Cardboard Cathedrals and VAT on Church Improvements

The proposed cardboard Christchurch CathedralIn Christchurch, New Zealand, it seems that it will be too expensive to repair the cathedral which was badly damaged in last year’s earthquake. Instead, as David Keen and the press report, it is to be replaced by a cardboard cathedral. Yes, cardboard will be the main material for the proposed new 700 seat structure, and its cost will be a fraction of what it would take to rebuild the historic stone building.

Here in the UK, could we see our historic cathedrals and other church buildings being abandoned and replaced with cardboard structures? That is the worrying prospect which is being opened up by the government proposal to charge VAT on repairs and improvement to listed buildings.

The effect of this proposed “Heritage Tax” would be to add 20% to the cost of work on church buildings – at least on those listed as of historic interest. The likely result of this price rise is that many schemes for vital repairs, already hit by the drop in charitable giving during the continuing “double-dip” recession, will simply become unaffordable. This means that more and more congregations will be forced to leave their historic buildings and find temporary alternatives. Also in danger of being abandoned are schemes for adapting outdated buildings to provide important community facilities.

Up to now work on listed buildings has been zero rated for VAT, in recognition of their historical significance and of the extra cost of using appropriate designs and materials. The Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to remove this concession, partly to close a loophole by which rich people living in listed homes can have swimming pools installed free of VAT. But he has been widely criticised for a measure which will also hurt churches wanting to use their resources in ways which the government claims to be promoting as part of its “Big Society” initiative. However, there are now reports that the Chancellor is preparing to make a U-turn on this issue, partly in response to an e-petition Bring back zero-rate VAT on alterations to listed churches which the Church Mouse has been strongly promoting.

I have mixed feelings on this issue. Indeed in response to one of the Church Mouse’s first plugs for this petition, I wrote the following on Facebook on 9th April:

I won’t sign, probably like many other people, because I don’t believe that churches, i.e. congregations and denominations, should be in the business of preserving architectural heritage. If a church can’t afford its building, including paying the normal rate of tax on repairs, it should move into an affordable alternative. If the government then has to pay for the upkeep of the historic building, that’s its problem.

So, yes, if a congregation can’t afford to repair or improve its cathedral, then it should leave it and build a new one, perhaps from cardboard, which would probably meet its needs more economically. Or if the cathedral is really of sufficient historic interest, its administrators should be able to raise the funds for its upkeep from other sources, such as charging tourists for admission. If, however, the historic interest is largely in the mind of the Victorian Society, then they should be responsible for the cost of preserving the all too abundant heritage of their favoured period.

But I am aware that for many congregations there is no feasible alternative to a historic church building. This is most often true in villages, where a mediaeval church may be the only remaining community building. This church is clearly the most suitable focus for continuing Christian witness. It may also be appropriate to alter it to provide other facilities needed by the local people.

Because of this last factor, I have changed my mind and signed the e-petition. I would encourage my readers to think through the issues and decide for themselves whether to join me.

How to Ask Churches to Accept Homosexuality as Normal

The problems with my site were linked somehow to the original version of this post. One issue was that no comments could be made on it. So I am reposting it with a new URL, and deleting the old post. Hopefully this will fix the problem.

I am reposting here, with permission, a comment on my post Why can’t we tolerate post-gays as well as gays? This comment is by “Iconoclast”, who comments here regularly but anonymously:

I am not certain that it is the case that churches ‘fear’ homosexuals so much as fearing sanitising something that up to quite recently, was universally regarded as sin.

If you are asking the church to accept homosexuality as being quite normal for some people and acceptable for christians (so long as it is monogamous and faithful), then you have to appeal to wider themes of love and tolerance and give them precedence over what is specifically said about homosexuality in the Bible. You may even need to go so far as to introduce a new doctrine of marriage.

Rather than just using specific texts, the male/female motif of sexual expression as being normative is overwhelming throughout the Bible and when homosexual expression is mentioned then it is invariably negative. The other approach to take is that the biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality are culturally determined and we can largely dismiss them today. One problem here is that the more liberalising , concessionary and less restrictive tendencies say towards slavery and women, that is found in the New Testament as compared to the Old, is not reciprocated in the case of homosexuality which continues to be viewed in the NT with strong disapproval.

Do we now consider ourselves to be sufficiently enlightened in the 21st century that we can confidently disregard such strictures? If so, then how can we be sure we can do this?

I am not scared or fearful of homosexuals, but I do fear strongly that the church may sanctify something that God regards as sin. If this is the case, then it must surely have implications for the church as a whole and as with the seven churches in Revelation, we may find our ‘lampstands’ being removed. And that is a fearful prospect indeed.

I think Iconoclast has hit the nail right on the head here, except that I prefer “churches” to “the church” as there is nothing like a united view on this among Christians. The very word “homophobia” implies a charge that those guilty of it, or suffering from it, are afraid of homosexuals, and that this is a psychological condition. But, at least in the case of most Christians, this is a complete misunderstanding of the situation.

To summarise Iconoclast’s comment, if you want churches to accept homosexuality as normal, you have to persuade them to reject the apparently clear biblical prohibitions. And that is never going to be easy in any church which accepts the Bible as authoritative – even if they accept N.T. Wright’s words, as linked to in my post yesterday:

the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised through scripture.

Such churches, ones which consider themselves in any way evangelical, will accept homosexuality as normal only if they can be persuaded that word of God as found in Scripture does not contradict this. Now arguments can be made, and have been, that the small number of Bible passages which appear to prohibit homosexual practice do not apply today. In this post I am not trying to decide whether these arguments hold water. Rather, my point is that the only way for the gay community to win over evangelical churches is by convincing them with biblical arguments.

CAUTION SLIPPERY SLOPEIn comparing homosexuality with slavery and the status of women, Iconoclast seems to allude to the “slippery slope” argument, that accepting equality in one area will surely lead to accepting it in others. This came up at the same time in a different thread on this blog, in comments on my post A Breakthrough on Paul and Women (1 Timothy 2:8-15), where I wrote:

Sometimes it is hard to know where to stop, and it can look as if we are setting off down a slippery slope. See some comments I made five years ago about A Solid Rock Ledge on the Slippery Slope. But I guess I am not as confident now as I was then that there is an identifiable solid rock ledge that we can hold on to. Underneath is the solid rock, for sure, but perhaps it is all covered with slippery wet grass, and we have to choose and make our own footholds where we believe it is appropriate for our situation. Well, perhaps – more discussion needed.

Perhaps the gay community, or at least the gay lobby, in fact wants the church to fear them. They make threatening accusations against Christians to frighten them into changing their teaching. But if they looked at church history, or even at the current situation in countries like China and Iran, they would soon realise that such tactics of persecution are usually counter-productive, tending in fact to strengthen the church and reinforce its distinctive doctrines. The reason is simple: true Christians refuse to fear any human beings as much as they fear God. And rightly so, for turning against God is, in Iconoclast’s words, “a fearful prospect indeed”.


Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Cameron’s religion?

Be NiceOnly this evening I came across the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), in Allan Bevere’s post Jesus Without the Church? Not! The term was apparently coined by Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book Almost Christian (which I have not read). Bevere quotes Ben Gosden‘s summary definition of the beliefs of MTD adherents:

  1. Moralistic: The object of Christian faith is to be nice to others in accordance with moral lessons in the Bible as well as natural law observed through reason.
  2. Therapeutic: The main purpose of life is to find happiness.
  3. Deism: God created the world and holds ultimate power, but is very uninterested in human life and will not intervene except when someone needs an answer to a problem.

John Meunier has given a rather more detailed description of Advanced MTD, to which Kenda Creasy Dean herself gave an appreciative response.

Dean, Meunier, Gosden and Bevere all suggest that MTD is the typical religion of American churches, at least from their shared perspective in the United Methodist Church. Indeed Meunier writes that

This religion is so deeply embedded into our congregations that digging it out will be fatal to most. Like a cancerous tumor, it has invaded too many vital organs to be safely dug out.

I can’t help wondering if this MTD is in fact just as deeply and fatally embedded into most churches here in the UK, especially but not only in the Church of England. Perhaps the “therapeutic” side is not so strong here. But the deism is probably even stronger: nobody expects God to intervene just because “someone needs an answer to a problem”.

This, it seems to me, is the kind of religion which Prime Minister David Cameron professes, as seen for example in his Easter message, in which he spoke of two roles of faith:

Faith has a huge amount to bring not just to our national life in terms of values; it has a huge amount to bring in terms of strengthening our institutions …

And for him “The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity” are “values of compassion, of respect, of responsibility, of tolerance”. But there is no mention here of God intervening in anything, except Cameron perhaps implicitly rejects this in his sceptical remarks about the Resurrection, which I discussed in my post Cameron and Obama on the Resurrection.

Nor is there any explicit mention of the “Therapeutic” aspect of MTD, but this is implicit in his remarks about tolerance and in support of gay marriage. Cameron clearly believes that homosexuals have the right to have anything which they think will make them happy, and anyone who seeks to deny this, even with the intention of “strengthening our institutions”, is considered intolerant and beyond the pale. Now he is entitled to his opinion on this matter, but it is one more characteristic of MTD than of true biblical Christianity.

So, what can we do? It looks as if Cameron wants to encourage MTD in this country, at the expense of genuine Christian faith. But when so many of our church leaders are adherents of MTD, what can the rest of us do? Well, I guess we can show MTD to be false when, in response to our prayers, we see God intervene to set our nation to rights. So let us pray!

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: Cameron's religion?

Be NiceOnly this evening I came across the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), in Allan Bevere’s post Jesus Without the Church? Not! The term was apparently coined by Kenda Creasy Dean, in her book Almost Christian (which I have not read). Bevere quotes Ben Gosden‘s summary definition of the beliefs of MTD adherents:

  1. Moralistic: The object of Christian faith is to be nice to others in accordance with moral lessons in the Bible as well as natural law observed through reason.
  2. Therapeutic: The main purpose of life is to find happiness.
  3. Deism: God created the world and holds ultimate power, but is very uninterested in human life and will not intervene except when someone needs an answer to a problem.

John Meunier has given a rather more detailed description of Advanced MTD, to which Kenda Creasy Dean herself gave an appreciative response.

Dean, Meunier, Gosden and Bevere all suggest that MTD is the typical religion of American churches, at least from their shared perspective in the United Methodist Church. Indeed Meunier writes that

This religion is so deeply embedded into our congregations that digging it out will be fatal to most. Like a cancerous tumor, it has invaded too many vital organs to be safely dug out.

I can’t help wondering if this MTD is in fact just as deeply and fatally embedded into most churches here in the UK, especially but not only in the Church of England. Perhaps the “therapeutic” side is not so strong here. But the deism is probably even stronger: nobody expects God to intervene just because “someone needs an answer to a problem”.

This, it seems to me, is the kind of religion which Prime Minister David Cameron professes, as seen for example in his Easter message, in which he spoke of two roles of faith:

Faith has a huge amount to bring not just to our national life in terms of values; it has a huge amount to bring in terms of strengthening our institutions …

And for him “The values of the Bible, the values of Christianity” are “values of compassion, of respect, of responsibility, of tolerance”. But there is no mention here of God intervening in anything, except Cameron perhaps implicitly rejects this in his sceptical remarks about the Resurrection, which I discussed in my post Cameron and Obama on the Resurrection.

Nor is there any explicit mention of the “Therapeutic” aspect of MTD, but this is implicit in his remarks about tolerance and in support of gay marriage. Cameron clearly believes that homosexuals have the right to have anything which they think will make them happy, and anyone who seeks to deny this, even with the intention of “strengthening our institutions”, is considered intolerant and beyond the pale. Now he is entitled to his opinion on this matter, but it is one more characteristic of MTD than of true biblical Christianity.

So, what can we do? It looks as if Cameron wants to encourage MTD in this country, at the expense of genuine Christian faith. But when so many of our church leaders are adherents of MTD, what can the rest of us do? Well, I guess we can show MTD to be false when, in response to our prayers, we see God intervene to set our nation to rights. So let us pray!

Cross or Resurrection 2a: Stop confessing your sins!

This post is part of the series which I started with Cross or Resurrection 1: Which is Determinative? But I am not numbering it as the third in the continuing series as it is not really new material. Instead I am writing to highlight one of my main points in Cross or Resurrection 2: Greater than John the Baptist.

In that post I wrote that

The ancient Jews offered regular sacrifices and sin offerings as a sign of their repentance. But these animal sacrifices had no power to change them

and backed that up from Hebrews 10:1-4. I continued:

Sadly we see the same attitude in many of our Christian churches. Roman Catholics are encouraged to confess their sins regularly to a priest in private. Anglican worshippers, among others, are expected to repeat at least every week words such as the following …:

We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness …

When the priest offers the absolution, they believe that their past sins have been forgiven – but also that they are expected to continue to sin, so they have something to confess the next Sunday. Clearly this kind of repeated ritual is no more effective than Old Testament sacrifices …, as it cannot “make perfect those who draw near to worship”.

The biblical picture of the true Christian believer is very different …

Traditional confessional in Saint-Thiébaut Church, Thann, FranceSo I would appeal to Christians to stop dragging up and confessing trivial or imaginary sins, and to churches to stop expecting them to do so. Yes, there is a place for Christians to confess their sins, when they have gone seriously astray and need to be brought back into God’s path. In such cases it may well be appropriate to confess privately to a church leader, and receive personal counsel and assurance of forgiveness. But if a Christian needs to do that regularly, there is something seriously wrong with their understanding of the Christian life. And if a whole congregation is expected to recite a weekly General Confession like the Anglican one, then they are being taught that wrong understanding.

As Christians, we shouldn’t expect to sin, and we shouldn’t let others teach us that expectation.

So, I appeal to churches, especially Anglican ones, throw out your lengthy prayers of General Confession. Instead, expect most of your congregants to be living good Christian lives, and encourage those who do need to put something right to deal with the matter individually, either alone with God or with the help of one of your ministry team.

Did the Church of England stop colluding with Babylon?

George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian last night, accused the Church of England of “colluding with Babylon”. But in the latest developments this afternoon St Paul’s Cathedral has suspended its legal action to evict the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters, and has announced an initiative “reconnecting the financial with the ethical”. Ken CostaThe initiative is to be headed by former banker Ken Costa, who left his top job as chairman of Lazard International earlier this year, but is apparently still Chairman of Alpha International and a churchwarden of Holy Trinity Brompton. Giles Fraser, who resigned as the cathedral’s Canon Chancellor because of his sympathy with the protests, will also be involved in the initiative.

So did the alleged collusion just come to an end?

Monbiot’s article The medieval, unaccountable Corporation of London is ripe for protest is a shocking exposé of how the Corporation of the City of London, the city’s official local government, is controlled by banks and other financial companies, and is almost without any democratic accountability. Yes, the 9,000 residents of the Square Mile can vote, but only in four of the 25 wards (voting districts), and the representatives of the others are chosen by companies.

Perhaps even more shocking is the way that the City is out of the control of Parliament and exempt from effective regulation. As a result, Monbiot writes,

the absence of proper regulation in London allowed American banks to evade the rules set by their own government. AIG’s wild trading might have taken place in the US, but the unit responsible was regulated in the City. Lehman Brothers couldn’t get legal approval for its off-balance sheet transactions in Wall Street, so it used a London law firm instead. No wonder priests are resigning over the plans to evict the campers. The Church of England is not just working with Mammon; it’s colluding with Babylon.

Protesters at St Paul's CathedralYes, it is this same City of London Corporation which is taking legal action to evict the Occupy London Stock Exchange protesters, or at least their tents, from in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. The camp is apparently partly on corporation land and partly on cathedral land. Last Friday the cathedral authorities announced that they would take similar legal action. And it was very likely this prospect that prompted Monbiot’s accusation “colluding with Babylon” – although it would have been more fair to direct the accusation at St Paul’s rather than at the Church of England in general.

Was it this prospect of legal action that also prompted the resignations first of Giles Fraser and then yesterday of the cathedral’s Dean, Graeme Knowles? I guess we will only know if they choose to tell us. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that this occupation, although not originally directed at the cathedral, has exposed massive divisions within it between those who, if not actually colluding with Babylon, want to uphold the status quo, and those who are sympathetic to the protesters’ campaign against the strongholds of Mammon.

I had wondered, indeed even publicly in a comment this morning on a post by Scot McKnight, if the Bishop of London’s intervention today might lead to a harder line against the protesters. After all, Bishop Chartres is very much an establishment figure (it was he who disciplined Bishop Pete Broadbent last autumn for criticising the royal wedding) and might be expected to support the status quo. So I am pleasantly surprised that after meeting with him the cathedral authorities are taking the steps that they have announced. They no doubt hope that this will prompt the protesters to leave their camp, but I don’t think it will.

The events of the last few days have been yet another public relations disaster for the Church of England – or perhaps not, if one subscribes to the view that the only bad publicity is no publicity. But in fact the last major alleged disaster turned into something of a triumph. Can the same happen on this issue? If the church can present itself as agreeing with the strong popular sentiment against excessive corporate greed, but without identifying itself too closely with any specific political positions, then this could greatly enhance the Church of England’s public image. And if this has to be done over the resignations of some church people who would prefer to collude with Babylon, then that can only be for the good.

PS (after about an hour): Although they are on the same site that I linked to above, I have to thank David Keen on Twitter for linking to two recent articles by Ken Costa about the St Paul’s situation: Reconnecting the financial and the ethical (PDF) and Why the City should heed the discordant voices of St Paul’s. These are significant not only for their content but for who is writing this and where he is presenting it: the recently resigned chairman of a major international bank, respectively speaking in the palace of the ruler of Babylon, i.e. the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House, and writing in Mammon’s own daily newspaper, the Financial Times.

Shopping for a church which accepts gifts

Roger MugsRoger Mugs writes, in a post Church Shopping:

I hear a complaint frequently about church goers. Mostly it comes from the leadership of churches when they have people come in and out of their congregation while “church shopping.” I’m not sure who coined this term, but the church goer sees it as a necessary thing to find a church which suits them, and the pastors see it as a bad/sinful thing motivated from unbiblical American consumerism. Afterall, the church isn’t about what the individual can get from the church, they’ll say, but rather what the individual can give to the church.

Roger continues with his own interesting observations on this phenomenon. But I would like to offer a different one. Yes, I’m sure that some people go church shopping looking for “what the individual can get from the church”, and I agree with Roger’s criticism of this. But others, like myself sometimes in the past, go church shopping for “what the individual can give to the church”. After all, if one wants to give something, is it not right to shop around to find a worthy recipient of one’s gift, someone who can be trusted to put it to good use?

Even more to the point is that one needs to find a recipient who will actually accept one’s gift. If a church wants to keep the people who visit it on their church shopping trips, it needs to work on receiving what they have to give. I don’t mean their material offerings – most churches are quick to accept these from visitors. I mean the natural abilities and spiritual gifts, and the time and energy, which these people may have to offer to the fellowship. Too many churches let “lay” people simply sit in their pews and don’t show any interest in what they can give to the body. The same pastors who complain that “the church isn’t about what the individual can get from the church” often don’t give individuals the opportunity to do anything else. No wonder people tend to look around until they find a place where they and their gifts are appreciated.

The Pastor Has No Clothes!

The Pastor Has No ClothesI haven’t read Jon Zens’ new book The Pastor Has No Clothes! But it comes with great recommendations from Frank Viola among others. And I liked Zens’ previous book What’s with Paul and Women?, which I read and reviewed here last year. What’s more, I love the cover picture. Here is part of the product description:

Protestantism carries on with the practice of making the “pastor” the focal point in church. In The Pastor Has No Clothes, Jon Zens demonstrates that putting all the ecclesiastical eggs in the pastor’s basket has no precedent in the New Testament.

So do what I say, but have not yet done: buy the book and read it!

"Kirk to consider gay ordinations": not me!

Reverend Scott Rennie, a gay minister in AberdeenDon’t misunderstand the headline on the BBC news home page this morning

Kirk to consider gay ordinations

This is nothing to do with me! As is clear from the full title of the linked page, Church of Scotland Assembly to debate gay ordinations, my surname is here being used in its alternative sense as a name, or journalistic abbreviation, for the Church of Scotland.

The word “kirk” is a Scottish and northern English dialect variant of “church”, probably of Viking origin. The place name of Danish origin “Kirkby” or “Kirby” is widely attested in northern England, and in the east as far south as Essex, but only in the half of England which was strongly influenced by Danish invasion and settlement, known as the Danelaw.

The word “kirk” is in fact of Greek origin, from kuriakos meaning “the Lord’s”.

My own Kirk ancestors are not Scottish but from Derbyshire in northern England. I have previously posted here a picture of my ancestral home.

Maybe another time I will consider gay ordinations, but not today.