Sunday, 29 July 2012

Churchians And The Lack Of Apologetic Nerve

There is one trend I notice, and that is the lack of robust apologetics when the Christian faith comes under attack.

Or just faith in particular- for these days few seem interested in the distinctions between different religions.

I get this from a group of young people I know. No point in Buddhists saying that it was Muslims behind 9/11- it was just "religious people" and pointing out differences between Buddhism and Islam is just a type of anally retentive nitpicking.

This is the attitude I find- there is a single belief system called "religion", which is held by "religious people". Christianity, Islam, Bahai'ism, Paganism etc. seen as no more than just different names for the same system. Whenever there is an example of a "religious person" doing something wrong, the fault is put at the door of "religion" with the explanation that they behaved badly (e.g. a child prostitution ring) because "religion" says it's OK.

And this leads to a simple, just-so solution for all society's problems- ban religion.

One of my pet peeves is when well-intentioned men in dog collars write in to local papers to defend "religion" and "religious faith", but do not put Jesus first. Actually, don't put Jesus anywhere.

For example, recently one man wrote to the local paper complaining about the "Faith" page on Saturday, as he doesn't believe in "religion" and doesn't want to read about it. I have to admit I don't like the "Faith" section as it tends to revolve around [church names altered to protect the guilty]:

  • St John's is having a multifaith service
  • St Mary's is having a flower festival
  • St Cecilia's has new choirboys- here is a picture of them leapfrogging
  • St Vitus' needs money for its spire appeal
  • Ooh, let's get together with members of the other "faith communities" and have a jolly picnic
  • Nothing offensive. All about Churchianity rather than Christ.

    So, there was a defence of "religious faith" (not Christianity) by a senior Church of England clergyman based on three areas:

  • Religion gives people a sense of community
  • Religious people are searching for the transcendant beyond us
  • Religion has given society so much
  • Nothing about why Christ is unique. Nothing about Christ. Just blandness.

    This is what I hear:

    Yes Mr/Ms Atheist, we agree with you up to a point. We are quite weak, we lack your backbone. Please, please, pretty please, let us believe what we want. Please, please, pretty please, let us keep our crutch. Let us conduct our services with a knowing wink, as we all- except for happy-clappy tambourine shakers- know Christianity probably isn't really true, but gives is some hint of the transcendant and gives us a sense of community. Maybe, just maybe, we and the other religions, stumbling around in the dark, can find the transcendant when we compare notes.

    The problem is when "defences" of Christianity are firstly, just defending vague "religious faith" (covering all belief systems); secondly, defending "religion" on the basis of the good that "religious people" do and the effect that it has on its adherents (here's an example of the bad things someone "religious" has done, here's an example of a good thing, example of bad thing, example of good thing, and an indefinite back-and-forth-getting-nowhere debate) and thirdly it concedes that we have lost the battle and conducts the debate on the territory chosen by critics- that all intelligent people know that religion is not true, so let's not have a discussion on whether the claims of Christianity are true or not, but concentrate instead on the sociology of religious belief and the pyschology of "religious people".

    Christianity isn't about "religious people" searching for the transcendant or getting a sense of community. It is about God loving us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us. It is Jesus who is The Way to God- no need for stumbling around in the dark, crashing into spiritual furniture.

    Our search for the transcendent starts on the basis that God has revealed Himself ultimately and supremely in the Bible.

    There is nothing wise, or noble, or spiritual, or profound in an awkward "perhaps, maybe, we don't know, we can't know" when the Bible is crystal clear.

    Our sense of community is that of a family of people chosen across all nations, all ages. all cultures, by God. Redeemed. Forgiven. Adopted. Saved. Don't reduce church to being a Sunday social club. The Martyrs didn't willingly die over a love of church coffee and having the warm fuzzies on a Sunday morning.

    This just strikes me as a Churchianity that has just lost its nerve. Instead of providing a reason for the faith you hope in, it gives a set of hesitants true-for-us-but-not-true-for-everyone-else, or rather a set of probably-not-even-true-for-us-and-definitely-not-true-for-everyone-else.

    Sunday, 22 July 2012

    A Man Like Me

    There is a man I speak to nearly every week. Every time it seems that we find we have more in common.

    Exchanging tips on a health problem we both have....

    Last Sunday he mentioned an interest in astronomy, and I had to tell him that there had been a lunar occultation of Jupiter that morning, but that it had been cloudy...

    No doubt when Asylum of the Daleks is on our screens next month, we will discuss that...

    He knows me well enough now not to call out "Big Issue! Get your Big Issue!" in my direction, as I will buy it from him most weeks.

    There but for the grace of God go I.

    Monday, 9 July 2012

    We Have Never Rejected Proportional Representation

    You have to hand it to the Daily Mail as this time there are two articles dealing with reform of the House of Lords, and both get worked up about the voting system. It strikes me that the paper is not defending the House of Lords as it currently is, but is defending a House of Lords that doesn't actually exist.

    First up we have David Davis, the Conservative MP for Haltemprice & Howden and former Shadow Home Secretary, with this piece. I have to say it is hard to see how a system where the majority of members of the House of Lords are elected is any going to "become more politicised and partisan, with little reason or desire to defy any government initiative, however misguided" compared to one where most members are there because a party leader appointed them to reward them for their loyalty. There does seem to be a trend of the House of Lords becoming more politicised and partisan now, but that could be due to many ex-MPs being rewarded with peerages and bringing the yah-boo politics of the House of Commons with them when they take ermine. Surely the issue here is not how members of the House of Lords are chosen, but who is chosen, whether by appointment or election.

    I have no doubt that after the next election Davis would be just as effective at holding the Conservative-led Government to account as MP for Kingston-upon-Hull West & Hessle (memo to Alan Johnson, the current Labour MP- Davis will wipe the floor with you in May 2015. Don't bother standing for re-election) as ML for Yorkshire & the Humber. And poodles of all parties will be just as poodly in the House of Lords as the House of Commons.

    If some Lords are to be elected, we should not use the proportional voting system being proposed in the Bill. This is nothing more than an attempt by the Lib Dems to boost their presence in the upper chamber by rigging the electoral system in their favour.

    In last year’s AV referendum British voters emphatically endorsed first past the post, so that is the system we should use. OK, where do we start with that? Are the Liberal Democrats really rigging the system? The editorial has strong views on that. But are they right?

    The Upper House would be stuffed with even more party hacks than now and would be permanently hung, with the grotesque prospect of Lib Dems holding the balance of power for eternity

    The House of Lords could be permanently hung. So, Daily Mail, tell me when did a party or coalition last have over 50% of the seats in the House of Lords? Wouldn't it seem odd if these days we had the situation where one party had control over the House of Lords and could block everything that a House of Commons controlled by the other party did. Yes, there were the days when the Conservatives could veto a Liberal Government's key measures, but the Parliament Act 1911 swept that system away.

    A permanently hung House of Lords, rather than being a wicked plot by scheming Liberal Democrats, is a key part and parcel of the British parliamentary system.

    As for the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power for eternity...

    Well, the Daily Mail does like to get worked up about this. Remember the May 2011 referendum on switching from First Past The Post to the Alternative Vote? Get one piece of research that shows that at one general election in the 1980s the Liberal/Social Democrat Aliance could have got 50 seats more under AV than FPTP and extrapolate back over the past 60 years to say that under AV the Liberals would get 50 more seats than under FPTP election after election after election.

    Fair enough, if the Daily Mail wants to think that in the 1950s, struggling to get 3% of the vote would see the Liberals with 56 MPs, that's up to them!

    But would the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power for eternity? I had a look at the probable composition of the House of Lords if it had been elected as proposed by the Government. If we take the up to 8 ministerial peers out of the equation and assume the Church of England appoints its full complement of lords spiritual, then we have the Liberal Democrats with 74 out of 462 members of the House of Lords.

    Would this be the balance of power? No, as Labour would have 141 and the Conservatives 128. A Labour/Liberal Democrat alliance would bring in 215- 17 short of the 232 needed for an overall majority.

    The House of Lords as at Monday was:

  • Labour- 226
  • Conservatives- 213
  • Crossbenchers- 177
  • Liberal Democrats- 90
  • "Others" (i.e. minor parties or people who have left major parties)- 33
  • Bishops- 26
  • An elected House of Lords would be little different from the current one- to win a vote, the Government needs to win over Crossbenchers. To talk about an elected House of Lords giving the Liberal Democrats the balance of power is as sensible as saying the Liberal Democrats (and their predecessors) held the balance of power through the Brown years, through the Blair years, through the Major years, through the Thatcher years, through the Callaghan years etc.

    One thing to note is that under the Government plans, the proportion of the House of Lords that are Crossbenchers shrinks. If, instead of appointing 30 each time, 40 were appointed, then this would bring the ratio close to the current amount (and would lead to 75% of the House of Lords- excluding Bishops and ministerial peers- being elected).

    But what about the voting system? Here Davis is clear: "In last year’s AV referendum British voters emphatically endorsed first past the post, so that is the system we should use."

    However, we were not given the choice of proportional representation. We were given a simple choice- AV or FPTP. The most that can be said is that the people chose FPTP above AV. No other options were on the table.

    One reason for using the large electoral districts corresponding to the countries (outside of England) and the regions (within England) is that there will be no "super-constituencies". When we used FPTP to elect Members of the European Parliament, each European constituency when formed was comprised of 6 to 8 House of Commons constituencies. The Scottish Parliament has the Additional Members System, where each electoral area has between 8 and 10 constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament and 7 additional ones chosen on party lists. An additional MSP can cover the whole area, and there are occasional arguments over who represents whom (I hope that tales of constituency MSPs asking additional MSPs in their area to forward all correspondence from their constituents are apocryphal).

    If we had FPTP on single-member constituencies, then in England each member of the House of Lords would have a super-constituency covering 4 or 5 House of Commons constituencies, which is small enough to get involved.

    Currently, you can lobby members of the House of Lords, but they don't get involved in constituency work. Regional/national members would be remote enough not to get involved in the nitty-gritty of individual cases, but may take on cross-party local issues (alongside councillors, MPs and MEPs). Now picture the situation with single-member super-constituencies. You are an MP of one party, and suddenly find that you are no longer the sole Westminster point of contact for your constituents as next door a member of the House of Lords from another party has opened their office and is inviting people in to talk about constituency issues.

    The editorial refers to AV as "the rudimentary form of P[roportional]R[epresentation]" which shows they don't understand AV nor PR.

    AV is FPTP on steroids, and is the complete opposite to PR. The difference between AV/FPTP and most forms of proportional representation is where the alliances are formed.

    When campaigning in Southampton Test for the May 2010 general election, the objectives could be split into three:

  • Get the Conservative vote out
  • Persuade Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives
  • Persuade Liberal Democrat and minor voters that their interests are best served by the Conservatives than Labour and ask them to vote Conservative
  • If we had used AV, then the objectives would be:

  • Get the Conservative vote out
  • Persuade Labour voters to switch to the Conservatives
  • Persuade Liberal Democrat and minor voters that their interests are best served by the Conservatives than Labour and ask them to give the Conservatives their second preference vote
  • One MP. One constituency. Normally a battle between two candidates from two parties- but what you ask supporters of other parties and candidates to do with their vote is slightly different. But ultimately you are locked in a battle with one opponent. Although some elections would have led to hung Parliaments, in general the result would be a majority Conservative or majority Labour Government. The alliance building is by winning MPs getting the majority of support of those who voted, reaching out to the minor party supporters and floating voters.

    In a pure PR system it is different. There the trend is for hung Parliaments, and the alliance building is between the politicians once elected to try and form a majority administration.

    So, stop this nonsense about AV being a form of PR.

    Wednesday, 4 July 2012

    My Great Uncle's Views On Women Bishops

    A recent decision by the Methodist Conference has again focussed attention on the Ordination of Women. This is a problem not easily considered with cool and calm detachment- it inevitably rouses great prejudices with Men and Women to such an extent that reasonable arguments for and against have little chance of being reasonably considered. Those who favour the Ordination of Women are apt to argue that it is necessary and that it must come in order to complete the Emancipation of Women, and that such Ordination would provide the Church with the obvious means of overcoming its present shortage of priests: they point to the undeniable fact that in the average Christian Congregation Women predominate. Those against argue from two or three isolated New Testament Texts, and go on to argue that the rightful place of a Woman is in the Home, and that she is ill-equipped by Nature to make a good Priest.

    It is indeed unfortunate that there is no Word of the Lord upon this matter. All we can say is that He chose twelve Men to be His Apostles, despite the fact that there were devout Women amongst His Followers. It is, however, not logical to go on and conclude that because He only chose Men, we therefore should not ordain Women. His Teaching was given in Palestine to Jews, who had behind them a long History of Religious Organisation in which Women played no part; even in Jewish Worship the Women were segregated from the Men, and were treated as Observers rather than active participants. There were not lacking Rabbis who would argue that Women could be better occupied at home than attending Synagogue Worship. Male superiority, in other words, was an accepted andf unquestioned principle amongst them. It can therefore be urged that Jesus would have been placing a needless obstacle in the way of the commendation of the Gospel had He deliberately affronted the Tradition of His People, and made some Women His Apostles.

    The Texts which have some bearing on this subject are to be found in St Paul's Writings. In I Corinthians 14:33, he writes "Let your women keep silence in the Churches: for it is not permitted for them to speak: but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the Law. And if they will learn this thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the churches."

    The meaning of this is by no means clear. The worship of the early Church was much "freer" than our Worship today. This verse follows a passage in which Paul has been talking of the place and use of Prophecy in the Services. It can be inferred that after a "prophetic utterance" was made, open discussion took place as to its meaning and significance, in which case the verses quoted above amount only to a prohibition of (married) women joining in such a discussion. Such an interpretation would fit well the verse quoted, and all we need conclude is that Paul had a very poor opinion of women's ability to discuss and argue logically and reasonably.

    It enables us, too, to reconcile this passage with another which he writes earlier in this same Epistle "Every man praying or prophesying having his head covered, dishonoureth his head. And every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishounoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven" (chapter 11:3-4). Here again the context is of the Public Gathering, and the interesting thing for our purpose is the definite assumption that Women both pray and prophesy in the Assembly. If the passage considered above is an absolute prohibition, then manifestly Paul is contradicting himself. If he is not contradicting himself, then the only reconciliation that can be made is this- Women may both Pray and Prophesy in the Churches, but may not join in public discussion within the framework of Church Worship. It is not possible to say that in the first passage quoted he is talking of married women, and in the second of single women, foe the same word is used in both passages.

    We pass on, then, on the First Epistle to Timothy, Chapter 2:9-12: "In like manner also, that women adorn themselves word unclear modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety, not word unclear broidered hair or gold, or pearls, or costly array. But word unclear becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. For I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but words unclear silence. For Adam was first formed and then Eve..."

    This seems to be a clear prohibition. Christian Teaching is given with authority: the woman who teaches in the Church is thus guilty of reversing the natural Order in which Man has authority over Woman- therefore she must not teach. Some will question the assumption of Male Authority on which this argument is based, in which case the argument collapses. There is evidence within these passages, and elsewhere, that the status of women in Christian Society was already higher than in Jewish and Pagan Society- they enjoyed even at the early period, greater freedom within the Christian Community. Undue Flaunting of this Freedom, or misuse thereof, could provoke criticims from outside which a line or more missing as due to photocopying at page's end

    words missing teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children. To be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their husbands, that the word of God be not besmirched" Titus 2:4-5

    So much then for New Testament Evidence- there is not much of it, and it is not nearly as definitely and decisively prohibitive as is commonly assumed. My own conviction is that we canot base any arguments for or against the Ordination of Women on such evidence. Christianity obviously was exerting an ameliorating influence upon the position of Women, and some Men, of whom Paul was one, found it difficult to accept the full implications of this, because of the fact that their Tradition for centuries had accorded Man an authoritative and dominating position.

    Nor can I find arguments of strength for either side based upon Christian Theology proper. We seem to be forced back upon arguments culled from the Nature of Women, and from Tradition. In so far as the former is concerned the Statement in 1 Timothy 2:11-12 has called for the comment "Note the repetition of 'quietness', Woman's whole nature requires it, and the strain of public teaching is usually beyond her strength..." This is akin to the arguments that used to be advanced against the admission of Women to the Professions, and surely is based upon little more than male prejudice. Women have proved themselves remarkably capable in all walks of life, and surely it is a safer inference that they can make good Priests.

    The argument from Tradition is really only an extension of the Prejudice Argument, and has force only in accordance with the Pauline Principle that while all things may be lawful to me, all things may not be expedient. The Churches which retain the traditional Threefold Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, together with Apostolic Succession, have never ordained Women. I refer in particular to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which between them comprise the major part of Christendom. Were the Anglican Church to ordain Women on her own authority, she would be erecting a further barrier between the traditional "Catholic" Churches and herself, and weakening her position as a "Bridge Church" between the so-called Catholic Churches and the Protestant Churches. This might well prove a price too high to pay in present circumstances, and thus the argument based on expedient considerations becomes the only one of force against the full Ordination of Women.

    As against this, however, it could perhaps be urged that such Ordination would help our Religious thinking in a very salutary way. We think of God almost entirely in Masculine Terms- the Persons of the Trinity are Male in our mode of thought. Actually, of course, they are complete Persons, complete Beings: both male and female they were made in the Image and Likeness of God. ("And a line or more missing due to photocopying of end of a page image, in the image of God he created him: male and female created he them" Genesis 1:26-27. Here it seems clear that Man equals Mankind, including both male and female). Both Male and Female elements and characteristics must be predicated of God, Who is Supra-human, and both man and woman are made in His likeness. (It has sometimes been argued that the Roman Catholic exaltation of the Blessed Virgin Mary into a quasi divine Status can be interpreted as a protest against the exclusive masculinity of the Deity). We need of course to use Personal Terms in speaking of God, because He is personal: the fact that we describe God as "He" does not matter provided we remember that we are not in so doing reducing God to human terms, and falling into the error of making Him in our Image. I have sometimes thought that the traditional rendering of the Lord's Prayer "Our Father, Which art..." rather than "Who art..." is a reminder that God's Being rises far above human conceptions both of Personality and Sex.

    However, to conclude this letter, may I say that while I can find no grounds at all, apart from the argument of expediency deriving from Tradition, against the full Ordination of Women, I should not like to see such Ordination. This may be merely masculine prejudice seeping through. Man and Woman are equal as Persons in the sight of God and are equally the objects of His Love and Care. It may well be that this Equality has yet fully to be worked out in terms of Partnership as far as the human race is concerned. Emancipation and Equality need not necessarily means that Women have to be equal competitors with men in all the fields of human activity and service- the Social Pattern, based very largely on economic considerations, has perhaps forced the competitive expression of Equality hitherto, but a better expression could well be found. There are perhaps signs now existing that Women themselves are beginning to question the competitive expression of Equality, and I believe it is true that few of them would like to see Women as Priests and Bishops. The whole matter however, is very controversial, and I would welcome letters from Church Members concerning it.

    Rev Kenneth Vine

    July 1962