Tuesday 19 May 2015

Mark After Trinity

The three churches in the Caversham, Thameside & Mapledurham Parish are doing something a little different in the seven weeks after Trinity (ie from the beginning of June) this year. We are planning to preach a shared sermon series, covering key passages and themes from Mark's Gospel over the seven weeks.

The idea is that the Gospel story is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, so people should have the opportunity, during their weekly worship, to encounter this story as a whole, not just scattered fragments.

Mark is the gospel of the year in the Anglican lectionary; it is also the shortest, least cluttered, of the accounts of Jesus' ministry, from his baptism to his resurrection. So from a practical point of view, Mark is a good Gospel to go for.

I would also argue that in many ways this is the best gospel for our time: Mark appears to be aimed at people who are busy, cosmopolitan and politically aware; whether they are religious insiders or not. This sounds to me like a description of a large chunk of Caversham, indeed a fair part of today's world (at least the part that is likely to be reading this on the internet).

But this is particularly a message of good news for those who are struggling with uncertainty, with persecution and suffering, and for those whose world is changing in ways they cannot comprehend. Mark is a strange gospel, but it speaks to those for whom chaos and fear are everyday realities.

Each week there will be three readings from Mark, followed by a sermon. In the notice sheets the readings will be listed, along with some short reflections on the themes for consideration over the week. Much of the structure of this is derived from Rowan Williams' excellent little book Meeting God In Mark.

If you live in Caversham or Mapledurham, or hereabouts, why not come along to one of the churches on a Sunday and hear for yourself what this is all about?

Over the period of the series I will also be posting here additional thoughts and reflections on the section of Mark being covered that week. Why not use the comment section to join the conversation, to share your thoughts and what Mark's (or Jesus') words mean to you? You never know who might be helped and encouraged by your words.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

All Things Necessary For Salvation

‘Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation.’

I came across this on a network of Christian bloggers as a required belief for anyone wanting to join the network. Being inclined to contrariness, I immediately had reservations.

It is Jesus who saves us, not the Bible. The Bible is essentially an intricately carved and cunningly decorated piece of wood, at risk of becoming an idol.

I do know what the clause means, really, and - as a pointer - agree with it: Mark's Gospel introduces us to Jesus, Ephesians 2 tells us about salvation:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
And John 10 links the two:
I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
This post's opening sentence comes from Article 6 of the Church of England's 39 Articles of Religion, their attempt to navigate a faithful path between the extremes of Roman Catholicism on the one side and hard-line Protestantism on the other.

The way I have addressed the meaning of this above begs the question, what about the rest of the Bible? Paul's second letter to Timothy is helpful: he tells us that all scripture is useful for Christian living. Strictly speaking he is only referring to Old Testament scriptures there, but it is not a big jump to extend it to the rest of the New Testament also.

Whilst hard-line Protestants tend to emphasise sola scriptura - only scripture, nothing else - the C of E goes for prima scriptura: scripture first, but the Spirit guides us in other ways also (including reason, tradition and experience).

Actually sola scriptura falls at the first hurdle: the original scriptures were written in a mixture of Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek. Without dictionaries and other translation tools these are meaningless to the modern reader. Even with translation tools you end up with circular, meaningless or tradition-determined translations without other writings to compare them to. You also need tools to determine which of a range of different ancient texts is closest to the original (note that the ones used by the original translators of the King James version are late and significantly different from earlier, better texts - the KJV was great in its day, but now it is only useful as a museum piece).

My view, in summary, is that the Bible is a wonderful book, filled with all sorts of poetry, narrative, drama, melodrama, and a variety of other writing types, which points us to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit and to God the Father, and which is a wonderful guide to living in God's way, the way recommended in love as the best way for us to live most fully. Some of the Bible is crystal clear, like the need to turn to God through Jesus to find healing and new life; some of it is less so; and some of the Bible is downright obscure and difficult to understand. Just like God's creation really. To my mind that is part of the joy of both - there is always more to discover, always more to learn, and always more to experience.

God is good ... and so is his word.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Immigration & Wages

Last week several of us had a chance to meet together with a group of Romanian worshippers at a local church, and to enjoy their hospitality. This week I had an interesting chat with a local Caversham man who was commenting on the way that immigrants are driving down wages for skilled labourers, and wondering how youngsters would manage in the future.

Many of our Romanian hosts were skilled workers over here on short-term contracts, concerned about their families and the lack of stability which goes with that lifestyle. I could sympathise with that having been a 'forces kid', moving every three years during my childhood; although I do think that there is a huge benefit to travel. Some years ago I had a next-door neighbour in her late seventies who had never been further than Tilehurst, just the other side of Reading, and only went there once because it was too strange! Their worshipping community (they don't have their own church building) has been steadily growing over the years, as more Romanians have moved over here to work.

A problem in Caversham seems to be that people are coming over from the poorer parts of Eastern Europe (such as Romania) who are skilled labourers, have no market for their skills in their home country, come to Caversham where there is work, but offer silly rates for jobs just to get some of that work (I was told some are quoting £60-£70 per day for skilled building work, which isn't sustainable).

In spite of some of the scummier parts of our press, I see no sign of Eastern Europeans coming over as 'benefit tourists'. Employment rates are generally not too bad around Reading, so I don't think there's any real problem with recent immigrants picking off the baseline, minimum wage jobs, shutting out unskilled locals.

As a small business myself, though, I can see the point about unfair, unsustainable competition; although I would point out that there is probably a lot more unfair competition to small businesses coming from multi-nationals who don't pay either fair wages or fair taxes (Amazon and Starbucks spring to mind).

What to do? I would start by saying these are all good people: Romanians and local. There is no place for language and attitudes which dehumanise or degrade fellow human beings. Some of the British press fails dismally there, and one or two of our political parties are irresponsible in the way they manipulate this issue. I would also point out that there are a lot of British skilled workers working overseas, in Europe and beyond, on both short and long term contracts - it's a two-way street.

That said, what can be done? It seems to me that this is a problem which is real but not sustainable. Family accommodation around here is ludicrously expensive - owned or rented - so no-one can continue charging uneconomic prices for long. Essentially it looks to me like a classic 'market entry': you start with low prices to build a clientèle then put them up to realistic levels as you become established.

The problem really is a lack of stability. The EU has grown too fast in recent years; it needs to take time to digest what it has already got before growing any more. The various restrictions on movement after some of the Eastern European countries joined merely had the effect of drawing out the pain. We need to give society, and businesses, time to settle down.

So my suggestions would be to block EU expansion, encourage free movement within the EU (to stop the build up of suppressed demand), put effort into enforcing payment of taxes and fair wages by large businesses and small, locals and foreign workers (not necessarily a popular move with local small businesses, but important to level the playing field), and unblock the building of the houses needed for the unmet demand (thereby both growing the demand for skilled labour and moving housing costs to a more manageable level).

I don't see any party in tomorrow's election whose policies (such as they are) come even close to these. I will vote tomorrow because voting is important, but I - like many others - despair at the lack of real choice in UK elections so far this century.

Monday 4 May 2015

Politics & The Bible II

"Christianity is an incarnational faith – Jesus Christ lived as one of us, shared the joys and hardships of ordinary life and died a violent and shameful death. Wherever we find ourselves, he has shared our condition. His resurrection is a sign that the sufferings of the world are not the last word and that God’s transforming power can turn the material world – not just the spiritual – to work for good. Christians believe that we are called to share in this responsibility for bringing to birth a new creation."

The above is a quote from the Anglican bishops' pastoral letter (pdf link) published in February addressing the forthcoming general election, under the heading "Who is my neighbour?" Part of the point of the quote is that this world matters because Jesus was born into it, becoming one of us.

Whenever Christians pray "your Kingdom come" we are committing ourselves to doing what we can to help that to happen, and Jesus' life and teaching show us that God's Kingdom is far more about the way we treat others - particularly the sick, the scorned, and the outsider - than about some form of private personal belief system. As James puts it:
"Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?"
Even before the letter was published the right-leaning press were complaining about it, and Tory MPs were, we are told on Nick Baines' blog, criticising it even though they admitted they had not actually read the document. The implication has to be that some right-wingers assume, without needing to check, that their favoured policies are simply unChristian.

The letter itself is careful neither to choose any one party over another, nor to promote specific political policies. What it does try to do is to promote a new vision for political life, and indeed for British society's values. It's a huge document but well worth a read.

My aim in this post is rather more modest: I just want to address a couple of political hot-spots and look at how it is that Christians in different parties may, in good faith, promote different approaches.

Take economic policies. The Bible is clear:
“The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.”
For one person to have more than they need, whilst another has less is simply wrong, that's easy. But what you do about it is less so. If the wealthy ignore the call to share their riches, like the rich man with Lazarus at his gate, what is to be done?

One view is that the state should step in, remove some of the excess wealth and pass it on to those in poverty. Another view is that it is down to an individual's conscience what they do with their money and if they choose to spend it on themselves that is their right. Maybe the church should be more persuasive in its teaching?

There is a lot of data to show that inequality is harmful to societies (see The Spirit Level, by Wilkinson & Pickett, for a slightly dated summary of the scientific evidence). There is also evidence to show that excessive welfare can also be harmful to societies, including to the recipients (John Bird of The Big Issue is an outspoken proponent that another approach is needed). Something more dynamic and more balanced is required.

So there are Christians in all the main political parties, all working for justice and to alleviate poverty, but in different ways, using different strategies. Some of them, some of the time, maybe compromise on God's Kingdom in favour of their political ideology, but we should all be wary of casting the first stone.

Health is an area that seems to have been central to Jesus' proclamation of God's Kingdom, so any Christian should be concerned about healthcare for all. In UK politics the argument is then over whether state control or more private/market provision is the best way of delivering that.

I have to say that I personally would find the market approaches more credible if they were not so obviously influenced by the USA's incredibly expensive and inefficient system, which has become a huge moneymaker for the health industry whilst leaving their nation generally unhealthy. There are many nations which do have efficient healthcare systems - both public and private. If the political parties were seen to be learning from them I would find it a lot more credible.

Finally, foreigners. Immigration is a big issue in this election, and it is a tricky one because clearly racism, overt or covert, is a part of the equation. Nevertheless one doesn't have to be racist to believe that there are problems which need to be addressed.

In the Old Testament the Israelites are reminded that they used to be slaves in Egypt until God rescued them and took them to another land. So, in some places, the importance of welcoming strangers and treating them well is highlighted. Other parts of the OT are rather more chauvinistic.

In the New Testament we have Jesus' family finding refuge in Egypt, when Herod was gunning for them. We also see in Acts and in Paul's writings a call for the church to accept people of all races and conditions, all equal in Christ. Racism and racial prejudice are alien to Christian living.

UKIP has its roots in anti-European groups of the past and has leading members today who appear to be out-and-out racists. Whether the current leader and official party policy are part of this or not, it remains part of the DNA of the party, and it will be a long time, if ever, before that is purged, in my view.

Other parties, though, also 'talk tough' on immigration, reacting to a perception that it is a problem in Britain. Given global mobility it is hard to see that completely open borders would work as a policy, so again it becomes a matter of degree.

In my view the questions that Christians should be asking about different parties' immigration policies should address whether they are promoting fear and division; whether they affirm the humanity of all immigrants, established, new and failed; and whether they are accompanied by policies to alleviate conditions which drive these people movements. For example the current government's attempts to keep overseas aid at generous levels is a positive example, whilst the current foreign secretary's warmongering tone has helped encourage the instabilities in Syria and Libya which generate so many refugees.

Ultimately, we live in a fallen world. No political system or party can deliver true peace and prosperity, only God; all parties and party leaders are fallible; all voters and members of our society are also fallible. Part of the judgement we must make as we come to vote includes how the policies and decision makers balance a vision of a better world with a reality in dealing with this one.

However the elections go this Thursday, may God bless and guide all who shoulder the heavy burden of guiding our country through the next five years.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Politics & The Bible I

When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.” - Desmond Tutu.

I get Tutu's point but - in this run up to the 2015 UK general election - it is important to be a little more nuanced than that, I think.

In Old Testament times, in Israel and Judea, religion and politics were closely intertwined: their scripture was also their legal system (much like Sharia in some countries today), and their rulers claimed to be divinely appointed. It didn't go well, hence the prophets 'speaking truth to power' ... and being persecuted for it.

In New Testament times Christianity was too weak to have political influence. That didn't go well either: Jesus was crucified by those who did have political influence and power, and the early church was heavily persecuted.

Oddly enough that doesn't stop the New Testament's writings from being heavily political. I've spoken elsewhere about the political relevance of terms like 'goods news', 'Christ', and 'son of god'; but it is also true that Paul's letters were, in places, extremely political. As a spokesperson for faith without secular power, Paul could not directly challenge the political 'hot potatoes' of the day, but he could and did challenge the underlying suppositions.

On example is that the whole of Roman and Greek society depended totally upon slavery - it would have ceased to function without it. Nothing Paul could say was going to change that. However, slavery in practice depends upon the idea that slave-owners are superior to their slaves. Paul taught that in Jesus there is no difference, that all are of equal worth: slave or free, male or female, Jew, Greek or foreigner (see for example his letter to the Galatian Church).

This remains political in today's world, nearly two thousand years later! Just think of debates about immigration in Europe and in North America, rights of women in South Asia and the Middle East, domestic and sexual slavery in Saudi Arabia, London, Thailand and many, many other places.

There is an enormous amount about politics in the Bible, but nothing - inevitably, if you think about it - about party politics.

In the 2012 London Assembly elections there were candidates standing for the 'Christian Peoples Alliance', a newish party supposedly representing a Christian viewpoint in politics. Inevitably they didn't actually represent very many individual Christian's viewpoints when it came down to it - they certainly don't represent mine - and they only gained 1.8% of the vote, getting no seats.

On the other hand, all three of the current main parties had MPs in the recently dissolved parliament who are explicitly Christians. Indeed there is an all-party parliamentary group called Christians in Parliament, who share a common faith and common belief in the Bible whilst also holding a variety of political viewpoints. They clearly believe that faith and politics not only can mix, but that they should mix. Yet they mix them in different ways. How can that be?

I'll go into the question of what the Bible says versus the policies of different political parties in the next post, but I just want to finish this one with another quote from Desmond Tutu:
If you want to keep people subjugated, the last thing you place in their hands is a Bible. There's nothing more radical, nothing more revolutionary, nothing more subversive against injustice and oppression than the Bible.