And the Oscar goes to…

9 Mar Julianne_Moore_Oscar

Julianne_Moore_OscarIt was red carpet time in Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre at the recent Oscar ceremony with Hollywood’s stars vying with one another for the most striking outfits – as usual. Birdman emerged as the overall winner – no surprise there. And no surprise either for the best actress award – Julianne Moore for her role in “Still Alice”.

Moore plays Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who realises something is wrong when she starts to forget words and is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The film accompanies Alice and her family as they struggle to adapt to this changing reality and the transformation in their relationships caused by the illness and the corresponding need for care-giving.

It’s a film that should resonate in many, many peoples’ lives. Like it or not, as the post-war “baby-boomers” generation ages and medical science hugely extends our life expectancy, caring for ageing relatives, including those in various stages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, will become more and more part of “normal” family life. The role of both family care-givers and professionals are crucial to sufferers’ later years.

The pain of Alzheimer’s, of course, is found in losing a loved one before they actually pass away. As memory fades and with it recognition even of close family, it is all too easy easy to lose sight of the person that was and hard to maintain the same level of love and care. Even without Alzheimer’s, though, there’s so much we all forget. How many times have you met a person and thought “I’m sure I recognize them but can’t think where from…”?

But God never forgets. In a striking passage written by one of Israel’s prophets, God reminds us:

“Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? Never! But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!”

That means you. Yes you. Whatever your situation, however dark the world may seem and however much you may feel that no one understands or cares, God has not forgotten you, and never will. Ever.

“Not in the Bible”

27 Feb

BishopLibbyLaneFinally – the Anglican church has its first woman bishop. After decades of sometimes acrimonious debate, the General Synod adopted legislation permitting women to take on this role, opening the door for Rev. Libby Lane’s consecration as bishop of Stockport in a historic ceremony in York Minster on 26 January.

But the event was not without incident. As the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, asked the congregation whether they would accept Rev. Lane as bishop, a conservative priest, Rev. Paul Williamson (most famous for his attempt to bring a lawsuit preventing Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles) interrupted with the words “Not in the Bible”.

Indeed. There are lots of things that are “not in the Bible”. Electric pianos, youth groups and church magazines for a start. But arguments from silence are always to be handled very carefully. The New Testament does not record that Jesus ever clapped in worship, but does that mean that we shouldn’t? Examples could be multiplied but I’m sure you get the idea.

For some, the whole idea of women bishops is totally anathema, while others wonder quite what all the fuss is about. Still others accept the idea but aren’t really sure why and have this nagging feeling that Saint Paul in particular probably wouldn’t approve.

So… Without going over the reams of arguments for and against, what are we supposed to make of woman bishops?

The term “bishop” is the English version of the Greek word episkopos, which itself is not a religious word but simply means overseer or foreman. Early church leaders were not venerated dignitaries or an elite group in charge of a national movement – they were servants of God’s people. Overseer (bishop), pastor (shepherd) and elder (presbyter) were interchangeable labels given to those who served in leadership in the infant churches; it was only with the growth of the church and the death of the first apostles that bishops took on a wider role as overseers of other leaders and numbers of churches.

In this way, even if women bishops are “not in the Bible”, the current role of bishop in the Anglican communion – a far cry from that portrayed in Scripture – is also not there. Like it or not, today’s church is the product of historical development beyond that recorded in the New Testament when the infant church was just taking shape.

With that clear (!), we then have the next question: does the Bible close the door to women as bishops in the sense of church leaders? After all, Paul does say to Timothy that anyone seeking to be an overseer must be “the husband of only one wife”, literally in the original a “one-woman man” (1 Timothy 3:2).

Whilst clearly referring to married men, few insist that it excludes single men from the office of church leader – although this is the necessary conclusion with a strict or “literal” interpretation. (The Anglican communion itself rejects this, admitting single men to the contemporary office of bishop.) An open interpretation looks rather at the principle behind this statement: that sexual purity is essential for a church leader. Once we accept a wider application than solely married men, where to draw the “non-literal” interpretative line becomes a matter of conviction, usually motivated by previously held opinions, rather than exegesis of the passage as such. If we open the role to non “one-woman men”, there is no intrinsic reason to limit the role to men – whether male or female, single or married, an overseer’s “private life” is to be taken into account in evaluating a person’s suitability for leadership. This fits the context of Paul’s requirements for elders in which moral character is fundamental, much more than any theological qualification.

And finally, whilst uncommon in the male-dominated world that Scripture portrays, the Bible does give us examples of women in leadership roles whose inclusion indicates that it would be wrong to simply prohibit women from leadership. The Old Testament gives us Huldah and Debora, for example, whilst in the New, in addition to Priscilla who teaches accompanied by her husband, Junia appears to be called an apostle and Phoebe simply a “leader” (Romans 16).

Interestingly, Phoebe is also said to be a “deacon” (perhaps better translated “minister”) using the masculine term, not the anticipated feminine “deaconess”. Two immediate applications can be drawn from this. Firstly, that other apparently “male” roles or offices should be open to women – a masculine label can apparently equally be applied to a woman. And secondly, we need to return to Paul’s discussion of leadership requirements in 1 Timothy 3. Like overseers, deacons are there also required to be “one-woman men”. But if the Scriptures themselves give us an example of a woman deacon, it is evidently wrong to limit the application to married men; by the same token, if “one woman-men” deacons can in fact be women, there is no reason to reject women as overseers, that is, bishops.

Yes, we are sexed beings. Gender is part of our earthly identity and we will always be either men or women. But in Christ it is irrelevant whether we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. And in his body, the church, it is to be no different. We are called to be a charismatic community, where role is determined by gift, not gender.

Bishop Libby Lane, welcome :-)

(PS I realise that this short discussion cannot cover all aspects of the issue – it is not intended to do so. Whilst personally, I unreservedly accept women in any and every role or position in church, I accept that not everyone holds that view. I am encouraged by the Anglican communion’s ability to pursue unity in worship and witness, despite the evident theological disagreements, and trust that in other branches of the church we can do the same.)

Image credit: http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/

Je Suis Charlie

13 Feb

charlie-hebdo-coverNo, I am not Charlie. Personally, I find the kind of humour that characterized Charlie Hebdo distasteful, albeit certainly quite amusing at times, and often offensive. No one is spared, whether politicians, religion or “the famous”, all can find themselves objects of ridicule.

So Charlie Hebdo is not a paper I would generally buy. But I do respect the right the publishers have to produce this material and others to buy it. Their cartoons lampoon Jesus Christ and the Christian faith as much as (if not more than) Islam but under no circumstances am I justified to react violently. The Kouachi brothers’ action to “avenge the prophet” is simply not an option.

The West’s reaction to the jihadist attack on the Paris HQ of the French satirical publication has been unanimous – Je Suis Charlie, this could be me; we are all potential victims of extremist Islamist violence. As much as an attack on the cartoonists and editors themselves, this is an attack on some of the values that we hold so dear, in particular tolerance and the freedom of choice. And our response must also be rooted in these same values.

But freedom, tolerance, truth, justice, respect and particularly forgiveness do not come naturally; they are the fruit of Jesus Christ’s radical teaching, built into our collective psyche from centuries of Christian influence.

In this respect the cover of the last edition of Charlie Hebdo is so apt. Picturing Muhammad (unidentified, but drawn in the way that they have always depicted the prophet) crying and holding his own “Je Suis Charlie” placard, the defiant declaration reads: “Tout est pardonné”, everything is forgiven.

Indeed. In Jesus Christ, everything can be forgiven. Everything, from childish spite to the most horrendous atrocities committed in bitter anger and hatred – everything can be forgiven. Wonderfully, whatever we have done that we regret, we can be forgiven by God. And equally wonderfully, our own hearts can be changed by God so that we are able to forgive those that cause us pain. Forgiven and able to forgive – maybe I am Charlie after all.


 

PS Yes, after 20 months of silence, this is me blogging again. Well, recycling something I wrote for somewhere else. My apologies for the silence – with other events of the last couple of years, I have simply not been able to maintain the creative energy to write regularly. And once a month goes by… it is easy just to drop it totally. This is my attempt to start the ball rolling again, albeit as I say by recycling writing I have on file from other projects.

“Now join your hands, and with your hands your hearts”

30 May

CENN8G_2425131b Having successfully navigated the choppy waters of the House of Commons, on June 3rd the UK bill on same-sex marriage will be debated in the House of Lords. Promises to be an interesting day! The proposed legislation has captured huge media attention whilst tending to polarize the views of the British public, both Christians and others.

It does appear that the legislation is being rushed through without an enormous amount of thought into the long-term implications or finer points of law associated with the bill. Issues such as annulment of marriage in the event of non-consummation or how to define adultery within same-sex marriages remain unanswered. It is also not clear how the government proposes to continue to restrict civil partnerships to same-sex couples when marriage is open to partners of any gender. The unique place of the Church of England in UK law and clergy obligations regarding marriage towards their parishioners, of whatever religious persuasion, have also not been adequately examined. If, as seems likely, the bill is passed, we will no doubt hear more about this in future.

Whilst personally holding to the conviction that marriage is, in its nature, a lifelong union of one man with one woman, there is a lot more going on here than simply defending a traditional definition of marriage or attempting to stop the erosion of “traditional values” in society. We are witnessing a redefinition not solely of marriage, but of the relationship between legislation and Christian faith.

The Church in Western society has for so long enjoyed a privileged position that we find it hard to imagine life in any other terms. Yet we find ourselves returning to a world which has much more in common with that inhabited by first century Gentile Christians, one where faith inspires counter-cultural convictions and practices not shared by the majority. That may not be such a bad thing.

With very divergent views on display, the current debate amongst Christians centres round the “rightness” of same-sex marriage and the pitfalls of the redefinition of marriage that is being contemplated. These are very real. We are certainly engaging in experiments in social engineering with unforeseen – and largely unresearched – consequences. Future generations will reap the benefits of our wisdom or pay the price of our recklessness and at this stage only time will tell.

In this context, however, the debate is largely polemic and utterly fails to recognize one key dimension: the missional dimension.

UK gay marriageAs Christians we are called to live our lives in a way that connects meaningfully with society around us and invites personal transformation through faith in Christ. Social transformation is not achieved by the imposition through legislation of moral convictions on people who think differently. On the contrary, such action can effectively alienate us from those we wish to impact and prevent the very influence we hope to exercise. We must allow our convictions to be shaped by the lost “one” rather than the safe “ninety-nine”.

Britain isn’t the same country today that it was 50 years ago. We are no longer a “Christian country”, whatever that might mean. We are a secular multi-cultural society and law cannot be based only on one religious option. Perhaps in the past Christianity could provide the basis for UK law, but that is no longer the case today. Legislation establishes what is lawful and what is criminal, not what is ethically right. I believe that lying is wrong, but would not want legislation to punish liars. I consider sexual relationships outside marriage – a man who chooses to sleep with a woman at work, for example – to be damaging and wrong, but again would not want the UK government to legislate against this.

Ethical choices motivated by religious conviction cannot be imposed on others. The separation of church and state is a reality and UK legislation, whether we like it or not, must cater for all.

Fundamentally, marriage is a public commitment between one man and one woman carried out in a way that is recognised by society. In a religious context, this commitment is also made in the sight of God. The current question is whether this should be extended to same-sex couples. Understandably, most today do not see why not.

Same-sex civil partnerships are already allowed in law so in the end it is a matter of semantics – what we think marriage means – rather than approval or disapproval of same-sex relationships as such. (This is why it is vital to realise that the current debate is not about homosexuality or whether as Christians accept homosexual practice. That is a completely different issue and the two must never be confused.) The important element in such relationships is the socially approved life-long commitment made to each other, not the label used. I realise that there are legal differences, but from an ethical standpoint marriage and civil partnerships essentially amount to the same thing.

Gay marriageMarriage is a social construct, defined and regulated not by divine diktat but by social convention. In Spanish gypsy weddings, for example, though not ‘legal’ in terms of national law, nor carried out in church, the commitment shown to each other in front of their society means the couple are married in their eyes and those of their community, and ultimately the state too.

So please, let’s keep all this in proportion. The institution of marriage is under much more threat from other factors, like casual relationships, extra-marital affairs and the splitting of the family caused by divorce and remarriage (and re-divorce…) than from same-sex legislation. And whatever happens, don’t lose sight of the essentials. Love your neighbour. Your straight neighbour and your LGBT neighbour. Single, married, in civil partnership, or just plain shacked up together. Let them meet in you Jesus, the friend of “sinners”. This, legislation can never redefine…

(Title quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI part III. Image credits: Daily Telegraph, Reuters, CNN.)

Fun on Sunday

20 May

AnniversaryThere’s a first time for everything, they say. This weekend saw one of those for me.

We were celebrating the church’s 125th anniversary and had an afternoon of activities for families organized for Saturday. Shame about the weather, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one young couple came along with two kids of their own, along with various nephews / nieces / aunties / uncles / cousins / (grand)parents (-in-law); I didn’t get the complete family tree but they certainly all belonged together. The young man looked a little nervous and eventually let on to me why. “I’m going down on bended knee in there”, he whispered to me.

Sorry?”

You know, getting down on one knee. I mean, we’ve got the house, and two kids.”

What, you don’t mean…?”

Yeah, gonna ask her to marry me.”

Does she know?”

Hasn’t got a clue!”

I couldn’t quite picture it. Not the most romantic of settings, perhaps, in a church hall amidst castle-bouncing infants, cream teas, a cartoon quiz, face painting and who knows what else. But I’ll give him full marks for originality at least.

design-your-own-engagement-ringAnd so, an hour or so later, his younger cousin came running up to me to let me know he was ready – I was to be impromptu official photographer of the act – and away he went. True to his promise, down on one knee, out came the ring box, and to her utter amazement he proceeded to pop the question. Cheers, applause and passionate embrace, so I guess she said yes. Stuff the movies are made of.

As I said, hardly what I was expecting on a church “family fun day”, but there we go. We can be pretty certain that two members of this particular family at least had fun…

It’s strange how “church” and “fun” don’t tend to go together in people’s minds. Or in their experience, for that matter. Somehow when we step over the threshold of church we expect things to be different to “outside”. Who says church has to be solemn and serious? Or reverent? (And why are quiet whispers more reverent than playful chatter and laughter anyway?) Why does church have to be boring?

9781596383944-Cosby-Giving-up-gimmicks-Reclaiming-youth-ministry-from-an-entertainment-cultureWe live in an entertainment culture. True, we are not to offer a concoction of sensual imagery and mind-numbing musical rhythms in an attempt to draw people into church. But at the same time, we are part and parcel of the society in which we find ourselves living and we must express our faith in ways that “fit” with the world around us, that ordinary people can relate to and identify with. Our calling is to Christ, and to live out his life in our time and place, fully part of the world into which he has placed us. There is nothing better or worse about our society today; like any other, it provides a people with an identity, a way of relating to the world – including church. Yes, there is plenty of scope for sin, but that’s hardly new. There is also plenty of scope for engaging with visual media, music and contemporary means of communication to help us all meet with God and grow in him. Making sure that church is enjoyable as well as meaningful is not in and of itself any guarantee of spiritual health. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.

One of the psalmists knew this too: “I was glad when they said to me: ‘Let’s go to the Lord’s house’.” This is not meant to be a dry theological statement. True, there’s a whole context that needs exploring, but at its simplest this expresses the heart of someone who expected to enjoy what he was going to. Stuffy formality is not synonymous with spirituality. Church can – should, dare I say – be fun.

“Where thieves do not enter…”

30 Apr

cybercrimeToday saw me running a session on computer security and privacy issues for trainees on the World Horizons Equipping for Service course. (In other words, yes, I probably am a bit geeky…) Identity theft and maintaining individual privacy online has become a big issue.

Now my main concern in doing this is to help people protect their identity and personal information. Privacy is a right which is not always taken seriously by governments – and I am not just talking of the Irans and North Koreas of this world. Unless we actually want to make all our private communications and data available to whoever happens to want to look then we do need to take some simple steps to protect ourselves. Not that any of these are 100% uncrackable – but like any security, in the end it is about putting enough safeguards in place to make it difficult for an attacker to find a way in. It’s just like putting a better lock on your front door; hey yes, with a big enough sledgehammer they will still get in. But if they don’t have enough time or resources, or they don’t consider your stuff is worth the effort, they will go and look somewhere else.

There’s more to this than not clicking on “suspicious” links and “being careful”. Few people really understand the inner workings of computer code and the security issues that there are. Computing has become like modern cars – you used to be able to take a look at an engine and find bits to unscrew, replace or mend yourself, but nowadays, it is all in sealed plastic units, with no “user serviceable parts” to be seen. Likewise computing – in the early days, you could roughly see how a program worked, understand the basics of code behind what the operating system was doing. Not today. Though estimates vary (and are at best only estimates), there are around 80 million lines of code in Windows 7. So security issues are actually complex beasts and users do in fact need to know a little more than they might be comfortable with to make sure they are safe. The ruthless have always preyed on the naïve or ignorant and probably always will.

passwordYou see, there are always the “bad guys” out there who want to get their hands on your stuff. We live in a real world where thieves do break in and steal, only today they can do it from the comfort of their own homes on the opposite side of the planet. Password hacking is no longer the remit of “script kiddies”; cyber crime has become big business. Dedicated mafia groups pour huge resources into the creation of ever expanding bot-nets and ever more effective tools for phishing scams, all with the aim of gleaning personal information, stealing intellectual property, gaining access to financial assets and scamming their way to millionairedom.

But we knew that already. There really is nothing new under the sun. That our seemingly boundless human creativity – no doubt part of the image of God in humanity – can be turned to evil as easily as it can to good should come as no surprise. Innovation works on both sides, from those who follow the late Steve Jobs’ axiom in wanting to “change the world” (for the better) through technology to those who are happy to invest their lives discovering how to relieve others of the burden of their wealth.

WorstPassword-InfographicSo do take all reasonable precautions. Educate yourself. Lock down your cyberlife in such a way that makes it difficult at least for others to steal from you. But at the same time be sure to heed Jesus’ advice – don’t make this your treasure. Don’t lock your heart in encrypted secure storage with a password that keeps even the Holy Spirit out. We are bigger than that. We are called to love a broken world, including the scammers, to make the healing of the nations in the name of a self-giving God our treasure. No criminal, cyber or other, can ever take that from you.

Oh. And if Password1 is one of your favourite passwords, do me a favour and change it…

Image credits: pbs.org, splashdata.org

“Hi, I’m Paul and this is Barnabas…”

26 Apr
Paul&BarnabasLycaonia

Bourges cathedral stained glass (image source: Wikipedia)

This last week I’ve been tutoring a group of trainees in ethnographic research methods. Sounds grand, but basically  this is about conducting formal interviews with a cultural informant in order to better understand a culture from an insider’s point of view.

All this made me wonder what Paul and Barnabas’s trip to Lystra might have looked like if they had enlisted the help of a local informant before heading straight into the market place to preach…

Paul & Barnabas: So, you’re from Lystra?

Random Lycaonian: That’s right, born and bred here. And proud of it {laughs}.

P&B: Thanks so much for being willing to speak to us.

RL: No problem. I saw you looked a bit lost, and well, as I speak a bit of Greek, I thought maybe I could help.

P&B: That’s great. It’s probably obvious, but we don’t understand a word of Lycaonian, so we sure do appreciate it. Do you think you could tell us a little about life here?

RL: Fire away. What d’you want to know?

P&B: Religion, for example, do you go to the temple to worship?

RL: Absolutely. Can’t be a true-blood Lycaonian without going to the temple.

P&B: Quite. So could you describe what a typical visit to the temple would look like?

RL: Sure. Well, you go to the temple. But you knew that already right?

P&B: {laughs} Yeah, we figured that one out! Can you go to any temple?

RL: I guess so, though most of us go to our local shrine, it’s just easier like that. Unless there is a festival and half the town is going, then we go to the big Zeus one, just outside the city.

Wilhelm Lübke's illustration of the temple as ...

Wilhelm Lübke’s illustration of the temple of Zeus as it might have looked in the 5th century BCE (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

P&B: Oh yes, we saw that one on the way here. Let’s imagine you are going to the big temple of Zeus then – what do you do when you get to the temple?

RL: Well, it depends. If there is a special festival it’s different.

P&B: What about a normal day when there’s no festival?

RL: OK, so I go in, and I stand at the back for a minute. That temple is something else. Just awesome, man. Then I go to the front and talk to one of the gods.

P&B: So you have various gods? Can you give me the names of your gods?

RL. There are dozens of them! Do you want them all?

P&B: Another day maybe. Which are the most important ones for you?

RL: Well, Zeus is number one. He’s my favourite, and this is his temple after all, so I would always talk to him first. And then there’s Hermes. There are a few others but I guess those are the most important two.

P&B: Zeus and Hermes. That’s really interesting. What kind of things would you say to Zeus that you wouldn’t say to Hermes?

RL: Well Zeus is mega busy, I mean he’s the top guy. So I wouldn’t bother him most of the time. Only for something really important that I don’t think the others would be able to cope with. Or sometimes if one of the others is giving me grief I’ll go and ask Zeus to get them to cut me some slack. Especially that Ares guy, I just can’t make him out.

P&B: And what about Hermes?

RL: To be honest, I don’t say much to him. He won’t stand still, flying up and down from Olympus. He’s the one who speaks to us, brings us Zeus’s messages, you know, but he’s too busy to listen. No point talking to him!

P&B: And what happens in a festival?

RL: Well, normally there’ll be a sacrifice.

P&B: A sacrifice?

RL: Yeah, not a human one {laughs}.

P&B: Phew! What animals can be sacrificed?

RL: Well it can be a sheep or a goat, but for that really special occasion, it’s just got to be a bull. Or two. Or more even on a really special occasion.

P&B: What would be a really special occasion?

RL: Well, imagine that Zeus came here. I mean here, not Athens or Delphi, but suppose, just suppose, he turned up here. And did something amazing.

P&B: What sort of thing would be amazing for you? I mean, what would make you think it was Zeus?

RL: Oh I don’t know. Like, see that guy sat over there? The one begging?

P&B: Um-hum.

Raphael: The Sacrifice at Lystra (image source: Wikipedia)

Raphael: The Sacrifice at Lystra (image source: Wikipedia)

RL: Well, he’s never walked. Born like that, poor chap. What if Zeus came along – with Hermes, of course, he never goes anywhere without Hermes – and Zeus says to him – I mean Hermes, Zeus just tells him what to say – so Hermes says to him “stand up”, and he does. Now that would be something else. Boy, would we celebrate that. There’d be flowers, garlands and garlands of them, and we might even make it to a dozen bulls. The priests would start playing their drums and shouting, then they’d come out from the temple all dancing and singing, it would be wild. You’d know something special was going on and the whole town would turn out to sacrifice to them. Ooh, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it.

P&B: Us too. Really appreciate the heads up {nervous laugh}.

RL: You’re welcome. See you around then. By the way, what did you two say you were doing here?…

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