Archive for August, 2009

Life, Afghanistan, and the Anglicans: 24 August

August 24, 2009

A lovely week at Rainbow Cottage, Fenny Bentley, Derbyshire, punctuated by a session of Praying Jesus’ Way and a baby’s funeral in Bilston. In PJW we looked at ‘Forgive us our sins…’ including the need to separate ourselves, our new beloved children selves, from the bad habits of our old selves, which stick around. An illustration was a pair of shorts I first wore playing rugby when I was 11, 41 years ago, and in which I go for occasional runs. They couldn’t believe I used to be that tubby.

A Christian friend came to see us, back from 4 months working in a military hospital in Afghanistan. Knowing soldiers now dead was, predictably, tough. ‘But what about the ones sent home with one leg, one arm and no testicles, to be cared for by overstretched relatives on an MOD pittance?’ We don’t hear about the many non-fatal casualties of landmines.

The Taliban collect up old Russian landmines, pile them up to six in a stack, and find ingenious ways to detonate them. Before they pick out the third vehicle in a convoy, they top the landmines with nails buried in faeces. The victims not only suffer multiple lacerations but multiple internal infections. ‘But,’ my friend said, ‘if my country was invaded by a powerful well-equipped army and I had to make do to defend my people, would I act any differently?’

British troops are in Afghanistan, according to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because ‘three quarters of the most serious terror plots investigated in the UK have links back to the border region in Pakistan,’ and ‘Afghanistan is the source of 90% of heroin in the UK…’ (Letter from Ivan Lewis, Minister of State, 30/7/09)

‘Terror plots’ ‘having links’ is vague. The London bombers had links, but their primary organisation was in this country and their primary motivation was actually fuelled by our military presence in Afghanistan. If anything, our troops there make those ‘terror links’ stronger. We are talking about plots – which, all except one, have come to nothing. The threat to mainland UK is not great enough to warrant 100s of our soldiers dying and many more horrifically injured.

And the source of heroin is not the main problem. If Afghanistan was not the end of the supply chain, that chain would find somewhere else to end, driven by the demand in the UK. That demand is what we need to combat. It is senseless and ineffective to send British soldiers to die and be maimed in Afghanistan because other young Brits are druggies.

Where is the public outcry? Where are the Christian voices calling for our troops to be pulled out of Afghanistan? All we hear is the need to ‘support our troops’, including supporting what they are doing. We need a UK equivalent of the campaign by Jim Wallis and others in the US questioning the whole military intervention in Afghanistan See . Wallis writes: ‘a report recently published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace … states, “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban.”

The Anglican Communion continues to drift apart, the ‘Instruments of Unity’ ineffective. The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church in America has declared that any church buildings which used to be the home of a Conservative congregation which has now left TEC, may be sold – to anyone but their former congregation. These places of worship can become Hindu Temples or nightclubs to provide finance to TEC, but on no account, for 5 years, may they be used for their original purpose by the people wh0o know and love them most.

This policy is yet another example of TEC’s refusal to treat their dissenting, Conservative, minority as sisters and brothers in Christ. TEC are set on the path of jejection. They treat former members of their church, recognised still as Anglicans across the Communion, as worse than enemies. They are fully engaged already in the ‘competitive hostility’ which Rowan Williams said would be ‘one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated.’

Why, then, is the Archbishop of Canterbury doing or saying nothing against TEC? He is meant to be instrumental in preserving unity. Surely this means at least urging TEC to take a different approach? The longer he connives in such hostility the harder it will be to mend relationships between Liberals and Conservatives across the Communion.

Mark Lawrence, Bishop of South Carolina, has written a tremendous exposition of why and how he is leading his Diocese to try to find ‘a place to thrive’ as Conservatives within TEC. Mark L is bravely trying to counter rejection with grace and truth. He cannot go along with gay marriage but neither does he want to leave TEC. He, and his Standing Committee, want ‘to begin withdrawing from all bodies of governance of TEC’  that support and promote gay marriage, while ‘building missional relationships with “orthodox” congregations isolated across North America,’ and staying officially in TEC.

All that Mark L is calling for should be possible. All it needs is for people to be creative with Church structures from a foundation of graceful acceptance of difference within the one family. Such acceptance is a key part of our Anglican tradition, as Rowan W has pointed out.

But will TEC accept such restructuring? The TEC leadership have a majority mandate to go ahead with promoting gay marriage and they continue to indicate they will reject any minority which refuses to go along. Will they allow the ‘semi-withdrawal’ of South Carolina, especially when it affects finances? I am not hopeful, but applaud Mark L in his attempt.

Roger Harper


Holiday: 18 August

August 18, 2009

Even bloggers take a break. I’ll be back..!

Life, the Faith, and Everything: 10 August

August 10, 2009

Three funerals this week. All the deceased had been generous, uncomplaining women. One collapsed and died at Bingo. Another waved to her husband and son coming in the door, lay back and let go. The third hung on against all odds so she could die at home. Three warmly cherished ladies.

Praying Jesus’ Way continues in Bilston on Tuesday evenings. I thought Jesus had said to focus on how the Holy Spirit flows in us so that we pray according to the Father’s will. It’s not just us praying, but Him praying in us. Tongues is the most obvious way the Spirit prays in us. Praying in tongues is not new to Bilston, but very few do it and many have questions about it. We prayed, asking the Holy Spirit to come according to a picture each person chose for themselves. (See Grove Booklet: Person Centred Prayer Ministry ) One woman, who had asked for the Holy Spirit to come as a catalogue so she could know what to ask for, burst out in a beautiful flow of tongues. The interpretation which came to me was a lovely hymn of praise to our Abba Father. The rest of the group said they felt a deep sense of peace – surprising with this loud gobbledegook going on! One member was deeply touched, saying he had been ‘ambushed.’

In the Anglican Communion attention has shifted to Liberals criticising the Archbishop of Canterbury for saying that, at best, they will be on ‘track two’ or a two track Communion. Some would rather cut loose altogether. If their way can’t prevail, they’ll turn their backs on the rest of us. It’s sad that they cannot heed Rowan W’s call to repudiate a ‘competitive hostility.’ But it’s early days. Flak from both sides shows that Rowan W is on the right lines at last.

George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life (which I am reading now) surprisingly contains a wonderful depiction of the grace and power of true Evangelical faith – Janet’s Repentance. I had thought that George E had repudiated her simplistic Evangelical early years, for a cultured liberalism, pitying the poor ignorami who still thought the Gospel accounts contained eye witness accounts of a real Jesus. But she begins Scenes lamenting: ‘Mine, I fear, is not a well-regulated mind: it has an occasional tenderness for old abuses … and has a sigh for the departed shades of vulgar errors.’ Directly this refers to a tenderness for village church life in the ‘old days.’ When she comes to honest and fervent Evangelicalism the tenderness is far more than occasional. Such faith she deems rare; she neatly describes the various ways in which true faith becomes compromised. But transforming grace working through faith alone can be seen wonderfully fleshed out not only in Janet’s Repentance, but also in Adam Bede and Silas Marner.

I wonder if her choosing to use a pseudonym was to give her freedom to commend Evangelicalism despite the views of her cultured circle? Other women happily wrote as women. She was not prone to shame, brazenly living with a married man. But maybe her heart was still attached to the faith she had tasted and lived in, while her mind, and her companions, had moved determinedly on. The prospect of cultured ridicule for an attachment to simple faith was more than she could bear. Such ridicule certainly does cut deep.

Life, the Faith, and Everything: 4 August

August 4, 2009

Signing A British Crash at Borders last Saturday reminded me of going to craft fairs. My wares were out on a table. Most people walked past with hardly a glance. A few looked from a distance. The odd few came and picked up a book, half of them eventually buying. The staff disagreed about the best way to attract sales – welcoming eye contact with passers-by, or a discreet distance for potential approachers to believe they wouldn’t be pounced on? I settled mostly for the compromise I have seen at craft fairs – sitting at the table reading a book of Jewish jokes.

Saturday was a good selling day: lousy weather on the weekend after pay day. The Borders people said the monthly pay day used to make a little difference. Now it makes a big difference.

On Tuesday I began leading a short course in church: ‘Praying Jesus Way.’ We’ll go through the ‘Our Father…’ prayer in 5 weeks. The 10 who came were receptive to seeing that Jesus commanded us to pray ‘Our Father…’ and that the Holy Spirit urges us to say ‘Abba, Father…’ Jesus said ‘Father…, I have given them your name.’ So what is the name of God that Jesus gave us? The 10 good and true Bilstonians thought the answer was obvious ‘Abba, Father.’ (If I say, ‘David, I have given them your name’, it’s not hard to work out what the name is.) But it’s revolutionary theology. The whole Church is so stuck in saying ‘Lord, Lord’ instead of ‘Abba, Father…’ The plucky 10 also individually mimed out being the younger, Prodigal son, beginning, or continuing, I hope, to experience God as Father.

On Wednesday I met up with a young Sikh man who had phoned me out of the blue when I was in West Bromwich asking to come into church and have someone pray with him. On Thursday I met with a young Hindu woman who phoned me out of the blue, wanting to be baptised because she has been asked to be a godmother. Both are remarkably open and interested in Jesus. It’s like fishing when the fish jump out of the water and say ‘catch me!’ God is up to something!

The excellent Jewish American Tikkun magazine has a great article Was Kosovo the Good War? David Gibbs, teacher of history and political science at the University of Arizona, has read extensively through the background sources, including many British ones. He demonstrates that the strategy of the Moslem Albanian Kosovans was to provoke the Serbs into retaliation. They succeeded, probably beyond their expectations, with NATO adding their immense fire power against the Serbs. NATO bombardment of Serbia provoked yet fiercer retaliation against Kosovan civilians. In the end, it was the Serbs who were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo. Thanks to NATO, the Kosovans won.

The Serbs were far from gentle and peace-loving. But they were far more willing to accept compromise than was publicised. (They only refused to give NATO free access to the whole of Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia.) The Kosovans, it seems, were hardly better than the Serbs. Their final ethnic cleansing, with NATO soldiers on the ground doing nothing, was also a crime against humanity.

Roger Harper

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Communion: 4 August

August 4, 2009

Two cheers to the Archbishop of Canterbury! Rowan Williams has published a very good response to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in America who confirmed that they want to ‘walk apart’ from the rest of the Anglican Communion over gay marriage. The ABC merits a theological cheer, an ecclesiological cheer, but not a political cheer. Rowan Williams’ thinking and pointing ahead are great. But why could he not have said this before, and more strongly? He reluctantly points to a ‘two track’ future for the Anglican Communion. Such a future should be hailed as an exciting development of our tradition which could bring wide benefits not only for us, but for any community or nation with a substantially differing minority.

Rowan Williams makes the crucial but not often stated point that it is the Holy Spirit who is to lead us forward. ‘The Spirit will lead you into all truth,’ said Jesus. Not human reasoning and scientific research. Although reason leads us into quite a lot of truth, we cannot rely on reason as the foundation for new developments in our Church life, as the Episcopal Church are doing. Neither, importantly, does Scripture lead us into all truth. Scripture points us to much truth, but Scripture itself points us to the words and life of Jesus as the foundation of all our doctrine, and Jesus then points us to the Spirit to show us the way forward. TEC are saying ‘It seems good to our reason, our society and us to welcome gay marriages.’ Their fierce opponents are saying ‘It seems good to the Bible and us to reject gay marriages.’ The Church in the book of Acts, instead, proclaimed ‘It seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ This is always a lengthy process in which there is a long period, as now, when we cannot say for certain, if it is the Holy Spirit leading in a new direction or not.

Rowan Williams refers to the role of the Spirit at the end of para 13 of his ‘Reflections.’ ‘It takes time and a willingness to believe that what we determine together is more likely, in a New Testament framework, to be in tune with the Holy Spirit than what any one community decides locally.’ For Williams TEC have given neither the time nor the willingness necessary. They have decided to move ahead with affirming gay marriage and must accept that one consequence of this is that they distance themselves significantly from their Anglican brothers and sisters.

Rowan W then sketches out what this moving apart while being somehow members of the same family means: ‘… there is at least the possibility of a twofold ecclesial reality in view in the middle distance.’ (para 22) ‘… perhaps we are faced with the possibility rather of a ‘two-track’ model, two ways of witnessing to the Anglican heritage…,’ (para 23) Rowan W acknowledges that there is a need for what I have called being creative with ecclesiastical structures: ‘To recognise different futures for different groups must involve mutual respect for deeply held theological convictions. Thus far in Anglican history we have (remarkably) contained diverse convictions more or less within a unified structure. If the present structures that have safeguarded our unity turn out to need serious rethinking in the near future, this is not the end of the Anglican way and it may bring its own opportunities.’ (para 26, the conclusion.) AMEN to all this.

BUT Rowan W is reluctant, tentative, and very late. The whole article is called ‘Reflections…’ Once again we have the detached Professor giving a learned view, not a leader pointing to a good way forward. ‘Perhaps we are faced with the possibility…’ is reluctant, tentative language. Rowan W gives the impression that two tracks would not be his preferred way forward, but it is the best he can see.

This impression of reluctance is borne out by Rowan W’s actions and words. Far from a policy of ‘Let’s seriously consider a two track future,’ up until now Rowan W’s policy has been ‘Let’s keep talking and stay where we are for now.’ Keeping talking was what the Lambeth Conference was all about. Two tracks could have been talked about at Lambeth. Two tracks could even have been modelled at Lambeth, with voting and non-voting participants for instance. Instead we have had lengthy discussions on a one track Covenant. It is only now, after TEC have emphatically rejected the ‘stay where we are for now’ policy, that Rowan W has turned to two tracks as a possibility.

The options are schism – a complete parting of the ways into separate families – or two tracks – a distancing while graciously maintaining family ties. If two tracks are not embraced more wholeheartedly, by Rowan W and others, with Rowan L, or someone else, acting as leader rather than as consultant, schism will happen.

The two track option is not only the way to avoid schism, it is a thoroughly Christian approach, making every effort to maintain the unity we have despite our differences. The Anglican Communion has a Liberal minority who differ substantially from the Conservative majority. TEC have a Conservative minority who differ substantially from the Liberal majority. The way of the world is the way of expulsion, splitting, schism; the majority making no space for the minority. We are being called to a different way, the way of graceful recognition of difference without splitting or schism; the majority making space for the minority. If we can create this gracious new way and show that it is viable, it can be copied to the benefit of minorities everywhere, most notably ethnic and faith minorities within nations. The potential benefits of developing ‘two track’ structures are huge, not only for the Church, but for the world.

(The current issue of Tikkun magazine, an excellent American Jewish publication, carries an article which suggests that the Jewish minority in a Palestinian State could be citizens of Israel, in a way similar to Conservative parishes in America being part of the Province of the Southern Cone, or Forward in Faith parishes being part of the network Diocese of Ebbsfleet. )

These benefits need to be presented, argued, championed. The vision needs to be caught. Even a prescient man such as Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, has yet to catch this vision. His response to Rowan W’s Reflections is sceptical – can this possibly work? won’t it be harbouring heretics? (He likens our situation over gay marriage to the controversy between Athanasius and Arius over whether Jesus was fully the Son of God.) But Tom W does see that a way needs to be made to affirm the Conservative minority in America. Such a way could also be used to affirm Liberal minorities in other parts of the world.

Affirming the minorities needs to be fully part of the Anglican Communion Covenant. At the moment the Covenant is a statement of where the majority stand. Without a gracious accompanying statement of how the majority will make space for the minority, the Covenant could become another instrument of bullying by the majority – just as the statements and resolutions by TEC are an justification for their punitive law suits against the Conservative minority.

Graciously maintaining family ties is crucial, as Rowan W states: ‘It should not need to be said that a competitive hostility between the two would be one of the worst possible outcomes, and needs to be clearly repudiated. The ideal is that both ‘tracks’ should be able to pursue what they believe God is calling them to be as Church, with greater integrity and consistency. It is right to hope for and work for the best kinds of shared networks and institutions of common interest that could be maintained as between different visions of the Anglican heritage.’ (para 24)

Competitive hostility is what we have in America now, particularly between TEC and the Conservative Anglican Church in North America, battling in the Law Courts. Rowan W should not be sitting back saying nothing about this hostility. TEC plan for further hostility: they have allocated funds for future legal expenses. Instead they should be called to a ‘clear repudiation’ of legal hostilities. Why did Rowan W not stress this when he was at the TEC General Convention? Every legal battle is a nail in the coffin of the two track Anglican future, a brick in the wall of schism. If Rowan W really wants to ‘hope for and work for’ the two track future, he needs to argue for it and lead towards it more forcefully. Alternatively, he could make way for someone else to lead, while he returns to his more suited role as theological consultant.

Roger Harper