Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Escaping the lowest common denominator

One of the problems with Methodism arises from the way that preachers operate, moving round a Circuit. There are 14 churches in my Circuit, and of course I'm in a different church every time; churches have a different preacher every week. It's not easy to lead worship in a congregation you only know superficially, and see once in several months!
The result is we drift to the lowest common denominator, the one-hour hymn sandwich, and it's extremely hard to break away from it. I vaguely remember the odd attempt by one church to maintain some continuity by giving preachers texts to preach from, but it didn't last long. One church went all charismatic for a while, with masses of choruses, but there were a lot of tensions, and it fizzled out in the end. There's only one church in the Circuit which has tried to maintain its own distinctive style for the entire 24 years I've been in Birmingham, and that's my own.

It started simply enough. We shared a minister with another church with a 9.30 service - I think; it was very early anyway - and it was hard for him to get to my church for eleven. So we started with a few minutes of choruses, led by the stewards. Eventually, we decided it wasn't right that leading worship should be restricted to the few, so we opened it up to everyone. Some of the people who screwed up the courage to take it on went on to become stewards themselves, and bit by bit we reached a situation where most people get involved with leading worship.

At the same time, the makeup of the church was changing. When I arrived in 1987, there were slightly more white people than black. As time passed, the number of black people increased, as did their influence in the church. When a volcano erupted in Montserrat, a lot of the refugees were housed locally, and the church suddently became about 80% black; this has remained roughly the same since. A significant number of Caribbean people are from Pentecostal backgrounds, and we have a fair few Africans. They're used to longer, noisier services, and like the service to be a bit more than a one-hour hymn sandwich. We've also made a practice of stopping for a cup of tea and buscuits after the service, which has made a big difference. A church is a community after all, and if we don't spend time talking to each other, we can't function.

Unfortunately, our slightly longer service sometimes causes conflict. Of the four ministers we've had since I've been here, one didn't want us to have choruses at all when he was taking the service - he once told me he didn't feel it was  'really worship' - and another always wanted us to start before eleven, and only have a very few, so that he could finish at twelve. There have been occasional conflicts with Local Preachers as well. One once wanted to take over the choruses himself, as that it could be 'part of the service', and never mind the person who'd prepared to do it. I was stewarding, and didn't let him; it would have been gross discourtesy, and it's already part of the service anyway! Then there's the odd one or two who think we should finish exactly on the hour; one once stopped for a cup of tea, then started a row with us about it. This is, of course, the problem. There will always be those who want the short, easy service, and will try to impose it on others.

The service is becoming more of an issue as one member's children, now in their 20's, have moved to another church because it has livelier worship. So how do we liven things up more, with all the drawbacks of the Methodist system? Naturally, it's landed on my plate for the moment. We can't start the choruses earlier, since we've asked about an earlier service, and only two people wanted it. The only option I can see is to tell the preachers that while the service starts at eleven, we want them to start at quarter past. Their hour would then end at quarter past twelve, and that would at least give us a slightly longer service without - hopefully - anyone wanting to hurry us up. We could then talk about where to go next.

We're not going to solve this in a day; we're also starting a Sunday School soon, and so one question is how to involve the kids in the service. I know from experience that they can do far more than just take the collection round, despite the efforts of the odd one or two who - inevitably - want to keep them in 'their place'. Bit by bit, if we keep going, I think we'll continue to make progress. It comes back to basic principles. The church is the people, not the minister or the preacher, and the peoples' will must prevail, or the congregation will fade away, and the church end up closing.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

Amy-Jill Levine has an interesting paper here, critiquing church statements on Israel: http://www.fodip.org/articles/old_habits.pdf .

She's not, of course, immune to critique herself. For one thing, she wants us to stop using the name 'Palestine'. However, ancient Israel (or Samaria) and Judea only occupied parts of the region, as does modern Israel within its legal borders. The only times it was united were brief periods under David and Solomon, if their empire was historical, and under the Hasmoneans, who may be obscure, but at least enjoy an assured place in history. 'The Holy Land' is horribly sanctimonious, and theologically objectionable, as it suggests that God is more interested in one part of the world than another. 'Palestine', or variants thereof, is attested over an extended period, and is widely understood. There's no other term which can be used for the region without ambiguity and the consequent need for clumsy explanation when  used before a lay audience.

More importantly, she fails to distinguish clearly between antisemitism and opposition to the political programme of the Israeli state. There are those who cry 'antisemitism' at any criticism of Israel; it is for them to demonstrate that such criticism is in fact racist rather than political. Levine calls for 'balance' in church statements about Israel, and critiques them for the lack of it. However, she fails herself to recognise the imbalance between a state equipped with modern weaponry, and the ill-equipped guerilla forces of Hamas, or the inevitable imbalance in the resulting casualty figures.

I think there's a comparison here with the Six Counties; the British Army vastly outgunned all the IRA splinter groups put together, but was no more able to defeat them than the Israelis are to defeat Hamas and Hezbollah. The solution involved talking to the IRA withhout any insistence that it first recognise the legitimacy of the British presence - which it obviously wasn't going to do - followed by mutual disarment, and an honest enquiry into Bloody Sunday, without, it should be said, and enquiry into any of the other atrocities carried out by the British Army. Nothing was said about nationalist atrocities like the pub bombings, which appear to have been carried out by an out-of-control Active Service Unit, operating against policy laid down by the Provisional Army Council. Leaked documents suggest a willingness to talk on the part of the Palestinians, in which case the onus is on the Israeli government to respond in a constructive manner, rather than pointing the finger and insisting that the fault is all on their side. Palestinian crimes need to be acknowledged, but it's right that the emphasis should be on those of the more powerful party.

Levine's position needs to be taken seriously, if the churches are to have any influence in Israel, but allegations of antisemitism should never be allowed to hinder a principled critique of the Israeli state.

The Sect of Rome

I always did feel that, despite the presence of a lot of really good people, the Church of Rome acts like a divisive little sect. What makes them so insecure?


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

No longer Jew nor Greek

Most of the time, we tend to read Paul through a Lutheran lens. Luther, perhaps for his own polemical reasons, interpreted Paul as setting grace (good) against law (bad); the Jews emerge as the bad guys - let's face it, the Gospels do let the Romans off the hook for the Crucifixion and blame the Jews instead - and in Luther's view, Jesus replaces the impossible Law with the glorious light of grace. Unfortunately, this is a serious misreading of Paul.

Paul is, after all, a Jew, with impeccable credentials. He's a Benjaminite , a Pharisee, a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Philippians 3:5; I'm only citing Paul's testimony here, and ignoring Luke's portrayal of Paul in Acts). The Hebrews were the Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking Jews, which might perhaps contradict Luke's testimony that Paul was from Tarsus, but in any case, he comes of Jewish stock, and he's no mere convert. He's been been based at the Antioch church, which was, by all accounts, rather more liberal than the mother church in Jerusalem, but he's been sent by Jerusalem to go to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:9). Both Paul and Luke make it plain that, at this time, Jerusalem was where the decisions were made.

Paul has come to Galatia, whose people were Hellenised Celts, with the message of Jesus. He's established a community of people, now essentially Greeks, though still with the Celtic heritage, who followed a Jewish messiah, under Roman rule. We needn't be surprised that this multicultural mishmash led to a few tensions!

The Jews, of course, were a tolerated minority, granted protection within the Roman empire, and allowed to follow their own religion in peace, to the point where it was legal for a Roman citizen to be a Jew. At this time - Galatians was written sometime between AD 48 and the mid-50's - the Jews had lived peacefully within the Roman empire for generations, since Pompeius Magnus captured Jerusalem in 63 BC, and established a puppet kingdom there. They offered daily sacrifice for he Emperor in Jerusalem, and were not expected to sacrifice to him.

They were however, a minority, and as such may well have felt insecure within the Hellenistic world. In the 160's BC, there had been an attempt to integrate Jerusalem, with the establishment of a syncretistic cult which identified their God with Zeus Olympios. In 41 AD, Caligula, who had been brought up partly in the east, and took divine kingship extremely seriously, ordered that a gilded statue of himself be set up in the Temple, so that the Jews could sacrifice to him. The governor of Judea prevaricated, and Caligula was murdered before the order confirming the erection of the statue could arrive in Jerusalem. Lingering worries emerge in the Gospels, which refer to the Abomination of Desolation (Mark 13:14, Matthew 24:15; the term comes from 1 Maccabees 1:54). Evidently there was a feeling that, sooner or later, someone was going to put an idol in the Temple and make Jews worship it once again.

A diaspora community, in daily contact with their Greek neighbours, would have been doubly insecure. Then Paul came along and started a group of pseudo-Jews; they worshipped the Jewish god - perfectly legally, of course; it's not clear when the first anti-Christian legislation was passed, but it was long after this - but they did none of the things which marked Jews as Jews. They weren't circumcised, didn't keep Sabbath, and their meat probably wasn't kosher. In that case, as secular slaughter didn't exist, it would have been sacrificed at the local temple. They weren't following pagan cults, but they weren't Jews either. So what were they? It must have been a confusing situation.

Someone - either people sent by James, mentioned in Galatians 2:12, or the local synagogue - had a simple solution. They should convert, get themselves circumcised, and become proper Jews. If they did so, everyone would know where they were, any tensions would soon settle down, and in any case, there was an advantage to being a Jew. They'd be full citizens in the Kingdom when it arrived, rather than tolerated strangers and aliens, righteous before God, but, as it were, posessing permanent leave to remain, and nothing more. It was, after all, going to be a Jewish kingdom, under a Jewish God.

No ancient Jewish document claims that Gentiles can't be acceptable to God as Gentiles. It would be a little difficult for anyone to say that, considering the number of righteous Gentles in the Jewish scriptures. Rather, the Mishnah, from the end of the 2nd Century AD, takes the view that God gave seven basic Noahide Commandments to Noah, and through him to all humanity. Any Gentile keeping these would be righteous before God. The commandments of Moses, because these were only given to the Jews, so onlyJews had to keep them. Most likely, this was only a formalisation of an existing conclusion; the New Testament, written earlier, takes a similar view.

In Acts 15, Luke gives us an account of the Jerusalem Conference, where James, the top dog in the church there, has the last word:

"It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: 29 that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well."

Luke wrote at the end of the First Century AD; Paul, writing earlier, never gave a formal list of requirements, but his advice to Gentile followers of Jesus is comparable. Galatians is his earliest response to the issues, and lacks the carefully thought-out arguments of Romans. Rather, Paul has reacted with a furious rant. At one point, he got so worked up, he wished the circumcisers would castrate themselves (5:12). There's an implied comparison here with the priests of the local Magna Mater cult, who were eunuchs; this could only have been seen as a terrible insult.

In  the crucial passage, though, he comes up with something which was, as far as I've been able to discover, new.

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)

God is no longer a Jewish God; the Kingdom is no longer a Jewish kingdom. Rather, Jew and Gentile enter on an equal basis, via their defferent routes. Paul continues to develop this idea through his letters, most notably in Romans, and it's this that brings him into conflict with his fellow Jews. The familiar distinctions of the ancient world have been relativised; they can no longer be absolute, since before God, they are meaningless. Each, therefore, should remain as they were. The Jew should obey the commandments of the Law, since they are binding on them, and the Gentile should continue to ignore them, since they were never given to them. Their final status before God, which was Paul's main concern, would be the same.

Today, we often take this for granted. Our culture is far removed from those in which Paul moved; slavery is effectively invisible, though it still exists, and despite the continuing sexism of our culture, women can become Prime Ministers. Many Jews are so well integrated into the wider culture that they are almost invisible. We take it for granted that God makes no distinctions, and assume that this passage refers to social justice.

This isn't entirely wrong. If God, say, treats men and women the same, it would be wise for those who claim to be his worshippers to do likewise, and to do what they can to ensure that others do as well. If we don't, God may have something to say about it. In that case, to borrow one of Matthew's favourite themes, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. However, this is a secondary implication of the text, not what Paul is actually saying.

Obviously, the church didn't invent sexism. It has, hoever, often justified and maintained it, and developed its own version, creating religious barriers to women, who, in some churches, cannot serve as priests or ministers, and sometimes cannot even set foot in the sanctuary. Equally, we didn't invent racism; it grew out of the slave trade. We did allow the church to be used for some centuries, to legitimate it, and thus to allow it to continue its development.

Antisemitism, however, was the invention of the church. Paul tells us that there is now no barrier between Jew and Gentile; our response has been to pick up the way the Gospel authors, for their own political reasons, exonerate the Romans for the Crucifixion, and blame the Jews instead. We developed the nonsense that the Jews crucified Jesus, and in doing so, laid the foundation for the Holocaust, and all the other pogroms the Jews have suffered. We also, for that matter, laid the foundations for apartheid. Instead of demolishing the stupid barriers which divide humanity, we developed new ones.

God, however, only created one human race, and gave us only one world to live in. All the things which divide us, and justify one group of people in trampling on another, whether the victims are black people, Jews, Arabs, women, or whoever, are ultimately incompatible with our Chrisitian profession. If we're all equal before God, then we need to ensure, firstly, that everyone is equal within the church, which represents God on earth, and secondly, that we use whatever influence we have to oppose everything which makes people unequal out there in the world, and which leads to discrimination.
Acts 15:28-29

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Another rapturous mess

James McGrath has some interesting comments here about the relationship between the Rapture - or people who believe in it anyway - and the present unhealthy state of things in Palestine: http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/2011/05/22/cleaning-up-another-apocalyptic-mess-israel-and-the-palestinians/ . It's going to take a lot more sorting out than the aftermath of Camping's nonsense.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Left behind?

Jason Staples has a good blog post here dealing with one of the passages used by people like Harold Camping to justify their nonsense about the 'Rapture': http://www.jasonstaples.com/blog/2011/two-will-be-taken-one-will-be-left-misinterpreted-bible-passages-8-2478? . He's perfectly correct; the sense of Matthew 24:40 is as though the police raid a building, arrest one person, and leave another. You definitely don't want to be taken! It never ceases to amaze me how the church (meaning the community, led by the nose in this case) sometimes manages to interpret the Bible as meaning the precise opposite of what it says! Of course, the traditional translation here isn't very helpful, but that's often the case, and we need to be aware that we're not reading the original text.

And here's a post from the Beaker Folk summing up what apocalyptic is really about: http://cyber-coenobites.blogspot.com/2011/05/riding-bow-wave-of-rapture.html .

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


We have a constitution in the Methodist Church which is (mostly) fairly reasonable, and which could often be used to our advantage. Trouble is, hardly anyone knows what's in it; it's just a big book which is toted around the place by ministers, and which most of them don't bother to read themselves. Fortunately, it's not hard to get hold of these days. The 2009 version of CPD (it doesn't change much from year to year, and if someone wants to claim it's changed, make them prove it by producing the updated text) can be downloaded from the Methodist Church website.

Vol 1 (Historic Documents) http://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/CPD-volume-1-0709.pdf .

Vol 2 (The bit that matters, with all the rules) http://www.methodist.org.uk/downloads/CPD-volume-2-2009.pdf .

Monday, 16 May 2011

Ministerial appointments

Our Superintendent has asked for his initial five-year appointment to be extended for a couple of years. As it happens, I'm all in favour, but I've never been too happy with these situations. Until quite recently, the slightest criticism of any minister, no matter how dire, was always met with the most appalling patronising speeches from those in power about how wonderful and special ministers were. The sun shone from every ordained backside, God was in his heaven, all was right with the world, and if the churches were unhappy that was their problem. If you run a church that way, is it any wonder if members vote with their feet?

The result, of course, was that it was almost impossible to get rid of any minister wanting to stay. I remember one in the late 1980's, who people were seriously unhappy with. He asked for an extra two years, and the vote, by a show of hands, didn't go his way. The Circuit Stewards announced a miscount, asked us to raise our hands again, and a couple of the people who voted neutral changes to a yes vote. They repeated this charade three times, and eventually got the result they wanted. We then decided that future extensions were to be decided by a paper vote, which at least stopped that nonsense.

Then we had the practice of Circuit Stewards going round with a minister coming to look at the circuit, telling us not to ask them questions, and assuring us that if we said no, we'd be left without a minister. In fact, of course, the worst that could happen is that we might be short of a minister for a year, while the existing Circuit ministers covered the extra churches. The result of this approach was that we had a couple of ministers that the churches were extremely unhappy with. That's obviously not in anyone's interest.

We've currently got a situatiuon where there's a shortage of Superintendents. The District Chair thinks the answer to this is for Circuits to amalgamate, so fewer are needed. As far as I can see, that makes even more work for them, and makes the job even less attractive. You don't solve a recruitment problem by working the present incumbents to death! What we need to do, of course, is to look at the role, lighten the burden a bit, and try to make it more attractive.

The result has been that Circuits have come under pressure to amalgamate. A very large Circuit has been formed in Birmingham, next to us, and it has financial problems. Allegedly, some are blaming this on the fact that we, and once other Circuit, refused to join. Our current Super is being very supportive over this, and if he moves, we're likely to come under pressure again.

That's fair enough, but I've just had an argument with one person at the meeting, who claimed that if we didn't grant the extension, we'd be compelled to amalgamate. I felt it was another piece of manipulation, and made it clear that I didn't believe there was any mechanism for compelling us. In the end, the guy half admitted it. I checked Standing Orders as soon as I got home, and sure enough, there doesn't seem to be any such provision. I've got no issues with Paul's extension, but I have very considerable issues with the stuff that goes on; our only chance of avoiding any more dodgy minsters they try to send us is to have an honest discussion, air any concerns, and reach an unmanipulated decision.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Rejoicing at a Death

I never thought I'd be happy to hear about a death, but that day did come, once. It was a former neighbour, Solomon 'SAJ' Musa.

He had been Vice-President of Sierra Leone after the NPRC coup in 1992. As far as I can make out, there were two contenders for the top job; Musa and Julius Maada Bio. They settled on a compromise candidate, Valentine Strasser. 26 alleged coup plotters were executed not long afterwards, supposedly by Musa driving a lorry over them. All I can say is that the man was capable of such a thing. Before long, Musa and his wife were put on a plane at gunpoint, after a series of rows with Strasser. They surfaced in Birmingham, a few hundred yards from where we lived, with a council house, refugee status, and a UN grant to study at Birmingham University. It wasn't long before Musa picked a ferocious quarrel with us, probably because we're democrats.

At the beginning of May 1997, my wife ran into Tina Musa, who appeared to be rejoicing; they'd done some juju, and 'power was coming to return to them'. Three weeks later, on May 25th, soldiers loyal to Musa seized the parliament building and hung out banners calling for his return as President. Local people tried to dissuade him, warning him that it would lead to his death, but the two of them rushed off in a state of grate enthusiasm, and arrived in Freetown, after being delayed by a temporary arrest in Guinea, to find that someone else, Johnny Paul Koroma, had taken the top job. Musa became Vice-President again, and Minister of Mines.

We had just received clearance to bring the girls, then aged 11 and 5, to the UK, and the result was that the elder was caught up in fighting a week later. They arrived in the end, but she still suffers from nightmares. At one point I phoned a family friend, to find her in a state of terror as a gang of soldiers came down the street, looting and killing; I subsequently spoke to people who saw Musa directing these gangs personally. We were worried that Namissa's family was likely to be targeted because of our quarrel with Musa, who was known to be vindictive, but in the event he spent most of his time in the diamond areas, stealing the gems.

The regime lasted nine months, and collapsed; the leaders escaped from Freetown with their forces intact, and with no civilian casualties. I've never come across any details of what went on behind the scenes, but given that the head of the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force was known locally as 'Mr. Ten Million', since that was his annual take from the rebels to allow them to remain in business, I imagine that there was a fair amount of collusion involved.

Musa then established himself as the de facto leader of one of the rebel groups, based at Kabala (Namissa's home town) in the north of the country. It's subsequently emerged that he was behind most of the fighting in the latter stages of the civil war. He was killed in the early stages of a major rebel assault on the capital over New Year 1999. At the time it appeared that his death was due either to an accident or a booby-trap, but it now seems that he was probably shot by his own lieutenants, on the orders of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian dictator whose trial at the Hague ended recently.

God alone knows how many deaths this man was responsible for, and how many were saved by his death. There's no doubt that as long as he was alive, his attempts to steal the country and its mineral wealth would have continued. I don't consider Osama bin Laden to have been a monster on the same scale. His major crimes took place a decade ago, and he's been a declining influence for some years. It's interesting that he was betrayed just when the Arab revolutions had made him politically irrelevant. Apparently he made no attempt to defend himself, and he could presumably have been taken alive. A trial - preferably outside the United States - would have avoided making a martyr, and would have been far more fitting for a country which likes to portray itself as a leader of civilisation. An extra-judicial killing panders to the worst elements of a nation with an unfortunate tendency to confuse violence with justice.