Blogroll: God Gold and Generals

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Book reviews and comments by Jeremy Marshall on Christian, historical and business themesJeremy Marshall
Updated: 16 min 35 sec ago

Book Review: Going to church in medieval England by Nicholas Orme Yale UP June 2021

Tue, 17/08/2021 - 15:40

 This splendid book and wonderfully colourful book is well titled: it examines in fascinating detail the experience of people going to church in the medieval period in England, up to and including the reformation. It’s not a theological book (though there is theology in it) but a book looking at what it would have been like to travel back in a time machine and attend church in say 1350. 

As well as being well written and packed with great stories it’s also highly topical. “Save the parish” is a recent campaign to save the 12500 parish churches in England. 
Speaking at the launch one lady said the parish church “speaks in itself of other values than the mercenary and the utilitarian. ... The church is a kind of guarantor of the holiness of the whole area.”. Quite a few have spoken of the evangelical wing of the church as having an anti parish agenda. 

The CofEs director of evangelism and discipleship however argued “Throughout our history, there have always been other forms of churches alongside and within (parishes) — from cathedrals and chapels to fresh expressions and church plants, all of these come from and are part of the parishes. We need them all”

So the timing for this book couldn’t be better. What was the parish church like in its “golden age”? What was the typical experience of a parishioner? Were the reformers bent on destroying the parish? Read and learn. 

From about 300 onwards people in Britain were going to church. We know there were three bishops at a council in France in 313, one from London and York and probably one from  Lincoln. Following the Roman withdrawal, the pagan Saxons were converted until by around 680 the whole of Britain was nominally Christian 

Britain was not urbanised so clergy (some secular ie often married) were sent out as missionaries from “minsters” (an anglicisation of the Latin word monasterium). The minsters taught preached and baptised. Towns grew up around the minsters - some new like Durham, some revivals of Roman towns like Winchester. The interaction of people with the church was intermittent - lengthy journeys were often needed. Landowners wanted to have churches to hand and new smaller churches emerged. Some were independent and even at odds with the Minster church. As time went by many of the minsters became monasteries that were “professionalised” - monks separate from the world. Religion became distinct: that of the clergy (monks, canons) and that of the laity. At larger churches, a chaplain might be employed to take care of the laity and the building was formally separated. 
By the twelfth century, the parish system roughly as it is today was in place: boundaries could not be changed save by order of the bishop or even the Pope. There was no central creation: the authorities recognised the existing system. Often the driver was money: who paid for which church? Arguments over the finances of parish churches have a long history and are one of the main themes in the book might be characterised as “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.  
Towns also had parishes,  often a large number: York Lincoln Winchester and Norwich all had around 50 and London over a hundred. Parish churches were under the control of landowners although by 1215 the church had exerted control: the landowners became patrons with the right to propose a priest but the Bishop admitted him. In practice, though the local magnate had great power. The situation in large cities (particularly London ) was more complex: the parish system was designed for an agrarian rural context and though there were, of course, parishes in London their effectiveness varied. The whole north of England was always problematic: places like Manchester and Doncaster or Cumbria had either vast parishes or huge number of parishioners. Resources were concentrated in the wealthier southern areas. 
The services, of course, were in Latin but on Sundays, the priest was expected in theory once in a while to explain the gospel in English. Parishioners were expected to attend church regularly. In the early medieval period the Eucharist was received at Easter and possibly other times, while communion was in both kinds: only later was it restricted. 
But the parish church was not at all the most common church building: this was the chapel. (The word comes from the famous relic- the cloak or Capella of St Martin). These were very numerous: in Devon for example there were three times as many chapels as parish churches.  There was a strong impetus to supplement parish churches with other places of worship: this tended to cause friction with the parish church as the new chapel drew away revenues and congregations. While these chapels were meant to be subject to and attend the parish church as well, in practice they were often independent especially if backed by local gentry. Chapels were often controlled and run by the laity. Orne writes “such chapels anticipated the free church meeting houses”. In fact, sometimes they were very near to that model: in the 1380s some Lollards near Leicester based themselves in the chapel of St Katherine where two of them showed their disregard for the veneration of Saints by burning her image to cook their cabbage soup! 
Clergy had to be at least 25 and in theory educated, though periodic visitation reports indicate this was far from always the case. At the beginning of the medieval period many clergy were married and succeeding your father was common: by the 13th C though clerical marriage was illegal but in practice, many clergy were “married” with their wives or concubines disguised as housekeepers. Socially,  clergy were below the gentry (who were often their employer) and some chaplains could be very poor: Chaucer places the parson above only his brother the plowman. 
Church buildings are a massive topic but in short, the chancel was in theory reserved for the clergy (often behind a screen which meant the congregation couldn’t easily see what was going on, though they were supposed to be able to see the Mass). In practice, though those of higher rank often ignored this and as we get nearer the reformation more and more laity gained exclusive access to the chancel . The laity would also be increasingly seated: often if rich in elaborate stalls. Seating was by rank and by gender: men and women were by custom normally separated (women on the north men on the south: the north was the side of the saved at the Day of judgment, men, therefore, were better able to stand against the temptations of the lost on the south,  which is why in a wedding even today the groom is normally on the right or south side. ) 
As time went by it was more common for the wealthy to sit together husband and wife. Services became more static and authorities began to order “none to walk or stand idly about talking”. 
In general, church was much less behaved than now. A knight in Kent came to church with his hat on and a hawk on his wrist and when challenged struck the vicar in the mouth. Dogs were also popular with predictable consequences! The milder end of secular practices like teaching, morality plays, courts and “refreshments” were tolerated in church but there were frequent prohibitions of dancing and drinking. 
In general there was a perpetual struggle for control of the parish between the church authorities and the laity. The ambitions of the church was to keep the laity out of power and out of the chancel where the mass was celebrated. But “this was never wholly achieved and was perceptibly undermined during the later Middle Ages”. After the high watermark of church control in say 1200, the (wealthy) laity steadily regained power and influence. Money talks. As now!
How widespread was church attendance? Certainly, the frequent complaints and clampdowns show a far from uniformly pious society. Most likely to attend would be the gentry (unless they had a private chapel) as this was the place they could receive respect and literally occupy the seats of power. Occasionally quarrels over who sat where ended in violence. The same attendance of the rich was true in towns for wealthy merchants and especially their wives (then as now women outnumbered men in church). An Italian visiting London in 1500 noted gentlewomen attending church every day with books (which were becoming increasingly popular) and rosaries. Children as now sometimes disrupted the services to the annoyance of others. Again the wealthier families would have gone en masse while their servants and their children laboured at home. Sometimes there were inducements to attend: either a condition of receiving alms or as a handout at an obit mass. 
Complaints about non-attendance were numerous. Some worried commentators wrote of “the stalls of the tavern stuffed with drinkers while in the church stalls you shall see few or none”. Persistent non-attenders - often the poor or those of the working classes - were singled out and made to do penance,  such as in one case a man ceremonially being beaten around the church carrying the shoes he had been selling! Despite that, there was tolerance for people whose work was deemed essential or those like fishermen who faced practical problems attending. There was a strong Sabbatarian belief in keeping Sunday special. A popular painting was of a bleeding  Christ surrounded by the instruments of work that wounded him afresh. Teenagers then as now were famously hard to rouse out of bed to attend church. Sport was also a big temptation.  A Gloucestershire clergyman found 14 people playing tennis when they should have been in church. 
Of course, this led to an awful lot of people in the church who might not have wished to be there. People walked around, chattered, read, and especially sometimes argued. The main flashpoint topic was one of “precedence” - who was the social superior of others. Women were dragged out of their seats by other women who felt that they were of higher rank. Clothes were also important especially for the rich. Interestingly men wore hoods or hats only removing them at the elevation of the host. Kneeling became more common as people were seated which became increasingly the norm - you bought your own seat or had one built. Crossing oneself was also very common: a practice disliked by the reformers. Prayers were focused around the Lord’s Prayer the creed and the Ave Maria: as time went on praying these repeatedly were seen to acquire merit for the person using them. In the 1400s more and more wealthy people acquired what we would call devotional literature- prayer books, stories of the Saints and even the liturgy itself in book form were increasingly used and bought to church and read while the service was ongoing. 
The overall level of piety is very hard to assess. Until the 1380s England lacked a pattern of “heresy” as was found in say France. Opposition tended to be around refusing to attend church, pay the church taxes or follow the church’s moral code. The church regarded this as disobedience, not heresy. Sceptics expressed their views through scoffing and ridicule. All this changed with the arrival of the Lollards from 1380 which meant the authorities cracked down on sceptics - many of whose beliefs were not full-blown Lollardy but rather widespread scepticism over disputed doctrines such as the real presence or dislike of the churches power and wealth. 
This lay hostility to the church was paralleled by a systematic growth over this period of lay power. Not just through the local gentry but through associations such as guilds, companies and chantries. Services were very frequent - Mass should be celebrated daily and very often as well as specific “chantry priests” saying masses for the souls of the dead. Indeed a parish clergyman was “to a significant extent a chantry priest…his responsibilities complemented not replaced the praying for the departed”. Services were probably about an hour to an hour and a half and on Sundays, the laity was expected to attend matins and evensong and mass (so 4-5 hours in church). However, this expectation was widely ignored notably as, unlike the mass these services were not addressed to them. The congregation didn’t participate in these services: One could pray extempore, meditate or if literate read books such as a psalter. 
But the mass was the key service above all on Sundays and festivals. The high point of the service was the moment of consecration, as the ordinary people would rarely take communion, perhaps only at Easter: the wealthy remember would often be near to the altar but the “common folk” would be excluded by the chancel screen,  though this was supposed to be pierced to allow visibility. This elevation produced excitement - one reformer wrote of people crying out to the priest  “hold up Sir john hold up” while others said, “stoop down thou fellow before that I may see my maker”. When communion was given or the pax circulated (an image in place of kissing each other) it was in the order of precedence and gender - which led to fierce arguments. In Essex in 1522 a gentleman was so irate at being offered the pax after others he smashed it in pieces on the clerk's head. 
Prayers were made (often in English) and announcements were made. Pardoners (as vilified but Chaucer) might appeal for money or sell indulgences. This brings us to preaching which was of course one of the main complaints of the reformers - that people didn’t understand their faith. Numerous archbishops issued instructions calling for good preaching and educated priests for “the ignorance of priests casts the people into the pit of error”. Sermons if they occurred would have been in English normally and 10-15 minutes long. 
However numerous complaints about non-existent or incomprehensible preaching indicate these instructions were not followed often due to the poor education of the priest himself. In response to this help was made available by the 15th C in the form of model sermons, explaining a Bible passage or the Saints day. A kind of medieval Proclamation  Trust! 
Many people attended other sermons (normally in the afternoon) and in the cities, there were ample opportunities to hear notable preachers. Friars became increasingly important and friaries focused heavily on sermon preparation. Friars increasingly began to circulate in rural areas and would draw large crowds,  often to the annoyance of the parish priest who couldn’t compete with these highly educated itinerants. . Such preachers had their work cut out - if they were judged dull the congregation would up and leave (unlike the mass,  attendance was voluntary). Outbursts from the pew could be violent: when the “revivalist preacher” William Swinderby of Leicester attacked women’s adornments the women of Leicester threatened to stone him. But normally the Mass did not emphasise teaching and the communication was through sight and ceremony not instruction. 
Finally, we come to the reformation. The reformers were drawing in powerful undercurrents. There is no particular evidence, argues Orme, of increasing anticlericalism,  though it was certainly there. The growth in lay influence has been commented on: more specific was growth in the power of the King. Royal emblems in the church begin to appear much more frequently. The clergy were much more strictly controlled by the state which also taxed them much more heavily. Devotion to Christ (as opposed to Mary or the Saints) became much more prevalent, though the cult of the Virgin Mary was still very important. Pulpits became more prominent and the arrival of printing made standardisation and explanation of liturgy much easier. 
For the parish church itself, the biggest change of the reformation was the availability of the Bible in both Latin and English - it should be placed in the chancel for “every man that will to look and read their in”. Services were to include the Bible read in English. Images were not necessarily removed but kneeling or offerings to them were forbidden. 
Interestingly enough for high church fans of the parish, the reformers were dead against the chapels which they regarded as encouraging superstitious worship of Saints and weakened the authority of the parish church. The reformation was the triumph of the parish church versus other expressions. Preaching was encouraged: a minimum of four times a year was the expected standard (!). The prayer book was introduced: for the first time, there was a standardised national liturgy. 
The reformers were keen to encourage communion more frequently but met with little success. Reshaping the nature of worship was more successful “Sunday services became more Instructive partly because they were in English”. Confession became counselling. Many of the changes can be classified as “uniformity”. Every service should be the same and the instrument to achieve this was printing. The multiple non-parish alternatives before the reformation were removed: the injunction of 1559 forbade the practice of worshipping elsewhere. Only two services took place: morning and evening. The priest - or minister as the words were used interchangeably-  and congregation were brought much closer together. The parish church services were much more educational and bought a much greater familiarity with the Bible. Saints, images and even the cross as a symbol were jettisoned. 
But much in terms of religious practice remained the same and the parish became the arena for much stricter enforcement of religious uniformity.  The parishes and vicars and bishops remained just as before. “Churchgoing kept much of its ancient character “ argues Orme. People were required to be in church for a lengthy period of time on Sunday (probably an hour and a half in the morning and less in the evening). The reformers were not particularly bothered about how the congregation reacted during the service and people continued for example to kneel and the men to doff their hats at the name of Jesus. Reformers “remained attached to many aspects of the past: a Christian state and society, parish structures, church patronage,  infant baptism, and many more. “ 
So for those who wish to “save the parish” often though not always in contrast to “evangelicals” seeking change a few thoughts to conclude 
The parish system in medieval England was far from uniform and in fact, most churches were outside the parish system and there has always been tension between the parish church and other churches. 
The reformers (“evangelicals “ we might say) far from wanting to undermine the parish worked to achieve the exact reverse. 
Money has always been a big issue. Who pays? No taxation without representation - a powerful cry today (the cry “why should I pay for something I totally disagree with” has a long history!) The tensions in the parish were often between the clergy and the laity - with the latter over time gaining increasing power and influence. The parish system was geared for the rich and powerful who enjoyed even in the same church a very different experience of “the local parish church” to the poor in exactly the same service .
 Wealthy parishes also had huge staff and money while poorer parishes especially in the north struggled with few staff and huge congregations. There was no mechanism for helping the north whilst Resources were very unevenly distributed and were controlled by the rich. Cities especially London functioned completely differently and the parish church system was above all one of wealthy southern rural communities. Plus ca change! 

The degree of understanding of what was happening for the congregation was low - and that was often true of the priest as well. This worked to some extent (though of course was one of the central complaints of the reformers)  as with a few exceptions everyone was to a greater or lesser extent “religious”. 
Most obviously the parish system functioned and flourished because everyone had to be in the church whether they liked it or not - at least twice on a Sunday and a minimum of 30 times in addition on various feasts and Saints days. While the reformation abolished most of the latter it reinforced the enforcement of church attendance not least to guard against hidden Catholicism. 
The church was central and serious to everyone’s life. Just look at the money poured into church buildings which stand as mute testimony to the massive centrality of God to all aspects of medieval life. That is to state the bleedingly obvious hardly the case today. The situation today i suggest is much more like 600 than 1500 - a pagan nation ignoring God. The minster church seeking to reach the pagan may be a more relevant model than a parish one ministering fo a captive audience. 
Having said all that with all its limitations the parish church has endured for 1000 years plus (in some cases longer). It wasn’t in the Middle Ages a monolithic centralised system but was surprisingly diverse and varied. Most churches were not parish churches. Parish churches were geared for and run by the rich.  
 The irony of irony is that the modern “standardised” parish and its “standardised” worship was to a large extent the product of the reforming evangelicals. Far from dismantling the parish church, they built it. 
This is a brilliant book most attractively produced and sold at a very reasonable price. 
Categories: Friends

Dr Frederik Mulder's analysis of the Church of England

Sun, 15/08/2021 - 19:12

 Dr Frederik Mulder has produced a very thorough and incisive analysis of the situation facing the Church of England. 

You can read his argument or watch his video here
He knows the situation well having undertaken a series of theological studies and has discussed the key issues with some of the people he cites. 
Let me try and summarise his case. I will start with what I agree with. 
1. Evangelicals are losing the fight in the Church of England. This to me is indisputable despite vainglorious claims in the past. Lloyd Jones was I believe right and Stott was wrong in 1966. Stott himself indicated at the end of his life, suggests Dr Mulder, a shift in his opinion  
Mulder chronicles a long and dismal record of retreat beginning with the crucial amendment to the Declaration of Assent to the 39 articles in 1968. One cannot avoid admitting that worthy evangelicals like Jim Packer and Michael Green seem to have been duped into a crucial change where effectively you could deny the articles,  whilst rather weaselly saying they were correct at the time they were instituted. From then on a whole series of ordained liberal academics and bishops systematically and openly denied crucial doctrines such as the virgin birth,  the resurrection and the atonement. 
Dr Mulder doesn’t spell this out but others have pointed out since the - in my view disastrous-  Keele NEAC meeting of 1967 evangelical Anglicans went from saying they were contending for the reformed faith and truth to accepting evangelicals were but one of the many traditions in the CofE and that crucially come what may they wouldn’t leave. 
2. The failure of church discipline. What happened when all of this above occurred? Nothing. Lee Gatiss is quoted in 2019 as admitting that there has been a complete collapse in discipline. He is quoted as saying “You can get away with preaching almost anything”. Don Cupitt who denied even a personal God,  was supported Mulder points out by the ABC and when the Bishop of Durham denied the resurrection he was backed by 18 bishops and the ABC. 
3. The failure of evangelical response. What was the evangelical response for example to the new liturgy for transgender people? Moaning and groaning and letter writing but nothing really changed.  If there is an evangelical strategy it certainly hasn’t been communicated
4. The author gives some interesting and deeply sad personal anecdotes of his recent experience trying Anglican churches in Winchester. He is told even in the evangelical Anglican church that it’s all about “building bridges”. Don’t rock the boat is the watchword. 
5. Crucially Mulder points out that for some evangelical Anglicans COME WHAT MAY they will never leave. I can recall having this discussion at university 40 years ago. “Would you leave the Church of England, “ I rather provocatively asked my friends “if the Archbishop of Canterbury said we should worship the devil?” Silence and rather embarrassed grins were the answers. Sadly, as Mulder points out for some evangelicals the attachment to the CofE is so strong that “their British Anglican identity trumps orthodox belief”. I can’t help thinking that belonging to a cosy establishment which is respectable and privileged is a major factor for some. 
He points out how sad and self-defeating it is when evangelical people staying in the church denigrate and criticise friends leaving (say to AMIE) as “abandoning the flock”. This is something I have observed. In fact, Church of England evangelicals should make common cause with those leaving for other Anglican causes such as AMIE and equally other evangelicals outside Anglicanism. This is exactly what Lloyd Jones said - it’s madness when we visibly identify with those who deny basic Christian truth and separate from those who affirm it. 
Pragmatically this also means I suggest that the stronger the alternative option the better for the evangelical people within the CofE, not the reverse, because there is a credible alternative. If there is no alternative then the outcome is clear. 
As a layman, I would love to see a closer alignment with AMIE, FIEC etc. The Gospel Partnerships are a good example of what this cooperation can look like. 
What I don’t agree with 
Frederik’s conclusion is that evangelicals should leave the Church of England. He quotes a number of passages from 2 Timothy and Ephesians and elsewhere about having nothing to do with false teachers. In particular, he criticises Lee Gatiss and others for advocating getting elected and working in synods as this contradicts these scriptural instructions, given the highly liberal views of some of the other synod members. This he feels violates the scriptural principles on association with false teachers  
I’m not sure this makes sense. Imagine you have a synod or a church meeting and one person out of say 500 a was advocates false teaching. Do you then boycott the meeting? I suggest not,  rather you struggle and try and correct the false teaching. The question is whether the struggle is lost. When it is lost then and only then leave. In the meantime fight for what you believe in. 
Spurgeon followed this strategy with the Baptist Union in the “ Downgrade Controversy “ only leaving when he was defeated eventually by a vote of 2000-7. (I am not arguing that Spurgeon would have stayed - he would never have been an Anglican full stop - but that if you have a cause you fight for it until it’s lost. I understand Frederik's view that by attending synod you associate with false teachers: my contention is that on the contrary by contending for what’s right and refuting false teaching you are not associating but repudiating such teaching.  
I don’t believe it is right to leave now for the following reasons. 
1. The official teaching of the church has not changed - though Frederik argues that the change around the 39 articles amounts to such a change I’m not convinced . 
2. There are (finally!) some clear red lines. The “Anglicanism trumps everything else” view espoused above is not held by many evangelicals. People will leave in a worst-case. My own rector Angus MacLeay has been very clear about what his red lines are (see 1, you can read his interview on this in the latest EN.) I fully support his stance and am reassured that there are circumstances where he would say “enough”. Interestingly we should consider John Stott who in 1995 said he would have to leave if an alternative to biblical marriage is officially approved. JC Ryle who is often quoted in favour of staying must be spinning in his grave following the 1968 alterations to the Declaration of Assent and the Myth, Jenkins, Cupitt and Liverpool Cathedral Bishop and 2018 official transgender liturgy approved by all the House of Bishops and defended at Synod by an Evangelical! 
To me, it’s fundamental that there has to be a point where we say “this far and no further”. Having no such red line is a recipe for endless compromise and is tantamount to hoisting a white flag. 
3. There are ever stronger and better-established alternatives if the “worst comes to the worst” : the “lifeboats” are more seaworthy and numerous. In particular the revitalised CEEC I believe can provide a clear articulation of what the red lines are and what the overall plan is for evangelicals - something that has been I believe lacking in the last decades 
4. An increasing number of Anglican evangelical leaders have been speaking openly to their congregation about the desperate seriousness of the situation. This “mobilisation” of the laity is vital as this has been a major weakness of the evangelical position. 
5. Lloyd-Jones instruction to associate with fellow evangelicals and refuse to associate with false teachers - in other words for evangelicals to prioritise truth over denominational loyalty - is increasingly occurring at the local level. I would love to see that this trend increases. The Gospel Partnerships are a great vehicle for such collaboration. 
It may be that the situation in the Church of England deteriorates, that the red lines above are crossed and evangelicals need to leave. But in the meantime let’s contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. 
Coming back to Dr Mulder’s video and article I think he makes a very accurate and penetrating diagnosis of the severity of the disease. Especially  he skilfully  traces out how related failures to stand up and be counted has brought us to the position we are in. We disagree to an extent about the treatment needed but are fully in agreement about the seriousness of the situation. 
Categories: Friends

Why I will be enjoying the Olympics

Sun, 01/08/2021 - 22:24

Ian Paul, whose writing I greatly enjoy and respect has written a piece that we shouldn’t watch the Olympics. I disagree and think we can enjoy them: of course if you just don't like sports or don’t want to watch them for other reasons that is entirely your freedom of choice 
 I consider his case point by point  below (one or two with my tongue firmly in my cheek ) but I would like to propose a general conclusion.
 Most of the arguments below against the Olympics can be applied to any business or indeed capitalism as a whole. We live in a sin-filled world.  Capitalism is indeed at times corrupt and greedy and needs reform and regulation and enforcement of the rules preventing corruption. Christians and other people who care about what’s right can and should agitate for change. Ian’s individual points (some of them anyway) have merit. 
But the answer isn’t to boycott the Olympics which are no better or worse than other large-scale “business”. (Sport has become a business). Ian’s call to “Boycott the Olympics because some of its bad” was irony of irony made using big tech (FB) which has certainly been responsible for far more moral pollution (yes pornographers I’m thinking of you) than the Olympics. Boycott the Olympics? Then far more, boycott technology! Down with FB! 
In fact, the nature of being a Christian is that we are living in a fallen world. Business and making money is a necessary part of that world. Christians shouldn’t feel guilty about working in business  (for example those in professional sport) but work within their sphere of influence to advance the cause of Christ and promote reform and good governance. Some of Ian’s comments (especially the last one) indicate to me a level of discomfort with Christians being engaged in business (especially big business ) per se. Unbridled competition is dangerous but a regulated free market and personal choice is a very important corrective to monopolies and state power. This is a bigger topic though than this blog! 

The Olympics have many benefits in the interest of space I simply list the headings 
Most importantly they gave me and millions of others great pleasure enjoyment and fun! And if you don’t like watching them that’s entirely fine “chacun a son gout”
Promote (in general) international cooperation and friendship. Aren’t they a little foretaste of heaven of all tribes and nations”? As I enjoy all Ian’s articles on Revelation I shall leave that to him to consider 
Promote sports apart from football. I love football but what fun to watch all kinds of less commercialised sports - yes even Ian’s beloved rowing! Exposure surely helps these minority sports get exposure and funding. Without the Olympics we would end up with wall to wall football 
Promote fitness and healthy activities (but see below for further consideration of this)
Unite the divided U.K. The team is actually “team U.K. “ but was shortened to the snappier but less accurate team GB
Opportunities for Christians to witness see the wonderful story of the Fijian rugby 7 team (sadly Ian will have missed this as he was boycotting it ). Their testimonies are so well known and wonderful to hear
Let’s imagine a conversation with our pagan neighbours 
“Wasn’t the Olympics wonderful what did you enjoy the most?”
“Nothing, as I’m boycotting it. I don’t think Christians should watch it”
“I loved the Fijian team's rugby 7 victory and so enjoyed what they said after - did you see it?” 

Let me come to Ian’s arguments against, some of which, indeed most of which, of course, have merit. I'm not at all uncritical of the Olympics. I think though the overall conclusion as I try and explain is overkill and that to pick on the Olympics as opposed to say business in general is inconsistent. 

1. Cost a fortune and cripple host city
Don’t bid for them then! That’s how the free market works: you bid for something and if you misprice it you lose money. If you live in a democracy vote for parties or mayors who don’t waste your money. 
There is a lot of evidence that countries are pulling back and that the IOC is willing to cut back the bloat. For the next two Olympics only one city bid for each. 

2. Endemic corruption (also in sports) 
Yes, some countries are very corrupt and no doubt the Olympics offer rich pickings. Campaign against corruption. Don’t give the Olympics to corrupt or dictatorial regimes (Qatar in football World Cup is by far the worst example, not the recent Olympics the last three of which have been in democracies). 
Clamp down on cheats, of which there certainly have been some. Cheating is endemic independent of the Olympics sadly,  in a number of sports such as cycling and also prevalent in athletics (Ben Johnson etc). I am not aware of wide-scale “rigging” of other results no doubt there have been some. Some countries such as the old eastern bloc and now Russia have been notoriously bad for doping. The IOC has been very slow to do much other than a slap on the wrist. Fair point. 
3. Unhealthy eating and drinking (junk food) 
Yes, junk food is a danger though I think the tide is turning here. Look at Ronaldo promoting water over coke at the Euros. There nothing wrong with the odd coke or burger. It’s a free choice we all have. But rampant advertising of junk food especially to young people is very dangerous. Regulate it properly! The Olympics is three weeks every four years and this over promotion of junk food is a much bigger issue. I don’t think the Olympics is better or worse than other sports. Look at the terrible prevailing promotion of gambling in English football. Forbid it! Regulate it! Governments will react if we prioritise issues like this.
4. No legacy of increased participation 
The evidence is very mixed see for example and see countless other analysis, some postings some negative. It’s very hard to prove one way or another as you’d have to have some kind of control study of what would have happened without the Olympics happening. I can’t see that there is any possibility of making participation worse and in general youth participation in sports in the U.K. has risen slightly in recent  years. 
Do governments tend to tell people anything that they think will make them popular and consequently over promise and fail to deliver? Yes, and if we look at the Mayor of London’s career since 2012 we can see a pattern here. 
5. Environment 
As Ian admits London tends to prove the reverse. Nearly forty years ago,  i lived right on the edge of the Lea valley and it was a toxic dump. The Olympics did a great job improving a deprived area. The Sochi counterexample is fair enough. Democracies tend to have a much better record here as they are accountable. 
6. Displace the poor. 
In a major urban setting any improvement in an area will tend to push prices up and the poor will sometimes decide to move. Though they may also get jobs and prosper! That’s how capitalism with all its many faults works. Building better homes is a good thing.  In a democracy (unlike in Beijing 2008) you can’t just evict the poor. Should more be done with affordable housing and proper taxes to help the poor? Absolutely. But it’s a bit unfair to blame the Olympics. Blame rampant capitalism without proper regulation. 
7. Encourage sex trafficking 
I’m not an expert in this area but a bit of “research” (ie googling) shows a mixed picture. Some researchers argue that increased security actually  decreases it. If you know Tokyo you know it’s an incredibly controlled and policed place. Now it would be naive not to think that somewhere someone is profiting from such events but the much worse picture it seems to me is the World Cup in Qatar. There many Nepalis and others are working and living in terrible conditions. We certainly should campaign against this. The Olympics seems to be making reasonable efforts to clamp down on sex trafficking 
7. Promotes competition 

This made me smile. Of course, there is a danger of mental health damage due to too much pressure and we should set much admire and support people like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka for speaking out about this. Competition can certainly be overdone. But the whole point of most sports is competing and I would argue that for children teaching them how to lose gracefully is a vital life lesson. The obsession with “all shall have prizes “ is absurd Now if you hate sports, that’s fine, choose and participate in something else music, arts, walking anything you wish. If Ian wishes to boycott the Olympics or commercial sports in general he is perfectly free to do that. The pressure to win at all costs can be corrosive agree,  but a degree of friendly competition is actually healthy. 

Let’s look further at Ian’s arguments 

“That wouldn’t be worrying if it weren’t for the corrosive effect of that narrative on just about every aspect of life. We are currently having a debate about why it is that the banking industry, subject to market competition like many other areas of life, still does not offer good value for money to customers. The plan is to introduce even more competition, so that rival banks can look at our account transaction and woo us with a better off. Why has no one suggested the obvious other alternative—that the banking sector actually priorities serving customers well, rather than competing more?”

Serving customers well is precisely offering competition! Offer a better service and people will choose it and over time the good drives out the bad. Welcome to the free market! 

“The competition model is critically damaging education, where schools have to compete with other schools to attract pupils, leading to growing pressure on teachers to perform, and in medicine, where Trusts compete with one another to provide services. I wonder what will have to happen, beyond continued failure to improve attainment and NHS Trusts going bust, in order for us to abandon this narrative”

Aha! The shocking idea that good schools will flourish and drive out bad ones!  Growing pressure on teachers to perform! What horror! I’m no fan of the current government and didn’t vote for them but going back to my comprehensive education in the 1960s and 70s the problem was far too little competition in the state sector not too much. Competition exposes the bad and when people are given the freedom to choose (in this case the parents) the results were in general in my view positive. Again I’m not arguing for some libertarian free for all but simply suggesting that regulated competition is in general a good thing. The alternative of a monopoly is a very bad one. Case in point -  Big Technology. Another case in point - state-established churches. Both would be a much better target for Ian’s next incisive analyses. 

In conclusion, Christians shouldn’t worry about being engaged in business (including sports) or engaging in honest competition. The Olympics are no better or worse than other aspects of big business. Christians and other friends concerned about doing the right thing should strive for what’s right and resist what’s wrong but we shouldn’t and in fact cannot practically  “boycott” business but rather try and make it better. 

Categories: Friends

Book Review: the God of all things by Andrew Wilson Zondervan April 2021

Sun, 25/07/2021 - 20:26

Recently, I took three or four Christian books with me to read and dipped into them all. The others were fine but this one is in a different league. I was gripped from the beginning. It’s hard to write originally about theology (whilst remaining faithful to the text anyway!). This book is highly original and thought-provoking. Rather than abstract ideas we are taught about God from 30 created things ranging from earthquakes and pigs to pots and even viruses. Some are rather obvious like sun and water but who would think about camping equipment to teach us about the glory of God? Sometimes theological debates can be hard to follow and remote from the everyday struggle. Happily, God in his word has provided us with teaching from both everyday and rare objects. 
The book is also a healthy corrective to the teaching that the creation doesn’t matter as it’s all going to be destroyed anyway. Even the humblest and most mundane created objects, shows Wilson, teach us of the amazing God who delights in all aspects of his creation.  This is a book about how creation teaches us about God. “The God of the Sahara must be vast, boundless, and expansive. The God of the quarks must have an unimaginable eye for detail. The God of wombats must have a sense of humour….the things of God reveal the God of things”. Creation points us as a  signpost to the amazing God who made them all.  
So just to take the aforementioned camping equipment Wilson points out how often Israel defeats her enemies with strange even bizarre tools rather than conventional weapons. Wilson points out that millstones and mallets defeat shields and chariots because one day the world will be filled with farmers and millers, not generals and armies.  Even a deeply familiar biblical image like wind under the author's expert gaze brings superb insights. As he points out in unpacking the meaning we can struggle with biblical instructions like “be filled with the Spirit”. How do you observe a command in the passive voice? By taking an analogy from sailing. Clearly, you are completely reliant on the external propulsion which the wind provides when it fills your sails. Unlike rowing you are providing no power yourself. But at the same time, you have to catch the wind, adjust your course and habits to where the wind is taking you.  In short, this is an excellent readable and engaging book which I hope will open your mind to the “God of all things”. 
Categories: Friends

Why evangelism is almost uniquely difficult - Part 1

Fri, 16/07/2021 - 10:39

 My friend Stephen Kneale thinks evangelism is almost uniquely easy, no training  is required, just get in with it. You can read his arguments here.

In the discussion afterward, he said 
“But yes, I do reckon evangelism is uniquely quite easy. Look at the early church. They got about evangelism well quick, they took a while to appoint elders. Why do you reckon that was?”
In the article he says 
“ You don’t need another course. You don’t need extensive training. You need a sentence or two that explains who Jesus is and why he matters. And you know it because you already believe it. And if you know it and believe it, you are equipped with everything you need to go and share it with other people.“
Stephens blog is wonderful it makes you think and is always delightfully provocative. I so enjoy discussing with him. He’s also incredibly prolific and gifted writer as even before I replied he had replied to his original blog mainly using my own blogs! This is an impressive achievement (and also be very kind to go to the trouble of reading all my blogs and “marshalling” my own ideas - I was quite touched! ) 
So you can read it here
I can’t keep up with him so I shall publish this now and reply to him with part 2 (though he’s probably on to part 5 by then and if so I shall give up!) 
 Anyway back to his first blog. All you need argues stephen is 
  1. Belief in, and understanding of, the gospel
  2. Receipt of the Holy Spirit
  3. Somebody to tell
As all Christians by definition have 1) and 2) and unless you are in a desert island you have 3. Simples! No training needed, off you go. Like falling off a log. 
Now there is a good point here. The best way to develop as an evangelist as stephen says  is to do it and learn. Certainly the idea that only especially “trained“ people could evangelise is completely wrong. Or that we need to wait until we are trained to evangelise. Nor does it have to be complicated it can be very straightforward. “I find Jesus amazing” is a great place to start. 
Each of us could and indeed must share our faith. It’s also true that the biggest barrier is fear. But the idea that evangelism is like falling off a log “almost uniquely easy” and we don’t need any training or help to do it is I believe wrong. It is  I suggest  the exact opposite: evangelism is almost uniquely difficult and we need all the help and training we can get. 
How can we tell it’s so difficult? Because virtually  nobody does it! Think of the thousands of highly trained graduates leaving Bible college in the U.K. How many go to be evangelists? Almost zero. How many go to be Bible teachers or church workers? Almost 100%. Of their time as pastors how much is spent in personal evangelism? Relatively little 
Why? Because precisely  it’s so hard to evangelise! I suggest it’s much easier to sit in a study consulting commentaries and producing finely crafted sermons for appreciative (some of the time anyway hem hem) congregations than going out to find awkward bolshy uninterested non Christians to talk to. I suggest it’s easier to attend conferences discussing how to unpack the Bible  with fellow pastors than reading the Bible with pesky non Christians who aren’t at all convinced. 
What makes it hard? Fear as Steve rightly says, mainly  the fear that I can’t do it. How do you overcome fear? By training! 
Imagine a scene in the British Army. It’s 1944 and you are a nervous wreck of a private sitting in a landing craft waiting to head off for D Day. Alongside you hear two sailors discussing your situation   “these boys they are special, they from General Kneale’s division. He doesn’t believe in training. While Montys had the rest of the army practicing night and day for years these boys have been told “here’s a rifle, fire it at the enemy and kill them”. 
It’s precisely because it’s so fear making that we need so much training and help. In any army of course there are a few naturals who can fight by themselves but 95% of us need training 
 There is in fairness to stephen a difference of usage of “training” here. Training shouldn’t be an ivory tower exercise and you certainly don’t need a course to evangelise  but you absolutely do need intensely practical training . The word in the Bible has a broader sense than perhaps we tend to use it. Not about imparting only head knowledge (which is where we tend to get stuck today)  but rather about getting alongside the person and holding and helping them. Think of teaching your child to ride a bike.  
The Bible is full of wisdom about what we might call training (but I believe  that word has a much broader sense as mentioned). Paul says for example “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (I note that it doesn’t say “except for evangelism which is entirely natural so Timothy you should have that nailed  easily”! ) Christians desperately need training or perhaps better put equipping. 
This brings us to the question why then did the apostles in Acts proceed so quickly to evangelise? Why didn’t they retreat for two years to learn the Roman or Greek worldview? 
Firstly this is because - and here I would absolutely  agree with Stephen - we shouldn’t wait until qualified but should learn by practice. That’s what you do in sports of course. You learn as you do. You don’t just  study the theory of football you play football and as you play you are trained by the coach. Nobody that I know is arguing you shouldn’t play football until you have studied it but equally nobody should argue you don’t need any training, please learn by kicking the ball. You can train by courses but in fact most training is not like that, it’s continuing and continuous encouragement advice  mentoring and coaching. 
Secondly it’s because the apostles had already been trained. Look at the gospels. The disciples were truly terrible evangelists and pretty much everything they touched in this area turned to disaster. Think of them turning away children wanting to come to Christ . Think of their desire to unleash destruction on people who didn’t accept them. Think of their fear and lack of faith shown time after time. Think of them running away in the garden of Gethsamene in blind panic. Think of how they completely miss the point in John 4. “Open your eyes” says the Lord “the fields are white to harvest. “Think of how they scornfully consider  the man born blind - “who sinned this man or his parents?”. This isn’t a theological case study replies the Lord and gets to work. 
And what was Jesus reaction to their (and our) ineptitude and incompetence in evangelism  ? Incredible patience and incredible Training! Not in the sense of giving them a course agreed but training is so much more than that. He models,  encourages, teaches, rebukes and coaches then in evangelism. This is why they were “good to go” in Acts (plus of course the power of the Holy Spirit: as JM Boice points out every time we read in Acts about someone being filled with the Holy Spirit the next thing that happens is that they teach about Christ). 
I also detect a whiff of elitism  here. The serious and important stuff is biblical exegesis for Christians: here we (rightly!) spend many years and thousands of pounds training professionals before we can possibly let anyone do anything. As for the laity their job is so easy they don’t really  need anything: just get on with it, you ‘orrible lot, risks being our message. 
I said, tongue in cheek,  that if we don’t train for evangelism then why train for preaching? The reaction is one of horror: of course we need to train for preaching! I’d agree: but also and equally for evangelism! It’s interesting isn’t it that if we took all the money spent in training in evangelical churches, perhaps 95% goes to training professional clergy in how they should be teaching Christians: almost nothing gets spent on the laity OR even on helping professionals evangelise (presumably because it’s so easy: if it’s easy then why aren’t they doing it?)
So what does good look like? I’d suggest it’s the pastor modelling Christ’s pattern  to their flock. First of all and this is critical, by doing personal evangelism themselves . That’s how the Lord led his disciples. It’s so much more difficult to share the word with a cynical neighbour than give a sermon to a group of eager (hem hem)  Christians. Pastors (and in fairness Stephen is an absolutely wonderful role model here) need to help their flock overcome their enormous fears about evangelism and a huge part of that is by  doing it themselves. Otherwise we risk ending up like generals in WW1 in their chateau studies sending the poor old privates “over the top “. Back at base we have the hard bit studying our maps:  charging a hostile foe is easy.  Perhaps  General Melchett might find a home in our constituency? 
Secondly by pastors coaching, encouraging, supporting, helping   advising, mentoring their flock in how to share their faith. There are many many obvious tips and advice that can be given. For example the vital importance of asking questions of not shutting down the conversation before it’s begun. Yes we can witness without any training but like everything in life strangely enough we train to improve.  The pastor should be alongside helping (by training and example ) his flock to overcome their fear. 
The local church is the lifeboat to reach the drowning world and the professional coxswain needs to train their volunteer crew. Otherwise they will, as now, remain tucked up in harbour! 
What does this look like? Running informal groups to discuss common questions and objections that people raise. Teaching from the pulpit how to share our faith (in 58 years of being in church I struggle to recall one such sermon but imagine I should have moved to Oldham ). The idea that our  non Christian friends will just sit their like a grateful  sponge while we walk serenely them through “ two ways to live” is certainly not my experience! Our friends will and frankly have every right to raise all kinds of questions and objections and we need to think about how we can best answer then in a kindly way. Books can help us think this through tough questions. For example a very common objection is “we can’t trust the gospels they are full or error”. Read Peter Williams  excellent book and you will be ready. Wing it without any such knowledge and you will be much less well equipped. Shouid I wait until I have read Peters book? Absolutely not but the more you evangelise the more you realise you need “training” (in the local church sense above). 
In summary why do we need to train in evangelism? Because along with prayer it’s the hardest thing in the Christian life. In fact it’s “almost uniquely difficult”! Only with Gods help the power of the Holy Spirit and careful “training” (as defined above) will we change the current situation, where frankly if it’s so easy, how come nobody does it? 
Categories: Friends

Book Review; The History of Christianity in Britain and Ireland by Gerald Bray IVP June 2021

Sun, 27/06/2021 - 22:40


This is a wonderful, learned, and treasure-filled book. I believe it will quickly become the standard book on the subject. It is comprehensive, well structured, and covers a huge amount of ground. Any serious student of church history should read it. 
Perhaps unusually for a theological book its very amusing and easy to read and even hilariously funny in places. You can learn so much from it, for example, that the real Lady Macbeth was a proponent of church reform, that the blessed CH Spurgeon was so incensed by the continued establishment of the Church of England that he invited the essentially atheist Joseph  Chamberlain to speak in favour of disestablishment from the pulpit of the Metropolitan Tabernacle or that the Pope was so delighted one day on hearing news that he ordered all the bells of Rome to toll in celebration of …the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne! (He was at odds with Louis XIV) 
Occasionally these bon mots and witticisms may be contentious such as describing Durham as  “an outpost of gentility in what is otherwise an industrial wilderness” or arguing that “The (banner of truth etc) Puritan revival was unable to be translated into a serious theological approach for the modern world”. But on the whole, they enliven,  inform and entertain. 
It’s particularly full of fascinating detail about aspects of Christianity in the other three kingdoms of our islands. Often the history of Britain is essentially an account of England but not here. We learn for example that Archbishop Ussher of Armagh was far from being an ignoramus ludicrously insisting on some outdated scheme of dating creation. He was in fact a leading scholar and theologian highly esteemed by Cromwell and very far-sighted in his attempts to reach Ireland for the gospel. Or that William Morgan who was educated I’m proud to discover at St John’s Cambridge. was the father not only of the Welsh Bible but through that of the Welsh language. The structure of the book in weaving all four threads together is itself a thing of beauty. 
Bray points out how intertwined from early times were the churches in the four nations - with the flows of ideas to and from England going backward and forwards. In the early church, there was absolutely a sense of “Britishness”. As time went by after 415 when the Roman legions left the four countries sense  Christian culture and beliefs became ever more alike. 
Moving forward we learn how much of the past continues today. For example, if you want to understand why the parochial system of the Middle Ages still persists or why societies own patronages this is the book for you. 
Bray argues that the “professionalism” of the clergy relatively comes relatively late: celibacy and reservation of the sacrament for example came much later than we would think. Married clergy even Abbotts were common for example in Ireland up to the reformation. Also, the church regulating marriage, in general, was also very late - but persisted. In England “the banns of marriage” are still law and they were only abolished in Scotland in 1997! 
Worship for example was essentially theatre in the pre-reformation church,  since you had no idea what was happening as you could neither see nor hear. There were numerous efforts at reform of the many flaws. On page 113 we read of John Peckham the Archbishop  of Canterbury arguing in 1281 that  “each priest shall personally explain to the people in their mother tongue without any fancifully woven subtleties..(the various articles of faith) “
Over time there was further decline. Bishops ceased to be theologians and scholars and instead became well-connected servants of the state. Bray is so skilled and interesting in explaining philosophy and theology - William of Ockham for example I think I got for the first time! 
Was Wyclif really the morning star of the reformation? He benefited from pluralism and was on the side of the King against the state (protected by John of Gaunt). Bray argues he represented the last flowering of the remarkable theological renaissance in fourteenth-century Oxford rather than a link to Luther. Right at the end of his life he or more likely his followers started writing and translating into English and these versions are very popular: no other medieval text comes anywhere near the number of surviving Wycliffe Bibles. This leads us inexorably to Tyndale whom Bray surely rightly argues was the most influential British Christian of all time 
When we come to the reformation the book is so easy to read in its understanding of complex theological arguments. In but a few lines someone like Hooker or Perkins is explained and placed into context 
In 1625 argues the author everything looked rosy. The reformation was bedded down. Unlike the situation on the continent the four countries of the British Isles each had in their own way reached a reasonable religious settlement. One man, Charles I managed to singlehandedly destroy this and plunge his kingdoms into a bloody civil war. Bray is in general very sympathetic to Puritanism but surely rightly argues that the Tragedy of Puritanism is its fissiparousness. His analysis is penetrating - for example pointing out that the Presbyterianism was the continuation of the Constantinian settlement in trying to impose godly behaviour on the world and Congregationalism was the acceptance that the world is unregenerate and seeking to convert it. 
Meanwhile, as the Puritans squabbled with each other at Great Tew (the entry point for Socianism) the seeds of destruction were germinating under their own nose. 
Jumping forward to the c19th Bray brings out very clearly the extent to which the church was complacent and asleep at the switch. Things appeared rosy but there was deep corruption in the church - vicars appointing illegitimate children to benefices and in Scotland patrons appointing ministers in the teeth of 261-1 votes against, thus leading to a split and the formation of the Free Church of Scotland. Meanwhile in Ireland Alexander Dallas was with less than perfect timing founding the Irish church mission to reach Catholics in the middle of the Great Famine. The strong reaction to this, led by Paul Cullen,  resulted in what Gerald Bray calls “the Irish famine was a tragedy but the (Christian) fall out was equally severe..and much more long-lasting”. 
As the nineteenth century gathered pace the churches both established and dissenting moved from faith to morality. This tended to relocate evangelicals concerned about the social gospel to the right of politics, a stance “that would have struck the Clapham decidedly odd”. Bray also rightly points out the long-lasting influence of William James (one of a huge number of psychics at the end of the century) whose famous work “the varieties of religious experience” is influential to this day, by propagating the idea that all sincerely held religious views are equally valid. Finally, if we want a symbol of the dangers of Victorian religion we may look no further than Christmas “a reminder of how a seemingly churchgoing age was in fact a time when the Christian faith was being hollowed out into a morality touched with sentimentality. “Bray is always thought-provoking arguing for example that  para-church organisations such as UCCF or LCM worked as they were “overcoming the internecine controversies of the c19th and uniting a fellowship of like-minded believers” 
The Twentieth century saw a further hollowing out of the church - a popular culture in the nation that followed Christian teaching without being Christian itself. This collapsed spectacularly in the “reckoning” - secular Britain emerged suddenly in the 1960s,  from the abrupt and complete collapse of “churchianity”. The church is still in shock from this and its leadership traumatised and utterly enfeebled and afraid of its own shadow, above all on issues of sexuality. As the author points out when Tim Farron was hounded from his position as leader of the Lib Dem’s for his Christian views the silence from church leaders was deafening. As Bray rightly also argues “the readiness of the church authorities to surrender to the probably due to the legacy of the centuries in which church and society were two sides of the same coin”. 
This excellent book is above all, not surprisingly from such an eminent theologian,  a History of theology and ideas. On theology, Bray is brilliant at making the seemingly impenetrable lucid in just a few words. If I had one criticism though it is that it’s very much a history of theologians and ideas, of a top-down view rather than a bottom-up one of how ordinary people thought about their faith. One searches in vain for Keith Thomas or Eamonn Duffy in the index for example. More about what people at the grassroots thought and did would have been useful. Perhaps as a result Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement get relatively little coverage and yet this is probably today the most influential movement of the last 100 years. But these are minor points in the big picture. 
There is a penetrating and brilliant last chapter drawing on the Boney M/Psalm 137 “hit” “By the Rivers of Babylon.” We are indeed in Babylon and we had better get used to it rather than the false optimism that we are on the verge of a great revival. We are I consider in “1940“ not “1944.” But even in 1940 good work can be done for a better day and eventually (but I suspect not in our lifetime) things will change. Bray has to that end a wonderful final paragraph, being a quote from Samuel Rutherford as he was in prison awaiting execution (he died before that happened ). Writing to a friend he says 
“The Lord calleth you dear brother to be “steadfast immovable and abounding “ in the work of the Lord. Our royal kingly master is upon his journey and will come and will not tarry….It is possible that I shall not be an eyewitness to it in the flesh but I believe he cometh quickly,  who will remove our darkness and shine gloriously in the isle of Britain”. 
Categories: Friends

Why biblical literacy isnt our biggest problem

Tue, 22/06/2021 - 10:28


A poll was recently held with the question “what is the number one issue for the church today?”. The overwhelming winner was (lack of) biblical literacy. Now in one sense, that’s a truism of course. If only we would all follow the Bible more closely then we would all be better Christians. But the keyword I suggest here is “literacy”. In other words, the assumption is that we can’t or we don’t know the Bible. It’s as if we can’t read it, we don’t know what’s in it, we are ignorant of its contents. 

I suggest that in evangelical churches this issue is not the first issue. I suggest that the key issue is not primarily one of the head but of the heart. It’s not that we don’t know what the Bible tells us but that we (and I absolutely include myself) know what it tells us but don’t do it. It’s not knowledge but rather discipleship (by which I include evangelism which I regard as an essential part and proof of discipleship) which is the issue. 
Let me develop my thesis. I realise that such a broad question is bound to produce generalisations so apologies in advance and feel free to disagree 
 Never in my view anyway has there been such a huge outpouring of biblical teaching and preaching as in the last 60 years.  We have in my lifetime gone from having hardly any evangelical commentaries to having vast shelves groaning under their weight. We have gone from having very few means of training preachers and teachers about how to do exegesis to having huge organisations and conferences devoted exclusively to that task. I dare say there has certainly since 1900 never been in the U.K. so many good sermons explaining faithfully what the Bible teaches. Can more be done to teach the Bible? Of course, but is the fundamental problem for evangelicals “we don’t know what the Bible tells us to do?” 
No, it is (again not least for myself) that “we do know what it says but we don’t do it. “
Certainly in my opinion anyway if we compare the level of spirituality and commitment to discipleship of the average church member 60 years ago to now it’s much lower. So all the excellent biblical input inputted into our churches has not led to holier Christians I suggest. It’s led to much better informed Christians but that’s not the same. 
The Bible is full of warnings about not being hearers of the word but doers. The risk it seems to me is that we become consumers of well-crafted biblical sermons which carefully and faithfully exegete the Bible but they sail gently over the heads of the listeners. It is much easier to explain what the passage means than apply it to the listeners' lives. Application is a key missing ingredient. “Very interesting but so what?” is the risk 
Nor is it just that our approach in preaching is overly cerebral. The problems are not just in the giver but the receiver. Do we not often approach the service like a university lecture? I’m not sure that the common practice of encouraging and at times almost demanding that the congregation takes notes is helpful. Do we not tend sometimes to approach church as individual consumers looking for something that entertains us rather than participants looking for transformation? Acquiring bible knowledge is a means to an end - transformed lives. 
In short, we are at risk, as my friend Richard Borgonon says, of being like sponges - the water of the word is falling on us but if you just pour in water and it doesn't flow out then eventually the sponge will rot. We need to squeeze out the water into our lives and the lives of others. 
Another issue is an overreliance on the sermon and the Sunday service. Discipleship needs all week-round work and in particular 1 on 1 or 1 on 2 which checks whether the message is understood or not. The risk is that we outsource our Christian life to professionals. In fact, most discipleship (think of families in particular) should be individual Christians discipling each other. Small groups are meant to fill that gap but how useful are they? Jonathan Carswell said recently that they are in his view not effective and I fear that may sometimes be true. I also wonder about the demise of the weekly prayer meeting. Prayer is I suggest about many things but one of them is about deploying truth into our life. If we are just knowledgeable about the Bible and our own lives and especially our evangelism and our prayer lives don't grow as a result then we have the sponge problem. 
Finally, the external pressure on our lives especially due to social media is so much higher now than 60 years ago. The problem is not only that the transmission is somewhat faulty and the recipient isn’t connecting but that the external  “ noise “ is so much louder. We are all suffering from some kind of spiritual ADHD. 
You will notice that I haven’t set out what I think is the biggest problem! That would take another article but in short, it’s not I suggest that our heads are empty but that our hearts are cold. 
Categories: Friends

Book Review: The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler Hodder and Stoughton May 2021

Sun, 16/05/2021 - 22:57

Meriel Schindler had a very difficult indeed impossible father - a conman who served time for his activities, a quarrelsome man always engaged in arguments even within his own family. But also a man with many hidden secrets, strange stories and myths. Growing up Meriel and her sisters had repeatedly to hide when the bailiffs came calling and move from place to place one jump ahead of his creditors.   She knew from a few faded pieces of crockery marked (tragically and with savage irony) with the gothic initials “SS”, that his family had once owned a famous cafe in Austria. Vague references to Hitler, Kafka, even Oskar Schindler made her wonder what was true and what was fiction.

It was only after his death that she unearthed a treasure trove of historical documents which with painstaking and highly impressive research, she has turned into an utterly fascinating and gripping family saga. Skilfully switching backward and forwards between the present day and her research on the one hand and her Jewish Central European family's story from the mid-nineteenth century onwards on the other, the picture that gradually emerges is vivid and riveting.

At the centre of the story is the fabled lost cafe Schindler. The cafe was a real place, a wonderful variation on the famously sophisticated coffee houses of Vienna. But with a twist. For this coffee house was not in the capital but in Innsbruck. The cafe quickly became the central meeting place for the city and over many years built up a legendary reputation for its food and its culture. So powerful was its appeal that we can only imagine the author's shock on a visit to Innsbruck when she suddenly discovers that the name had been resurrected after almost 60 years. The new owner “could not believe his luck: he had hit upon the perfect formula: an upmarket venue with a genuine history that lived in the hearts of the people of Innsbruck. “

This is the other side of the story for the eradication of the name Schindler was part of the eradication of Jews from Europe in general and especially from Austria. How timely to remember the awful evil of antiSemitism.  These Jews had made every possible effort to assimilate. Meriel’s grandfather and his three brothers had proudly volunteered for elite units of the imperial Austrian army at the outbreak of the First World War. One had lost his life in the Hapsburg cause. There were but a tiny handful of Jews anyway in Innsbruck. One of the family had even bizarrely volunteered to help the nascent national scientist movement. None of these made the slightest difference as the Nazis ruthlessly expropriated the cafe and their home, led by the Tyrollean Gauleiter, and then shipped all the elderly members of the family, who had been unable to emigrate, to their deaths

But as well as the core of the story there are many fascinating branches. Rarely has truth been stranger than fiction. Just to take two examples.  At the turn of the century, one of the family was a Jewish doctor who one day found one of his patients was a woman with advanced cancer. Carefully and compassionately he cared for her and her family and especially her teenaged son. When eventually tragically the mother eventually died the grief-stricken son was so pathetically grateful that for years afterward, he wrote to express his gratitude, sending letters and even his drawings. Even many years later in what was by then a victorious visit to his home town he remembered the noble Jewish doctor. The boy? Adolf Hitler

But in a way, even stranger are the mysterious visits made by her father which come to light during Meriel’s research. Painstakingly he tracks down the Nazi Gauleiter whose men on Kristallnacht beat his father nearly to death with his own toboggan. He travels the length of Germany to knock unannounced in the door of his hidden enemy. To arrest him? Not at all, but rather to collect back rent and chat for years on a series of visits about old times and other non-contentious subjects.  To talk about anything but what had happened. As Meriel points out amnesia about the  Holocaust in Austria is quite pervasive to this day.

Ultimately this powerful book is much more than a brilliant detective story and a reconstruction of a tragically lost Central European past. It is an immensely personal,   courageously written, and deeply moving story of an impossible father,  grandparents, and a wider family and of a cafe which despite everything was lost and then was found. Highly recommended

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