Saturday 29 January 2011

Today I am ashamed to be an Anglican.

Today I am ashamed to be an Anglican.
The accounts of David Kato's funeral have shocked and depressed me as I think of his family and friends gathered there to mourn, but instead being subjected to a kind of pastoral rape.
Yesterday I wrote in hopeful terms that there was an opportunity for the Archbishop of Uganda to live up to the proud Christian history of his country, to bring peace in the midst of conflict.
His predecessors stood up for the Gospel and for justice, and some gave their lives for it - the church he leads now is doing neither.  The Gospel they have chosen to embrace appears more ready to condemn than to love, by its actions as well as by its words.  That is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The appalling way in which his funeral was handled has ensured that a new martyr has been born in Uganda  - and the role of martyrs has always been a powerful force in the spirituality of Uganda.
But unlike the martyrs which the Church of Uganda celebrates, David will be the kind of martyr who, like the prophets of the Old Testament, shines a light into the lives of those who profess to be God's people.  What will that light show?
It will show an Archbishop in Uganda who has remained silent, while other Archbishops speak out, and even Presidents express their deep sadness.  It will show a church which is content to Scapegoat a vulnerable minority, rather than face its own moral bankruptcy.  It has shown the world who the real 'violators' of Lambeth 1:10 are - those who refuse to listen to others - those who refuse to assure homosexuals  that they "are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ" - those who refuse "to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation".
Repentance is needed in Uganda - but it is not the repentance of the gay community - it the repentance of a church that has lost its way.
Today I am ashamed to be an Anglican.

(For an account of David's Funeral - follow this link)
... And if you have read this far, please go back and read yesterday's blog  'A Tale of Two Ugandans' which put this in context.

Friday 28 January 2011

A tale of two Ugandans

This week Uganda has been in the gay rights news once again, with the murder of leading homosexual David Kato in an attack my unknown assailants who beat him to death with an iron bar.
Such murders are, sadly, not uncommon in Uganda, but what makes this murder such a cause for concern is the fact that David Kato was one of over 100 homosexuals whose names and photographs appeared in Uganda's Rolling Stone Newspaper with the words "Hang them".  Following the article, many of those who were 'outed' have suffered attacks, and received death threats.
David Kato had recently won a court case against the newspaper preventing them from naming more homosexuals, and there is clear suspicion that his death may be linked to his sexuality.  Last year Uganda faced unparalleled international pressure when a bill was introduced in parliament which would have introduced the death penalty for homosexual acts.   The publication of names and photos of homosexual came soon after the withdrawal of the bill and many read it as encouragement for Ugandans to take the law into their own hands.
While the circumstances of his murder are still to be determined, messages of concern over his death have come from almost every quarter, including US President Barack Obama & Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Also this week, another leading Ugandan made a stand on the issue of homosexuality, but in a very different way.
Archbishop Orombi of Uganda, is one of the leading figures in the Global South Group opposed to same-sex blessings, ministry and marriage.  In 2006, he led the Ugandan Bishops in unanimously declaring that they would boycott meetings where "the violators of Lambeth Resolution 1:10 are also invited" 
Lambeth 1:10 describes homosexual practice as 'incompatible with Holy Scripture' and true to his word, he was one of 7 Archbishops who have boycotted the Anglican Primates meeting this week in Dublin because of the presence of The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori.
But Lambeth 1:10 also states "We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God" and calls on "all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals"
Now, surely, is the time for Archbishop Orombi to put the whole of Lambeth 1:10 into practice.
In  an article for the Anglican Communion in 2007, he notes that Uganda is the second largest province in the Anglican Communion, with over 9 million members.   He extols the benefits which the Gospel has brought to Uganda saying, "The gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to us through the Word of God enables warring tribes to begin to coexist and to embrace neighbourliness."
He praises evangelists who "Instead of being armed with spears, they came armed only with the Word of God. Instead of a message of war and destruction, they delivered a message of Good News from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The time has surely come when this voice needs to be heard again in Uganda - with the Church acting as bringer of peace - to end to the tribalism of sexuality and to promote love and respect for all human life.
And the time has come for Archbishop Orombi to recognise the importance of fulfilling the whole of Lambeth 1:10, by using his influence in Uganda to stop the demonization of homosexuals. 
Nor would he be a lone voice in Uganda in calling for a new dialogue.  The influential Ugandan newspaper 'The Daily Monitor' has responded to the murder by calling for a new national debate.
What we need is an honest national dialogue on homosexuality in order to forge a consensus on the rights of those Ugandans who choose to be gay and those who oppose homosexuality as a lifestyle.
Holding puritanical and extreme views on the matter, whether liberal or conservative, will divide us, rather than help us find a mutually acceptable compromise.
People like David Kato and others who might be gay are Ugandans and enjoy the same rights and protections of the law as heterosexuals. We cannot send them into exile neither, lock them away, or hang them.
We need to have an honest discussion about how to ensure that their rights are upheld without violating the rights of other Ugandans.
Any Anglican province which does not take on Lambeth's call to "condemn irrational fear" and assure all homosexuals "that they are loved by God" could be described (in the words of Archbishop Orombi) as a 'violator of Lambeth 1:10'
And no-one would want the Archbishop of Uganda to have to boycott himself...

(Please also see my follow-up post 'Today I am ashamed to be an Anglican' which followed the Funeral of David Kato)

Friday 21 January 2011

Double Standards in Conscientious Objection ...

The news that Cornish B&B owners have been successfully sued for discriminating against gay guests is likely to reinforce the growing accusations that the right to practise our Christian faith are being eroded or challenged in the UK.
Groups like Christian Concern have highlighted this in speaking out in support of Christians who feel their right to religious freedom been challenged by equality laws designed to uphold the rights of homosexuals.  These include the Relate counsellor who lost his job after refusing to counsel homosexual couples, a registrar who refused to officiate Civil Partnerships and the B&B owners, Peter and Hazelmary Bull.
In the words of Christian Concern, such laws have "led to Christians losing their jobs after refusing to compromise their beliefs at work".
Whilst I have every sympathy with those whose faith puts them in situations where they face moral dilemmas, I can't help wonder why some seem to single out homosexuality for this kind of Christian conscientious objection whilst ignoring other moral dilemmas.
There is, of course, a proud history of conscientious objection in this country.   My wife's grandfather was a pacifist and conscientious objector in the second world war, and suffered for it in prison.  His pacifism was rooted in his Christian faith, and he stood up for what he believed.
There are also many Christians who rightly choose not to work directly in areas where they feel that their faith and their job would be in conflict - whether it be in the arms trade, adult entertainment, gambling, or some areas of medical research.
But that is entirely different to the moral dilemmas which face many Christians in ordinary, day to day jobs, and which Christians almost universally accept (sometimes with a heavy heart) as inevitable in a 'free' society.
Examples might include the shop assistant in a newsagent who is faced with a customer buying a 'top shelf' pornographic magazine.  The Roman Catholic pharmacist who is asked to supply contraception.  The taxi driver picking up a customer who asks to be taken to an abortion clinic.  The stock broker or fund manager who is required to buy shares in companies with questionable records in the arms trade, environment, human rights or third world exploitation.  All of these situations could involve a Christian being asked to facilitate something which they might find morally wrong or questionable.
Years ago when I was a motorbike despatch rider in London, I often felt compromised by the company I worked for.  They charged more than anyone else for the letters we delivered, on the basis that each courier would only have one letter on board at any one time.  This was completely untrue of course, and we were often juggling several deliveries  at the same time.  Sometimes, a particularly astute customer would ask for reassurance when I picked up an urgent letter.  "You don't have any other jobs on board, do you?" was the standard question - and it placed me, as a Christian, in a dilemma.   I could lie and keep everyone happy, or tell the truth and lose my job.  In the end I found a way of fudging the issue, and my standard answer when challenged became "That's what you are paying for!"  which was true, even if it wasn't truth-ful.
The point is this.  Christians often end up facing issues of compromise at work.  That is simply the way life is.
Now perhaps we should  be less compromising.  Perhaps we should be more ready to witness to our Christian faith by refusing to do anything that goes against our religious beliefs.  Perhaps we should be campaigning for the right to Christian conscientious objection in every moral area of life - including other areas where Christians don't always agree (like pacifism, contraception, and the stock market).
But at the moment, it appears that almost all the 'conscientious objectors' whose cases are being highlighted by groups like Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre are related to homosexuality.
I don't see campaigns to encourage Christian shop assistants, taxi drivers, pharmacists & stockbrokers to stand up for their faith in the moral dilemmas they face.   All I see are a minority of Christians who want the right to single out homosexuals as the one group worthy of such conscientious objection, because for some strange reason, homosexuality is worse than all the rest.
Unless those same Christian groups encourage a policy of refusal for the full range of situations where faith creates moral dilemmas, it will not be seen as principled action to uphold freedom of religion - just prejudice.

PS.  I found the picture to illustrate this blog on a campaign site called "Stop Gay Marriages".  They descibe their cause in the following way, "without gays the world would be a better place we need to stop all gays marriages. they are absuly wrong and horrible".  Enough said ?

Sunday 9 January 2011

I agree with Philip Giddings...!

It has come as a bit of a shock, but I have actually found myself agreeing with the new Chair of Laity in General Synod -  Dr Philip Giddings!
It is a surprise because I have previously found myself at odds with Dr Giddings on numerous occasions.
Firstly, there  is the fact that he is a Trustee of Anglican Mainstream.  I have been at a meeting of Anglican Mainstream where he was nodding in approval with a smile on his face when a speaker from the United States said "the time is coming when you need to decide - if you are not with us, you are against us - will you stay, or will you leave the Church of England!"
Second is the fact that when Jeffrey John was appointed as Bishop of Reading in 2003, he was one of the protagonists who ensured that the Archbishop of Canterbury would force Dr John to step down from the appointment because of his sexuality.
But in spite of all of that, I find myself agreeing with the comments he is reported to have made following his election as Chair of Laity in the Church of England General Synod.
"Mission, mission, mission" were the priorities he set forth to the Church of England Newspaper for the next 5 years, and I could not agree more.  We desperately need to rediscover our mission of reaching out to others with the Good News of Jesus Christ rather than squabbling among ourselves.  Proclaiming the words and work of Jesus should be first and foremost in our minds as we reach out to a lost generation.
"We must continue to be faithful to the timeless truths of the Gospel" he said, and once again, I could not agree more.  Incarnation, Salvation, the Cross and the Resurrection are sidelined all too often in our internal arguments, and we waste far too much time bickering among ourselves, and far too little time declaring the words and works of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
So I agree with Philip Giddings in all the areas that are most important to the Christian Church at this time.  I want to see us focus on mission for the future rather that finding ways to preserve the past.  I want to see us proclaim Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life.  I want to see the Church of England transformed into a mission orientated Body of Christ, reaching others with the Good News of Christ.
And if we can focus on this together, united behind Christ as Lord and Saviour, perhaps there is hope for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.
But if we continue divide over such peripheral issues as sex and sexuality, we will continue to undermine the Gospel that we seek to proclaim by our constant in-fighting.  In words of Jesus Christ, "I am the Way, the Truth, the Life" not "Conservative moral theology is the Way the Truth and the Life".
Please, Dr Giddings - could we just agree to follow Jesus together and let Him decide if we are right of wrong?  That would seem to be much more Biblical than the disagreements which, far too often, characterise our message.

Saturday 1 January 2011

The Poverty of Riches ...

"While he was born in poverty and obscurity, far from the centres of earthly power, he was none other than the Son of God. Out of love for us he took upon himself our human condition, our fragility, our vulnerability..."
These are some words from the Pope's 'Thought for the day' message on Christmas Eve - the first such broadcast by the Pope on the BBC.
The 'thought' was gentle, warm and encouraging.  It pointed us to the Christ who came into our world to bring us liberation from death and  fullness of life.  It also reminded us that this liberation was not achieved by the politics of power or military force, but through sharing our fragility and vulnerability, and in the end by making the ultimate sacrifice in a shameful death on the cross.
It was all very inspirational - but there was one thing which made me uncomfortable as he spoke.
It was the thought of the Pope speaking of a Christ 'born in poverty and obscurity' in the midst of the opulence of the Vatican.  In my mental picture, there he was,  surrounded by priceless art and artefacts, supported by a huge financial machine, speaking of the poverty of Christ's birth - and that picture laid bare a worrying discontinuity in the message which can so easily undermine our proclamation of Jesus Christ.
This discontinuity is high-lighted by one anonymous observer who posted a comment on the Vatican Information Service website earlier this year.  As it emerged that the Holy See had made a £7m loss, partly due to "the considerable economic and financial burden of protecting, evaluating and restoring the artistic heritage of the Holy See", the observer wrote,
"Thank God no shortfalls were caused by charitable works among the poor, oppressed or persecuted. Layers of paper pushers and facilities beautification are far more worthy of capital expenditures."
Whilst there is probably an injustice in this comment, when other charitable works of the Roman Catholic Church are taken into account, the point is well made - how can we preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who was born and lived a life of poverty and vulnerability, culminating in the cross, when the church surrounds itself with the trappings of riches and security?
Nor is this just a Roman Catholic problem.  Evangelical and Pentecostal mega-churches in the USA build huge buildings to accommodate their growing congregations.  They set up Satellite TV Stations to preach the Gospel, and then they use them to appeal for money to keep the whole thing going!
Nor are we immune from the issue in the Church of England.  Although many parishes struggle to pay their way, pleading for ever increasing donations from their congregations, the Church Commissioners are charged with investing their portfolio of £4.8 billion to provide financial security for the Church in funding Bishops, Cathedrals, ministry and past pensions.
Included among its commitments are historic Bishop's palaces which are a world away from the stable in Bethlehem where our Lord and Saviour was born 'in poverty and obscurity'.
There are also major works of art like the Zurburan paintings at Bishop Auckland which the Commissioners are proposing to sell, not just because of their potential £15m price tag, but also because of the £60K each year which it costs to insure them.  This cost however, is dwarfed by the cost of maintaining Auckland Castle, the Bishop's Palace, with its state rooms and 800 acres of parkland. 
Arguments rage from time to time about whether this is a good use of the Church Commissioners money (and my own belief is that they should be sold) but even then, the money raised will go to give the church financial security, not to meet the needs of the poor or disadvantaged.
The Church Commissioners' task is to make as much money as possible without being so unethical that it becomes an embarrassment for the church.  The primacy of this requirement has been demonstrated in the last 10 years, as the Commissioners have disposed of the social housing legacy entrusted to them by Octavia Hill, that great Victorian housing reformer.  The affordable housing estates which the Commissioners owned in London were sold off, not because they didn't make money, but because they didn't make enough money.   The need to maximise financial returns for the Church did not allow for any deviation which would accept lower profits while providing low cost housing for the less well off.
So we too are mired in the same discontinuity that the Pope's thought uncovered.
Nor are the issues of historic treasures limited to the Church Commissioners.  Many churches up and down the UK are custodians of ancient art, silver or gold which cannot be sold, even to support ministry.  I was at a UPA church in South East London some years ago when they wanted to sell some historic silver to pay for a community project.  The silver was so valuable that the insurers insisted it be kept in a bank vault down the road.  It was never seen by the congregation or used in church, but like so many others, the application to auction it was refused by the Diocese.
We preach the Good News of Christ, the servant King, dependant on God and on others, living amongst the poor and the outcast.  People continue to be inspired and challenged by this Christ - the Christ who puts the needs of others first.  The Christ who told the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus.  The Christ who told the rich young ruler to sell everything and give to the poor before coming and following him.  The Christ whose only possessions at the cross were the clothes he stood up in.  The Christ who said "Do not worry about what you will eat, drink, or wear - seek first the Kingdom of God".
Yet we do this surrounded by the historic wealth of an established church and by valuable art and artefacts, (which drain our resources as we take on the role of custodian).  In worship, our Bishops are presented to the world resplendent in fine robes of state wearing lofty mitres as symbols of authority.  And in finance, we seek the same security as any other worldly institution.
This image does not inspire or challenge.  In fact it stretches the authenticity of the Christian Gospel to breaking point, and causes many to dismiss the Church, even if they are attracted to Christ.
If we are to be a more Christ-like church, perhaps we need to be more centred on giving then receiving - in providing security and stability for others rather than for ourselves.  Perhaps we need to let go of the riches of the past - perhaps we need to stop being custodians of art and history - and focus on the needs of the living.
To quote some of the less comfortable words of Christ, "Let the dead bury the dead - you come and follow me!"
(For a lighter look at Church Commissioners Housing Policy and the Zurburan paintings see  The Satirical Christian)