Archbishop Rowan's New Statesman media triumph?

Archbishop Rowan WilliamsLate last week, while I was busy with other things, the press and the Christian blogosphere here in the UK went wild over what Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in the New Statesman magazine, in an issue for which he was the guest editor.

But was this affair really the media disaster for the Archbishop which some have made it out to be?

Even before his article was published a storm broke out in the press. The Daily Telegraph started it by portraying Rowan’s words as “a sustained attack on the Coalition [government]”. But the Church Mouse, in a very sensible post about the matter, summarises what the Archbishop actually wrote:

In the entire article, Rowan does not actually criticise a single government policy.  What he does say is that people are afraid of them, and the government needs to explain what is going on better.

After a few days of uncharacteristic silence, Doug Chaplin weighed in with some comments suggesting that this was another PR disaster for the Archbishop, like the 2008 Sharia law affair:

One point I haven’t seen made in the stuff I’ve read – although I’m sure someone has made it – is to ask what’s happened to Rowan’s media person? Surely this is something where they should have got their leak and spin in first? … That kind of news release followed up by phone calls should have trailed the New Statesman well in advance and tried to set the agenda. Did they try and fail, or were they asleep at the keyboard?

In a comment on that post, I mused on whether “Rowan’s media person” even existed. After all, as I reported at the time, in May 2008 the Archbishop decided not to replace his press officer who had resigned. But it seems that rather quickly Rowan saw the error of his ways and, not later than September that year, appointed a certain David Brownlie-Marshall as his press officer.

David Brownlie-MarshallIt wasn’t hard to find out more about Mr Brownlie-Marshall, as his LinkedIn profile and his personal website, not to mention his page looking for work as a model, were easily found with Google. This is how he describes himself at LinkedIn:

I am an ambitious, energetic and entrepreneurial individual, who has worked in PR, Marketing and Social Media roles in London, New York and Edinburgh. My current role at Lambeth Palace involves managing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Social Media strategy.

Somehow, after reflecting overnight on this matter, I don’t think this young man presided over a PR disaster. He is clearly highly creative, even if not an expert in traditional ways of handling the mainstream press. He may well agree with Brendan Behan that

There is no such thing as bad publicity.

So my guess would be that Brownlie-Marshall deliberately provided “their leak and spin” to the Daily Telegraph to provoke the reaction seen in their article, fully intending to start the kind of controversy which we have seen. Perhaps he wants the church to be portrayed as somewhat left-leaning and opposed to government policies. After all, he knows that that will win it a lot of friends. Of course it will also make enemies, but mainly among people who I suspect Brownlie-Marshall, and perhaps also Rowan, secretly despise. I’m sure they would both be very happy to put a final nail in the coffin of the old myth that the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer.

This matter has got the country talking about issues of social justice and how the Christian faith relates to them. And it has enhanced the Archbishop’s reputation, at least among that majority of the country suspicious of government policies in this area, for taking a strong stand on these issues. It has had, I would think, a very positive effect on the Church of England as a whole. Rowan Williams and David Brownlie-Marshall are to be congratulated for how they handled it.

N.T. Wright on Bell's hell and God's love

T.C. Robinson quotes a passage from N.T. Wright (taken from a post by Trevin Wax) in which the bishop emeritus (not I think his formal title) starts by considering the question “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?”, then moves on to discuss Rob Bell’s teaching, presumably taken from his book Love Wins. Here is part of what Wright writes (emphasis added by TCR):

And it seems to be part of [Americans’] faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”

Rob BellIndeed. Wright accepts, as I do but Bell seems not to, that ultimately some people do reject God, and so God rejects them. That means that hell, whatever it is, is not completely empty. It doesn’t mean that we know who is going there, or how many they will be.

But Bell’s main point is one which Wright and I would agree with, that God’s love is more powerful than his wrath. Wherever the church paints a different picture from that, of God as “a horrible ogre”, then the good news, the gospel of Christ, is seriously distorted if not lost completely.

Judgment Day not yesterday: a post-non-mortem

For yesterday, 21st May, Harold Camping and his associates were predicting not just the Rapture but also worldwide earthquakes and Judgment Day. But nothing special seems to have happened. Yes, there was a landslide in Malaysia, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and a small volcanic eruption in Iceland. But these kinds of disasters, sad though they are for those involved, are everyday occurrences.

"We just went for a short walk and then ... poof ... gone ... um ... what's that smell? ... yikes! ... brimstone."

"We just went for a short walk and then ... poof ... gone ... um ... what's that smell? ... yikes! ... brimstone."

As far as I can tell from the news, no one has died from anything which could remotely be called an act of God’s judgment, and, despite some apparent photographic evidence, no one has been raptured either. I suppose somewhere in the world someone might have been trampled underfoot or suffered a heart attack because of rapture fever, but I hope not.

Meanwhile the BBC reports this morning that

the evangelist at the centre of the claim, Harold Camping, has not been seen since before the deadline.

This could mean that he has been raptured, or has died at age 89, but more likely that he is keeping a deliberately low profile. The BBC seems to have missed the news item I posted last night, that Camping’s Family Radio colleagues were conceding in advance that they might be wrong.

In the absence of any bodies I can’t really conduct a post-mortem. But I can offer a sort of post-non-mortem on this whole affair. What lessons can it offer for us, as Christians or as interested outsiders?

Firstly, I would say, we should never trust people like Harold Camping who set themselves up as teachers apart from the church as a whole. I’m not saying that such people are always wrong. Sometimes individuals, even ones without formal training like Camping, find truths in the Bible which have been ignored by the church as a whole. That is one reason why the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture is important. But this happens rather rarely. So others should treat any such claims with a lot of caution until they have broader confirmation. I’m sorry to say it, but the man who, according to the BBC report, “spent more than $140,000 (£86,000) of his savings on advertisements in the run-up to 21 May” was simply being foolish.

Secondly, we need to remember that Jesus clearly told us that the end would come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. He warned that false prophets and apparent signs would mislead people, as indeed they have repeatedly for 2000 years. It is amazing that so many people who call themselves Christians don’t pay attention to this part of his teaching. Rather, as Jeremy Myers writes, while we should “Live like the world will end tomorrow”, we should also “Ignore all future predictions” and “Plan for the future”.

Thirdly, we need to understand better what the Bible really has to say about the future and the return of Jesus. I don’t want to go into details here. But as I have argued here in the past, I don’t believe that Christians will be raptured in the way that people like Camping teach, before the return of Jesus. Tim Chesterton has helpfully linked to a 2001 essay by N.T. Wright Farewell to the Rapture, in which the former Bishop of Durham explains convincingly why the Second Coming “won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account”: in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

Finally, there are lessons for the church on marketing. The well known secular expert in this field Seth Godin has today offered his marketing lesson from the affair, on his blog which I don’t usually read (thanks to my friend tweeting at Adbolts for the link):

Here’s the simple lesson:

Sell a story that some people want to believe. In fact, sell a story they already believe.

I hope you can dream up something more productive than the end of the world, though.

Yes, Camping and friends have done their marketing well to spread their Rapture fever worldwide. I hope that Christians who have a truly biblical message to proclaim can learn better from this how to proclaim that message, not so much of God’s judgment as of his love, of how

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 (NIV 2011)

The Kingdom New Testament: N.T. Wright's new title

N.T. WrightI thank commenter Jonathan for alerting me to an interesting change in the title of N.T. Wright’s forthcoming version of the New Testament. The book title previously announced, including here at Gentle Wisdom, was:

The King’s Version: A Contemporary Translation of the New Testament

Now it has become the following, on the publisher’s product page:

The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation

The publication date has also been pushed back from 27th September 2011 to 29th November 2011. (Update, 3rd September: publication date is now given as 25th October 2011. Still not mention of it as

Available from The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation.

The old title had come in for quite a lot of criticism, for example in comments on the linked post at Better Bibles Blog. The new one, it seems to me, is much better. Any comments?

Auckland Castle: home of Bishops of Durham no longer

Auckland CastleThe Northern Echo confirms what was widely expected:

THE Church of England has confirmed that Auckland Castle will no longer be used as the home of the Bishop of Durham.

The castle, in Bishop Auckland, will still provide offices and the chapel for future bishops, but their living accommodation will be elsewhere in the town.

Thus, what I reported in late March will turn out to be correct: N.T. Wright, who moved to an academic post last year, was the last Bishop of Durham to reside in the 800-year-old castle.

My post in March was mainly about the famous Zurbaran paintings in the castle, and how they were saved for the castle and the nation through a donation by investment manager Jonathan Ruffer. The article in the Northern Echo also suggests how these paintings may be put on public view:

Discussions are still ongoing between Durham County Council and the National Trust over who will run the castle. It is home to the £15m Zurbaran paintings, which were bought last month by millionaire businessman Jonathan Ruffer after a campaign to prevent the Church Commissioners auctioning them.

It is hoped Auckland Castle and the paintings will become a major arts attraction, supported by the National Gallery.

Thanks for the link to Simon Sarmiento on Twitter, retweeted by The Church Mouse.

The King's Version: N.T. Wright's New Testament

HarperCollins has announced:

N.T. WrightThe King’s Version

A Contemporary Translation of the New Testament

By N. T. Wright

On Sale: 9/27/2011

No more details are given, but Timothy of Catholic Bibles speculates that

it will simply be the New Testament translation he did for the For Everybody series of commentaries published by Westminster John Knox Press.

Well, there is hardly a need for yet another English New Testament translation, but it will be fascinating to see what Wright comes up with. But why the title “The King’s Version”? Who is “The King” here? Not Wright, I hope. But I guess this is just a marketing ploy. Thanks to Eddie Arthur on Twitter for the link.

Art from N.T. Wright's old home saved for tourists

N.T. Wright, the world renowned theologian and former Bishop of Durham, may be enjoying his new job as a research professor at the University of St Andrews – which is probably best known today as where Prince William met his bride Kate Middleton. Auckland CastleBut Wright (no relation I think to Chris Wright who I quoted earlier today) is very likely missing his old home, Auckland Castle, which

has been the home of the Bishops of Durham for over 800 years

– but apparently no longer. The BBC reports that the castle is to

become a leading public heritage site, bringing tourism and economic regeneration to the North East.

The works by Zurbaran have been at Auckland Castle for 250 yearsBut there is good news:

Plans to sell off 17th Century paintings which hang in the home of the Bishop of Durham have been shelved after a £15m donation.

Church Commissioners said selling works by Spanish Baroque artist Francisco Zurbaran would have funded Church efforts in poorer areas.

But the donation by investment manager Jonathan Ruffer means the paintings can stay in Auckland Castle.

The Church of England is acutely short of money. So it is not surprising that they decided to sell these assets to fund “Church efforts in poorer areas”. But it would have been a major shame for these wonderful paintings to be taken away from where they

have hung in Auckland Castle, in a room specifically designed and built for them, for 250 years.

So God bless Jonathan Ruffer for providing the £15 million needed to save them. I trust that this money doesn’t disappear into the church’s coffers but is indeed used to fund its work in poor areas.

The Rapture? Why I want to be Left Behind

Ian Paul writes on his blog Psephizo Why I want to be Left Behind. He refers to Matthew 24:36-41. This is one of the main passages used to support the teaching on the Rapture, the idea that at some time before Jesus returns to earth all Christians will be taken away from the earth – and those Left Behind will suffer the worst of the Great Tribulation.

But Ian notes that in this passage the teaching in verses 40 and 41 that some “will be taken” seems to parallel “the flood … took them all away” in verse 39. Thus the ones who “will be taken” are not the ones God is rescuing from disaster but the ones subject to his judgment. So not surprisingly Ian concludes that when this happens he wants to be left behind. So do I!

I note that in the original Greek the parallel is not quite so clear as different verbs are used for “took … away” and “will be taken”. This explains Dick France’s earlier caution about this interpretation, mentioned by Ian. But the parallel seems clear to me even if it is conceptual more than verbal.

Meanwhile the other passage used to support the idea of a Rapture before the return of Jesus teaches no such thing, in fact precisely the opposite. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 it is very clear, from the Greek word epeita “After that” which links these two verses, that it is only after “the Lord himself will come down from heaven” that “we who are alive … will be caught up”. There really is no biblical basis for the popular idea of a secret pre-Tribulation Rapture, which was in fact first put forward clearly as recently as the early 19th century.

So Tom (N.T.) Wright, as quoted by Ian, is surely right about the Matthew passage when he writes:

There is no hint, here, of a ‘rapture’, a sudden supernatural event that would remove individuals from the terra firma….  It is a matter, rather, of secret police coming in the night, or of enemies sweeping through a village or city and seizing all they can.

Thanks to Simon Cozens for the link, in a comment on Eddie Arthur’s post The End of the World Is Nigh (or Is It?).

No more broad bishops in London

The Church of England has always prided itself on being a broad church. The Diocese of London has always been at the heart of that church (and my old home of Chelmsford was within it before 1846), and in recent years has become one of its success stories: from 2001 to 2008 church attendance there grew by 9.1%, compared with an average fall of 5.8% for the whole C of E. Part of the reason for that growth, I am sure, was that the diocese catered for the varied needs and preferences of churchgoers by providing a broad range of churches and services.

That breadth in the diocese was, perhaps accidentally, symbolised in the names of two of the suffragan bishops in the diocese: John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, and Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden. These two bishops with “broad” names also illustrated the breadth of the church: on the right, Broadhurst, who is also chairman of Forward in Faith, as a traditional Anglo-Catholic; and on the left, Broadbent as an evangelical who also calls himself a Christian Socialist.

But now the Diocese of London has lost both of its “broad” bishops in one month, and in doing so has abandoned its broad bent. (Has anyone else managed to get those two words into a sentence together? 😉 )

It was in October that Bishop Broadhurst became one of five Anglican bishops to announce that they would join the Roman Catholic Church and its new Ordinariate. This implied his resignation as Bishop of Fulham, but that was announced officially only in early November (effective from the end of December). A major reason for Broadhurst’s move seems to be his dissatisfaction over exactly how the Church of England plans to introduce women bishops.

Then this Tuesday the Bishop of London asked Bishop Broadbent “to withdraw from public ministry until further notice”, because of his comments on the forthcoming royal wedding, which I mentioned in a previous post.

Now personally I think that Broadhurst did the right thing, because the position he and his fellow “flying bishops” held in the Church of England was always untenable, and this was becoming all the more obvious as the church moved towards accepting women as bishops. On the other hand, I consider that Broadbent has been very badly treated – and I have joined a Facebook page to support him. I also read that former Archbishop Carey has supported Broadbent – this has not been noted as widely as it could because sadly the Murdoch group has chosen to hide content in The Times behind a subscription wall.

But my point in this post is not to debate the issues. Rather it is to note how symbolically the Diocese of London has lost both of its “broad” wings and as a result has become much narrower. Is this the way the Church of England is going? Now that the Anglo-Catholic troublemakers have been edged out, is the same to happen to evangelicals who rock the boat? While Broadbent has not opposed women bishops, he was “one of three serving bishops in the Church of England to refuse to attend the 2008 Lambeth Conference”. While that is not of course the immediate reason for his suspension, it would have been all the easier if he was already in disfavour in high places.

In April this year I reflected:

I think it was Wallace Benn who suggested that a wrong decision on [women as bishops] might lead to the Church of England losing both its evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings. I couldn’t help thinking of the Church as an airliner in the air … The airliner has lost power … and is gradually losing height. If it wants to continue to fly it needs to restart its engines – and it can do that only by turning to God. But the worst decision it could make is to cut off both its wings. Without them it cannot even glide to a relatively soft crash landing; its only hope is to plunge straight to disaster. So please, Church, let’s avoid that, stop bickering about side issues, and look to God to regain the power to fly.

Well, the Church of England has already lost much of its “broad” right wing, with the departure of the “flying bishops” (who can no longer fly apart from the airliner!) and their supporters. Perhaps it could continue to fly on “a wing and a prayer”. But the worst thing it could do is to cut off its “broad” left wing for the sake of balance.

However, I write this as someone who has effectively jumped off the threatened left wing – that is, the Broadbent rather than the Broadhurst one. In September, when my wife and I moved to Warrington in the north of England, we started to attend Oasis church in the town, which is outside the Church of England and flying its own independent course. Perhaps as the Church of England pursues its relentless course towards a crash we should all be looking for other ways to keep aloft and moving closer to God.