Professor Charlie Moule, and in the pulpit we saw and heard from a man who is captured by and committed to the living and risen Lord Jesus Christ. I have never heard a memorial service address with such conviction and depth. Then during the last few days both English archbishops were in Cambridge for the kick-off of the university's 800th anniversary and the Diocese of Ely's 900th, and although I was not present the addresses given and the way in which together they handled theological students and seminarians from across the spectrum reflected commitment, intelligence, and godliness.

Perhaps there is an inevitability in an aggressively secular society for Christian leaders, especially if they appear a bit quirky or are intelligent way beyond anything the lowest common denominator can imagine, to be attacked, misrepresented, and ridiculed by the forces that are at play. What is more difficult to stomach is when these individuals are set upon by those who should be their own spiritual kith and kin. Some of the things that have been said about Rowan Williams in the last few weeks, and by those who are fellow-travelers along the Christian way, have been at time scurrilous. I just hope the Archbishop doesn't sit up late at night surfing the web looking for them, for they would cause him a great deal more pain.

As I have watched Rowan Williams these last few months (and you get a much closer view in England than the USA), I have seen a man who is an example of Christ to me. He appears to be someone who has been so captured by the redeeming love of Christ that it is reconciliation and forgiveness that he seeks, even when being bombarded by viciousness from Christians and secularists alike (although for different reasons). As a person he seems to be in the process of thoroughly absorbing the message of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, of forgiving his enemy and turning the other cheek. Wherever we are on the spectrum of the conflict that is tearing at the very fabric of the church, this is an example from which we can all learn and seek to emulate.

Neither does the Archbishop shirk responsibility for what he says and does, or hide from his detractors. Some of the nastiest things have been said about him by those (often professing to be Christian) who are delighted to lash out on the Internet, but then hide behind fictitious aliases or wear the cloak of anonymity. To me this distasteful Internet practice demonstrates an unwillingness to stand behind your own words and convictions, and is in many respects both cowardly and dishonest. Rowan Williams can be accused of neither.

Like so many who are denigrated in their own time, I suspect that when the history of these times is written that Rowan Williams will be treated more kindly than many are treating him at the moment. While I am not asking readers to like him or even to agree with him, I would encourage them to (if only grudgingly) admire him and respect him as he attempts to do one of the most impossible jobs in the Christian world.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Out of the depths...

The container being backed into our driveway in Waterbeach, near Cambridge, England

After one hundred days spent living separately on different sides of the Atlantic, Rosemary and I are now together again under the same roof with our dog and cat, and just a few days ago our container of household goods was backed onto our driveway and out poured the old friends that make our house feel more like our home. Our furniture and treasures had survived its journey across the choppy waters of the North Atlantic in winter.

Yet while domestic life is more settled there has been a sense of anxiety about what is going on in the church back in the USA, together with a sense of distance and powerlessness to do anything. In the next couple of days the Diocese of Tennessee will be holding its convention, and for the first time in as long as I can remember I will be absent. We had a battle at a recent convention over the feasibility of proxy votes, and part of me wishes that I had one! Then hardly a day or two passes without some announcement or event that confirms the steady unraveling of what was once the Episcopal Church.

Every time I think that I might be getting inured to what might be going on something happens that makes my stomach heave, brings tears to my eyes, makes me see red, or just drops a pall of deep sadness over me. Just as it was hard for me to let go of our home in Tennessee, so it is hard to live at a distance from what is going on back in the States, particularly the parting of friends, as John Henry Newman described it.

What is hardest is when people alongside whom you have labored in the Gospel for many years cut off communications with you, probably because they know you will not be sympathetic with the course that they have chosen to pursue. Tangentially, I read a little piece on a website the other day by a woman agonizingly anticipating the break-up of her marriage, and found myself feeling many of the same emotions over the break-up of the church in which I have been a priest for more than three decades.

It seems we have reached such a point in the process of fragmentation of the church where the thinking is that if you are not with us, you are against us - so we just don't want to have anything to do with you. Add to that the inner confusion that we all feel when such things happen, not knowing quite how to relate with or reach out to others who have taken a very different path from the one that we would prefer them to have followed. Also, those who separate are implicitly passing judgment on those who remain by their actions, even if that is not their intention.

In some ways many of the feelings I have been trying to come to terms with are a bit like the ones I had when the Charismatic Renewal began asserting itself. I am old enough to have been there to see almost the beginning of this movement in the life of the church, and have watched it wax, wane, change shape, and mutate over the intervening years.

I was a greenhorn in seminary in London, naive and enthusiastic, when the charismatic thing burst upon us. I remember vividly around the middle of my first term that Dennis Bennett arrived from the United States and addressed a crowded gathering of seminarians after dinner one evening. In the wake of that meeting what had seemed to be the stable life of the college community was disrupted as some received what was being described as the baptism of the Holy Spirit, others wanted to but did not, while others still had profound theological and spiritual questions about whether it was appropriate at all. For much of the rest of that year there were often unspoken dividing lines and uncomfortable tensions as we struggled to come to terms with what was going on around us.

By my final year there most of us had worked out how to live with this new phenomenon, but when we got out into ordained ministry and the movement continue to spread its wings and flourish, we found ourselves dealing with it in our various parish settings. Those tensions and implied judgments were very much part of the spiritual and relational geography of church life - especially if you were (as I was) working among young people. There was a sense of there being First Class and Second Class Christians dependent upon the nature of your experience and the exuberance with which you wore it.

Of course, within the context of these tensions subtly different cultures developed with variant hermeneutical approaches to the Scriptures' teaching about spiritual gifts. Naturally, dependent upon your experience of the Spirit in these circumstances was the line of thinking and acting that you followed.

Thankfully much of the tension that went with that particular tide has ebbed and with it has come to a more holistic and balanced understanding of the nature and ministry of the Holy Spirit. However, the recent unpleasantness in the Episcopal Church has, in me at least, revived that sense of implied judgment that is being made. Maybe I am interpreting this wrong, but there is the sense on the part of those leaving that those of us who remain on the basis of what we believe to be good reasons rooted in Scripture and the catholic faith, are hopelessly compromised. We are Second Class Christians who are not taking Scripture seriously, and consorting with those who have sold the Gospel down the river. Of course, every side considers itself more Anglican than the other, and there are no exceptions here.

Add to this the further complication that some have shrugged their shoulders and said a plague on Anglicanism altogether, we don't want to be part of any of this any longer, and so have gone off to Rome or Constantinople. What has surprised me with some of them is that a few have in a relatively short time done such a flipflop that they are affirming beliefs that they gave the impression just a few months ago were nowhere on their radar scope. Their attitude now is that they have found the true truth and, perhaps, have put on all the Ultramontane clothing necessary to demonstrate their new allegiance, and scorn those of us left squirming in the Anglican pit.

And so far I have just been talking about the so-called "conservatives."

Those on the other and "progressive" side of the theological and ideological fence are demanding an almost subservient loyalty to the institution, and are saying woe betide you if that does not happen -- we will use the full force of the canons against you to get you to comply. This is a wrestling match and submission is being demanded. Reading what some of them write there is an extraordinary sense from many of them that they are correct and enlightened, while the rest of us are lost in Neanderthal thinking and backward-looking obscurantism.

This is all such a muddle of attitudes and mindsets that it is almost impossible to weave any meaningful way through it. Human fallenness and arrogance rears its ugly head at every corner, and perhaps most of us think better of ourselves and our positions than we really should.

I sat this morning for a while with the only book written by my late friend, Michael Howard, God in the Depths. Michael had a sequel in mind for this remarkable little tome, but alas, he died just months before he was due to retire and to get on with that work. The depths (or the deep) about which he talks are that encircling darkness that is always there within the context of the human condition. They are the gale across the heaving ocean, they are the chaos and emptiness that are an intimate part of being human, "they are 'non-being' out of which, in God's hands, things 'become'" (Page 31).

In institutional and ecclesiastical terms this is what we are wrestling with. The depths now roil in the life of the Church, the community of faith having itself been made chaotic. Howard tells us that thius is the opposite of community. "The Church is a partner with the Spirit in the re-creation of the earth through the victory of Jesus over the powers of the deep," Michael Howard wrote, but in the process we will find ourselves embracing the deep by living with doubts, uncertainty, incipient chaos, and mystery (Page 131).

The church as we know it is being swamped by the deep, and perhaps all of us crave for Christ to stand on the prow of the sinking vessel and say to the churning waters, "Peace, be still." But that would be to short-circuit the process of finding our way through the discomfort, fear, and anguish bearing the Cross, being borne by it, and allowing the Cross to form and shape us anew. The Cross clearly has to be the starting point for any rebuilding of the Church, and the Cross is the ultimate place of letting go, the place above all others.

As I look at us all in the Anglican family, especially the Anglican family in the United States, we don't have a lot to be proud of or arrogant about, however we might be preening our feathers. We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, all of us, in destroying a large part of what we inherited, and now seem set on policies that will tear what remains to shreds. There are no simple answers to the questions with which we struggle, but right now every one seems to determined to stand upon their own self-righteousness and to vaunt themselves up. As we do so, we tumble further into the Deep.