Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Smoking in church

A few weeks ago the local council sent me a no smoking sign which has to be displayed at the entrance to the church, in accordance with the new law against consenting adults smoking indoors.

I'm hardly the first to notice that people don't actually smoke in church. (I once saw a teenager reach for his cigs, only to be slapped down by his friends.) I'm not sure whether smoking was ever acceptable in churches, though perhaps in the eighteenth century it may have been. I have a totally unresearched mental image of some gouty squire huddling near the brazier in his box pew and sucking on a clay churchwarden (which is a type of pipe). But I suspect the image is fanciful.

Anyway, my first instinct was to bin the offending article, but someone pointed out the huge fines that can be levied for not telling the congregation not to do what they are already not doing. So I checked the official web site and discovered that you are allowed to customise the notice. So I came up with this:

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Cafe culture on the Moor

That's Heaton Moor, the former village cum suburb next to Heaton Mersey where I live. It's in north Stockport. Over the past few years, a host of pavement cafe sort of places has opened along its main thoroughfare.

Sarah and I went to one tonight. The food was OK - sort of a reasonable starter disguised as a main course. Hardly any beer, though. Lots of fizzy stuff under pressure, and some of that so-nasty-it-has-to-be-extra-chilled stuff. We did find a bottle of Duvel, priced at £3.50. That's about twice what it is in Belgium, and a pound more than at my local.

So what is it we're paying for here? The beer is mostly bad, and very expensive; much more than pub prices. The food is only OK; my crab and haddock fish cakes may have contained some sort of gadoid fish, but I suspect that decapods were only a distant rumour to them. Nicely presented, on black square plates, though.

I suppose the answer is that we are paying for an idea. Some sort of sophisticated pseudo-european chic. Frankly, I don't think it's worth it. But I probably don't understand these things. I'm old-fashioned and like beer with flavour and food with a bit of volume to it.

Liberal evangelicals and other demons

There's a continuing rumbling about changes at Wycliffe Hall, the Oxford theological college whose new principle, Dr. Richard Turnbull, is accused of making it more conservative and of getting rid of staff who oppose him.

A letter from the previous three principals of Wycliffe to the Bishop of Liverpool, Wycliffe's chair of governors (or whatever the body is precisely called) recently expressed similar concerns. On the other hand, a friend who is close to events there tells me that it's all rather over-blown, and there's not too much to worry about. I hope so, but....

A video of Dr. Turnbull addressing a Reform meeting last year is rather disturbing. Not necessarily directly because of the Wycliffe question, but simply because of the attitudes he seems to espouse. (Reform, by the way, is a conservative evangelical Anglican group characterised by opposition to women's ministry and a deep homophobia. A similar group is called Anglican Mainstream. Somewhere there is an agency which comes up with these odd names. (It is also responsible for those countries called The People's Democratic Republic of....)

Dr. T says it's very important to be sure what an evangelical is. (Why? Where is the term in the Bible? Did Jesus tell us to be evangelicals?) Apparently, true evos believe in the authority of scripture (OK), a personal relationship with God (OK), the need for evangelism (OK) and substitutionary atonement (damn, I nearly made it!)

He says that being a theological college principal is a "strategic" move to counter the "capture" of colleges by liberals, and that the spearhead of liberalism is liberal evangelicalism (perhaps evos who only score 3 out of 4 on the identity scale?) and they need to be rooted out of the theological colleges they are in charge of (or perhaps have "captured"). Hence he speaks of "two plus four" evangelical theological colleges: Oak Hill in London and his own Wycliffe are the two (who presumably score 4 out of 4) and the others are presumably the liberal evangelicals at Trinity Bristol, St. John's Nottingham, Ridley Hall Cambridge and Cranmer Hall in Durham.

This is fighting talk. It's military language. Which is bad enough: he evidently sees an awful lot of his fellow Christians (some separated by only one point of disagreement, perhaps) as enemies. But perhaps it's even worse. My present colleague points out that militaristic language in conservative evangelicalism is usually about "spiritual warfare": opposing the forces of darkness. Perhaps we liberal evangelicals (I only score 3 out of 4, remember) are not just enemies, but also demonic ones. No wonder he thinks that 95% of the British population is facing hell, if half or more Christians are satanic.

There's more I could rant about, but I find all this much too depressing. Wouldn't it be grand if instead of talk of (possibly demonic) enemies we had a call to shared prayer, worship and outreach? Does it really matter what "mechanism" I believe lies behind the events of Good Friday as long as I truly believe it was Good?

However, let's finish on a positive note. I agree with him that residential theological colleges can provide better theological training than regional part-time courses (and I'm a tutor on one). But that sadly bids fair to be outweighed by the threat of their becoming ever more sectarian training grounds.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

A long time ago, and a long way away

There's not been an update for ages - the real world seems a bit busy at the moment, so just to make sure there's at least one entry for June, here's today's sermon (Bible reading included at no extra charge).

1 Kings 21.1-21a
1Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, 'Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.' 3But Naboth said to Ahab, 'The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.' 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, 'I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.' He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
5His wife Jezebel came to him and said, 'Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?' 6He said to her, 'Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, "Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it"; but he answered, "I will not give you my vineyard."' 7His wife Jezebel said to him, 'Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.'
8So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, 'Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, "You have cursed God and the king." Then take him out, and stone him to death.' 11 The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, 'Naboth cursed God and the king.' So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, 'Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.'
15As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, 'Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.' 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
17Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, 'Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?' You shall say to him, 'Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.'
20Ahab said to Elijah, 'Have you found me, O my enemy?' He answered, 'I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.'

Ahab could arguably be termed a progressive king. He looked to the modern world, and matched it. He forged a favourable alliance - cementing it by marriage, as was the custom of the day. He opened new trade routes, promoted religious tolerance and modernised the government. He enjoyed his relationship with his powerful neighbour to the north, and saw himself as a serious player on the world scene.

When he wanted to expand his property, he made a perfectly reasonable proposal - buy his neighbour's property at above market value, and both would be happy. Naboth would make a fat profit, and Ahab would have more room in a convenient locale. Much more acceptable than our practice of compulsory purchase by local authorities.

But he ran into an obstacle. It was an old, outmoded rule; no one was allowed to sell their ancestral property in Israel, on the rather silly grounds that it had been the gift of God and wasn't for buying and selling. And, of course, it protected the poor from being dispossessed by the wealthy. Though in this case, there could be no question of that, could there?

But here is Naboth, clinging to the old ways, and insisting on living in the last century or two.

Ahab, for all his progressive bent, isn't a terribly mature man. He goes home and sulks. In fact, not only is he childish, but he's got an old-fashioned streak as well. When the old ways are quoted to him, he caves in. He may sulk, but he doesn't quite have the stomach to set aside the old laws.

But Jezebel simply doesn't understand this. What's the point of being a king if you can't get your own way? So she fixes it. Power is there to be used, and there are plenty of forward thinking people who know which way the wind is blowing, and are not going to make too much fuss. In fact, they'll more than go along with it - they'll be a part of it.

And so Naboth is dead.

It's all so petty, of course. A misuse of power in the service of personal gain. But it's a ploy that we're familiar with.

Suppose it was something of greater importance. Suppose it was not about Ahab's garden, but something which might be of national importance; that Naboth might be standing in the way of national security, or the war on terror, or an alliance with a friendly nation in an unstable part of the world. Would it be all right then, to frame and murder him?

Could he perhaps be extraordinarily rendered somewhere to be asked pointed questions? Or could he be imprisoned without trial or legal representation, on some distant island, for years at a stretch? Could he have his civil liberties curtailed, or his right to expect, say, that businesses which offer unthinkably huge bribes to corrupt foreign princes be prosecuted?

Ahab can pretend he didn't really know what was going on - Jezebel didn't actually say what she was going to do - it's called plausible deniability. And no questions need be asked afterwards - the situation is happily resolved.

Except that Naboth is dead, and the king has taken on all the trappings of a Mafia don. Or simply a head of state - the king who was called to be the protector of Israel, and the upholder of God's laws has become a typical Oriental despot. He has fallen in with the way of the nations around, become a hanger-on of the great and powerful and a failure in every way that matters.

It's no wonder that when he encounters his old adversary, Elijah, he greets him as his enemy.

Elijah stands for the old ways, which preserved the rights and the worth of all the people of Israel. He stands for the old tribal laws which extended protection and courtesy not just to members of the twelve tribes, but to the stranger and the exile as well.

They are also, of course, God's laws. And Ahab is about to find that they are flouted at peril of his life and his dynasty. Thank goodness it's a story from long ago, and far away. It would be disturbing indeed to suppose it might have anything to say to us, here and now.