The final episode of Christianity: a history was presented by Cherie Blair. She argued that the future of Christianity may lay in the kind of Christianity that is represented by Willow Creek. She interviewed Bill Hybels and showed clips from the service. I was amused by the words 'SERVICE STARTING IN THREE MINUTES' and 'YOU ARE LOVED' which appeared on the screen in the auditorium. Blair failed to understand the differences between Christianity in the States and in the UK and the rest of Europe. There are huge differences in why Europe has a falling church attendance ('Europe is the exceptional case' according to Grace Davie) and the States doesn't (yet?). Where the United States was viewed as the future, Blair also failed to present the many hundreds and thousands of vibrant church projects in the UK which are making a more positive contribution to society. She focused entirely on the downward trend, specifically within the Roman Catholic church. The programme along with Ann Widdecombe's (another practicing Roman Catholic) on the Reformation failed to make any reference to non-conformist churches and the contribution they have made to the life and faith of Britain. Willow Creek will never be the future of the church in this country and I for one am thankful. Hybels in the interview suggested that with Willow Creek they had returned to a New Testament church (the claim that all new church movements, including Baptists in the 17th century claim) - although what you saw - a slick, business-model, entertainment-orientated style operation, didn't match my reading of the NT. The programme failed to level any critical comment on these megachurches. So all in all, a programme which generated a response, but a not very positive one from me.
The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) have published their response to A Common Word, the open letter by Muslim religious leaders and scholars to the Christian churches. You can read it here. It was largely written under the auspices of Paul Fiddes, who is currently the Chair of the Commission on Doctrine and Inter-
Church Cooperation of the Baptist World Alliance.
Mike Higton (lecturer in theology, Exeter university) is author amongst other things of Difficult Gospel: The Theology of Rowan Williams and editor of Wrestling with Angels (a set of Williams' essays), so he is in good position to comment on last week's essay which is still producing all sorts of rubbish (see today's Sun's front page). On Higton's blog he gives a detailed explanation of what he thinks Williams was saying in Thursday's lecture (HT to Ben Myers). Read it here. It's a well written piece and deserves to be read alongside the actual lecture Williams' gave.
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).
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.
Some interesting lectures for this term's Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture
Public Lectures: Hilary Term 2008
Project on Religion and Public Policy
In Regent's Park College (Pusey Street) : Tuesdays at 5.00 pm
22 January: Faith Communities and Public Policy
Rt. Hon. John Battle, MP, former advisor on faith communities to Tony Blair
29 January: Religion and Public Policy: A Muslim Perspective
Professor Tariq Ramadan, St Anthony's College
5 February: The Roles of Religion in Resistance Movements
Professor Sir Adam Roberts, FBA, Balliol College
12 February: Terror, Religious Radicalism, Religious Freedom and Public Policy in the UK
Professor Paul Weller, University of Derby
19 February: Religion and International Affairs
Dr Olin Robison, Regent's Park College,
President Emeritus, Middlebury College, Vermont and Salzburg Seminar
26 February: Challenges: Public Policy and Religion
Baroness Usha Prashar, Chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission
4 March: Religion and Public Conversation
Paul Woolley, Director of Theos - public theology think tank
The Ashgate series Explorations in Practical, Pastoral and Empirical Theology is producing some good work. The latest is Inspiring Faith in Schools:
Inspiring Faith in Schools addresses the privileging of secularism that appears to affect RE in countries influenced by modern western thought. The authors argue that a more engaging form of RE would emerge if religious life were to inhabit centre stage. Currently religious faith is made to hover in the wings awaiting the call to face the inquisitorial challenge of the modern day enquirer. The consequent relationship between pupil and the Divine as the purpose of study is then already intrinsically irreligious, as indicated in the Book of Job by putting God in the dock, whereas it is the pupil who should be (cross-)examining his or her life. What are the ways of exciting and engaging the young so that they begin to entertain the possibility of religious life as a genuine option for themselves? Leading scholars in philosophy and theology from the UK, Australia, Canada and the USA come together to address these questions together with RE experts. Marius Felderhof writes an Afterword summing up the challenges faced by such a re-visioning of RE.
Secularism, schools and religious education , Brenda Watson
Understanding, belief and truth, Joe Houston
Confession and reason, Ieuan Lloyd
Religious education and committed openness, Elmer Thiessen
Religious education in Australia and New Zealand, Grant Maple.
Religious education from Spens to Swann, Penny Thompson
Religious education and the misrepresentation of religion, Philip Barnes
Religious education, atheism and deception, Marius Felderhof
Can 'skills' help religious education?, William K. Kay
Is there anything religious about religious education any more?, Joe Fleming
Dismembering and remembering religious education, John Sullivan
On the grammar of religious discourse and education, David Carr
Religious education through the language of religion, Iris Yob
Religious education and liberal nurture, Andrew Wright
Crossing the divide?, Jeff Astley
Afterword, M.C. Felderhof
Sunday afternoon's panel discussion on interfaith relationships was an enjoyable and interesting conversation. Present on the panel were David Ford (Regius Professor of Divinity, Cambridge and Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme), Keith Ward (former Regius Professor of Divinity, Oxford), Mona Siddiqui (Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding, Glasgow) and Marc Ellis (Professor of Jewish Studies, Baylor University). Ford and Ellis clashed quite heatedly around whether interfaith discussion and in particular scriptural reasoning was worthwhile and making a difference. Ellis believes that the majority (if not all) interfaith conversations avoid the big issues, in particular, the Israel-Palestine question. He believes in the liberation of the Palestine people from Israeli oppression. He is a Jew. So enterprises like scriptural reasoning fail to address the important issues and Christians, Muslims and Jews avoid the task of being critical friends with one another. Ford's assertation was that you've got to start somewhere and that private discussions between proponents of different faiths was the way more political and public change would occur. Peter Ochs, a friend of Ford and founder of scriptural reasoning, can under some flak from Ellis for avoiding the Israeli-Palestine question. Ellis asked where was Ochs' book on Jewish theology of liberation (Ellis wrote his book in 1987). I like both Ellis and Ford. Ellis tends to talk in simple black and white language and I agree with a lot of what he says. But I think Ford is right that scriptural reasoning and other conversations are the beginning points.
Regular readers of my blog may remember that I asked a few weeks ago whether people thought it was ok for christian youth groups to visit other different religious places of worship. The reason behind the question was we were planning a visit to a local gurdwara and it had caused some discussion within my church. Tonight we took our young people to visit and we had a fantastic time. Having taught little bits about Sikhism over the last three years in RE lessons, it was great to hear and see what it means to be Sikh from a Sikh. We entered the main worship hall and were given a short talk on the basics tenets of Sikhism before a question and answer time. Our young people asked some great questions and their was a good atmosphere. We then through into the langar, where we served food and drink. The hospitality was amazing. The generosity was humbling. The langar is open 24/7 to serve the community. You can get a meal at any time. The guardwara exists for the community, to enable it to learn (the meaning of the word 'sikh' is 'learner'), to worship and to serve it. Is this not the calling of the church? I was left asking how do we serve the community and enable it to learn and worship? What would it take to have our church open as a place of hospitality to the stranger? This is something that monastries do, but most of our churches only serve the community when it suits us. It seems to me that where other religions - Sikhism, Islam and Buddhism - have better resisted the assualts of Western culture, especially its consumerism, Christianity has, in the main, crumbled and become in many places and in many ways in distinguishable from the world. The church must be open to learn from other religious faiths and how they witness to the world. The question of religions and the Christian emphasis on the particularity of Jesus Christ still taxes me. My experience this year of Buddhism and Sikhism, makes me wonder at the words of Jesus when he says 'the Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes' (John 3.8).
But in schools it seems to me that the teaching of religion in the broadest sense is vital. We live in a world where religion of all sorts is making a comeback, even where secularism thought it had won the field.
It isn't, in other words, just a small-scale and rather odd private hobby, but something which affects the lives of millions. It is as vital to a young person growing up to understand what religion is and how it functions as it is to understand geography, electricity or biology.
Full article here from Newsweek