God’s diversity

Thirty or forty years ago, I recall, there was much anguished talk in the Church of England about Christian unity – or lack of it – and the perceived need for determined ecumenicalism to tackle the problem with ‘solutions’; much more so than nowadays. Thank God. Continue Reading »


Like many other innocents abroad, I have often blundered into local religious rites or appurtenances that I knew nothing about and could not decode.  Why do worshippers in  Thai temples pray with those little sticks in their hands?  When is it permissible to sit down during an Ethiopian Coptic eucharist?  Why do some Calvinist churches have a sort of fenced paddock as part of their furniture?  Whom can I ask about any of this?  How would I feel when it was all explained to me?  What reaction should I cultivate? How do I show respect? Continue Reading »

Picture this

You can learn a lot from children.  Our three-year old grandson is currently teaching us concept modelling.  Surprised, despite all his parents’ best efforts beforehand, by the appearance of a baby sister, he is finding it difficult to express the feelings he has about this unlooked-for event.  Above else looms the question, am I still loved?

So now he behaves like a baby again.  This is not altogether easy to do when you’re three.  So he borrows voices and scenes from Peppa Pig videos he has seen with us and deploys them again and again in front of his parents, to show what he’s feeling. It is experimental modelling: a search for reassurance – for a restatement of love – through the mechanisms of mining the discourse of a TV show to find the right language in the most appropriate registers: trying to identify what works, in other words.  Model after behavioural model is tried out and discarded.

Over on the other side of the gulf his parents do what they can to hear and understand him at a difficult time.

Is religious belief any different?  We know the pain of love withheld: “Thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled” Psalm 30:7  In the rich soil of human guilts and fears we plant and hope to reap some reassuring reconnection with the Power (however we picture that parental persona). And because this is a search that never ends, we try and try again, creating and amending our modelling as we go along.

In the Abrahamic religions at least, it will always be thus, for ever and ever.  Sometimes it works and we feel ‘God with us.’ Often it does not.  That is the pain of faith.


Oxford doubts

Religion seems to be having rather a hard time in Oxford, according to a recent article in the Catholic Herald (05/06/2015 p21) by Jill Duchess of Hamilton.  In it she quotes Charles Vaughan of the Oxford Union as claiming that many students now at Oxford describe themselves as only ‘culturally religious’ to some degree, and do not practice any religion; “real belief in an interventionist supernatural being – particularly the Catholic conception of God – is viewed with deep scepticism and sometimes contempt.”

I daresay that such an attitude has been commonplace at Oxford since the days of Newman and Matthew Arnold, if not before, and held by many,even, who later became ordained.  The obvious tagline is “And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:24).”  I would also not be surprised if it was ever discovered that it is a stance privately held by many in the pew. Doubt is real – a permanent challenge to belief.

I have no problem with that.  Nowadays we are all individually entitled to hold our own convictions, secretly or not, and it shouldn’t be any of my concern that any fellow congregant of mine believes this or that, even as I kneel with them at the communion rail. 

The last time any fellow worshipper whispered such doubts to me was during a First Communion mass in a church in Rome. But who or where doesn’t matter. We were not there to worship.  We were there to witness the first faltering steps along the way of belief. “In the midst of the congregation I will praise you (Psalm 22:22).”

Back home in Hanslope it is enough that twice a week I am there at the communion rail, as an agnostic Anglican bearing witness to what I believe to be a profound truth about the human predicament.  It is enough. I know what I believe, and God knows it too. He helps my unbelief.

One of life’s greatest pleasures must surely be watching one’s first grandchild grow up.  Day by day, he shows beguiling signs of physical and mental development.  The fact that he can now do or say this or that new action or verbalisation is continually fascinating.  Most of all, I think, how wonderful it is to see the individual appear, in all his uniqueness and emerging personality.  There can never be anything quite like him, even a sibling; a new human being commanding our attention and respect.

For the individual to lay claim to this singleness, it is not at all necessary for him or her to be rich or famous in worldly terms.  All that he has to do is exist.  No matter who he is, I remember reading once, he will leave his footprints in the clay we all walk on, and they will be inextinguishable.  The universe knows who he is; who each one of us is.

As so often happens, the Bible gets there before us.  “And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them… [but] their name liveth for evermore” (Ecclesiasticus 44: 9,14).  The conviction that each one of us is known to the universe – that we can never live or die in secret – is the impulse propelling the perception that faith being essentially a human work of art tends to favour those parts of faith which acknowledge this intermingling of humanity and the rest of creation in particular ways, and celebrate it.  More than Judaism’s communitarianism of the people (Genesis 28:3) and Islam’s emphasis on the ummah, the collective, Christianity is attentive to the ever-shifting, often painful  balance between humankind and “God”.  The whole New Testament is a meditation, in various styles and different emphases, on this aspect of humanism, entranced by the concept of “God” appearing to us as an individual.

Our grandson can believe what he likes, of course, but I hope that over the years he will always be willing and able to exercise and celebrate his individualism, meshing with ours. We love him for it.  Day by day that interaction grows like a plant.

Giles Fraser in the Guardian writes “For God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even. But this is not the same as saying that God is a command and control astronaut responsible for some wicked hunger game experiment on planet earth. Such a being does not exist.” Exactly.

Sweet Christmas

Victorian sentimentality still pervades the Church of England, never more so than at Christmastide.  Sometimes the imagery threatens to overwhelm the message, or even common sense, and collides with itself.  A good example of trying to get both feet into the same sock is presented by two much-loved Christmas carols.  Away in a manger coos over “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”, while Once in Royal David’s City assures us that, through out his childhood, “tears and smiles like us he knew.” Which is the soppiest?

Anglican hymnody is full of such clunkers (rhyming ‘God’ with ‘sod’, for example) but it is often difficult to sacrifice the whole hymn just because part of it refers to some obsolete belief, is written in arcane language or is just plain ridiculous.  Hymns have a long shelf life. We treasure them still, because they still – just – get away with it.  Victorian sentimentality gets us over the difficult bits.

It’s not really a big problem, not least because this Christmas, our local church choir here in Hanslope is booked to sing carols in a local pub and no-one there will think any the less of us if we merrily trill “Seraph quire singeth, angel bell ringeth” over the real ales.  We’ll all be part of a joint, gladsome conspiracy to suspend our disbelief, for once, and genial bewilderment at some of the expressions used.  Hey, it’s Christmas!


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