Thursday, January 23, 2020

Religious liberty

The Prime Minister and others made some encouraging noises about religious liberty a few weeks back - supporting freedom of religion at home and abroad.  But I wonder if he knows what religious liberty really means?

I think freedom of religion is not regarded as any great thing in our culture, because religion itself is so badly misunderstood.  If religion is just the Sunday (Friday, Saturday) hobby of a minority of people; if religion is merely the private beliefs of a limited number of individuals; if religion is just a mythical underpinning for a moral framework which could in principle be separated from those mythical roots - well, in that case religious liberty is not much more of a big deal than freedom to follow the football team of your choice, or freedom to read the novels of your choice.  This sort of thing seems like it shouldn't be difficult or costly for society to grant; nor does there seem to be any reason why any particular clamour should be made about it, particularly as the number of people wanting to exercise this right seems so small.

But in fact freedom of religion means freedom to live in a completely different world from society at large, with entirely different values springing from an entirely different view of reality, and yet still to be included in social institutions and events without discrimination.

Put it like that, and I think it's a big deal.

Picture the late Roman Empire - religion here is not about private beliefs or occasional rituals for a minority; it is the whole shared world.  The reason the Roman authorities are anxious about Christians - the reason they refer to them as 'atheists' - is because they seem to be threatening to tear this whole social fabric apart.  They are opting out of the whole cultic-social-political complex, and the more people who go in this direction the more likely it is that the whole thing will collapse.  In that context, to issue an edict of toleration is a brave and testing thing to do.

So, perhaps we wouldn't call it 'religion', but I think our situation is pretty similar.  There is an assumed framework of morals and values ('British values'?) based on a particular reading of history and reality.  To opt out of it is dangerous - you might be a terrorist; you are surely a bit weird.  It's not the going to church or the beliefs that society objects to; just the fact that people insist on acting as if these beliefs were really true, in the real world.  Hard to take.

The easy and natural social response, and the one which our culture typically pursues, is exclusion - of course you're free to hold these views (we're Western, after all, and believe in religious liberty), but you can't come into the public sphere with them.  This is not genuine freedom of religion.

I wonder if our society can be, or wants to be, brave enough to have the real thing?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Reformation Liturgies and corporate prayer

I've just finished working through Reformation Liturgies, edited by Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey.  This (massive) book compiles a number of different liturgies and forms of worship from the Reformation period (i.e., the 16th century), including liturgies from Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed churches.  I'll be honest, it's probably not everyone's idea of a gripping read, but I found it fascinating, and as a resource for contemporary worship absolutely invaluable.  Those guys, driven by gospel need, thought hard about what Christian worship ought to be like, and strove to put it into practice.  The care that went into those liturgies, to make sure that what was said and done was God-honouring, is really striking.  What is equally striking - and helpfully illustrated in an appendix which compares the 'running order' of all the different liturgies (including, usefully, an outline of the mediaeval Mass) - is that there was a broad consensus amongst the early Protestants, despite differences in detail and approach, on the content and shape of a Christian act of worship.

I don't want to go into detail on that content and shape here - see the book - but I do want to ask a couple of questions.

The first is this: given the consensus in the early Reformation period, how have we got to a point now where anything that smacks of being 'liturgical' feels, to folks in my congregation, as if it is 'Anglican'?

The answer is actually hinted at in the book - the liturgies of some of the English exiles during the Marian period are already tending towards simpler forms, less prescriptive.  The particular history of non-conformity in the late 16th and 17th centuries must surely have a bearing.  Theologically, arguments like that of John Owen in his Discourse Concerning Liturgies (1662) are relevant.  Owen's main points are: that Christ has provided men to lead in worship, equipped by the Holy Spirit, thus obviating the need for set prayers; that Christ having made such provision, any seeking out of other means is contrary to his will; and, that nobody other than Christ has the necessary authority to impose a particular liturgy.  I don't find these hugely persuasive, and I think Owen ignores evidence that set liturgical forms were in use much earlier than he is prepared to admit (and I think further evidence has come to light since Owen's day).  Owen thinks he is arguing for the liberty of the churches, but to me he seems to be arguing only for the liberty of the clergy, to lead as they see fit; and set in that light, the arguments do not appear so noble.  However, Owen's arguments are better than the main arguments expressed in our contemporary setting, which seem to be that set forms are necessarily 'inauthentic', and that only prayer from the heart counts; add to that our culture's strong preference for informality, and hey presto.

My second, and more important, question has to do with the effect of the abandonment of liturgical forms on our churches.  It is commonly observed that our worship is often rather thin gruel; that our services lack 'shape' and depth.  I think that's right.  The work of teaching, formation, and discipleship has come to be focused exclusively on the sermon, with the surrounding informal liturgy being seen as primarily a time for self-expression.  That is problematic, to say the least.

I wonder whether there hasn't been a broader impact on corporate prayer.  I don't want to over-state this, but I do think it is significant that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he gave them, not a technique, but a form of words.  (I've commented on this here and here).  We learn to pray by praying along.  There is no doubt in my mind that this is easier with 'set prayers' which are repeated over time than it is with extemporaneous prayer.  Moreover, the sense of 'praying along' is surely conveyed better in a liturgical form with space for responses and prayers recited together than a more informal form which reserves only the 'amen' for the 'laity' (so-called).

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Advent and Christmas

Working through the letter of 2 Peter over the last few weeks, one of the things I've noticed is that forward momentum in the Christian life, driven and energised by hope for the second coming of the Lord, is a much bigger thing in the New Testament than it is in much of the contemporary Christianity with which I am familiar.  For 2 Peter, it seems to me, you're either growing in Christian character or you're falling back into the orbit of the corrupt world; you're either straining towards the promise of a new heavens and new earth where righteousness dwells or you're scoffing at God.

Particularly striking at this time of year, as Advent gives way to Christmas: the way in which you look forward reveals something about the way you look back.

If you're not growing in Christian character (looking forward), you've forgotten that you were once washed from sin (looking back).

If you're scoffing at the idea of Christ's return and the final judgement (looking forward), you've forgotten the Majesty that has already been revealed in Christ (looking back).

It strikes me that if we're not looking forward to Christ's second coming, that is a sign that we've critically misunderstood Christmas.  If we think, with the classic liberal and with many a nativity play, of Christmas as simply a particular example of the everyday miracle of life (i.e., as a myth), we will expect that existence will simply roll on as it ever has done: a series of miracles, the world infused with the miraculous.  No second coming here.  If, on the other hand, we follow some apologists and more conservative theologians and make Christmas all about history - a one-off, uniquely glorious event - we will not necessarily be driven to expect any further events - or if we do, we must confess them to be logically somewhat disconnected from the first.  Maybe a second coming, but what has that to do with Christmas?

But if we see in Christmas the breaking in of the end, the ultimate, into our history - interrupting its flow, bringing into history that which history could never throw up of itself: redemption, salvation, new creation - if we see that in the story of the manger, then we must look for the full and final revelation of that salvation.  Redemption which does not redeem, new creation which gets lost in the old: these are impossible things.  If in the baby in the manger we see - let us get to the absolute point - Almighty God, then we must expect the glory of God to fill the earth as the waters cover the sea.  We must, therefore, look forward to his return, his full unveiling, the judgement of all the earth.

Which is more or less what I was trying to say about this time last year!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Vote like a sinner

Up until a few days ago, I was considering spoiling my ballot tomorrow.  I know a number of other Christians who are thinking along the same lines.  I've changed my mind.  I'm going to vote.  Can I encourage you to do likewise?

Here's the thing: I think we've got to a point where voting for any of the main parties in this election involves you in sin.  I don't think that's hyperbole.  You cannot as a Christian vote for a party mired in antisemitism, or a party pledged to decriminalise abortion.  You cannot as a Christian vote for a party which has shown little regard for the truth when campaigning and little regard for the vulnerable when in government.  You cannot as a Christian vote for a party which wants to throw the basic of God-given human nature out the window and legally enshrine a radical gender ideology.

You cannot.  Not as a Christian.

And so the only way to preserve your conscience intact, the only way to be righteous, is not to vote.  Right?

I think the problem with this perspective - and it was mine until a few days ago - is that it assumes that there is a group of the righteous, sitting somehow detached from the society around us, not as yet implicated in its wickedness.  It is not so.  Vote or don't vote.  You are nonetheless part of the society which has thrown up these options.  Where do you think this evil choice came from?  From the evil hearts of other people?  Not at all so.  Not at all.  No, we too, like the rest, are guilty, culpable.

Not us Christians?  Surely not us?  But has it all happened without us?  Have we spoken and lived clear alternatives?  Have we stood up for the unborn as we should have done?  Have we clearly defended our Jewish neighbours?  Have we shown by our lives and our speech just what human being means and is meant to be in God's creation?  Have we taken action for the vulnerable?

We too, like the rest.

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Not to vote is to try to opt out.  But you and I are in it up to our necks.  You can't just opt out of the swamp in which you have lived your whole life, the swamp you have helped to build, through your negligence, your weakness, your own deliberate fault.  You belong with these people, not standing over them in some superior place of righteousness.

So get out and vote.  You can't vote for any of these as a Christian.  Well then, vote as a sinner.  Pick your red lines - the things you won't cross - and take the appropriate action.  I won't vote for a liberalised abortion regime, I won't vote for antisemitism, and I won't vote for gender confusion.  So I'll vote for the other guys.  And I'm not saying you should do that.  I'm saying you should make a decision and get involved.  I'm not saying that as a Christian you really ought to vote.  I'm saying that as a sinner you really ought to vote.

Put a cross in a box, and as you put it there cry out to heaven: I am a man (or woman) of unclean politics, and I live amongst a people of unclean politics!  Woe, woe is me!

Be justified, not by your vote, but by your Saviour.  Be justified from your sinful vote.  Vote and trust, vote and believe.

Vote and confess.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Keep on being kind

A friend encouraged me yesterday to re-post something from just before the General Election in 2015.  Back then, I just wanted to encourage people to be kind.  Think the best of people.  Don't assume that others have terrible motives.  Speak well of one another.  That was all I was after.

Honestly, I couldn't simply re-post it.  Go back and read it, and see how far things have deteriorated over the last four years.  Look at the picture of Dave, and Ed, and Nick; three men with very different politics but obvious mutual respect.  It was a more elegant blogpost, for a more civilised age.

Nowadays I really couldn't encourage you to assume the best of everyone in politics.  It would be naive, even negligent, to do so.  There is, I am convinced, real evil at work in our politics.  When parties are going into a general election pledged to decriminalise murder in the womb; when a major party in British politics has been named the number one existential threat to Jews around the world; when politicians are pledged to enshrine corrupt gender politics into our laws; when at least one political party is led by someone with a proven track record of lies and deceit...  No, I can't tell you to assume the best.  There is evil at work here.

But here's a thing I can say on apostolic authority: if evil is not to overcome us all, and is instead itself to be overcome, it is to be overcome by doing good.

So I think we can - must - keep on being kind.  That in no way means failing to call out evil where we see it.  But it does mean recognising that there is no righteous choice here, and if others are making different choices from us - choices we can't understand or see the moral justification for - we can be generous and humble in the way we think, and gentle in the way we speak.  We might want to challenge people to change their minds; but we do it with kindness.

We Christians need to look to the model of Jesus, and model a robust kindness, a kindness which doesn't brush over evil, but looks it squarely in the eye and is nonetheless powerfully gentle, confidently humble.

However you vote, or whether perhaps you don't feel you can morally justify voting at all, keep on being kind.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

The Person of the Spirit

When I was a younger man, I moved in church circles where it was not uncommon to hear that the Holy Spirit really doesn't want any of our attention.  The Spirit, we were told, is a like a spotlight, shining on Jesus - that is where all our attention is meant to be.  The Spirit is self-effacing.  The Spirit wants nothing more than for us to stop thinking about the Spirit altogether and focus on the Lord Jesus.

There is some truth in these sayings, and the emphasis on Christ was helpful.  But hasn't something gone wrong?

For starters, it seems clear that these sentiments are pretty near the boundaries, if not actually outside the boundaries, of creedal orthodoxy.  "We believe in the Holy Spirit... who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified..."  I think perhaps the argument would be that the best way we worship and glorify the Spirit is by honouring the Son to whom he bears witness; again, that can't be completely wrong.  But the Creed expects us to worship and glorify the Spirit alongside the Father and the Son.  Is that really happening when the Spirit is minimised in this way?

There is a danger that the language used of the Holy Spirit - especially that spotlight image, which you'll find in a number of books - denies either or both of the deity and the personality of the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is God, as the Father and the Son are God; therefore, the Spirit is worthy of worship and glory.  The Holy Spirit is personal, as the Father and the Son are personal; therefore, he cannot rightly be viewed merely instrumentally, as a means to an end.  We are, as John Owen points out, to have communion with the Spirit, just as we are with the Father and the Son.

My observation is that this view of the Spirit tends to go along with a general de-emphasising of everything that is considered subjective, in favour of the objective truth.  Again, there is some good in this.  Keeping the truth as it is in Jesus central is, well, central to the Christian life.  But when we make the objective everything, when we emphasise to the neglect of everything else what God has done in Christ there and then, there is a real danger that the truth of the gospel never makes it to the here and now.  It is noteworthy that the culture of those 'Spirit as a spotlight' churches tends to be quite emotionally repressed, tends to downplay the significance of the sacraments, and tends to be pretty wordy and ideas focussed.  This seems to me to flow logically from removing the subjective from the realm of God's activity.  If we think that the Spirit, no less than the Father and the Son, is to be worshipped and glorified, won't that lead to more careful cultivation of the heart, the inward life - the realm of the Spirit's work?  Won't we think more highly of the sacraments and the experiential aspects of worship and church life if we believe that the Spirit is at work there - and that he deserves to be worshipped and glorified by our participation in that work?

I guess what I'm saying is: if we don't worship and glorify the Holy Spirit, we will probably abandon the realm of the 'subjective' to the purely human, and will therefore suspect it.  We will be suspicious of emotion, suspicious of experience, suspicious of everything which is not the objective truth.  But in the Spirit God has claimed all that, claimed it for subjection to the Lordship of Christ and activated it in his service.  So yes, emotion bound firmly to the truth; yes, the sacraments only with the Word; yes, experience interpreted by the Scriptures.  But still, in all these things, the work of the Spirit seen and honoured.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Whole humanity

I've recently finished reading Rowan Williams' book Christ the Heart of Creation, which was stimulating and also one of the most complex pieces of work I've come across.  This post is not about the book - I'm not confident I understood it well enough - but is about the thought processes it kicked off for me.  I found it particularly helpful to reflect on the fact that we should be thinking of the Creator-creation, infinite-finite dualities on the basis of the Incarnation, and not coming up with an abstract model into which the Incarnation of the Lord then has to be made to fit.  Any consideration of the question which doesn't begin with Jesus will, I think, always fail to do justice to him.  Space cannot be made for him in a system which is not wholly derived from him.  To be honest, from my very limited understanding I'm not sure this book passes the test.  Although it aims to build on Christ, the analogia entis takes over, and the Incarnation seems to become just a specific example of the non-competitive co-existence of infinite and finite.  I'm not sure what the personal union means in this model.

If that didn't make any sense to you, don't worry about it.  I'm not sure it made much to me.

The significant question that I came away asking was this: what is the pastoral/discipleship significance of the fact that in the Incarnation the Word of God took on a whole human nature?  The Word did not replace a part of the humanity, creating a divine-human hybrid; nor did the Word over-ride the humanity of Christ.  In Jesus we have a real and entire human being, living out in time the eternal life of the Word of God.  What does it mean for us that he was a whole human being?

Of course, there is the central issue of salvation: that which Christ has not assumed, he has not healed.  In other words, it is important to us that Christ is a whole human being, because we are whole human beings wholly in need of salvation.  By taking on human nature whole and entire, Christ has redeemed whole human beings, leaving no part of them to the dominion of sin.

Then there is the fact that in taking on a whole human nature, Christ affirms the goodness of human life as created.  It is not as if there is a 'wicked bit' of human nature which needs to be cut away.  This is in fact too small a view of sin: the human as we know him or her is wholly ruined; they do not just need a few parts changing.  It is also too low a view of God's creation: he made humanity good, and though each human being we meet is now a glorious ruin they are nonetheless glorious.

This has an effect on how we think about life.  Think about the caricature of the monk, shutting off various aspects of human life - sexuality, appetite - as the source of temptation.  Or think about the more legalistic aspects of fairly recent evangelical culture, which in their desire for holiness - or perhaps more, their fear of sin - tried to shut out aspects of human existence.  Or think about the new convert who can't see the value in anything which isn't directly 'spiritual'.  That Christ took on a whole human nature is a warning and a rebuke to all these tendencies.

The Gospels seem particularly unembarrassed by Jesus living a normal human life.  It is noteworthy that the Gospel with the most obviously high Christology - that of John - also contains some of the most obviously 'human' in the life of Jesus.  It is not wrong to be human.  It is not wrong to engage in, and enjoy, culture and work and food and family and conversation and...  well, life.  God did not need feel the need to over-ride or over-write the human in Christ; nor does he in you and me.  Live richly and well, and be glad.