Friday, 15 March 2013

Winter Night Shelter

I've been neglecting this blog something terrible, but let's see if I can do a little better. I recently did a series of night shifts at the Winter Night Shelter, which is in its second year of operation in Birmingham.

It's an idea which started in London, to use church buildings to provide emergency accomodation during the cold weather. There's no real emergency night shelter in Birmingham, and we have, at the best estimate, around 300 rough sleepers in the city on any given night. Homelessness is increasing in Britain, and given the government's determination to cut and keep cutting essential support for the poor, the number can only increase.

Last year we had a pilot scheme offering ten beds for men, for four weeks. By the end of the time, it was running pretty well, and we had hoped it could run for three months this year. It got delayed, and in the end, only six weeks were possible. It uses a different church each night of the week, with the clients being picked up from the city centre. They have to be approved in advance, as not every volunteer would be able to cope with someone drunk or disturbed. Alcohol is banned. This year six churches were involved, so it only ran for six nights out of the week. I've been helping at the local Baptist church, on Thursdays.

We were providing for ten men again, using cheap inflatable mattresses which were becoming unreliable. I was staying up for half the night, then taking a turn getting some sleep; the first week I had a well inflated mattress, the second I ended up sleeping on several chairs put together, as we couldn't find the pump, and the third I was balancing on a semi-inflated, leaking thing like a wobbly blancmange. Fortunately years of climbing and mountaineering have left me able to sleep on anything that doesn't actually stick into me.

People are sometimes quite apprehensive about this sort of work, but the clients are always perfectly pleasant people. In two years there's only been one minor incident, when someone had been drinking earlier in the day, and vomited on the floor. I'm well aware from previous experience that there are some badly messed up people out there, who can easily end up homeless, but anyone like that gets filtered out before they get to us. I once had a client who had been banned from every hostel in Birmingham (literally) for violence, usually against staff. In the end, he had to leave the accommodation I was involved in after attacking me when he lost a game of pool against someone else. I encountered him again recently; he couldn't face me, but he seems to have settled down. Twenty years can make all the difference to anyone!

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Massacre of the Innocents

There's an interesting discussion about this. Jim McGrath is glad the story isn't historical, and God didn't really neglect to warn all those other families of what was going to happen. Tony Jones is glad it did happen; if you disbelieve it, he says, you silence the victims.

My own take is different. I'm sure it's not historical, but that's not the point. Matthew is reworking the story of Pharaoh killing the babies. In both cases, they're trying to get rid of a potential threat, by slaughtering infants. The threats are different; Jesus was a potential rival, while the Israelites were  breeding too fast, and could have become uncontrollable. But the reactions are the same.

I don't suppose the Pharaoh story is historical either, but both stories work because this is the type of paranoid reaction which might be expected from a king. If Josephus' story of Herod's last days - the king had the sons of the chief men in Jerusalem banged up, with instructions to kill them as soon as he was dead, to ensure that the city mourned - has anything in it, he must have been precisely the sort of tyrant who would react in this way.

So even if the story isn't historical, it still encapsulates truth. A new king is born, one who, simply by existing, poses a threat to the kingdoms of this world. When the authorities hear the news, they lash out. Jesus, not for the only time in Matthew, looks very like Moses. There's theological truth there which goes far deeper than mere history.

PS There's an update here from Jim McGrath.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Junia and the C of E

(I'm not finding it easy to read this Greek. I can manage 'Hagia Iwnia' (Saint Junia) above the female figure, and presumably the one on the left is her (likely) husband St Andronicus. I'm not sure about the larger figure in the middle)

I've been neglecting this for a couple of months; I wish I could manage to post weekly, but unfortunately I haven't been well, and constant headaches make it very hard to think straight enough to manage coherent posts. The ridiculous decision of the C of E regarding women bishops has inspired me though.

My own personal position is that bishops are a nonsense. Calling a District Chair a bishop would just be a change of name, but creating an extra tier of ordination so a Chair could be an Extra Important Minister in a Fancy Purple Shirt for life would be absurd. I've come across ministers who'd love it, but what's the point? It would change the nature of the Methodist Church, from a relatively non-hierarchical denomination to a more hierarchical, top-down, less democratic one, and that I'd have to oppose if it ever comes up. Rumour has it that the Anglican-Methodist 'conversations' were originally driven by a certain minister who fancied a Purple Shirt for himself. However, it's all been going on for a very long time, and it hasn't gone very far. I can't see the Methodist Church being transmogrified into another Anglican ghetto somehow. However, if you must have bishops, why discriminate?

I saw the item about the House of Laity's narrow failure to approve the measure, and there was a clip of the inevitable stuffed shirt (you can tell this is something I feel strongly about) pontificating about how all the apostles were men. But were they?

The answer depends, as so often, on which bit of the Bible you happen to be reading. Matthew and Mark regard the Apostles and the Twelve as the same; they may not be able to agree as to their names, but there's definitely not a vagina between them. Luke varies this a little; he replaces Judas with Matthias, and offers a handy definition of an Apostle. One of the men (andrwn) who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us-- one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection. (Acts 1:21-2). So an Apostle, to him, is a man in the strict sense of the word, who's been a witness to Jesus' ministry and resurrection. John avoids using the title.

 Paul however, writing a generation earlier, takes a different view. The Twelve and the Apostles are not the same. In 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, he mentions that the risen Christ appeared to Cefas (Peter), then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to lots of people all at once, then to James, leader of the Jerusalem church, then to 'all the apostles', and lastly to Paul himself. The Twelve may or may not be a subset of 'the Apostles', he doesn't say. But he mentions other Apostles who are not members of the Twelve, and he lists the group as having experienced a separate appearance.

The apostles he mentions are: himself, Andronicus, Junia, Cefas (Peter), and James the LB. John, the other 'pillar' in Jerusalem, doesn't appear to be an Apostle, at least as far as Paul's concerned. The interesting one is Junia, described as 'prominent among the apostles' in Romans 16:7.

It's a woman's name. However, if you mention the fact in the wrong circles, you'll probably get into an argument. This is why I gernerally avoid conservative evangelicals, incidentally. I can't stand the wretched petty arguments. If they come looking for me, fine, I'll fight anyone, but I won't go out of my way to get into a punch-up, metaphorical or otherwise.

This is what the Anchor Bible Dictionary has to say about Junia:

JUNIAS (PERSON) [Gk Iounia (Ἰουνια)]. The only woman who is called an “apostle” in the NT (Rom 16:7). She was born a Jew, and is closely associated to Andronicus. Her name was the Lat name of the gens Junia (see the material in Lampe 1985 and StadtrChr, 66–67, 146–47, 152–53, 296). Women were often called by the name of their gens without cognomen (similar examples are Mary [Rom 16:6] and Julia [Rom 16:15]). Two groups carried the name of the gens Junia: the noble members of the famous gens, and the freed(wo)men of the gens with their descendants. The second group outnumbered the first. The chances therefore are that the Christian Junia was a freed slave of the gens. Either way, she probably had Roman citizenship: slave masters with famous gens names like “Junius/ia” possessed Roman citizenship and in most cases passed it on to their slaves on the occasion of their emancipation; the freed slaves bequeathed the gens name and the citizenship to their freeborn children. Without exception, the Church Fathers in late antiquity identified Andronicus’ partner in Rom 16:7 as a woman, as did minuscule 33 in the 9th century which records iounia with an acute accent. Only later medieval copyists of Rom 16:7 could not imagine a woman being an apostle and wrote the masculine name “Junias.” This latter name did not exist in antiquity; its explanation as a Greek abbreviation of the Latin name “Junianus” is unlikely.

This is so typical of what the church does to the Bible. It elevates it to the status of a holy book, the Word of God, what have you; according to some, its author was the Deity himself in person. It's raised up so high that it can't be allowed to say anything which doesn't suit the church. If it does, we either ignore it altogether (when was the last time you read Ps 137? Be careful, or you might have to believe that killing babies is sometimes a blessed thing), or we bowdlerise it altogether, and pretend it means something it doesn't. As we see, if the church wants to hold forth on the necessity of an Apostle being male, lo and behold! A woman becomes a man, just to suit the bigots.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

How to study the Bible

David Nilsen has a great post here. When I first became a Christian, I was told, like so many people, that the Bible is the Word of God and all that. I don't like the term, though it's better than calling the sermon the Word, because the Bible actually calls Jesus the Logos. He's the revelation, the Bible is the witness to that, and preachers come a very poor third. I should know, I'm a preacher myself. Let's not get them confused!

My response at the time was (and still is) that if we want to call the Bible a holy book, however that's phrased, we ought to take it extremely seriously, and know what's in it. My pastor decided to promote one of these guides to reading the Bible in a year, so I got a copy, and started reading. My immediate reaction was that I was being fed some very strange ideas. I never believed, for instance, that Ezekiel 28 was about the fall of Satan, though it took a few years before I worked out what it's really about. Much of what I read seemed as dull as ditchwater, especially the genalogies and all those regulations in Leviticus, and the pastor admitted to being bored as well. After that, I was determined never to let anyone tell me what the Bible 'meant' again.

So I started reading through it consecutively, over a year. This was a bit better; I read through it twice, and at least got some idea of how books fitted together. I didn't get much more than that, though, and wanted to look at individual passages more deeply. What, for instance, was that wretched stuff in Ezekiel actually meant to communicate?

So I started collecting commentaries. A quarter of a century later, I'm still collecting them, and I have more questions about the text every year. It never ends.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Called to Love and Praise (1)

My attention was recently drawn to this Methodist sttement (available via the link halfway down the page here) on ecclesiology, adoped by Conference in 1999. 'Adopted' in Methodistspeak means that it's been accepted by British Methodism, as opposed to 'recieved', which means it's been noted, but doesn't have quite the same official standing. I've read a lot of these documents over the years, and have rarely been happy with any of them. One abiding fault is the lack of accessibility, which raises the question of the intended audience. The report is dense, divided into numbered paragraphs, and requires a certain effort to read. So was it written for Conference, for theologians, for the Methodist people, or who? The introduction hopes that it will be useful to two groups; 'those involved in ecumenical conversations' and 'all Methodists'. I suspect the real intended audience is the former group, and if so, it's a pity. If we want ideas to be available to our congregations, then we have to package them better than this. A high point was reached in 'Faithful and Equal', on racism, which was published in 1987. It was practical, accessible, and was published as an attractive booklet. We need to maintain the standard.

It's a long document, 33 pages after removing a stray copy of an order of service which I managed to staple onto the back of it. I won't be able to deal with the whole thing in a single blog post, but God willing, I'll work my way through it.

It starts, in Part 1, by noting the changes in the church and the world around us since the last such statement, The Nature of the Christian Church, 1937. Patterns of life have changes, as has our understanding of the world around us. We're more international, more multiracial. Churches have become more ecumenical. Biblical scholarship has developed; Black, Liberation and Feminist theologies have developed, though it may be a little difficult to discern their influence.

The document is a response to a Memorial received by Conference 1991, and this will have determined some, at least, of the emphasis.

‘The Medway Towns (4/20) Circuit Meeting (Present 49. Vote 42 for, 1 against, 6 neutral)
requests that a review be made of the Church’s policy and Standing Orders concerning
membership (Reception into Full Membership), considering: 1. the importance of baptism as being
‘received into the congregation of Christ’s flock’; 2. the contemporary understanding of the term
‘membership’ and the searching questions posed by non-Methodist Christians participating in our
acts of worship; 3. the bearing of office and voting rights; 4. the importance of ecumenical cooperation and emphases (e.g. inclusion of members of other Christian denominations without
‘transfer’; 5. the questionable use of membership as a basis for statistics, assessments, finance,
etc.; 6. that sharing in the Lord’s Supper (with counts and averages if need be) and/or baptism
(with certification) would be more appropriate possible criteria.’

Section 2.1; 'The Triune God: God's Reign and Mission' is probably the weakest, perhaps partly because of its brevity. It runs through Old and New Testaments, presenting a traditional view of God's relationship with his people, bolstered by numerous Bible references. The problem here is that it would require a book, or a great deal of work on the part of the individual reader, to get much out of it. Then we need to ask ourselves how relevant it really is. This is where practical experience becomes vital to theology. Paul, for instance, fought hard to get Jews and Gentiles to live together within single congregations, despite the cultural differences. This barely acknowledged in the report. The picture given of the first-generation church is the optimistic one presented in Acts, written at the end of the 1st Century AD, rather than that which we get from Paul's letters, which present first-hand evidence of what he had to deal with.

In Antioch, Peter (Cephas) was persuaded by some strict Jews who came from James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, to stop sharing table fellowship with Gentiles. Presumably the point was that the food wasn't kosher. Paul's reponse seems to have been explosive (Galatians 2:2:11-14); table fellowship was vital to his understanding of what it meant to be church, and the issue arises repeatedly in his letters. In Corinth, he found that some (presumably the family hosting the church, and a few of their friends, as it's hard to see who else could have been involved) were eating their fill, while others, coming late, who may well have been slaves who had to work all day, went hungry (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). This looks like a class issue, but once again, Paul's response is explosive:
'For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.  What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!'

Romans, written out of years of experience of these tensions, is largely devoted to the issue of Jewish-Gentile relations. The church was, in all probablility, set up by Jewish believers, but Claudius expelled them from Rome in 49 AD. The church survived, but can only have been run by Gentiles. In 54 AD, Nero came to power. Despite his subsequent reputation, he was a popular, liberal ruler. It's worth noting that history was written by senators, or in other words the mega-rich. Their assessment may have something in common with the Republican take on Barak Obama's presidency. He allowed the Jews to return, but meanwhile they'd lost their status and their property. some of them went back to the church, but there were tensions which Paul addresses directly in chapter 14.

Some people are eating 'everything' (14:2), presumably including the roast pork which originated from the local temple of whoever it was. Meat was expensive, and routinely came from temple sacrifices. At festivals, it was often given away to the poor. Hence, of course, the issues Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 8-10. Gentile food was intrinsically non-kosher, so the Jewish members of the congregation would have followed the line taken by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 1, and eaten only the vegetables. Then some 'observe the day' (14:5-6), while other don't. No doubt this is a reference to the Sabbath. The 'works of the Law' Paul refers to repeatedly in Galatians 2-3, and again in Romans 3:28, are the things which distinguish Jews from Gentiles; principally circumcision, Sabbath, and the food laws. These are the things which cause tensions in the churches Paul addresses, but, to him it's vital that table fellowship, which he sees as foundational to the single community of the local church, be maintained. Paul appeals to both sides not to put 'stumbling blocks' in each others' way. Each should do whatever they believed right, and they shouldn't judge each other' (14:8-23).

In a somewhat different way, this advice is just as relevant now as it was then. We have congregations where elderly stewards insist that 'We don't want to be happy-clappy', meaning that there's no room in 'their' church for the livelier worship which might help to attract younger people. They're excluded, almost guaranteeing that the church will die with their generation.  A black congregation may decide that they want livelier, more participatory worship, and there may then be tensions between them and ministers or Local Preachers who don't want other people participating (except perhaps a 'good reader'), or insist on starting 'on time' at eleven, leaving no space for the church's sceduled chorus leader, and finishing 'on time' at twelve, when the congregation dislike one-hour hymn sandwiches. I speak from experience here!

We have multiple cultures within our churches, and without, and if we're to rebuild them, then we have to find ways to incorporate them all, and deal with situation where individuals con't or won't adapt. Not many people are going to be attracted by a traditional hymn sandwich, led by a one-person band preacher, but when we try to move away from that model, there's opposition. A more practical report, dealing with issues like these, which arise in the daily lives of congeegations and circuits, would be more than welcome. What's needed here is an ecclesiology which, like Paul's, emphasises not only the indivisible nature of church, but the equal status of all. To him, neither Jew nor Greek was better than the other: 'God shows no partiality' (Romans 2:11). We, in our context, need to insist that neither black nor white, old nor young, is superior to the other, and insist that that's worked out in our practice at every level. An ecclesiology which is not spelled out in ways which are accessible to the people in the pew, who most need to hear what it says, and which does not directly address the situations in which our congregations find themselves, has to fall short.

I'll continue this in another post.


Saturday, 1 September 2012

Worship Wars

There's some real wisdom here from Michael Spencer, with a follow-up here. The thing that jumps out at me is just how similar, and yet dissimilar, this is to the situation I'm familiar with. In British Methodism, the challenge is to include younger people; to find ways of making the church attractive to those who aren't living in a former age, like the perplexed octogenarian who once asked me why something which worked when she was in Sunday School wouldn't work now. Like Michael, I'm convinced that a healthy church makes room for all ages, in worship and elsewhere.

I've also been told that if I didn't like the way a church did things, or I didn't agree with the leadership, I should go elsewhere. I've even been told that in a Methodist church, and we're suposed to be broad-minded. I couldn't disagree more strongly with that approach, and I can't see it as being remotely consistent with what we read in the Gospels about the first being last, etc. Leaders who think everyone has to agree with them are unfit to lead. Far too many people fall for this nonsense; often, the most valuable people in a church are the ones who see things are going wrong, and stick it out until they can put things right.

Friday, 17 August 2012

God continued

The problem of talking about an infinite being in terms comprehensible to finite beings like myself remains. We're very good at imposing our own categories on God, seeing himself as a projection of something in ourselves, and I've long found it impossible to avoid the impression that all these people who seem so sure about what God is are doing exactly that.

There was a time, some centuries ago, when people must have felt completely powerless. Life was poor, nasty, brutish and short. God decided when and where we were going to be born, to die, and all the bits in between. Most people were subsistence farmers, living from hand to mouth; there were regular famines and outbreaks of disease; now and then God might get a bit upset and zap the sinners (and everyone else for miles) with plague or whirlwinds or something equally nasty. Even when we died, God would be sitting there with his little lists. Made before creation, one named those who were predestined to heaven, the other those predestined to hell. But if your name was on the second, it wasn't anything to do with God. Don't blame him; it was your own fault for sinning.

It's not an attractive picture of God, but in an age before bacteria or viruses were invented, when eating during the early spring depended on a good harvest the year before, something of the sort was probably inevitable. There had to be some explanation of it all - European culture has a bit of an obsession with lining everything up, making it all consistent, and explaining it -  and an arbitrary, all-powerful deity supplied it.

Slowly, things moved on. The 18th Century saw the introduction of new agricultural techniques which increased the food supply; by the following century, better ships and the growth of empire enabled the import of large quantities of grain. People driven off the land fed the army, navy and the factories; wealth flowed in from slavery and colonial exploitation. As the cities grew, the introduction of piped drinking water and sewers slashed the child mortality rate, and the population exploded. People began to feel more powerful, more in control of their environment, and this impacted their understanding of God.

At the same time, the old Calvinism was crumbling. Wesley's Methodism popularised Arminianism, the idea that God gives us free choice in salvation, if not much else. In the same period when Samuel Wedgewood issued his anti-slavery medallion with the inscription 'Am I not a man and a brother?', moving on from seeing black people as the descendents of Ham, predestined to servitude, the Methodists proclaimed that anyone could be saved, not just those on the right little list. In the face of increasing exploitation and social dislocation, and the beginnings of 'scientific racism', which declared that black people were little better than the great apes, some people, at least, began to value our humanity a little higher than before.

At the same time, God shrank a little. Salvation still depended on his grace, but it was our choice to accept it or reject it. The language of omnipotence was retained, with little thought given to the fact that there was now a hole in that divine potency; something had been ceded to mere humanity. It worked, for that society, at that time, when everybody was familiar with the Christian story, and virtually everyone believed it. The problem wasn't lack of belief, but theologies which no longer worked, combined with an enormous social upheaval, and a church which was failing to adapt to the changes. When John Wesley and his friends went out to preach to the Kingswood miners, they weren't preaching to atheists or pagans. The audience was made up of Christians who found themselves cut off from the church.

Since then, of course, the world has changed again, and, if declining church attendance is anything to go by, our discourse about God is failing to strike much of a chord in our potential audience. The big problem I see is that the world has got bigger. In Wesley's day, the idea that we all had the freedom within God's grace to respond - or not - to the Gospel was a reasonable one, since it could safely be assumed that everyone would come into contact with the message. That no longer holds true.

To take an extreme case, an illiterate villager in some remote part of Saudi Arabia - where over 20% of the population is illiterate - is extremely unlikely ever to come into contact with Christianity. So what chance do they have to 'choose' salvation? Similarly,  what of a child growing up in Britain, in a family with no contact with the church? We can no longer pretend that everyone has the opportunity to accept the Gospel, so what we have, in effect, is predestination by the back door. If God gives a child to a devout Christian family, then, in a classic Arminian theology, they have every hope of heaven. If he gives that child to a devout Muslim family in an Arabian backwater, then it's almost inevitable that they're 'going to hell'. That God is no more just than the Calvinist deity with his little lists. We need to rethink.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

What about God?

Tony Jones has issued a challenge to progressive bloggers to do a post about God. He thinks, perhaps rightly, that progressives/liberals/call them what you will don't talk about him much compared to evangelicals.

I'm sure he's right, but the trouble is, some conservatives know - or think they know - altogether too much about God. He wants this, he rejects that - usually some people the conservatives don't approve of, like publicans and sinners in ancient Judea - he can't do this and he can't do that. The latter really worries me. How can you use the word 'can't' of omnipotence? Surely the word implies that God can do anything he likes, even turn lead into gold or tell the tide to go back out when it's only halfway in. If he doesn't do things like that, maybe we be should be asking some awkward questions, which won't be settled by your favourite prooftext. I've even heard a preacher say that God 'always' wants to heal, and if he doesn't it's probably your fault for not having enough faith. I'll hold my nose and pass by that one as fast as I can before I write a naughty word. Not many of them manage to plumb such depths.

What we 'know' about God is mostly what tradition tells us, and we think we read out of the Bible. That's one of the big problems with a conservative approach to the text; you can make the Bible say anything, if you just find the right prooftext. It never seems to say anything they don't want to hear. We all 'know' God is immanent, which is a big word meaning he's with us. In our hearts, in a favourite conservative term. He's also transcendent, an equally big word meaning he's out there. Somehow, we have to square the circle and make him both at once, since that's what tradition says, and sure enough, there are well-known prooftexts for both. At one and the same time, he's sitting on his throne somewhere up in the third heaven, and he's also in our hearts. Tradition, of course, also says he's omnipresent, which is a nice way out of that one. He's everywhere, all at once.

He's clearly not one of us, whatever he is. Allegedly, he's both one and three at the same time, which we clearly aren't. I'm not going to get into that one; last week I was accused of heresy for (supposedly) denying the Trinity, and once a month is enough for that sort of thing. And he's the Creator, which means he's not a created being. In some way, he has to be utterly different from us.

We however, subsist within creation; we can't imagine anything outside it. That implies that whatever we think about God, it's likely to be wrong. Language is a created thing; it can't describe God any more than the finite can comprehend the infinite. Maybe that's why liberals (I prefer the term to 'progessive'; people think they know what it means) don't write so much about God. We're not so confident about our prescriptions; it's more a case of 'O let us never, never doubt, what nobody is sure about'. That's Hilaire Belloc, by the way. A great writer of doggerel, even if he was a fascist. The one thing we can say for definite about God is that he's like nothing we can possibly imagine. That's a lot less comfortable than anything you hear from conservatives!

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Reading Genesis literally?

Jim McGrath brings up a point I hadn't thought of. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are literally 'one flesh'. They're one individual who's been cut in two to make a sort of prototypical human community. In Mark 10, Jesus is made to say that a man will leave his parents, be united to the wife, and they will become 'one flesh'. The passage has to be metaphorical, since Adam and Eve start as one, and become two, while any other couple start as two and (hopefully!) become one. So the use of the story in Mark is rather more sophisticated than you normally get from the sort of fundamentalist preacher who I remember banging on about 'leaving and cleaving'.