29 January 2014

Worship in Schools and the Independence Question

Plaid-SNP-inspirationAlmost 10 years ago I moved from Wales to Scotland. In Wales, I was for a time a member of Plaid Cymru. I supported the secession of Wales from the United Kingdom. I still believe in political self-determination for my home nation and I still believe that independence would bring benefits to both Scotland and Wales. But…as a Christian, the whole issue is more complicated. Scotland is not Wales. More importantly, the SNP is not Plaid Cymru. Plaid Cymru is a party where the Christianity of the church ministers who were at the forefront of the birth of the modern Welsh political and language movements still means something. Leading figures of more recent years, such as Rhodri Glyn Tomos and the great Dafydd Iwan, are lay ministers. Ieuan Wyn Jones has spoken openly of his Christian belief. Wales has seen as much of a decline in church attendance as anywhere, perhaps even more so, given the high attendances of early last century, but the old denominations and the presence of the Church in Wales still seem to uphold Christianity to a certain degree in civic life.

Contrast this with the SNP and Scotland. The SNP seems bent on pursuing a secular political and liberal social agenda which directly undermines the place of Christianity in civic life. In this regard, SNP are little different from Scottish (or New) Labour. Whatever similarities there may be to Plaid on economics, social justice or on political self-determination and independence, they are not cut from quite the same cloth. And the National Church, the Church of Scotland, seems to be heavily influenced by the same type of liberal so-called progressives. I adduce as evidence the recent debacle of the joint statement with the Humanist Society concerning religious observance in schools.

In fact, let me take the example of religious observance or worship (the distinction is important) in schools. In Wales, the following requirements are laid down for schools:

  • schools must provide collective worship daily for all registered pupils,
  • most acts of collective worship in each term should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. This means that they should reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief without being distinctive of any particular Christian denomination.

It is specifically ‘worship’ that must take place each day, defined as follows:

Collective worship in schools should aim to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, to consider the spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs; to encourage participation and response, whether through active involvement in the presentation of worship or through listening to, watching and joining in the worship offered; and to develop community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values, and reinforce positive attitudes.

Contrast this with the position in Scotland where since 2005 (under a Labour/Lib Dem coalition and before any of the recent Humanist/CofS shenanigans) there has merely been a requirement for ‘religious observance’ defined as:

community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community.

Whatever religious observance is in Scotland, it is not worship, let alone Christian worship! The requirements for religious observance in Scotland are:

  • Every school should provide opportunities for religious observance at least six times in a school year

And what about the relationship between religious observance and worship?

Where the school, whether denominational or non-denominational, is continuous with a faith community, that community’s faith in the “focus of worship”, may be assumed and worship may be considered to be appropriate as part of the formal activity of the school. Where, as in most non-denominational schools, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices, the review
group believes that the appropriate context for an organised act of worship is within the informal curriculum as part of the range of activities offered for example by religions, groups, chaplains and other religious leaders.

That’s not terribly clear and the nagging impression is that between the lines lurks the secular liberal doublethink (and remember this is long-before the Church of Scotland and Humanists got into bed to propose a Time for Reflection). I prefer the more straightforward exhortations of the Welsh Assembly Government. I know of a school in Wales where the inspection body Estyn recommended after inspection that prayers should be said more regularly as part of school assemblies. So it happens on the ground as well as in the circulars.

So, as a Christian who follows Jesus Christ, cares about the faith, cares about the Church of the faith, and the relationship of the nation to the Church (I’m a Presbyterian!), it seems to me that voting for independence for Scotland is not the same as voting for independence for Wales. The former might happen. I now doubt whether the latter ever will. But, do I want to vote for an independent Scotland led by a secularising, liberal elite that ignore the fact that 65% of the Scottish population claim some allegiance to Christianity? Do I want to vote for an independent Scotland with a national Church that seems to be slipping its moorings, adrift on a stormy sea of liberal, heterodox theology? Do I want to vote for Scotland to be independent from the rest of the UK, when in the rest of the UK it seems as if there is more of a successful resistance to secular pressures and where it seems as if Christianity (recognisable as Christianity) is still playing a more visible part in the national discourse and in civic life? Do I really want to do that?

 

DOCUMENTS:

www.estyn.gov.uk/download/publication/10019.1/Supplementary_guidance_collective_worship_in_non-denominational_schools.pdf

www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/920/0113848.pdf

23 January 2014

Classic Eco: The Underground Religious War

ms-dosThis is classic tongue-in-cheek Eco:

I asked above whether fountain pens were Protestant. Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. It's an old idea of mine, but I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revellers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

Eco’s column, La bustina di Minerva; Espresso, September 30, 1994.

20 January 2014

Critiquing the New Calvinism

tulipFrom time to time on this blog I’ve written about the relationship between evangelicalism and the Reformed church. Or, to put things a slightly different way, between evangelical theology and Reformed theology. So, I was interested to read a recent critique of the New Calvinism (one of TIME magazine’s 10 ideas changing the world right now, 2009), which included the following insightful quote:
[T]he evangelical church has no robust ecclesiology, and thus no structured spirituality to put into practice as the body of Christ. And given the absence of a structured spiritual life, Reformed Christianity tends to be reduced to a set of doctrines to contemplate.... Thus, when you remove Reformed theology from its proper historical place in the structured life of Reformed religion and ecclesiology, and plant it in the foreign soil of modern evangelical gnostic spirituality, it takes a grotesque shape that is contrary to its origins.
The whole of the essay (entitled What Is Wrong With the Young, Restless and Reformed Movement?) is worth reading. The tone is, shall we say, somewhat robust! However, it’s a thought-provoking critique and at heart (it seems to me) an appeal for true, rich and rounded Reformed theology and catholicity, as opposed to a narrow, cerebral, judgemental orthodoxy. And that’s a good appeal to make.
 
With thanks to my old tutor, Dr Mike Bird, for drawing my attention to the essay.

15 January 2014

If You Disagree, You’re Mentally Ill

UK writer and columnist Zoe Williams - new book on parenthood 
'Bring it On Baby' Guardian Books published July 2010. 

Today in the Guardian, Zoe Williams writes a fairly astonishing whinge about the ‘systematic civic exclusion of atheists’. Tucked away within Williams’ piece is my real beef with the New Atheism, and it’s a dark reminder of the kind of intolerance (if an extreme example) that is actually becoming embedded in civic secularism. I believe in freedom of thought; anyone can be an atheist if they want to be, even if to me their philosophical conclusions on the nature of reality are a bit tenuous. But Williams writes about people who believe in a deity:

"I am raising my child to believe you people are mad."

Williams sees no problem in labelling as mentally ill those who take a philosophical position that there is a deity. And, worse, sees no problem in raising her child to believe that those people are mentally ill. You might think her comment is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s a jocular version of the kind of thing you hear all the time from the New Atheists. Presumably she sees no problem in writing off in this way great philosophers like Anthony Flew, Descartes, Isaac Newton…I could go on…and on…? The irony is that she attacks the notion of a child being born a Muslim or a Christian and grandstands the importance of raising children to think for themselves!

Labelling disagreement as an illness is a path well worn by fascists and other totalitarians. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to hold people like that at arms length from civic life.

More Defending Religion

salem_largeLast time, I posted on what seems to me to be a common evangelical meme that goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

The apostle James is clear that Christianity is a religion and that good works are important. And so the meme begins to unravel…. Whilst some religions might be about doing good works so that people will be saved, Christianity proclaims that faith in Jesus Christ as Messiah-God brings salvation. And genuine faith in Jesus is intimately linked with the good works that flow from it.

So, if the meme is demonstrably untrue, why does it persist? It’s an evangelical meme, the target of which is often legalistic or ‘nominal’ religion. That is, the problem of a faithless Christianity, or mere churchgoing. Doubtless, ‘nominal’ Christianity is a big problem in Britain in 2014. The ritual of mere churchgoing can empty Christianity of its power. It’s seen just as a cultural expression, or a social activity (as an aside, it’s not as big a problem as non-churchgoing!). Anyway, it’s the use of this meme in attacking the church that is, for me, the most worrying aspect. Last year, in an evangelical church outside Scotland, I heard this meme used in a prelude to describing (from the pulpit) other denominations’ religion as ‘poison’. This kind of attack dishonours the Head of the Church and hands a plateful of reasons to non-Christians for ignoring the church, and to other Christians for leaving the church. It’s an example of what Herman Bavinck wrote about (something I’ve quoted before):

Instead of making a broad and inclusive survey of all churches, carefully distinguishing between true and false, not throwing out the wheat with the chaff, they simply with one fell swoop condemn all churches as false, call all believers to secession and frequently elevate separation itself to an article of faith.… What is the fruit of all this? Not a reformation of churches but an increase in their number and a perpetuation of division. The Catholicity of Christianity and Church

It’s not that I don’t think nominalism is a problem, but nominalism exists in every church, and we need to be careful to distinguish an ignorant nominalism from what the divines called ‘hypocrisy’. ‘Hypocrisy’ is the phenomenon of people who profess faith and who belong to a church where they hear the true and sincere proclamation of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ, but who actually do not truly follow Jesus (often exhibited in an extremely selective following of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teachings). This is ‘nominal’ religion despite and in the face of the truth being proclaimed. It’s the kind of ‘nominal’ religion that is criticised by the apostle James. And it’s closer to home than we often want to admit – Herman Bavinck (assuming a James-like mode) also wrote of the hypocrisy of the Protestant emphasis on truth at the expense of any real emphasis on works, calling it an effective belief in ‘justification by good doctrine’.

That kind of thing is very different to ‘nominal religion’ in congregations where the gospel has been neutered by liberal theology, or  reduced to a kind of social theory. The regular folk (not the leaders, but those in the pews) who are nominally Christians in these churches are like sheep without a shepherd. How does the anti-religion meme attack benefit them? It’s a bit like a home carer who mechanically undertakes their designated tasks without showing any love for the person they’re caring for. What would you do? Tell them that what they’re doing is worthless, poisonous, evil? Or, teach them the importance of loving the person they’re caring for, so that their tasks take on a new quality and significance and so that their relationship with the cared-for person is transformed? The larger point is that a church where there is hypocrisy or nominalism is still a church – thank the Lord for his mercy to us all! Even where the Christian religion expressed by a church is full of faults and errors, it does not mean de facto that its religion ceases to be Christianity. In such churches, an informed critique ought to be directed at those who in such situations have neglected to teach the orthodoxy of the gospel.

It’s wrong to simply write off the rituals of religion, the ‘habits’ of our faith. What about all those times when we ourselves have been carried by the rituals and duties of the Christian religion through rocky and difficult patches in our lives? Sometimes, during periods of doubt, or struggle (whether with stressful circumstances, depression, or sin) we don’t feel like going to church; we don’t feel like praying; we don’t feel like reading our Bibles. But, our sense of duty – the ‘habit’ of attending the ritual – takes us out of the door to the prayer meeting or the Sunday service. And, often, we are blessed. Is that wrong? No. What about all of those people for whom ritual observance is merely the beginning of the journey to faith? In these rituals, Jesus is present and meets with us. Ritual plays an important role in forming our Christian characters and communities, and in giving stability to lives that are not immune to the trials of living in a fallen world. When we meet for worship, the ritual of singing together expresses our corporate worship of God in Christ and binds us together. The ritual of reading together from God’s Word unites us in a corporate hearing and affirmation of God’s truth. The rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not mere symbols, but signify deep spiritual truths and carry real spiritual blessings. The rituals and disciplines of gathering for public and family worship, private prayer and Bible reading are at the heart of our faith. These rituals are part of our religion. For other brothers and sisters, the creeds, the Book of Common Prayer – these would be included too. The repeated ‘doing’ of them is important. Our religion and its rituals are important in inviting, nurturing and maintaining faith.

13 January 2014

Defending Religion

DSC_0296I’ve been busy writing and taking a holiday (two important activities) and the blog has been quiet. But, I’m taking up my keyboard again to defend religion. It’s not the first time. The blanket attack on religion seems to be a well-established evangelical meme – I come across it with alarming regularity. It’s dangerous and I want to resist it.

The meme usually goes something like this:

  • religion is about doing good works so that we get saved
  • Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved
  • ergo Christianity is not a religion
  • ergo religion is evil

There are several fundamental problems with this. The definition of religion is wrong for a start – wrong definitions usual spell disaster. But, far more significantly, one serious objection to this meme comes straight from the pen of one of the apostles:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27

The apostle James knows that religion (that’s θρησκεία in Greek)  is important. And he knows that Christians are ‘doing’ religion. The outward rituals of inward faith are important. Living a holy life, whether in caring for the afflicted or avoiding sinful behaviour, really matters. That’s James whole point throughout his letter. Religion is not just about believing, it is about doing. To be even clearer: Christianity is not just about believing, it’s about doing. Christianity is a religion. The Church has always rightly understood itself as an entity practising a religion. In my own tradition, Christianity-as-religion is the language of the Westminster Standards. For example:

What is the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children. Longer Catechism 62

The apostle James’s concern is whether people’s religion is true or false (1:26,27). He’s not writing about people of other religions, but about people who profess to be Christians. People who profess to be Christians, but who can’t control their tongues, for example (1:26), have a worthless religion.  People who care for others and seek holiness (a different set of values from God’s word, not from the world around), have a religion that is pure and good (1:27). The irony is that James is actually stressing the importance of good works. True religion involves good works as well as faith. Of course, it’s true that Christianity is not about doing good works so that we get saved. But, we won’t be saved without good works, because faith without works is dead (2:17). If you say you’re a Christian, but your life does not display the good works that come from following Jesus, then is your faith real? This particular evangelical meme illustrates a larger problem: an incorrect separation of works and faith.

We can’t be put right before God on the basis of the good things we do, or try to do. That’s the only part of the four-part meme that’s actually correct! We are put right with God, entering into a new relationship with our Creator, through faith in Jesus Christ – thank God for that! But that faith is not merely mental assent. It entails an all-embracing change of priorities called repentance, and that leads to a very different way of life. It’s not fundamentally fired by our desire for self-improvement. It is fundamentally fired by our desire to love Jesus Christ in obedience, which in turn is fired by Jesus’ own presence with us through the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a religion. A religion with Jesus the Messiah at the centre. Christianity is about doing good works. Good works for Jesus the Messiah. And the meme begins to unravel…