Westminster 2010: an election, and a Declaration of Christian Conscience

So the General Election has been called at last, for 6th May. This date had of course been predicted for months if not years. But then nearly two years ago most people were expecting Gordon Brown to call an immediate election and he didn’t. So, as he could in fact have held out for about another month, no one could be sure of the date until the official announcement was made.

So we have a month of busy politicking before we send our new batch of MPs to Westminster. I will not be reporting on this in detail here.

Meanwhile a coalition of important UK Christian leaders jumped the gun slightly, and used the Westminster name which of course has an illustrious Christian history as well as its parliamentary one. On Sunday they launched Westminster 2010: A Declaration of Christian Conscience:

Christian Leaders launch ‘Conscience Manifesto’ ahead of General Election with call to arms for the Country’s Christians – Easter Sunday 4th April

Thirty senior Christian leaders, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, will launch a Christian Manifesto the ‘Westminster 2010: Declaration of Christian Conscience’ on Easter Sunday.

They continue (extracts only here):

Westminster 2010 is a rallying call to UK Christian voters and urges Christians of all denominations to vote with their conscience, guided by their faith.

With four million regular church attenders in Britain, on average 6,000 per parliamentary constituency, the move has real potential to have a significant impact on who is elected, especially in marginal seats.

The document sets out a broad range of policies that unite churches in the UK, including support for marriage, freedom for those of faith to live their lives according to their beliefs and opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia.

It also calls for Christians to support, protect, and be advocates for children born and unborn, and all those who are sick, disabled, addicted, elderly, poor, exploited, trafficked or exploited by unjust trade, aid or debt policies.

The timing of the launch of Westminster 2010 ahead of the call of the General election is designed to send a clear message to all parliamentary candidates that Christians will be supporting those who will both promote policies that protect vulnerable people and also respect the right of Christians to hold, express and live according to Christian beliefs. …

Westminster 2010 marks a significant escalation in the battle by church leaders to protect Britain’s Christian heritage, which they feel is under threat.

The Christian leaders plan to target Members of Parliament and candidates who are seeking election to pledge that they will ‘respect, uphold and protect the right of Christians to hold and express Christian beliefs and act according to Christian conscience’.

The text of the declaration is here, and includes pledges to support human life, marriage and conscience. It ends with a list of “Key Signatories”, public figures in Christian ministry.

The declaration is interesting in that it goes well beyond what one might expect in an election campaigning document. Note the latter part of this sentence:

As UK citizens we affirm our Christian commitment both to exercise social responsibility in working for the common good and also to be subject to all governing authorities and obey them except when they require us to act unjustly.

On this basis they declare that

we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia, or any other act that involves intentionally taking innocent human life. … we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage. … we will reject measures that seek to over-rule our Christian consciences or to restrict our freedoms to express Christian beliefs, or to worship and obey God.

In other words, this has become a statement of intent of civil disobedience against laws which are considered unjust.

The problem I see is that all of this is very one-sided and inwardly focused. There is a mention in the declaration of those who are “poor, exploited, trafficked, appropriately seeking asylum, threatened by environmental change, or exploited by unjust trade, aid or debt policies”, but only following an “including” referring to all people. There is nothing in the pledge about standing against those who persecute asylum seekers, cause environmental change, or promote “unjust trade, aid or debt policies”. Contrast that with the lengthy condemnations of those who want us to treat with respect those who have chosen to live in same sex partnerships.

So I find myself in two minds about this declaration. I support what it actually says – although I think that if (hypothetically in the future) a democratically elected government chooses to use the word “marriage” for same sex civil partnerships it would be rather trivial for Christians to take a stand of principle against that word. My problem is with what the declaration does not say, with evils which are rampant in our society and in party policies which are ignored here. Indeed one might suggest that it is directed against the policies of one major party far more than against another’s.

The declaration does not take a stand against racism, whether open, or thinly disguised as in the policies of the BNP, or slightly better disguised in a rejection of immigrants and genuine asylum seekers which suddenly evaporates when the incomers are white southern Africans.

The declaration does not take a clearly defined stand against injustice in world trade and aid, and in a financial system which allows a few in our own western countries to grow obscenely rich, and all of us to benefit enormously, while third world countries are consigned to perpetual poverty.

The declaration has nothing to say about the huge imbalance of wealth in our own country. While there is a mention of the poor, there is no pledge to refuse to comply with laws that make them poorer. Now I’m not suggesting following the advice of the vicar who infamously encouraged his poor parishioners to shoplift. But if Christians are being taught not to obey laws which “require us to act unjustly”, then surely there are some in this area which can be disobeyed.

There are a number of other areas, e.g. climate change and the environment, which the declaration could mention in detail but has not done, but this post is long enough already. So, to close, I don’t think I am going to sign this pledge, but I am happy to let others consider it for themselves.

Pullman's Good Man Jesus, or the Church's Scoundrel Christ?

Bishop Alan Wilson has an interesting review of Philip Pullman’s new book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which sounds like bad history but interesting fiction. The author is of course a well known atheist.

I haven’t read the book, so I am relying here on the bishop’s review. As far as I can tell from that, Pullman has taken the 19th century speculation about the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith and turned them into two separate people, brothers but very different. Indeed there seem to be elements of the Prodigal Son story mixed in. But it seems that Pullman’s good man Jesus represents the real original man from Nazareth, and his scoundrel Christ is a caricature of what the church has turned Jesus into.

Bishop Alan quotes at length Pullman’s version of Jesus’ prayer in the garden:

Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should weild no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn but only forgive. That it should not be like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man, “That fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?’

So far, so good. But I was disappointed at the Anglican bishop’s response to this:

Amen! This is a rather C of E ecclesology; The Church is anything but perfect, but always in need of necessary reformation. This comes from its interaction with the society it serves, not some infallible magisterium. …

No, Bishop Alan, Pullman’s Jesus is not commending the Church of England. It may not have an “infallible magisterium”. It may have become relatively poor, recently, but not by renouncing riches or giving generously, only by being inept at holding on to its wealth. But it still owns huge amounts of property, and makes its own laws or gets the government to do so for it. Many of its buildings are precisely “like a palace, with marble walls and polished floors”. Its bishops (not Bishop Alan, at least yet) still wield secular authority in the House of Lords. And if its official leaders are no longer quick to condemn, that lack is more than made up for by the pronouncements of some of its clergy and lay people.

If the church wants to show the love of the real Jesus to atheists like Pullman, it won’t do it by boasting that it is not as bad as those Roman Catholics with their “infallible magisterium”, but by doing something about the points which Pullman actually puts on the lips of Jesus. May the church indeed become

like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time gives up its good sound wood to the carpenter, but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place.

New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders

I just received by e-mail a link to an article by David Instone-Brewer, of Tyndale House in Cambridge, entitled New Testament Scandals: Female church leaders. This is part of a new “e-newsletter” from Christianity magazine. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I linked last year to Instone-Brewer’s teaching on divorce and remarriage – his site on this subject is now working.

Instone-Brewer gives interesting insights on the position of women in the early church. Here is a sample:

The guilty secret of the early Church was that it did rely to some extent on female leaders. In public women had to keep quiet, literally. Paul allowed them to attend teaching sessions (which would be frowned on by Jews and Romans) but he didn’t allow them to join in the discussion (1 Corinthians 14 vs34-35). Timothy was warned not to let women teach because, like Eve, they weren’t sufficiently educated (1 Timothy 2 vs12-14). But quietly, in the background, some women got on with leadership roles in spite of these restrictions.

Now I’m not sure that I agree with his understanding of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35; after all, elsewhere in the same letter Paul explicitly permits women to speak out loud in Christian gatherings. But he is surely right in interpreting 1 Timothy 2:12-14 in the light of the situation of women at that time.

It is interesting to see how he deals with the biblical material on women apparently in leadership positions in the church. Concerning how the names Junia and Nympha were changed to Junias and Nymphas, he writes:

Why did later scribes make these laughable attempts to hide the female leaders in the early church? Because it was a shameful – but true. The truth is confirmed by two other early documents. The heroine in a 2nd Century novel ‘Paul and Thecla’ is told to ‘Go and teach the word of the Lord’. Although this is a novel, the author assumed his audience would regard this as normal. He elaborated at length how Thecla was saved from execution by burning and by wild animals (which he expected his audience to be awed at) but he merely mentioned in passing that she became a Christian teacher, because he didn’t expect his readers to be surprised by this. The normality of female church leaders is confirmed in Pliny’s report about Christians in 112 AD. His report was for the emperor, so he collected information from the highest available source – he arrested two local church ministers and tortured them. The fact that he tortured them means they were slaves, and his word for ‘ministers’ is ‘ministrae’ – ie female. So two female slaves led the church in that area!

Instone-Brewer concludes with:

The whole world has now caught up with Paul’s teaching that all humans, however different, are equal. This teaching enabled the early church to do what it didn’t want to admit in public – it allowed some women to work quietly as leaders and teachers. It is therefore ironic that the few modern institutions that don’t follow this early church practice are mainly churches.


C.S. Lewis got it wrong on women priests

A couple of days ago I noted C.S. Lewis’ criticism of the arguments used by complementarians. But of course that does not imply that he was an egalitarian. Indeed I now have proof that he was not. I thank my commenter Iconoclast for a link to an interesting essay by Lewis apparently entitled Priestesses in the Church?, posted last year by Alice C. Linsley on her blog. According to this page the essay was originally written in 1948. In it Lewis makes clear his opposition to the ordination of women in the Church of England.

Lewis certainly would not have approved of Barbie becoming an Episcopal priest, as pictured here. Thanks to Dave Walker at the Church Times blog for the link (although it’s broken) to the Facebook group Friends of Episcopal Priest Barbie (not sure if my link will work any better). It is a real group, so this is not just an April fool, and I took the picture from it.

To start with, C.S. Lewis got one thing quite wrong: no one was asking for a separate “order of priestesses”, but for women to be admitted to the existing order of priests, as has now happened. But I think he is on the ball to say that

the opposers (many of them women) can produce at first nothing but an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort which they themselves find it hard to analyse

– to which some would add a shallow and tendentious interpretation of certain Bible passages.

When it comes down to it, the argument which Lewis makes is that God is male, not female. That implies that for him women are less the image of God than men. He admits that it is “masculine imagery” which is used of God, but he confuses the imagery with the reality when he makes God really masculine. When Robert Burns wrote “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”, his beautiful poetic imagery was not supposed to mean that the woman he loved was in fact not a woman but a rose. I’m not really qualified to lecture a professor of literature like Lewis, but he seems to have forgotten the basics of how poetry works. Poetic images are figures of speech not to be taken literally. So if calling God Father is indeed “masculine imagery” of the poetic kind, it precisely does not imply that God is really and essentially male.

Lewis gets to the most basic issue when he writes:

The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters. As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complimentary organs of a mystical body.

Here “complimentary” is a transcriber’s error for “complementary”; Lewis certainly wouldn’t have confused the two words, and the latter appears in this version of the text. So he upholds the principle of complementary roles for men and women, while in this essay being careful to avoid the kinds of arguments which he put in the mouth of the Ape in The Last Battle.

In the paragraph I just quoted Lewis has hit the nail on the head. Indeed I would hold, along with most egalitarians I imagine, that distinctions of sex are “irrelevant to the spiritual life”. But Lewis seems to disagree. So how can we resolve this? Lewis, having rejected reason earlier in the essay, turns to church tradition. As an evangelical I prefer to turn to Scripture. And there I read:

So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27 (TNIV)

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28 (TNIV)

Thus the Bible makes it clear that males and females are equally made in the image of God, and that the distinction between them is precisely “irrelevant to the spiritual life” in Christ. Thus the clear biblical position is that God is neither male nor female, and that neither gender is better fitted than the other to represent him to humanity.

Of course C.S. Lewis was right and prescient to write that

the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds

by allowing women priests. In the 1990s the shreds were inexpertly patched together by such means as the infamous “flying bishops”. Now that women bishops are in prospect the whole patchwork is falling apart again. But the reason this has been so contentious is that a large minority in the church has been taken in by the kinds of bad arguments about the essential masculinity of God which Lewis put forward.

To be fair to C.S. Lewis, he was a man of his time and so shared “an inarticulate distaste, a sense of discomfort” with the idea of women priests. In 1948 he was not young (he turned 50 that year) but still unmarried. He had little experience of women apart from his odd relationship with his surrogate mother Jane Moore. It is perhaps hardly surprising that he treated them more or less as a separate species. But, fortunately for half of humanity, that is not how God treats them.

Google Animal Translate

Google has today introduced a beta version of a new service Translate for Animals: Bridging the gap between animals and humans. They write that

Language is one of our biggest challenges so we have targeted our efforts on removing language barriers between the species. We are excited to introduce Translate for Animals, an Android application which we hope will allow us to better understand our animal friends. We’ve always been a pet-friendly company at Google, and we hope that Translate for Animals encourages greater interaction and understanding between animal and human.

Will this service really work? Automatic translation for human languages still has such a long way to go that I can’t really see it working into animal languages. When we look at Bible translation, machine translation into human languages is not really feasible. So I don’t see much chance in the near future, even with the power of Google behind the project, of Bible versions for our cats and dogs.

Indeed I wonder if this whole project is likely to be a one day wonder which people should really be laughing at.