Tuesday, 27 February 2018

How should we remember Billy Graham?

Billy Graham represented a dying breed of principled evangelical leaders
Evangelicals don't have a Pope, but if they did there is only one person who could ever have been a serious contender for the role: The Reverend Billy Graham. Graham, who died last week at the age of 99, was one of the colossal figures of the 20th Century, a rare example of a religious leader who was loved by both his followers and those who disagreed with his theological viewpoints. He was frequently listed as one of the most admired people in the world, whilst his preaching reached millions across the globe, and he served as a spiritual advisor to every US President from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. With the exception of Queen Elizabeth II, it is difficult to think of any other living person whose public life has spanned such a long period of our modern history, and that alone makes Billy Graham truly remarkable.

That isn't to say that his legacy is without its complications, and it would be wrong to remember Graham without also recognising the less attractive aspects of his life and ministry. On the one hand, this was a man whose passion and charisma brought many to faith for the first time, an individual who brought the Bible to life and filled arenas and stadiums with curious people from all backgrounds. Nevertheless, his message was that of conservative evangelical Protestantism, with all its social, cultural and theological baggage, and whilst there were always many who were more hardline than Graham, he was hardly a progressive or a reformer. He was slow to endorse the civil rights movement. He flirted with anti-Semitism and privately voiced concerns about Jewish influence on the government as late as 1972. He consistently upheld the view that homosexuality is sinful ('we traffic in homosexuality at the peril of our spiritual welfare'). This is all part of his legacy, and we do ourselves no favours by seeking to airbrush out the aspects of Billy Graham's ministry that we personally find distasteful.

However, just as we cannot ignore these things, we must also be careful not to blow them out of all proportion. Graham's questionable stance on race and sexuality must not be the only lens through which we examine his legacy, as this would cause us to ignore the incredibly positive contributions he made in the lives of millions of individuals, and in the life of the American evangelical movement. It is also important to remember that Graham was a product of his early-20th Century upbringing in rural North Carolina. When put into context, and certainly when compared with his evangelical contemporaries, what stands out isn't Graham's conservatism but his lack of judgementalism.

Unlike many other evangelical leaders, Graham tempered his fundamentalist theology with a generous open-mindedness and a desire to work with other Christians from all denominations. He co-operated with mainline and liberal Protestants, and even with Roman Catholics, preferring a 'big tent' approach rather than an evangelical exclusivity, and after his early hesitance on the issue of civil rights he later became a good friend of the cause, inviting Martin Luther King to pray at one of his rallies. He even came to accept the ordination of women as ministers and preachers after hearing his daughter Anne preach. Whilst he never accepted a more progressive stance on LGBT issues during his lifetime, he also never indulged in the obsessive homophobia that continues to consume much of the evangelical world. His reluctance to pass judgement on others distinguished him from contemporaries such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell; it also distinguished him from his own son and successor.

The tale of Billy and Franklin Graham is a microcosm of the broader shifts that are currently at work within American evangelicalism. The ministry of Graham the father was rooted in his interpretation of the Gospel and his desire to spread this message to as many people as possible, whereas Graham the son has a far more hard-edged and overtly political agenda. Franklin Graham may never influence Presidents in the way that his father did, yet he is far more immersed in the world of partisan politics, taking on the mantle of de facto leader of the Christian Right. The movement that Billy Graham spearheaded was always focused on outreach, crossing political and doctrinal lines in order to build broad and sometimes unexpected alliances, and the late Reverend's closest friends included Pope John Paul II, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. In contrast, Franklin Graham and his peers are more interested in consolidation around a narrow form of political and theological conservatism.

Franklin Graham has far more in common with bigots such as Falwell and Robertson than his father, and his rise is evidence that the American evangelical movement is straying far from the high-minded principles espoused by Billy Graham. As Stephen Prothero puts it in Politico, Franklin is 'rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope and love, but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.' Unlike so many prominent preachers, Billy Graham was never a demagogue, a partisan or a strident culture warrior; his son, on the other hand, is all three. Whereas Billy refused to condemn Islam in the wake of 9/11, Franklin has described Islam as 'wicked and evil' and become a standard-bearer for Christian Islamophobia. Franklin has also questioned Barack Obama's Christianity, fiercely denounced homosexuality with far more vitriol and frequency than his father, and enthusiastically endorsed Donald Trump. The elder Graham may have advised a dozen Presidents, but he never publicly backed the political agendas of any of them. Indeed, in 2011 he warned against pastors becoming too closely associated with politicians.

It would be unfair to blame Billy Graham for his son's stridency, yet the future ministry of Franklin Graham will undeniably shape the way that the older man is remembered. Billy Graham built a mighty religious movement, but he could not prevent the keys being passed to a son who embodies none of his father's grace, generosity and inclusiveness, with dire consequences for American evangelicalism. Just a few decades ago, Billy Graham was the evangelical Pope, but today he has been replaced on that cherished plinth by none other than Donald Trump, as the movement he once led morphs into the Republican Party at prayer. To quote Stephen Prothero, American evangelicalism is now primarily a 'political rather than a spiritual enterprise.' If it is ever to regain its moral authority, it could do a lot worse than to revive the true legacy of Billy Graham.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The skewed priorities of American evangelicals

Evangelical leaders pray with President Donald Trump
'The Christian Right is neither Christian nor right.' This oft-quoted saying is not new, having been used to criticise American evangelicals for decades, but in light of recent events it is clear just how tragically accurate this irreverent statement really is. With white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, much of Texas underwater following the devastation of Hurricance Harvey, and the renewed threat of nuclear war from North Korea, this summer has brought its fair share of horrors. However the collective voice of American evangelicalism has chosen not to speak out on any of these crises, unless one counts a rambling statement from Texas pastor Robert Jeffress claiming that God has given Donald Trump the authority to 'take out' North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un. Instead, evangelical leaders have doubled down on their favourite pastime - condemning homosexuality - whilst remaining silent on the issues that matter and stubbornly refusing to condemn their increasingly erratic and cruel President.

Last week, 150 prominent figures from the evangelical world signed a 14-article document that has since become known as the Nashville Statement, a comprehensive affirmation of conservative beliefs regarding gender and sexuality. The Statement covered the usual points, condemning same-sex marriage and gender reassignment, but it also went further in its fundamentalism. Article VII appears to imply that 'practicing' LGBT people are beyond God's redemption, whilst Article X states that 'it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism' and denies that such issues are secondary matters where Christians can 'agree to disagree.' Among the signatories of this document are the pastor and writer John Piper, Anglican theologian JI Packer, and Focus On The Family founder James Dobson.

It beggars belief that evangelicals insist on talking about gender and sexuality in the week of Hurricane Harvey, and even some conservative Christians have criticised the timing of the Nashville Statement. Likewise, it is depressing (if utterly unsurprising) to see socially conservative voices attack LGBT rights once again whilst remaining silent when it comes to the conduct of President Trump. Indeed, several of the Statement's signatories are members of Trump's Evangelical Advisory Council, whilst many more supported and endorsed him during the presidential election. Opposition to homosexuality is a central plank of conservative evangelical belief, and whilst this is regrettable there are many good and principled people who hold such a view out of good conscience based on their interpretation of Scripture. However, when you condemn LGBT relationships whilst standing beside a serial adulterer who has boasted of his sexual exploits in the most vulgar language imaginable, you lose all moral credibility.

When these pro-Trump evangelicals attack homosexuality, it is clear that this is not a matter of principle or thoughtful Christian witness, but a bigoted last gasp from a group that is seeing its influence seep away. The culture wars are over, and they have been won by the liberals; same-sex marriage is now authorised in all fifty states, Roe v. Wade is here to stay, and an African-American has served as President whilst many more continue to serve in Congress, the Supreme Court and local and state government. That isn't to say that prejudice has disappeared - the election of Donald Trump proves that America still has a long way to go - but evangelicals know that irreversible progress has taken place on all of the hot-button issues that they care about so much. Backed into a corner and with public opinion increasingly turning against them, the Christian Right are becoming more and more shrill in the vain hope that it may help them to regain some kind of influence.

The Nashville Statement is a clear example of the prejudices of the Christian Right, but equally disturbing is the deafening silence from those same evangelical figures when it comes to more pressing concerns. When white supremacists whipped up violence in Charlottesville in a demonstration that ended up killing an innocent woman, there was no unified evangelical voice condemning these actions and the toxic racism that underpins them. When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas last week, televangelist Joel Osteen shut the doors of his 17,000-seater Houston megachurch rather than taking in the displaced, and on Sunday he told victims of the storm not to wallow in a 'poor old me mentality.' And this week, with the Trump administration announcing the abolition of the Obama-era DACA scheme that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to apply for work and study permits, evangelicals seem to have little to say to those young people who now face deportation thanks to the cruelty of a President who won 80% of evangelical votes last November.

There is hope for the American Church, however, and outside of the fundamentalist churches lies a generous and inclusive Christianity which has more than stepped up to the mark on these issues and more. This hope is embodied in the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, who formed the core of the anti-racist counter-protests against the KKK and other white supremacist groups during last month's riots. It is also found in the several responses to the Nashville Statement from LGBT-affirming Christian leaders, from Nadia Bolz-Weber's 'Denver Statement' to the Christians United document which mirrored the format of the Nashville Statement but with a very different message, proclaiming the full acceptance, love and inclusion of LGBT people within the life of the Church. If American Christianity is to have a bright future it must resemble these brave voices and stand up for justice, equality and compassion, whilst rejecting the fundamentalist and morally compromised stance of the Christian Right.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

50 years legal: what the Archbishops should have said

The Archbishops' statement on the legalisation of homosexuality was incredible in its insensitivity
The last few months have been very promising indeed for the state of the Church of England. Back in February, General Synod rejected a House of Bishops report on human sexuality that affirmed a status quo position on LGBT rights, and earlier this month a whole slate of progressive motions were passed by Synod, committing the Church to a more inclusive stance on transgender issues, licensing the creation of liturgies to welcome people after their transition, and backing a ban on gay conversion therapies. Finally, liberal voices appear to be winning the arguments of the day, and the Church hierarchy is responding. Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool and one of the more progressive figures in the House of Bishops, has become a patron of his city's Pride festival, and in the Synod debate on banning gay conversion treatments, one of the most powerful speeches in favour of a ban came from the Archbishop of York John Sentamu, a man who is hardly known for his liberalism.

The Church is certainly moving in the right direction, and with the Scottish Episcopal Church recently voting to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies to be held in its churches, it is not inconceivable that the Church of England may follow the lead of their more progressive cousins north of the border. Despite his evangelical background, Justin Welby has proven to be a leader who is willing to move the Church in the right direction, and although he remains formally opposed to same-sex marriage one wonders whether he holds a more inclusive view in private. However, none of this progress was on display today, as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a joint statement to mark the 50th anniversary of the legalisation of homosexuality in England.

In almost every conceivable way, this was a statement that was utterly tone deaf and insensitive. I will examine the statement paragraph by paragraph, and lay out what the Archbishops should have said:

"Today is the 50th Anniversary of the Act of Parliament passed in 1967 which decriminalised homosexual acts in our Country. The Church of England, led by Archbishop Ramsey, was supportive of the Sexual Offences Act."

The opening paragraph of the statement, this is perhaps the most insulting part; not for what it says, but for what it neglects to mention. The Church of England may have supported the legalisation of homosexuality, but by putting this at the front and centre of the statement the Archbishops immediately attempt to position the Church on the right side of the debate, rather than acknowledge the incredible amount of pain that the Church has caused (and continues to cause) in its rejection of full LGBT equality. A bit of humility, and even an apology for using Scripture to deny every subsequent step forwards - on everything from gay adoption to civil partnerships and same-sex marriage - would have been nice.

"In January 2016 the majority of the leading Archbishops of the whole global Anglican Communion - almost 80 million people in 165 countries - confirmed the longstanding view of the Communion that diminishing and criminalising homosexual people is wrong."

The second paragraph makes the same mistake as the first, using one fairly limited example of progressive thinking to whitewash the Church's stance. The Archbishops would have been better off apologising for the fact that, at that same 2016 meeting of Church leaders, the Anglican Communion took the decision to suspend their most progressive member - the US Episcopal Church - for its acceptance of same-sex marriage and LGBT clergy. This was a decision that was greatly influenced by pressure from Anglican bishops in Africa, Asia and elsewhere who have worked with their governments to craft draconian laws prohibiting homosexuality.

"The Church, not just the Church of England, but all those who follow Jesus Christ and whose lives are committed to his worship and service, has very often been defined by what it is against. It has condemned many things, and continues to do so, very often correctly, for example when they involve the abuse of the poor, or the weak, or the marginalised. The Church is called more to be identified by what it loves, most of all by its pointing to Jesus Christ, not merely by what it condemns. Many people who have nothing to do with the institutional church and who seldom, if ever, attend it, nevertheless see in Jesus Christ someone of startling and extraordinary attraction. Many homosexual people follow Christ, drawn to him by his love and his outstretched arms welcoming all those who turn to him."

This is the most acceptable paragraph; indeed, the sentiments it expresses are very welcome. However, whilst acknowledging the presence of LGBT Christians within the Church, it offers them little in terms of active acceptance and still falls short of recognising and apologising for the pain that the Church's positions have caused.

"One of the things he said has been much on our minds recently: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). There is no human being to whom this does not apply. Every single one of us needs to lay our burdens on Jesus. For every single one of us, the burden that is most onerous, most difficult to bear, is the burden of what the Bible calls our sin, our failure to live as we ought, our continued falling short of the mark. It is the universal characteristic of being human that we are sinners."

This is where things get particularly unpleasant, with the statement moving from naivety and a somewhat arrogant lack of humility to the overt use of the language of sin. Having read and re-read these words several times, I still cannot understand why the Archbishops felt the need to talk about sinful behaviour and 'our failure to live as we ought.' Surely they're not implying that the LGBT community are sinners because of their sexuality or gender identity? This language - the language that we are all sinners, and homosexuality is just one of many sinful practices - is the exact language used by conservatives to appear accepting whilst continuing to preach that same-sex relationships 'fall short of the mark.'

"Sin is not a characteristic of a particular group of people. Sin is the same for all of us. And the challenge to take onto ourselves the obligation to be yoked with Christ, to bear the load he gives us, is the same for all of us. This day of anniversary of the 1967 Act is one when the Church in this land should be conscious of the need to turn away from condemnation of people as its first response. When we rightly celebrate what happened 50 years ago today, we do so best by turning to him and saying, 'Yes, we take your yoke on our shoulders with you.'"

This final paragraph reinforces the idea that homosexuality is one of many sins, and that whilst it shouldn't be singled out for criticism it should be recognised as such.

This statement was a great opportunity for the Archbishops to demonstrate just how far they were moving the Church. It could have reflected the words of Bishop Paul Bayes at Synod, who categorically stated that homosexuality is not a sin to be cured. It could have gone on to state that homosexuality should never have been a crime in this country, whilst recognising that over the past half-century the Church has consistently lagged behind society in its acceptance (or lack thereof) towards LGBT people. It could have even been used to put forward a radical and bold announcement of support for same-sex marriage in church, a tactile and practical expression of remorse for the homophobia that has plagued the Church. Instead it doubled down on the outdated bigotries of the past, incorporating the language of sin that has been used to ostracise LGBT Christians for so long.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

In defence of Tim Farron

Tim Farron's views on same-sex relationships have come under scrutiny over the past week
Whatever one thinks of his political views, it is difficult to deny that Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron is one of the good guys of British politics. An amiable, earnest northerner, Farron is likeable and principled, as well as possessing a good sense of humour; when he appeared as a guest panelist on the satirical TV show Have I Got News For You he came across as natural, self-deprecating and genuinely funny, in contrast with most politicians who reluctantly subject themselves to an evening with Paul Merton and Ian Hislop in order to appear more normal. Never mind his utterly objectionable views on Brexit, which he passionately opposes and overtly seeks to undermine - Farron is a good sort, and politics could do with a few more like him in all parties.

All of this makes the events of the last week even more upsetting, as Farron has been hounded by the press over his views on same-sex relationships. An evangelical Christian, he had previously been attacked during the 2015 Liberal Democrat leadership election over his decision to abstain from voting on the third reading of the same-sex marriage bill, a decision which he has since claimed to regret. Now, with the general election campaign in full swing, Farron is seeking to mobilise the Liberal Democrats as the primary voice of the 48% of British voters who opted to remain within the European Union in last summer's referendum, a moderate alternative to the increasingly polarised two main parties. The only problem is that so far, his election campaign has been completely overshadowed by his refusal to clarify whether he believes gay sex is sinful.

Today, Farron has finally moved to end this saga by stating that he does not view homosexual relations as sinful, whilst going on to say that 'as a political leader, my job is not to pontificate on theological matters.' He is right to draw this distinction between his own religious beliefs and his role as a political leader, and this entire episode has revealed the deeply distasteful lengths that the media is prepared to go to in order to smear a prominent Christian politician. For the record, I do not believe that homosexual relationships are sinful either, and unlike Mr Farron I do not hail from a wing of the Church where such a view is commonplace. However, in the past I have attended evangelical churches like the one that Mr Farron is a member of, and within such congregations the standard view is that homosexual acts are not compatible with ethical Christian living. This is not a fringe opinion held exclusively by fundamentalist zealots - indeed, according to data from the British Social Attitudes survey, a third of British Anglicans, the denomination to which Mr Farron belongs, believe that same-sex relationships are 'always' or 'almost always' wrong.

Now from a theological standpoint, I regret the prevalence of such attitudes within the Christian community, even in a relatively liberal denomination such as the Church of England. I could spend all day arguing my case for why I believe the biblical case against homosexuality is flimsy at best, relying on a few misinterpreted passages that have been ripped from their original context. Notice that Jesus never mentioned homosexual acts, nor do the Ten Commandments; the only Bible references we have are either alongside other ancient laws such as the prohibition of shellfish, or in a few writings of St Paul who was talking about the abusive and pederastic relationships between older men and their young slaves which were commonplace at that time. However, whatever conclusions our own understanding of the Bible leads us towards, we should all be concerned about the treatment of Tim Farron on this issue. By forcing him to clarify his own religious beliefs, the media has strayed into inappropriate territory and effectively questioned whether a conservative Christian can hold political office in Britain.

Of course it is entirely reasonable to examine Tim Farron's voting record on LGBT issues and to decide whether or not to vote for him on this basis; for some, his hesitance on same-sex marriage is enough to stop them from backing the Liberal Democrats (although it must be said that he did vote for the bill in the end), whilst others will look at his record and see that on social issues, Farron has consistently backed socially progressive causes including LGBT rights. That is a legitimate examination of where a political leader stands on the issues, and it is up to the individual voter to draw their own conclusions from the evidence. However, what is not acceptable is for the media to grill Mr Farron on what is inside his heart regarding matters of religion and faith. As long as he is not doing anything to negatively impact LGBT people, his own personal beliefs and attitudes should be a private matter.

The hounding of Mr Farron only fuels the arguments of those conservative Christians who seem to revel in their perpetual victim mentality, the fundamentalists who believe that this nation is becoming increasingly hostile towards orthodox Christianity. Of course, these are the same people who hold truly objectionable views on LGBT issues, and who would not hesitate in rolling back same-sex marriage, civil partnerships and other socially progressive achievements if they were given the opportunity; quite a contrast with the mild-mannered Mr Farron. It also reveals a double standard within the media, forcing Christian politicians to justify their views whilst refusing to hold adherents of other faiths to the same high standard. No one has ever grilled the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, whether he believes, as a practicing Muslim, that homosexual acts are sinful, and rightly so; faith should be beyond the remit of media scrutiny as long as it isn't translated into discriminatory policy decisions.

Friday, 17 February 2017

A small step forward at General Synod

Could the Church of England be on the verge of embracing LGBT inclusion?
As decision-making bodies go, the General Synod of the Church of England is one of the more complex. Comprised of three houses - Bishops, Clergy and Laity -  and 467 individual members, this bureaucratic monster is responsible for overcoming the differences between the Church's warring factions and attempting to impose some form of coherent governance. Every kind of Anglican voice imaginable is represented; catholics and evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, and everything else in between. This makes consensual decision-making hard, a problem which is exacerbated by the fact that certain decisions can only be approved if they have the backing of a majority in all three houses. This makes progress painfully slow, as demonstrated a few years ago during the women bishops debate when the House of Laity vetoed the move to consecrate women despite the fact that over 70% of Synod members backed the measure. An instrument of revolutionary change, it is certainly not.

Nevertheless, the complexities of General Synod do sometimes work in favour of the Church's progressive voices. This week, as Anglicans gathered once again at London's Church House, the item at the top of the agenda was an old battleground that has pitted liberals and conservatives against each other for decades - LGBT rights. Last month, the House of Bishops produced a report on this issue in an attempt to clarify the Church's stance and provide some form of reconciliation between the factions, but ultimately the report turned out to be a classic Anglican fudge that pleased no one and left everyone feeling let down. Conservatives were concerned that the report recommended the provision of 'maximum freedom' to recognise same-sex relationships, whilst liberals were saddened that the bishops continued to rule out full equality; after all, what use is 'maximum freedom' when it must be exercised within boundaries that are hugely limiting?

For years, the Church of England has done a lot of talking on the subject of LGBT equality and a lot of apologising for its homophobic past, but time and again it has failed to recognise the homophobia that it continues to propagate today. LGBT Christians are made to feel like second-class citizens within the Church, and the bishops' report did not offer any real change to this situation beyond the usual shallow rhetoric; churches would still be prevented from hosting same-sex weddings, gay and lesbian priests would still be barred from getting married, and marriage would still be formally defined as being exclusively between a man and a woman. This thin gruel has never been enough for those who hunger for real change, and progressive Christians are no longer willing to swallow it.

The legal introduction of same-sex marriage in 2014 forced the Church to rethink its position on same-sex relationships, and in recent months the bishops have claimed to be listening to LGBT voices through the much-trumpeted 'shared conversations' that have occurred at diocesan level. Their report dashed any hopes of immediate reform, instead proving that the most intolerant voices continue to hold sway, but this week General Synod has rekindled the optimism of progressives by striking down the report. In a result which was a mirror image of the frustrating battles over women bishops, two of the three houses voted to 'take note' of the bishops' recommendations, but they were vetoed by the House of Clergy which voted 100 to 93 against. It is a result which highlights the deep divisions that exist within the Church on this issue, but it also provides fresh hope for a more inclusive future.

Speaking in response to the report's defeat, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called for a 'radical new Christian inclusion' centred on 'love, joy, and celebration of our humanity... without exception.' Such words are not particularly different from the usual language of inclusion that has proven to be so hollow when spoken by senior bishops, but maybe this time things will be different. After all, this was a decision that was made not by bishops, nor by the famously conservative House of Laity, but by the ordinary clergy who are sick and tired of being told that they cannot bless or marry same-sex couples. If Church leaders are serious about paving the way for greater inclusion, they must start by listening to their priests rather than continuing to issue edicts from above.

So what would this look like in practice? Well, the Church could start by giving clergy genuine freedom when it comes to celebrating same-sex relationships. Of course conservative congregations should not be forced to act against their beliefs, but those priests that do wish to bless or even marry same-sex couples should be allowed to do so. In the same way that incumbents can decide whether or not to marry divorcees, the matter of same-sex marriage ceremonies should be in the hands of individual clergy, a policy which would allow liberal churches and conservative churches to conduct themselves in accordance with their own beliefs.

Likewise, the Church needs to urgently rethink its approach to LGBT priests whilst acknowledging the pain that has been caused by the current policy. Although gay and lesbian clergy are allowed to enter into civil partnerships, they are officially barred from getting married to a same-sex partner and are obliged to make a formal vow of celibacy. Another half-hearted Anglican fudge drawn up to give the impression of being inclusive, this policy is insulting, degrading and inhumane, giving more zealously conservative bishops an excuse to poke their noses into the private lives of their clergy. Whilst we must accept that we are probably a long way off from full equality, we cannot be content with the hypocrisy of the existing system, a framework which propagates the view that sexual acts between two people of the same sex are somehow unnatural, ungodly or inappropriate.

The Church of England has a long way to go, and the rejection of the bishops' report is just a tentative step towards a more progressive and inclusive future. However, it was an important step nonetheless, and hopefully it will send a clear message to senior Anglicans who have falsely assumed that the status quo is sufficient to hold the Church together. Justin Welby and others can talk the talk when it comes to LGBT equality, indicating that they are willing to open the doors of the Church to everyone regardless of sexuality, but the time has now come for them to put those words into action and push for real change after years of meagre half-measures. The LGBT community, and indeed all progressive Christians, deserve much more than they are currently getting from their Church.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Fighting religious extremism in the age of Trump

All religions are prone to violence, something which can only be overcome through dialogue
In a nation as diverse and multicultural as Britain, dialogue and understanding between religions is surely something to be encouraged. Nevertheless, last month saw two British cathedrals become the target of a bitter backlash over elements of their interfaith work. In Gloucester Cathedral, a local imam kicked off the city's Faith Exhibition by performing the Muslim call to prayer within the chancel of this ancient Christian church, whilst 300 miles away in Glasgow, an Epiphany service in the city's Anglican cathedral attracted attention for containing a reading from the Qur'an. Indeed, the latter incident caused such controversy that the leader of the Scottish Anglican Church issued a statement claiming to be 'deeply distressed at the widespread offence which has been caused.' Are such episodes further proof of a dangerous liberalism that is eroding the central tenets of Western Christianity, or do they in fact point towards the possibility a more inclusive position for people of all religions and none?

I wholeheartedly take the latter view, and find it hard to understand why anyone would complain about people of different religions coming together and focusing on what they have in common rather than that which divides them. Too often we view interfaith work as a necessary evil, something that we as people of faith have to do in order to at least look like we care about promoting understanding and cohesion, but this lukewarm approach just will not cut it anymore. With each year that goes by, Britain is becoming a more diverse and pluralistic country, yet hostilities and prejudices between religious communities are rising; if we are to lead the way in promoting partnership and friendship between different religions, then we must engage in interfaith programmes which are bold and ambitious, even if we do ruffle a few feathers in the process.

Despite our diversity, Britain is not a good place to be a person of a minority faith. Islamophobia is a real phenomenon as people offload their rightful disgust at Islamic extremism onto the vast majority of British Muslims who are peaceful patriots, whilst British Jews face a staggering increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the country. The careless use of language by many on the political left when discussing Israel has served to legitimise such hostility towards the Jewish community, with anti-Semitism being renamed 'anti-Zionism' in an attempt to give it some kind of academic credence, and the result has been a recreation of the problems which plague the Middle East on the streets of Britain's largest cities. Instead of recognising one another as people of faith and fellow worshipers of the Abrahamic God, Christians, Muslims and Jews are too often locked in a seemingly endless cycle of distrust, suspicion and hatred. This is what really poses the greatest threat to the moral fabric of our pluralistic society.

As the former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out in his wonderful book Not In God's Name, religious violence is not limited to one particular faith or creed. In the age of Trump, it is popular to assume that the problem lies solely with radical Islam, and a glance at the headlines would seem to vindicate that view. One cannot merely dismiss the actions of ISIS and other militant groups as being unrelated to Islamic thinking; after all, this was the approach of Barack Obama, who refused to publicly refer to radical Islam in the naive hope that doing so would reduce anti-Muslim sentiment. Instead, eight years of Obama's passivity produced President Donald Trump, a man who came to power by promising a 'total and complete shutdown' of Muslims entering the United States. We cannot ignore the relationship between radical and mainstream Islam - the two are not so far apart as many Western liberals would like to believe - but neither can we pretend that Islam is the only religion with a violence problem. All religions are prone to acts of unspeakable cruelty, a fact which is an inevitable by-product of belief in a higher power.

Just as every human is capable of performing acts of great love and altruism and acts of hatred and selfishness, the same is true with every major religion. At its best, faith inspires us to replicate the love of God, to become more fully human and to strive for justice here on earth, whilst also calling us towards lives of service and humility as we seek the divine and recognise the sacred in each other. These overwhelmingly positive aspects of religion represent what is good about belief in the supernatural, and they stand in stark contrast with the harshness of secular materialism which judges human life by how much one can accumulate rather than how much can be given away in the service of others. Nevertheless, there is a flip-side to religious belief, and as Rabbi Sacks points out it is one which is particularly prevalent within those monotheistic faiths that make exclusive claims about God. Instead of emphasising the common good and that shared humanity which cuts across sectarian lines, religion too often creates a divisive 'us and them' mentality, pitting a cleansed people against an 'unsaved' world whereby only the adherents of the correct doctrines will be allowed to enter the kingdom of Heaven. This is what fuels the brutal actions of ISIS, but it is also the same mindset that infects much of modern Christian discourse, grossly devaluing the sanctity of human life in the process. An exclusively Muslim phenomenon, it is certainly not.

If religion is to be a force for peace and understanding, transforming the world through the power of the sacred, we must follow the lead of Jonathan Sacks and other similarly enlightened thinkers within all of the great faiths by binning this theological dualism which creates suspicion and hatred just as much as the inflammatory rhetoric of the likes of Donald Trump. That isn't to say that we must turn our backs on the beliefs and principles which make up the core of our faith traditions, but we must reject any attempts to define God along narrow partisan lines. One of the ways we can start this process is by engaging with people of other faiths and discovering the sacred in those traditions which are alien to us; in other words, by continuing in the steps of those cathedrals in Glasgow and Gloucester. All creeds, holy books and theological doctrines have the potential to make people turn inwards, forming closed and exclusive communities, but the God of Love calls us to a life marked by radical friendship, limitless grace and extravagant generosity. By accepting this call, we have the potential to transform our divided world and to promote a sacred unity whereby all humans are recognised as the children of God.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

The Christmas God

The Nativity offers us a unique snapshot of God's character
Last Sunday evening I attended a candlelit carol service at a central London church, something which turned out to be a fantastic ninety minutes of beautiful choral music, stirring readings and some of my favourite Christmas hymns. However, the highlight of the service was not any of these, nor was it the experience of sitting alongside four-hundred other people in a cavernous church illuminated only by the flickering of our own individual candles. The moment that will stand out in my memory was the short but effective sermon, a humorous address which exposed what the real meaning of Christmas really is.

'He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good so be good for goodness' sake.' These are, of course, lyrics from a popular (secular) Christmas song, referring not to God or to Jesus but instead to the character of Santa Claus, warning children that their Christmas wishes will only come true if they are well-behaved and saintly throughout the year. These words formed the backbone of Sunday night's sermon, and despite the obvious humour and lightheartedness it was clear what point the preacher was trying to make.

Christians are very good at cutting through the secular iconography and pointing out that Christmas is, in fact, all about the birth of Christ, but do they still continue to hold onto a 'Santa Claus model' of God where we are instructed to shut up and behave, or else? Does our modern view of the Gospel bear more than a passing resemblance to the words of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with the only difference being the punishment for disobedience? After all, Santa may have an infinite supply of lumps of coal to fill the stockings of unruly children, but God has access to a pit of fire and a state of eternal conscious torment. 'You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I'm telling you why...' 

The point of Sunday's sermon was that this popular characterisation of God is inaccurate and does not describe the deity who broke into this world through the birth of Jesus Christ. For many Christians, God is someone or something to be feared; in the words of the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, fundamentalists tend to view God as a 'punishing, capricious, angry bastard with a killer surveillance system.' This is certainly the 'Santa Claus model' of God that we urgently need to reject, a somewhat totalitarian figure who weighs up our actions or our adherence to certain doctrinal positions before deciding whether or not to share his Kingdom with us or throw us into his never-ending torture machine.

The problem is, this raging deity is very different from the God described in Psalm 145; here we are told that God is 'gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.' He is not a violent and controlling being who is ready to dole out disproportionate punishment on a majority of humanity, but instead he is 'good to all' and 'has compassion on all he has made.' Nowhere is this more apparent than in the life of Jesus, where God's infinite and deep love for the world takes human form, and in the Christmas story we are presented with the real face of God; not a powerful warrior, a terrifying tyrant or a heartless monster, but an innocent and vulnerable infant born into poverty in a part of the world scarred by political turmoil and upheaval.

There are some real questions about the birth narratives of Jesus that liberal Christian scholars have rightfully asked. After all, the four gospels contradict each other in their telling of the Nativity story, whilst some of the details that we take for granted today are clearly nothing more than elaborate myth put in place by the writers to emphasise the significance of Jesus. As John Shelby Spong points out, Christians in the 21st Century should not be expected to suspend their intellectual credibility in order to profess belief in a star which guided Wise Men to the birthplace of Jesus like a cosmic GPS system (and that actually led them to Herod's palace anyway). Our scientific knowledge of stars renders this story impossible, whilst one must also question why so-called 'Wise Men' would decide to follow a star for miles in the first place.

However, the facts surrounding these biblical stories are less relevant than the deeper meaning that they seek to point out. In his most recent book, Brian McLaren calls on Christians to adopt a more Jewish method of reading the Scriptures, abandoning crude literalism in order to explore the 'bottomless wells of meaning' that are contained within our faith stories. By applying this approach to the readings we hear in church this Christmas, maybe we can discover (or rediscover) something of the true nature of God, the divine characteristics which are revealed in the Gospels through Christ's birth, life and death. In doing so we can take a vital step away from our traditional concepts of God, and embrace the reality of a deity who steps into a tumultuous world in order to redeem a broken humanity.