What kind of political animal are you?

I thank the Church Times blog for a link to SUSA, which is a new initiative “led by Bible Society with support from 24-7 Prayer” with the vision

To encourage and equip Christians in the UK to become more extensively and effectively engaged in politics and government.

On the SUSA front page you can take a light-hearted quiz “What kind of political animal are you?”, with questions which allow readers to

create your virtual cabinet and find out how your faith and politics match up!

I took the test, with questions which really made me think, for example about how far it is the government’s job to uphold moral standards. I ended up with a personal “cabinet” consisting of Tony Blair, Che Guevara and Bono! Presumably my views are supposed to line up with theirs. I also received a report complete with cute cartoons of my cabinet members, as well as with a personalised list of recommended resources – you may be able to see it here.

But, better than reading my report, take the test for yourself – and let me know in the comments who is in your cabinet.

Archbishop preaches to Queen, Blair and Brown about "wickedness in high places"

It seems to have been the kind of sermon which an Archbishop would only dare to preach at a memorial service, and one which only at such an event he would have had the opportunity to preach to this kind of congregation. The Queen and much of the Royal Family, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his predecessor Tony Blair were among the congregation in St Paul’s Cathedral as, in Ruth Gledhill’s words in The Times (see also her blog post on the same subject, and the BBC report of the event) Archbishop Rowan Williams

condemned policymakers for failing to consider the cost of the Iraq war as he led a memorial service today for the 179 British personnel who died in the conflict.

It was in the second reading at the service, from Ephesians 6, that these sentiments were expressed:

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Ephesians 6:12 (KJV, as quoted by Ruth Gledhill)

Now I’m sure Her Majesty, Blair and Brown are all biblically literate enough to understand that these words “the rulers of the darkness of this world … spiritual wickedness in high places” refer not human leaders like themselves, but to the devil and his minions. Maybe not all of the congregation would have understood this so clearly. So it is good that, according to the words from this verse which Rowan Williams quoted, the reading actually seems to have come from NRSV, which makes the enemy unambiguously other-worldly:

For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (NRSV – thanks to Rachel for the link)

So Ruth Gledhill was being somewhat naughty to quote the potentially misleading KJV rendering of this verse, rather than the clearer version read out at the service. In NRSV the reading was clearly not referring to anyone in the congregation, and the archiepiscopal sermon was not directly so either. Instead, it contained something even more shocking to some.

We have come to expect bishops to abuse worship by condemning political leaders in their sermons. But we no longer expect them to preach about the devil or any other evil spiritual forces. Somehow it is not considered politically correct within the liberal establishment. Now even this morning the Archbishop was apparently politically correct enough not to use the words “evil” or “devil”. But he did speak of the “invisible enemy”, and in the context the meaning of that phrase was clear.

So what exactly did Archbishop Rowan attribute to this “invisible enemy”? Apparently it, or he,

may be hiding in the temptation to look for short cuts in the search for justice — letting ends justify means, letting others rather than oneself carry the cost, denying the difficulties or the failures so as to present a good public face.

The implication behind these words seems to be that during the Iraq conflict short cuts were taken, indeed perhaps that the whole western invasion of Iraq was a short cut and “letting ends justify means”. So the Archbishop was suggesting that Satan tempted our political leaders, in the UK context primarily Tony Blair but with Gordon Brown then his right hand man, into launching this invasion, and the leaders gave in to this temptation.

This is not so much Blair the Antichrist as Blair the devil’s dupe. Perhaps the Archbishop’s sermon was after all an indirect criticism of the leaders who sat in front of him. So no wonder that

Mr Blair looked solemn as he listened intently to the Archbishop’s address.

Tony Blair does God

His press secretary Alastair Campbell said he didn’t do it. His successor Gordon Brown still won’t do it, at least allow people “to ask him about his own faith, … what he prays about or if he prays before making policy decisions”. But former Prime Minister Tony Blair has now at last broken his silence and “done God”. Recently, for the first time in the UK, he spoke out openly about his faith to a meeting at Holy Trinity, Brompton in London, as reported on a blog at The Guardian and linked to by the Church Times blog.

Indeed this is what I wrote over a year ago, quoting Ruth Gledhill:

he’s not afraid to ‘do God’ now.

But up to this point Blair seems to have “done God” in his works, through his Faith Foundation, but not in his words at least here in the UK.

In his talk at HTB Tony Blair defended his policy of not “doing God” while in office:

If people do not understand how your faith works in your life, they think you go off in a corner and pray and get a divine inspiration as to what the minimum wage should be. People start thinking ‘we have got someone crazy running the country’.

But he clearly doesn’t take the position that faith should in general be an unimportant private matter:

The oddest question I have ever got asked is ‘Is your faith important in your life?’ If you have religious faith, in the end, it is the most important thing in your life; it is not an adjunct, it is the core. …

If I was to say what my Christianity has meant to my life, it would be, that it has given my life more purpose. The saddest thing in any person’s life is to wake up without purpose, and the most joyful thing is to wake up with purpose.

Indeed. He also praised evangelical churches which are

energetic and charismatic, where people are going out and telling people what it is about, you can be better people, create a better world, and go out and do God’s work.

In the light of sentiments like these it is not surprising that the evangelical charismatic audience at HTB accepted him very warmly. Certainly they are not among those  religious nutcases who consider Blair the Antichrist or the false prophet of Revelation. And in view of the limited amount of real change in government policies since Gordon Brown took over I was perhaps too quick to blame Blair personally for his government’s failings. But I do find it hard to forgive him for leading us into the Iraq war. Nevertheless I too am beginning to warm to him.

Blair versus Benedict over homosexuality?

I don’t believe that Tony Blair is the Antichrist, nor that Pope Benedict is. But I won’t be surprised to see accusations of this kind being thrown around in the wake of an astonishing interview which Ruth Gledhill reports, in an article in The Times (also picked up by Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream) and a blog post. At least according to Ruth, the world’s highest profile Roman Catholic convert of recent years has publicly criticised the Pope’s and the Roman Catholic church’s teaching on homosexuality. She reports on her blog that

In an interview with the gay magazine Attitude, Tony Blair says he wants to urge religious figures everywhere, including the Pope, to reinterpret their  religious texts to see them as metaphorical, not literal.

But what did Blair actually say? Did he really call on the Pope to reinterpret the Bible? Not quite. Here is the only part of the full interview, almost at the end, in which the Pope was even mentioned – the interviewer Johann Hari’s questions in bold:

But why do you think so many of the world’s most senior religious figures disagree? The Pope said in a speech that ‘homosexuality is a more or less strong tendency ordered towards an intrinsic moral evil, and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder’, and even compared the tolerance of homosexuality to the destruction of the rainforests.

Again, there is a huge generational difference here. And there’s probably that same fear amongst religious leaders that if you concede ground on an issue like this, because attitudes and thinking evolve over time, where does that end? You’d start having to rethink many, many things. Now, my view is that rethinking is good, so let’s carry on rethinking. Actually, we need an attitude of mind where rethinking and the concept of evolving attitudes becomes part of the discipline with which you approach your religious faith. So some of these things can then result in a very broad area of issues being up for discussion.

That’s when I understand why religious leaders are very reluctant. But I sometimes say that organised religions face the same dilemma as political parties when faced with changed circumstances. You can either hold to your core vote, basically, you know, say: “Look, let’s not break out, because if we break out we might lose what we’ve got, and at least what we’ve got, we’ve got, so let’s keep it”. Or you say, “let’s accept that the world is changing, and let us work out how we can lead that change, and actually reach out”.

Can you foresee a situation where in your lifetime or mine, we would have a pro-gay Pope, for example?

I don’t know, is the honest answer. I don’t know. Look, there are many good and great things the Catholic Church does, and there are many fantastic things this Pope stands for, but I think what is interesting is that if you went into any Catholic Church, particularly a well-attended one, on any Sunday here and did a poll of the congregation, you’d be surprised at how liberal-minded people were.

That’s quite a radical line for a Catholic: to say that the average Catholic congregation speaks for the Catholic Church more than the Pope does?

Well, I’m not going to say that! [Laughs] On many issues, I think the leaders of the Church and the Church will be in complete agreement. But I think on some of these issues, if you went and asked the congregation, I think you’d find that their faith is not to be found in those types of entrenched attitudes. If you asked “what makes you religious?” and “what does your faith mean to you?” they would immediately go into compassion, solidarity, relieving suffering. I would be really surprised if they went to “actually, it’s to do with believing homosexuality is wrong” or “it’s to do with believing this part of the ritual or doctrine should be done in this particular way”.

So not really a declaration of war by Blair on Benedict, much more a call for rethinking on this issue. And he is probably right. I doubt if my own position would please Blair, and certainly not Attitude magazine, but it would also be strongly opposed to the anti-gay prejudice and unwelcoming attitude found in many churches. Blair certainly makes a good point that to maintain its membership the church has to keep up with the times, not to retreat into conservatism for fear of upsetting some of its core members – but I would not take that principle as far as Blair seems to, allowing it to influence central areas of doctrine and ethics.

Will Blair be able to remain in the Roman Catholic Church after this? I guess the Vatican authorities, already hit by recent bad publicity about another British convert, Bishop Richard Williamson, will pretend not to have noticed this interview. It certainly won’t make them happy, but nor will it infuriate them as much as it would have done if Blair had really called on the Pope to change his teaching. Maybe it will actually stimulate some rethinking and appropriate changes of attitude, although I trust that it will not lead to a change in the church’s core teaching on homosexuality.

Faith in Public

The past week has been interesting for discussion of faith in the public arena. I haven’t written about them here, but have made some comments on them on other blogs.

The nurse Caroline Petrie was suspended from her job for offering to pray for a patient – and then reinstated, as reported in The Times. It seems that she wasn’t doing anything wrong – and indeed under new guidelines the colleague who reported her could be accused of religious harassment.

Government minister Hazel Blears gave a speech to the Evangelical Alliance which has provoked various reactions. Eddie Arthur sounded rather negative about this, but in my comment on his post I pointed out the positive side to what she said:

See also this report from the EA, which has a link to the full text of the speech. I note that Blears started by quoting from Isaiah “beat our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.” She also quotes “faith without works is dead.”

The EA seems critical of her for saying “The charter would mean faith groups who are paid public money to provide services … promising not to use public money to proselytise.” But this seems fair enough to me. This kind of separation doesn’t require completely separate charities, just separately accounted for funds like the building funds in many churches.

Now David Keen has written a post which, as well as commenting on these two stories, gives extracts from a speech given by our former Prime Minister Tony Blair to a prayer breakfast in Washington DC. Here are some extracts from the speech:

Today, religion is under attack from without and from within. From within, it is corroded by extremists who use their faith as a means of excluding the other. I am what I am in opposition to you. If you do not believe as I believe, you are a lesser human being.

From without, religious faith is assailed by an increasingly aggressive secularism, which derides faith as contrary to reason and defines faith by conflict. Thus do the extreme believers and the aggressive non-believers come together in unholy alliance.

How sad! I have seen too much of the first kind of attack even on this blog. But Blair continues:

And yet, faith will not be so easily cast. For billions of people, faith motivates, galvanises, compels and inspires, not to exclude but to embrace; not to provoke conflict but to try to do good. This is faith in action.

Then we have the following, which is so reminiscent of the TV show Yes, Prime Minister; I can hardly imagine Tony Blair as Jim Hacker, but it seems that there are real Sir Humphreys in the civil service:

I recall giving an address to the country at a time of crisis. I wanted to end my words with “God bless the British people”. This caused complete consternation. Emergency meetings were convened. The system was aghast. Finally, as I sat trying to defend my words, a senior civil servant said, with utter distain: “Really, Prime Minister, this is not America you know.”

Joel Edwards to join Tony Blair

The Evangelical Alliance has announced, currently on its home page and in a press release, that Rev Joel Edwards who has been its General Director since 1997,

will bring his passion for justice for the poor to two new roles as he joins Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and becomes the first International Director of Micah Challenge.

This is excellent news. I have been somewhat ambivalent about Tony Blair in past posts, although I never seriously called him the Antichrist! But, as I wrote before, his Faith Foundation has the potential to do real good. And that potential is all the more likely to be realised with people like Joel Edwards being brought on board.

I trust that this also means that the Faith Foundation will be supporting the aims of Micah Challenge, which is

a Christian campaign challenging governments around the world to meet the Millennium Development Goals by 2015.

Such a challenge needs not only strong leadership from someone like Joel Edwards but also powerful friends like Tony Blair. I note also (this from the June edition of the Evangelical Alliance’s newsletter youMail, which I received by e-mail and will be available online from 6th June) that Blair’s successor Gordon Brown has endorsed and written a foreword (not a “forward”) to the new book by Edwards and others Micah’s Challenge: The Church’s Responsibility to the Global Poor. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have also endorsed the book. The backing of both past and present Prime Ministers, and of the party leaders hoping to be future Prime Ministers, gives a real chance that these development goals will be met.

But will this campaign get the backing of the new US president, which would probably guarantee success? Maybe that depends on whether American Christians actually think about the poor and needy when making their now clear choice in November.

Tony Blair and God

Ruth Gledhill has written a follow-up to her piece earlier today about Tony Blair, and so I will also write a follow-up to my earlier post.

Ruth reports what Tony had to say about his former press secretary Alastair Campbell’s infamous words “We don’t do God”. Blair said:

In our culture, here in Britain and in many other parts of Europe, to admit to having faith leads to a whole series of suppositions, none of which are very helpful to the practising politician.

He went into this in more detail, reported by Ruth, finishing with this:

And finally and worst of all, that you are somehow messianically trying to co-opt God to bestow a divine legitimacy on your politics.

So when Alastair said it, he didn’t mean politicians shouldn’t have faith; just that it was always a packet of trouble to talk about it.

Ruth is happy to report that with his new Faith Foundation

he’s not afraid to ‘do God’ now.

But I think she goes over the top in her enthusiasm when she writes:

There’s a vacuum in our national religious leadership at present which badly needs filling, and Tony Blair could be just the man to do it.

Yes, there is such a vacuum, but I don’t see that the public will ever trust Blair enough again to let him fill it.

Tony Blair, a good person?

Ruth Gledhill nominates Tony Blair as her ‘Good Person’ for today – and this is not the good joke she refers to in her title. If you haven’t seen that joke, also available internationally and probably permanently here, you really must – and don’t miss this explanation of how it was done. But back to Tony Blair …

Last year I reported on how some people were effectively calling Blair the Antichrist. At the time I suggested that the newly appointed Gordon Brown might have

been waiting in the wings for his chance to undo much of the damage caused by Blair.

Now, nine months into Brown’s government, I see little sign of this. True, Brown has almost ended British involvement in Iraq and partly backed down on identity cards. But in other ways, especially on moral issues, his government is causing even more concern than Blair’s did. So perhaps I should retract any suggestion that Blair was personally to blame for the mistakes of his government, and be prepared to look more favourably on him as a person.

And the same Ruth Gledhill, this time in an article today in The Times, has given me good reason to do so. She reports how he is setting up the Tony Blair Faith Foundation

to contribute to better understanding of the different faiths [and] to bring people of faith together to deliver the Millennium Development Goals … “Tony Blair believes that the capacity of faith organisations to do good is immense and that their reach is unparalleled,” an adviser said.

If Blair is really committed to what he is aiming for here, and can deliver it, he is certainly a “good person” not just for today but hopefully for decades to come.

The man who selected Rowan now abandons him

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has left the Anglican Church to become a Roman Catholic.

This is how the BBC starts its report of this long expected news – long expected at least by Ruth Gledhill, and indeed I was among those predicting it (and more) on the day when he left office.

I thank Tim from Oxford, the first commenter on the BBC report, for reminding me that it was this same Tony Blair who selected Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. This is how the BBC reported this in 2002:

Prime Minister Tony Blair chose Dr Williams from a shortlist of two names, put forward by the Church after months of debate.

Now I am sure that Blair’s reasons for leaving the Church of England have little to do with Rowan Williams. But Tim suggests that it is not right that he has chosen to abandon the leader he chose. Well, I guess Tony Blair the private citizen has the right to choose his own religion, but his abandonment of Rowan and his church is certainly symbolically interesting.

Blair the Antichrist?

Oh dear, Tony Blair’s chair in 10 Downing Street is hardly cold and Cranmer (thanks for the link, Eddie) is effectively proclaiming him the Antichrist. Let’s see, the beast with ten horns (ten years?) who seems to have been slain (well, he did jump before he was pushed) but within hours has been “healed” by being offered a new post as, in Cranmer’s words, “Middle East messiah envoy, where he will set up his throne in Jerusalem”. Throw into the mix his expected conversion to Catholicism and possible candidacy for “Emperor President of Europe”, providing “a pulpit for Mr Blair’s personal philosophy – pro-European, anti-State, anti-individualist, socialist, federalist, ‘third way’ Catholic-ecumenism.” So, plenty of room for wild speculation here.

But I agree with Cranmer in shedding no tears for Tony Blair. However I wish him well in his new job. And I wish well to Gordon Brown his successor, a man who I hope has been waiting in the wings for his chance to undo much of the damage caused by Blair. Well, maybe that is hoping for too much, but at least there should be a chance of real action, and not just spin, on issues of social justice like third world poverty.