Giles Fraser: Do people need saving from this?
No one doubted the devout character of Maude Royden’s faith, nor her intelligence, nor her grasp of the scriptures, nor the power of her oratory. Born in 1876, she became a sought-after speaker on moral issues. In 1913, the Bishop of Winchester invited her to address a gathering of 2000 men at the Church Congress.
In 1916, the Archbishop of Canterbury put her on his national mission team that had the task of re-Christianising wartime England. But the one thing the Archbishop would not allow her to do was to preach — or even to speak publicly in church. This prohibition, and the fight against it, was to generate some of the first skirmishes in the theological culture wars that continue unresolved to this day.
In 1918, the Rector of St Botolph’s-without-Bishopsgate, the Revd Hudson Shaw, invited Miss Royden to address the congregation after evensong, assuring his Bishop that the address and the service would be separated by an organ recital. The Bishop of London, Dr Arthur Winnington-Ingram, had a policy that allowed women to address only other women, and then only from the foot of the chancel step (and, remarkably, he regarded himself as a liberal, being a supporter of women’s suffrage).
The Bishop sent Mr Shaw letters trying to get him to withdraw the invitation. Instead, the Rector went ahead, and then invited her again on Good Friday. There was no legal impediment to his invitation. “I absolutely forbid you on your honour and your oath of canonical obedience,” wrote the Bishop.
The Rector was defiant. He closed the church — putting up the notice of prohibition — and invited the worshippers to gather in the parish hall instead. Nine hundred people tried to get in. A petition was organised and sent to the Bishop: “When an evangelist so plainly called by God is harassed and impeded by those who should be her chiefest upholders and strengtheners, we feel the time for silent acquiescence is past.”
Conservative voices complained at the presence of “ecclesiastical Bolshevists”, and that a woman giving a sermon to men was radical feminism gone mad.
The contemporary parallels are depressing. I have invited the Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, to preach at St Mary’s, Putney. There are no legal impedi-ments to this. But the powers that be want this to happen “after the service” or “in the church hall”. Apparently, a few bars on the organ, or the gap between the church and the church hall are sufficient prophylactics to protect the sanctuary from the profanity of being a woman or being gay. What sort of crazy theology is that?
God moves to the left
America’s evangelical Christians are anti-gay, pro-gun, keen on capital punishment and obsessed with lower taxes. And, of course, they all vote Republican. At least, that’s what vicar Giles Fraser thought – until he went to meet them.
This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday February 08 2008 on p12 of the G2 Comment & features section. It was last updated at 00:15 on February 08 2008.
As night fell, a small group of pilgrims crept through a side door and into the silent and empty gloom of Canterbury cathedral. A hand-held torch did little to illuminate the wonders of the 14th-century nave. We felt our way past the place of Thomas Becket’s murder, up a flight of stairs and gathered around a simple stone throne where the arch-bishops of Canterbury are consecrated. No one spoke. Faces were serious and tense. Here is the centre of gravity of world Anglicanism. Some of the party were not sure if they still wanted in. Many wanted them out.
These were unusual travelers to Canterbury, all progressive Christians, all leaders of big churches, and all struggling with what it meant to be a part of a world church that regards them as dangerous subversives. Many have blamed these people for forcing change and splitting the church. To me, they are the vanguard of a new progressive Reformation. They speak about God with a confidence that has little in common with the claustrophobic and institutional narrowness of the English church. They are my heroes
But here I need to make a confession. I had known and admired most of these Virgin Atlantic pilgrims by reputation for a while, but had been in denial about one basic fact: that they were Yanks. Yes, I admit it. I suffered from that chronic prejudice of the left, an instinctive distrust of Americans with Bibles. Theologically speaking, what could the home of McDonald’s offer a culture that painted the Sistine chapel? How can anyone who thinks the word “Jesus” has three syllables lead a progressive movement in the church? I knew it: I had to take on the source of all this prejudice and make a pilgrimage of my own. I needed to find out for myself: was there really such a thing as the Christian left in America?
“I love the Lord’s day,” boomed the rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena, in a guttural southern drawl, brimming with gum-chewing confidence. I shrank into my coffee. To non-religious Brits – and to quite a few religious ones, too – this sort of thing sends waves of ideological squeamishness down the cultural central nervous system. We just don’t get it. Most days the Rev J Edwin Bacon Jr is up to say his prayers at 4am and in the gym by 5am. His church is packed to the rafters and is currently fundraising for a $40m (£20.6m) extension to the All Saints campus.
This is not a profile we would naturally associate with the left. Yet the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam war. His predecessors as rector marched with Martin Luther King and threw themselves in front of the trucks that hauled Japanese Americans off to internment camps during the second world war. He is pro-choice on abortion and conducts gay blessings. The bumper stickers in the church car park tell their own story of activism: “The Christian right is neither”; “Support the troops, bring them home.”
It is a stance that has pitched Bacon’s church into the centre of America’s culture wars. The Sunday immediately before the last presidential election in 2004, a retired clergyman took to the pulpit in All Saints to deliver a sermon critical of the war in Iraq. In the great scheme of things it was hardly a call for revolution. Yet this 15-minute homily was to make front-page news all over the country and kick off three years of trench warfare between teams of Washington lawyers. The sermon idea was simple: if Jesus could speak to George Bush and John Kerry, what would he say?
“War is itself the most extreme form of terrorism,” the preacher imagined Jesus telling the candidates. “Remember: the killing of innocent people to achieve some desired goal is morally repudiated by anyone claiming to follow me as their saviour and guide. Mr President, your doctrine of pre-emptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster.”
On that same day, all over the United States, thousands of preachers offered their congregations coded political references, asserting the importance of protecting the unborn child or the wickedness of homosexual marriage. But only one church got into trouble with the authorities for its message. Yes, you guessed it. Some weeks after the election, All Saints Pasadena received a letter from the Inland Revenue Service (IRS) informing them that this sermon had violated rules designed to keep charities out of politics and, as a result, their tax-exempt status was being reconsidered.
The IRS picked on the wrong church and at the end of last year it backed off, calling a halt to its investigation and withdrawing all charges. Unfortunately, it left hanging in the air the whole question of what constitutes legitimate political engagement from the pulpit. Which is why Bacon still is not happy: “This leaves me wondering whether we will be investigated again the next time I am called to preach against war, poverty, bigotry or any other of our core moral values as they relate to current social issues and policies.” Ed Bacon is liberal Christianity on steroids, a seemingly implausible combination of fiery evangelical rhetoric and a progressive social conscience. Like peanut butter and jelly: unlikely until you taste it, when you realise it really works.
Although the development of leftwing politics in Britain owed a great deal to the evangelical left of radical Methodism, many of today’s Christian lefties in Britain – such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams – come from the more Catholic wing of the church. The Oxford movement sent generations of be-cassocked young men into the inner cities preaching good news to the poor. This was the tradition of the heroic slum priests who set up boxing clubs in the East End of London and built beautiful Gothic churches in the wrong part of town. I worked for a while in a church like this in Walsall. As whippet-thin pre-teens stripped the roof of its lead, we swung our incense and said our Hail Marys.
In the US , the Christian left has a more consistently evangelical DNA. Its great saint is Martin Luther King, and its signature tune is social activism. It’s a religion of huge rhetorical power, managing to bring together the Bible’s vision for a new social order as well as its call for individual transformation.
Here, for example, is classic preaching from Baptist minister Tony Campolo, something of a guru to the new left-leaning evangelicals: “I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.
Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.”
On this side of the pond, we commonly think of US evangelical Christianity as the preserve of the right. Our lazy caricature is straight from central casting – the TV evangelist, active in the Republican party, obsessed with gay prejudice, gun ownership, capital punishment and low taxes. It’s true that from Ronald Regan’s presidential campaign onwards, the evangelical right became politicised as never before and were rightly credited with the electoral success of George W Bush. In 2004, nine out of every 10 white evangelicals voted Republican. On the other hand, two-thirds of non-white evangelicals voted for Kerry. And we often forget that born-again Jimmy Carter and Bible-quoting Bill Clinton were as much evangelicals as Bush. The reality is that US evangelicals are a mixed bunch.
As it happens, the evangelical/Republican alliance was never the love match it seemed. Back in 1964, Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee for president. “Every good Christian should line up and kick Jerry Falwell’s ass,” was his reaction to the founder of the Moral Majority. As a libertarian of sorts, Goldwater famously defended a woman’s right to abortion. “I don’t have any respect for the religious right. There is no place in this country for practising religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson and all the rest of these political preachers. They are a detriment to the country.” This attitude still lingers in the corridors of Republican power. Indeed, even at the height of the evangelical influence, it was always fiscal conservatives that were really pulling the strings, wrapping up their economic Darwinism in the language of faith for electoral advantage.
This election many conservative Christians are waking up to the fact that they have got absolutely zip out of their misadventure in Republican party politics. For all Bush’s praise-the-Lord bravado, he has done nothing to change the laws on abortion and nothing to make gay marriage illegal. Disadvantaged churchgoers in the cornfields and ever-ailing rust belt have been had, voting against their economic interests to give tax breaks to billionaires. All Bush has done is associate their name with an unpopular war and a reputation for shrill and heartless moralising.
This may be why, according to the Christian Barna Research Group, a third of young evangelicals now claim to be embarrassed about being believers. “They’re tired of the hard-edged politics that the Christian right has practised in the last couple of generations,” says John Green from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life “They see all this, all this anger, without a lot to show for it.” No surprise then that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been dropping to their knees and taking to the pulpit to claim full electoral advantage of this disillusionment. And although many Christians will still be voting for Baptist minister Mike Huckabee, in many ways he is a throwback. Huge numbers have been persuaded that Obama or Clinton are the future of Christian America.
The face of US Christianity is changing. The old generation of leaders are dying off or getting past it: Falwell went to meet his maker earlier this year (and I reckon he had some explaining to do), and the equally unpleasant Pat Robertson (the guy who called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez) is pushing 80. These people were a big deal politically. Robertson made a bid for the presidency in 1988 and actually polled ahead of Bush in the Iowa primary. But they are yesterday’s men. The new breed of mega-church pastor is cut from a very different cloth.
Take someone like Bill Hybels from Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago, one of the most influential churches in the US. Its sprawling campus is larger than Vatican City and is run by legions of Harvard MBAs. More Starbucks than St Paul’s, they get 20,000 people to their stadium-like church on Sundays. OK, it’s not what you would call cutting-edge progressive. But it is certainly not the hang ’em and flog ’em brigade either. It is all consumer-oriented short services, with catchy music and first-class childcare. And, increasingly, this sort of evangelical is leading the call for environmental justice, using the language of care for God’s creation to the same purpose as those who prefer the secular language of green politics.Much to the irritation of old-school hard-core evangelicals, the new generation tend to avoid divisive social ethics in order to broaden their appeal. They are sunny, soft-focus, all-things-to-all-men evangelicals. Or, as they would be keen to insist, all things to all men and women. For unlike the defiantly unreconstructed old school, some would even go so far as to describe themselves as feminists.
For two months I traveled the US on my mini-pilgrimage, preaching in churches, staying with friendly church leaders and listening to the views of ordinary Christians in the pew. A lot has been said about those US Christians who are to the right of Attila the Hun and who believe multiple crazy things about the world and the world to come. We are rightly anxious about the degree of political influence these people have come to exert. But they are actually in the minority. We don’t hear about the progressive side to US religion because it doesn’t fit the stereotype. These Christians are passionately concerned with issues of poverty and social justice, they run soup kitchens, give generous proportions of their income to good causes, have taskforces to reduce their carbon footprint, go on demonstrations against the war, and speak out against the use of torture. God bless America.
Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney.
Christendom misrepresents Christianity Jan 1, 2007
The distinction between Christianity and Christendom is not widely understood. Christianity is the faith of those who seek to follow Jesus of Nazareth and declare him to be the Son of God – a claim in direct contention with Caesar’s progeny.
The result is a religion of radical reconciliation, communal meals, reversing social expectations and blessing the poor. In contrast, Christendom is what Christianity became when it got mixed up with the Roman Empire.
It was an unlikely alliance. Some early Christians like Tertullian defined Christianity self-consciously in opposition to the values of the Roman state. After all, it was the Romans that murdered Christ in the first place.
Early Christians had been pacifists and had refused to serve in the army. In contrast, the Romans were a highly militarised and authoritarian culture that had subdued most of the known world by force.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in AD 312 at the battle of Milvian Bridge, after which the church began to back pedal on the more radical demands of the adult Christ.
The Nicene Creed, what came to be the official version of Christianity, was composed in AD 325 under the sponsorship of Constantine. The creed conveniently skips over the political aspects of Christ’s teaching, jumping from birth to death:
“Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures.”
It was Constantine who decided that 25 December was to be the date on which Christians were to celebrate the birth of Christ and it was Constantine who ordered the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. Christmas – a festival completely unknown to the early church – was invented by the Roman emperor.
The question for Christians is whether the Roman Empire effectively subdued Christianity and absorbed it into the imperial cult. As many have argued, the ethics and theology of Christendom might be said to bear precious little resemblance to the simple and radical faith of a carpenter from Galilee.
And it’s certainly the case that Christianity has been readily appropriated for the defence of, for example, the divine right of kings and the feudal ordering of society.
Within a century of Constantine’s conversion, St Augustine would develop the novel idea of just war, trimming the church’s originally pacifist message to the needs of the imperial war machine.
From Constantine onwards, the radical Christ worshipped by the early church would be pushed to the margins of Christian history to be replaced with the infinitely more accommodating religion of the gurgling baby and screaming victim. Neither version of Jesus was able to disturb the Empire with political rhetoric.
Yet it should be perfectly obvious to anyone who has actually read the Christmas stories that the gospel regards the incarnation as challenging the existing order.
The pregnant Mary anticipates Christ’s birth with some fiery political theology: God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly, he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty”, she blazes.
Born among farm labourers, yet worshipped by kings, Christ announces an astonishing reversal of political authority. The local imperial stooge, King Herod, is so threatened by rumours of his birth that he sends troops to Bethlehem to find the child and kill him. Herod recognised that to claim Jesus is lord and king is to say that Caesar isn’t.
The story of Christmas, properly understood, asserts that God is not best imagined as an all-powerful despot but as a vulnerable child, born into a disgraced family of asylum seekers. It’s a statement about the truly subversive nature of divine power.
But in the hands of Christendom, Christmas became a way of distracting attention from the teachings of Christ. It became a form of religion that concentrates on things like belief in the virgin birth while ignoring the fact that the gospels are much more concerned about the treatment of the poor and the forgiveness of enemies.
If it’s true that Christendom has held Christianity captive for several centuries, there may be hope for a more radical Christianity in the whole process of secularisation.
For what secularisation specifically attacks is state religion, the religion of Christendom. Post-Christendom provides an opportunity for a very different Christian voice to emerge. A Christianity whose priorities are much more those of the prophetic Jesus – good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, sight to the blind.
Giles Fraser vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham college Oxford. He writes for the Guardian newspaper
A church of structured wholeness? -Jun 28, 2006
The Church of England is currently being tortured by a dead German philosopher. An unlikely story, I know. But not when you recall that the head of the Anglican church is a former Oxford don with a deep love of Hegel. And it’s partly because of Hegel – specifically Rowan Williams’ commitment to Hegelian dialectics – that morale in the Church of England is so low.
For those who didn’t spend hours in the student bar plotting the overthrow of global capitalism, it may be worth a recap. The dialectic proposes that human culture advances through a serious of oppositions. A thesis is opposed by its opposite, an antithesis, which is then taken up into a synthesis of the two, shifting culture into a whole new territory.
Here is Dr Williams’ explanation: “Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.”
The Canterbury dialectic was in evidence at a summit of bishops who were considering whether they should remain a boys’ club. It works like this. Take someone who believes that women ought to be bishops. Take someone who believes women ought not to be bishops. Put them in a room with flip charts and shake them all about, and you come out with a synthesis. Or a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories. But you don’t. What really happens is that you come up with a bodge and a room full of very angry Christians, exhausted by the politics of eternal negotiation.
Following Hegel, the archbishop believes that all oppositions can be nuanced into resolution. It’s a matter of faith for him. The dialectic describes the path a divided humanity must travel if it is to reach the good infinity, the kingdom of heaven. It’s the way of personal and social transformation under which all human conflict will come to an end. The lion will lie down with the lamb.
Long before Hegel drew breath, Anglicanism has always had something of Hegel about it. After all, the genius of the Church of England is to create a synthesis of Catholics (thesis) and Puritans (antithesis). But whereas historic Anglicanism believed that compromise between different theologies was a price worth paying for a truce between them, Dr Williams’ dialectical Anglicanism is an encouragement to war.
For dialectical Anglicanism just cannot say no. Every no always comes with its attendant yes. And that means it can’t resist the bigotry, sexism and homophobia that is currently making a nasty comeback in the Anglican pulpit. Whether it be those who would treat women clergy as second class or those who compare gay Christians to beasts, the logic of Dr Williams’ position is always to accommodate.
Commendably inclusive, some presume. But this sort of inclusivity offers little protection against those who would undermine the tolerance that has been the Anglican trademark. When dealing with well-organised and well-motivated bullies, it’s a hopeless philosophy.
Worse still, the dialectical quest for unity is callously indifferent to the casualties of its grand plan. Isaiah Berlin was right to call the dialectic “a sinister mythology which authorises the infinite sacrifice of individuals to such abstractions as states, traditions or the destiny of the nation” – or, one might add, to the unity of the church. Even Hegel admitted that the dialectic is a “slaughter-bench” on which the welfare of individuals is counted as collateral damage. Isn’t that precisely what happened to Jeffrey John?
But the saddest casualty of Hegel’s system of reconciliation is the archbishop himself. Holding all these opposites in tension is grinding him down. He presents as Christ on the cross, taking upon himself the pain of the church’s division. Each new fight is a spear in the side, yet he continues to maintain faith in the reconciling process of nuance. If he’s right, it’s a work of supreme Christian sacrifice. If he’s wrong, all this pain will have been for nothing.
Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham college Oxford. He writes for the Guardian newspaper.
The unmistakable whiff of Christian triumphalism
This was no casual slip. Beneath his scholarly rhetoric, the Pope’s logic seemed to be that Islam is dangerous and godless. Giles Fraser, Saturday September 16, 2006
John Paul II’s pontificate was largely defined by his relationship with a global conflict between west and east. Last Tuesday evening, in a badly judged speech before a home crowd of Bavarian academics, Benedict XVI may well have set the parameters of his own period as Pope, pitching himself into a debate over Islam that has prompted outrage throughout the Muslim world.”Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” These were not the Pope’s words, but those of an obscure Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologos, back in the 14th century. And yes, the Pope did make it clear he was offering a quotation. Even so, these words fell from the lips of the spiritual leader of a billion Christians without anything like enough qualification. There was no phrase distancing himself from the claim that Muhammad was responsible for evil. It’s little surprise, therefore, that the remarks have roused anger and demands for a personal apology.
Christopher Tyerman’s latest book on the Crusades, God’s War, argues persuasively that analogies between the Crusades and the present global conflict are often overdrawn and historically dubious. That may be so. But it’s an argument that doesn’t cut much ice with millions of Muslims. After all, it was one of Benedict’s predecessors, Urban II, who first summoned a Christian jihad against Islam. And it’s born-again Christians who have been at the forefront of support for the invasion of Iraq, the occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, and the whole “reorganisation” of the Middle East – a catastrophe in which many thousands of Muslims have lost their lives.
Any comments by a Christian leader that touch upon this wound are bound to be interpreted from every possible angle. The Pope must have known this. If millions of Muslims were offended by the scribblings of a few unknown Danish cartoonists, it’s pretty obvious the enormous potential for harm that might flow from a few ill-judged comments by the vicar of Rome.
Furthermore, the Pope has form on all of this. Just a few months before he was elected, he spoke out against Muslim Turkey joining the EU. Christian Europe must be defended, he argued. It didn’t go down well at the time with Muslim leaders. But what makes his comments from Bavaria doubly insensitive is that Munich and its surrounding towns are home to thousands of Gastarbeiter, many from Turkey, who are often badly treated by local Germans and frequently subjected to racism. It won’t be lost on them that Manuel II ran his Christian empire from what is now the Turkish city of Istanbul. And reference to that time, in circumstances such as these, has the unmistakable whiff of Christian triumphalism.
For the most part, the Pope’s address was a scholarly exercise that sought to challenge the idea that rationality is intrinsically and necessarily secular. We must “overcome the self-imposed limitation of reason to the empirically verifiable”, he insisted. Most Christians would agree. But even here there was a sharp criticism of Islam buried beneath the scholarly rhetoric. For the Pope argued that in Muslim teaching, because “God is absolutely transcendent”, He is “not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality”. In other words, there is no reasoning in or with Islam. Which, surely, is another way of the Pope saying how dangerous he thinks Islam is.
This is why the Pope’s remarks look rather more than just a slip or a casual mistake. The speech concludes with a further reference to the views of the Byzantine emperor: ” ‘Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God,’ said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures.”
Blog sites have been buzzing with the thought that the Pope may have the president of Iran in mind when he speaks of Manuel’s Persian interlocutor. But we don’t need to speculate upon a contemporary casting for this speech to recognise its dangers. For in claiming that Islam may be beyond reason, and then to claim that to act without reason is to act contrary to the will of God, is pretty close to the assertion that this religion is godless. And that’s not how different faiths ought to speak to each other – especially when we all have each other’s blood on our hands.
As it is written: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”
· Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford