I was shocked, but probably should not have been surprised, to hear that the recent Baptist Assembly in Scotland in Scotland did not address the question of Scottish Independence. It says how far we have come that the political questions of the day (and this is a big one) are ignored within our Baptist life. I would imagine this would have been of great concern to previous generations, who were much politically engaged than we are today.
I write as someone from south of the border, who has always seen themselves as British more than English, who is glad to see Scotland as in some sense part of my identity. I’m not sure what that exactly means and so why it is good to see Stuart Blythe inviting and encouraging us to reflect on issues of identity, nationhood and the possibility of an independent Scotland is so important. (Stuart is a Scottish Baptist, currently teaching at Scottish Baptist College, but next year will become the new Rector at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in its new Amsterdam location.)
Stuart suggests that the reasons why the issue has not set the Baptist UK world, and particularly Scotland, alight are: there is no interest in the subject; we're not very good at talking around the table; and/or politics is an inappropriate subject in church.
It seems precisely the opportunity to ask what it means as Christians to belong to any nation, to explore what citizenship means and to reflect what it might mean for Scottish (and possibly English) Christians to argue theologically for independence. Here it seems the work of the Glasgow-based political theologian Doug Gay is ploughing at least one furrow in this direction, with a number of journal articles and a forthcoming book.
Baptists, despite our heritage, have become increasingly un-engaged to questions of church and state, especially as the State is re-shaping them in new ways (see the work of Luke Bretherton), and largely assume the position by at least some in the CofE that wants to cling on to some notion of Christian nationhood England/Britain. It is a timely moment for a fresh, deep engagement with what it is to be Baptist in our lands, whether we consider them British, Scottish, Welsh or English.
Through advent at John Bunyan Baptist Church, I'm running 4 evenings looking a different contemporary issues - so far we've looked at UK politics and also Afghanistan and war. This week were looking at money and the economic crisis. I found some great resources here on the website of Columbia Theological Seminary from their journal @thispoint Spring 2009, for those who might want to have a go at tackling it with their church. It has a set of articles and then 4 'lesson plans'. Looks like they have some good stuff in their archives as well, for example on creation; new church experiments; living faithfully in a culture of fear.
Watching the 2nd American presidential debate was depressing. I thought Obama was an alternative to McCain, but when it came to foreign policy, it was difficult to tell the two apart. McCain just talked rubbish, scary rubbish. The only real difference seemed that Obama would not have gone into Iraq. But he was quite happy to go and kill Bin Laden and seemed to believe that would end the (supposed) 'war on terror'. Both men seemed to live in a dream world. Listening to them on Russia: Obama talked about 'dangerous nationalist impulses' - look at yourselves!!! America, like Great Britain, has very rarely, in my opinion, been a 'force for good' in the world. I can only hope that this is just Obama feeling he has to sound tough on foreign policy for the voters.
Jeremy Paxman went down in my estimation after last night's newsnight, where he seemed to be making wild statements and not listening to the measured response of Tariq Ramadam and Stephen Lowe, Bishop of Hulme, who I have a lot of time for. As for the other in-studio guest, Douglas Murray, who was talking a lot of rubbish and very rudely with regards to what Rowan Williams actually said.
The responses from the various politicians, shows that they either can't read or that they are completely in the media or public pocket, that they can't rise above silly soundbites. It makes me both sad and annoyed that some many in the media and politics and in the Church of England are intellectually unable to engage in real debate. Rowan Williams calls the nation to rise above debate that deals only in poor characterisation and ill-formed knowledge of the other (here Sharia law).
Douglas Knight posts on this topic here. Deborah Orr makes good sense in the Independent.
Rowan Williams does not do soundbites. He does carefully argued and constructed arguments. The problem is in our reductive society / politics / media everything has to do be reduced to soundbite and headline. Some of what the media and the politicians are saying Rowan Williams said last night on Sharia law is way off mark (Will Gordon Brown ever stop peddling his crap 'British values for Britain' and the such like, no one buys it!). Interestingly you might think the Archbishop would learn after the media in almost all quarters twisted what he said about the nativity story - he said certain traditional elements are legend and not scriptural - this was turned into Archbishop says christmas story is just a legend. Sean Winter and Kester Brewin warn us off passing judgment without actually engaging with what Rowan Williams actually said. You can read it here (the argument is fairly complex). I found Paul Valley's analysis in the Independent pretty on the mark.
Last night was the first lecture for this term's Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture public lectures on religion and public policy. It was given by John Battle MP, the former adviser on faith communities to Tony Blair. It was an entertaining and thought-provoking lecture. Some things he said:
When he came to meet with all the permanent secretaries of each governmental department, he got not find a single one that did not issues and questions relating to faith communities.
He argued that faith commnuities need to define their relationship with state, otherwise it will be defined for them. He want to see faith communities become government critics (in the best sense of the word).
He suggest that the test of enterprises like scriptural reasoning will be in their shared action.
He argued we are in a climate where politics is dominated by fear; where the watchwords are security and terrorism. (An opportunity if ever there was one for faith communities to demonstrate and witness to an alternative politics)
He said that parliament and politicians do not have enough time to pause; everything is reactive and without due consideration.
And finally he argued that the word 'neighbours' is now only understand as a tv soap about fictional characters on the other side of the world, rather than a concrete reality in people's lives.
I don't think inheritance tax is a bad idea. Its certainly a populist idea for middle england. I think Will Hutton makes a good case for the importance of inheritance tax. I'm not sure its good news the way every politician has jumped on the inheritance tax is bad bandwagon. Increasingly we are devoid of any moral mainline politicians, who will answer questions clearly and properly. Gordon Brown has done nothing to convince - today's PMQ being a case in point. I must say neither has Cameron.
Stuart blogs about marriage and family in response to the Conservative's Social Justice Policy Group report called Breakthrough Britain. First of all I like the way that Iain Duncan Smith has set up the Centre for Social Justice to explore these issues, although I'm not sure I agree with all the conclusions the Report reaches. Get married for a better tax breaks seems to be not the best reason for getting married. I think the intention, or I hope it is, is to value marriage, I'm not sure tax breaks are the way to do that. Stuart says he is pro-marriage. pro-family and pro-children. This seems to me to be right, although I'm wondering whether I would want to be pro-church before anything else. I think the response of the church to marriage, family and children is witness: to demonstrate the possibility of marriage until death do us part, of being family, of having children. Marriage often gets the short straw in public. Hauerwas says marriage is a deeply subversive act. I don't think we present it as such. Sam Wells say this about marriage (which I think is the message the church should bring):
Marriage is the great proclamation of abundance. All is focused on a single other - but the truth is that, far from not being enough, that one person is more than enough. Here is the mystery of another person - another mind, another imagination, another myriad of experiences and energies and enthusiasms and enjoyments. Could one ever exhaust that person? ...
Marriage is not zero-sum game, where one person sacrifices their career, or their friends, or their creativity, or their deepest needs, so that other can be the hero, or be the star, of never have to lose the argument. It is an adventure, in which the new body can be together what neither of them could have been apart, and the only thing that might stop them would be any sense that they could somehow get their on their own. One other person is always more than enough, when you believe that that person will listen to you until you run out of things to say, when you trust that that person will wait as long as it takes for you to understand why you are the way you are, when you realize that that person will always impute the best of motives to your actions however clumsy you feel inside.