Thursday 27 October 2011

Church Shown Up

“The church is in danger - and its connection with the state, and the corruptions thence arising, is the cause of that danger;   its connection with the state has increased its wealth and worldly-mindedness, which is dangerous to a Christian community;  its connexion with the state has a tendency to beget a spirit of bigotry and intolerance in its sons and daughters.”

The resignation of Canon Giles Fraser – Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral – has shown up this key establishment in the Church of England in the worst possible light.

After the initial welcome which it gave to the ‘Occupy London Stock Exchange’ protesters it has reverted to type with increasing clarity.  Principles have given way to politics – solidarity with people has given way to fears over finance – the individual has been overtaken by the institution – and peaceful co-existence has been replaced by the threat of violence.

And in the eye of the storm was Giles Fraser, asking the police, not the protesters, to move on, preaching last Sunday on the dangers of corporate financial greed – but eventually overruled by an institution more concerned with its own survival than with the immorality of selfish greed which drives the City around it.

Such actions by the Church are nothing new.

The quote at the top of this page is not from Giles Fraser, or from one of the protesters – but from an ordinary working man from the 1830’s who rose to notoriety around the same issues that motivate those camping around St Paul’s Cathedral – issues of inequality, injustice and greed.  His name was George Loveless – one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, whose letter “The Church Shown Up” is an deeply incisive attack on the Established Church which in his day sided with the landowners against the ordinary working man & woman – a Church which sided with the rich to keep the poor in their place.  Sound familiar?

To those who know anything of Trades Union History, the story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs will be well known.  Forced to act by landowners and employers who slashed their wages, they formed the first Union, and were promptly arrested and sentenced to Deportation for their impudence.  The case caused a national outcry and after some years they were pardoned.  Yet on their return to this sleepy Dorset village they continued to be denounced by the establishment and the church – to the extent that all but one had to move again to places where their ‘crimes’ were not known.

Like St Paul’s Cathedral, the church in Tolpuddle had its part to play in the story, and like St Paul’s it chose to turn against those who were protesting at inequality and greed.

For 5 years I was vicar of Tolpuddle, and even then, 175 years after those events, I have experienced the cold shoulder of disapproval from some at the Annual TUC Festival, because of the part my predecessor played.   The collective memory of such betrayal runs deep in the folk memory of the disenfranchised.

Initially the vicar of Tolpuddle, Rev Thomas Warren,  tried to act as honest arbiter in the dispute, and brokered a deal between the farm workers and the landowners, acting as witness to the agreement.   But when the landowners reneged on what they had promised, he was pressured into betraying the labourers by the institutions which the church relied on.  He denied ever witnessing such an agreement and soon afterwards the Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested, tried and sentenced.  The church had chosen to side with the powerful against the powerless while it continued to recite the Magnificat each Evensong, which speaks of a God who

"... hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away."

Today, even though the same words are recited each evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, they appear to have as little impact on the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral as they did on the Vicar of Tolpuddle.

The irony is that George Loveless was not just a founder of Trades Unionism – he was also a Christian – a Methodist lay preacher who saw clear dangers for a church which has become so dependent on its relationship with earthly power and authority that it had lost its soul.

He cites the Church’s treatment of ‘Dissenters’ in his day as a prime example of this.  The Dissenters of the 1800’s were religious dissenters who would not follow the established church, but are they so distant from the economic dissenters who have camped around St Pauls?   

He warns of the dangers of selling out the Gospel of Christ for one of greed and earthly power, reflecting on the contrast between the early church and the present,

“And they went forth and proclaimed " liberty to the captives and the opening of the prisons to them that were bound:”  they rallied round the standard of their master… and although they had to contend with the selfishness of kings, the persecutions of governments, the craftiness of priests…  it grew and increased, and neither the study of cabinets, nor the policy of states, has been able to suppress or retard it…  How different is this from that which assumes the name of religion in our day; mixed with all the glitter of the world, with all the power and pomp of earthly grandeur.”
He also reflects on the dwindling influence that the church has among ordinary people as a result:

How often has it been observed that the clergy are ever foremost in opposing any popular measure that is likely to be carried for the good of the people…  The undue influence, however, of the clergy over various degrees and orders of society, is greatly on the decline; the working classes are beginning to question their value and utility, and to think that they can do without their assistance.
In his resignation today, Giles Fraser has refused to follow the path of my predecessor at Tolpuddle, and yet St Paul’s Cathedral has chosen to follow the well-worn paths of an Established Church.  They have ensured that yet another a nail has been hammered into the coffin that George Loveless observed as the Church once again chooses to align itself with earthly power rather than a crucified Lord.

I will end this post with a few more words from George Loveless – this time on the economics of riches for the few at the expense of the many.   Perhaps they will also resonate with those who are protesting in the camp around St Paul’s.

The poor are rapidly becoming their own teachers, and it is in vain you try to hoodwink and keep them in darkness;  light is appearing around them…They see that labour is the source of wealth… that they are kept in poverty and degradation by those who, living in luxury and idleness upon the fruits of their labour, tell the working man his portion is to labour, to suffer, and to die.

Notwithstanding all the efforts of the clergy to impress this upon their minds, as a command from God, the labouring classes have learnt that, living in a country which overflows with the abundance of the fruits of their labour, the tenth part of which they never enjoy, the first great object they ought to have in view is their own emancipation from mental and political slavery…. that all governments and laws should exist for the common benefit, protection, and security of all the people, and not for the emolument or aggrandizement of any particular family, single man, or set of men.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

An eye for an eye?

Today the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was returned to Israel after 5 years captivity in Gaza. 

This single Israeli was set free by Hamas in return for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails and some have questioned the size of the ransom which has secured his release.
Certainly 1,000 Palestinians in return for one Israeli appears disproportionate to some Israelis, even after his 5 year ordeal, and Hamas are portraying the exchange as a victory.

But there has always been a disproportionality in the relationship between Israel and Palestinians.  For every Israeli killed since the second intifada began in 2000, 6 Palestinians have been killed by Israel, and the ratio is getting worse, not better.
There are two watersheds in the recent history of the killing feud that continues between Israel and the Palestinians.  The first we have already mentioned - the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000.  The second is Operation Cast Lead in which the Israeli army and air force pounded Gaza relentlessly for 3 weeks at the beginning of 2009.

Before Operation Cast Lead, the killing ratio between Israel and the Palestinians was 5 Palestinians killed for every 1 Israeli death.  But since the end of that operation, that ratio has risen to 10 Palestinians for every Israeli.   And that does not include the casualties of Operation Cast Lead itself where 155 Palestinians died for every Israeli soldier killed.
Among children the disproportionality is even more acute.  For the horror of every Israeli child killed in terrorist attacks, 10 Palestinian children have been killed since 2000, and during Operation Cast Lead 345 Palestinian children lost their lives at the hands of the Israeli security forces.

Nor are the casualties limited to those who are combatants.   Since 2000, amongst those who took no part in either uprisings or security operations the ratio is 4 innocent Palestinians  killed for every innocent Israeli civilian death.
As I researched these statistics today (from the Israeli Human Rights Group B'Tselam) I couldn't help reflecting on the Old Testament Law which says, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life".

To many in the developed world this law seems archaic and barbaric - outdated by  modern concepts of justice and human rights for all.  But at least this law of retribution limited the level of retribution to the level of the crime committed.  And in Israel and the occupied territories today, even this old law of proportionality would require much greater restraint in Israel's security policy.
In the meantime Hamas will undoubtedly be celebrating their success in negotiating such a high ransom for their one captive, but as they do, we could all miss the deeper question.  Whether in relation to violence or ransoms, death or life, captivity or freedom, why is it that Palestinian lives are worth so much less than Israeli lives?

Are we not all made equal in the image of God?

Wednesday 12 October 2011

A Permanent Law?

I have been reading the book of Exodus again recently - a chapter a day -  trying to get into the mindset and culture of the people of Israel in the times of the Old Testament Law.

This week I have got to the part which describes the designs and rules for the tabernacle and its contents, and for the clothes which were to be made for Aaron and his sons.  The instructions are highly detailed, leaving nothing to chance, and are described as "a permanent law for the people of Israel and must be kept by all future generations". (Exodus 27:21 - New Living Translation)
Aarons robes reminded me of the vestments which my more Anglo-catholic colleagues wear adorned with gold and bright colours.  They are something which I have never quite connected with in my own spirituality, but know how much they mean to others, and here they are in scripture, as the clothes of the priests as they enter the presence of God. 

Then I thought of how different the Exodus descriptions are compared to the environment I find most conducive to worship.  My personal worship heaven would be a modern, well-lit room with comfortable chairs, arranged in a curve rather than straight constricting rows.  A good sound system and worship band to lead and inspire.  A digital projector carving pictures and words in light on a large screen, encouraging me to look up as I pray, reflect and sing.  Colourful modern banners lining the walls and a lectern standing central on the stage, bathed in the warm glow of a spotlight for the preaching of the Word. How different this is to the tabernacle in Exodus!
But then again, we all have our preferences, customs, rules and rituals when it comes to worship.

I remember an Anglo-catholic priest coming to my Evangelical theological college to preach.  He was there to help us poor low-church protestants and charismatics understand a little about what is important to those whose worship is  'further up the candle'.  Just as he started to preach, someone rushed up to him and attached a lapel microphone to his robes and then sat back down, slightly embarrassed that he had forgotten to do this earlier.
The priest paused for a moment, and then said - "You know - this is how rituals grow.  In the future this may well become part of our liturgy.  Every week, just as the preacher gets up to speak, someone with come forward and attach a small object with a wire to the preachers clothes.  By then, of course it will be highly symbolic, with lots of bowing and carefully rehearsed hand movements.  It will be engraved in artistic writing with the letters ' M I C ' but, following generations of technological developments, this will be a cryptic word which no-one uses anymore and  few understand.  A bell might sound to emphasise the importance of the moment and to call the congregation to listen carefully as the Word of God is unfolded.  Particularly devout members of the church may be moved to raise their hands into the air and cry 'Alleluia' or make the sign of the cross.  And everyone except the most scholarly of church historians will have exactly no idea why we do it!"

So what about the verses in Exodus that describe its rules for worship as ' a permanent law for all generations' ?  The truth is that every generation fashions its worship in a way which speaks to them - now even more than in the past - but shouldn't we be all obeying the permanent law of Exodus 25 to 30, particularly those who call themselves 'Bible Believing Christians'?  Are we living and worshipping in sin because we do not follow the designs and rituals of this ancient age?
In reality, if I went to preach that in any modern church, I would be dismissed as utterly mad!  On the way to being thrown out of the door, I would be pointed to John 4:23 where Jesus said that true believers will worship in spirit and truth.  I would be told that the 'permanent law' of the Old Testament is not as permanent it might first appear, and that reading the Bible in that kind of simplistic way is not what God calls us to do.

So why do we still  apply other parts of OT law as permanent fixed markers of the will of God today?  (eg Leviticus 18:22)  And why do we allow the prevailing interpretations of Scripture in our time dictate how we should read and understand the Bible in ways which imply the same permanence?
When Jesus directed us to 'spirit and truth - when Paul says we no longer live 'under the law' - we are being called to a radically new and more complex way of living under God.  It is more complex because it does not rely on legal codes, ancient or modern, but on a relationship with the living God.

Perhaps that is why we need the 'new heart' of flesh that we are promised in Ezekiel 36:26 to replace our heart of stone.  

Friday 7 October 2011

Bible says No? - Part 4 - Romans

When I started this series in November last year, I never dreamed it would take me so long to finish!

We have looked at the Biblical evidence for condemning same-sex relationships and found that it is not as clear cut as many of us have been told. As we have seen Bible verses taken out of context in Leviticus 18, 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy do appear to take the same approach as the clerk in Little Britain’s ‘Computer says no’. But context is vital to understanding Scripture, and usually, when something is prohibited in the Bible, there is a Biblical explanation for why. The verses we have looked at so far do not provide that. There are no reasons, no explanation, just ‘Don’t do it!’ – whatever ‘it’ is….

The one exception to this is Romans 1. Here finally, there appears to be some theology going on – some attempt to explain the purposes of God and the waywardness of human nature. The central verses are 26 & 27:

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
The passage is often used to explain why same-sex acts are wrong. For many Christians, it explains how people became homosexuals – that same-sex attraction is the result of a perversion of natural, God-given attraction and emotion. Such desires are the result of exchanging natural feelings for unnatural ones. It is the rationale behind ‘homosexual healing’ which seeks to re-orientate homosexuals into heterosexuals by a combination of prayer, confession, forgiveness and self-discipline.

But wait a minute… Verse 26 begins with the words “Because of this…” – which means that we should ask ourselves ‘Because of what?’ And as we read back in the chapter, we find a very different rationale emerging.

So why had God given them over to shameful lusts?

In Romans 1:18-25 it is clearly because …
They knew God through creation, but neither glorified him nor gave thanks to him (vs 18-21)

They exchanged the glory of God for images & idols which they served and worshipped (vs 22-25)
In Romans it is idolatry (worshipping other gods) which leads people to God’s wrath, shown here as in so many places in scripture, by God abandoning them to the consequences of their own choices - and the homosexual lusts which Paul is describing are the result of the rejection of God and morality.

But this does not describe the LGBT Christians I know. They have not exchanged the glory of God for created idols. They are prayerful, devout, committed Christians, worshipping God faithfully, and giving him the glory.

I remember the day when this light dawned in me for the first time! I finally saw what my gay Christian friends meant when they told me that they did not recognize themselves in the Biblical passages which condemned homosexuality – and indeed what I read now was not describing them.

But there is more – as we then read the next few verses of Romans 1, the picture becomes even clearer:
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

Do gay people fit this description? Have they all become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, envy, murder, deceit and malice? Are they gossips, slanderers, God-haters, inventing ways of doing evil? Are they senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless?

For anyone who has gay or lesbian (or indeed B&T) Christian friends, the answer is a resounding ‘No!” This does not describe them, so how can it be that Paul is writing about them? And if he is not writing about them, then yet again the Biblical proof texts we have been given do not apply to the loving same-sex relationships we see today.

So who was Paul writing about?

The answer of course, is staring us in the face – Rome! The epistle is, of course, a letter to the church in Rome – the centre of the Roman Empire – the seat of power. It was also the centre of Roman religion, politics, the Emperors & the ruling classes. These ruling classes were famous for their ruthless greed, intrigue and debauchery – and it was this pagan society about which Paul was writing. Roman society and Greek culture were the environments in which Paul saw same sex activity, alongside all the idolatry of the Greco-Roman world. It was not born out of love, or orientation, but out of pagan practices, greed, lust and abuse of power.

Needless to say – this is not the same as a loving, faithful, self-giving, same-sex relationship.

It is true of course, that homosexuals can embrace promiscuity and immorality, just like anyone else. It might even be argued that in the moral vacuum which the Church has created by condemning all sex between homosexuals, we are responsible for pushing the gay subculture in that direction, resulting in some of the more extreme expressions of same sex sexuality. But heterosexuals are by no means immune from such temptation, as witnessed by the exponential rise in pornography over the last 30 years. Expressions of sexual greed not make all heterosexual expression wrong - neither do they make all homosexual expression wrong.

The Christian faith rightly stands against pornography and debauchery because it impoverishes our humanity, transforming people into mere objects of lust. But the church has always encouraged and blessed expressions of mutual love and self-giving - the ultimate expression of which is marriage.

Romans 1 does not condemn LGB&T people seeking to give and receive love in a mutual life-giving relationship. In fact it has nothing explicit to say about it at all, in common with the rest of Scripture. And if the Bible does not condemn loving faithful, committed same sex relationships, why does the church condemn them?

I began this series with a comment on my blog, calling on me to look at the clear and numerous Bible verses which condemn same-sex relationships. Having done so, it is clear that what the Bible condemns is not those loving committed relationships which groups like Accepting Evangelicals are advocating. Simply repeating the mantra ‘Bible says no’ is not an option. The few verses of Biblical evidence which exist are at the very least unclear, rooted as they are in the context of historical cultures very different to our own.

And yet the church has used these half dozen verses to place a burden of judgment and shame on LGB&T people which the rest of us would find impossible to bear. If we continue to do so, we will be no better than the Pharisees who Jesus reprimanded. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)

Where same-sex relationships of love, faithfulness and commitment are concerned, the Bible does not say no – and neither should we.

If you would like to read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links below.

Part 1 - Bible says No... - click here
Part 2 - Leviticus 18-  click here
Part 3 - Corinthians and Timothy - click here