Friday, September 17, 2004


Paul Avis (ed.), Public Faith? The State of Religious Belief and Practice in Britain (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), ISBN 0-281-05531-9 (pbk), 145 pp.

'The remit of this important collection of essays is both appropriately ambitious and necessarily modest. Ambitious in that it seeks, in the context of renewed public policy interest in matters religious and spiritual, to provide an overview of issues surrounding belief and practice in Britain today; one that focuses both on the statistical, methodological and hermeneutical issues, and on the implications for mission and ministry in today’s churches. Modest because, in the compass of a relatively short book, the detailed contours of such a vast field of interactive enquiry cannot be mapped fully.

'What is attempted instead is a set of vivid, engaged snapshots, backed by thorough investigation, from nine authors who each possess acknowledged expertise in their overlapping disciplines. These include sociology, psychology, ecclesiology, census and survey research, theology, statistics and education. The overall impact is to highlight fresh perspectives, challenges and contentions in the ‘state of belief’ debate. This is achieved for those seeking an intelligent introduction to the subject by pointing them to some horizons and pitfalls, and for existing researchers and commentators by stimulating them towards the pursuit of greater investigative depth. A tricky combination, but one realised well overall. ...

'Anne Richards is especially stimulating. In engaging with the multi-faceted worlds of contemporary spirituality beyond the church, she offers careful but imaginative frameworks for encouraging risky Christian endeavour. She also manages to take human experience seriously, and to combine this with interpretative flair.

'Neither baptising nor dismissing belief beyond the realms of institutional belonging, Richards draws both upon the ground-breaking work of David Hay and Kate Hunt in ‘understanding the spirituality of people who don’t go to church’ and upon the investigations of the ecumenical Mission Theological Advisory Group in which she has played a key role.'

Excerpt from a longer review by Simon Barrow for the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, September 2004. More here.

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Thursday, September 16, 2004


As we anticipated, the MTAG session with David Porter from ECONI (Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland) was extremely fruitful. The history of this network began in 1987. ECONI seeks to explore the ways in which Christian faith has become submerged in the cultures of 'loyalism' and 'nationalism', and to ask what an alternative, biblical witness would look like. It works with both Protestants and Catholics.

The implications of this stance for practical reconciliation of people, communities and memories is considerable; likewise for effective Christian witness in a situation where the language of faith has frequently been colonised and abused.

We noted that all this creates a very different agenda from the one that emerges from engagement with religious / spiritual pluralism on the one hand and and growing secularity on the other. At the present time MTAG lacks Irish membership. But encounters like this one with David are an important corrective to the biases that otherwise creep in to our work.

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Body Languages: Sense-making Faith is the draft title for the MTAG resource book which we worked at during our very fruitful Belfast residential meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday this week. Of course we would welcome alternative suggestions... As has previously been observed, it looks at the realm of the sense and the connectivity of the body (individually and corporately) as the place to discover and respond to God's grace. The book will not be an academic treatise. It will be aimed at those working in local churches, in Christian education and evangelism.

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Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Anne Richards writes:

'In MTAG recently, we have had some fascinating discussion about how we share faith and how faith sharing through personal witness relates (if at all) to the historic faith of the Church and its traditional teaching.

'Here are two examples.

'We thought about the story of Balaam's ass (Number 22) and what it has to say about telling our story in contemporary society. The context is the request to a diviner to change contemporary events by speaking negatively (a curse) rather than positively (a blessing). We can see this positive/negative speech all around us, from the larger political scene (Lord Hutton's enquiry,; media spin; manifesto promises; denigration of opposing parties and agencies) to the fortune telling of popular culture (horoscopes; psychics; mediums, etc). Manipulation of some 'truth' or other is often the name of the game. Where is God's truth in all this?

'As for Balaam, so for us. The angel of the Lord stands squarely before Balaam in the middle of the road and he just doesn't see what is so plainly before his eyes. Prepossessed by his journey and his mission, he doesn't know why his donkey is acting up until the creature starts talking. The unexpected speech of the dumb animal shocks Balaam into remembering what his gift and purpose is all about. It is God's truth that we are called to proclaim, not some lovely story that we have manufactured for ourselves. It is a tough truth, and many will not like it. But Balaam's words are instructive to us now:

' "I have come to you now, but do I have power to say just anything? The word God puts in my mouth, that is what I must say" (v38).

'MTAG is currently investigating the relevance and use of Christian apologetic in our contemporary culture, awash with different spiritualities and different kinds of truth. We too are on missionary journeys within this culture, but can we 'say just anything'?

'In producing our resources to help people share their faith, we have come across an interesting phenomenon - people can be encouraged and helped to share what their faith means to them, but when it comes down to explaining to others outside the Church what the Church teaches about various issues, people default to their own meaningful story, personal view or sense of moral values.

'So, for example, in talking about the forgiveness that God offers to those who truly repent, some Christians will have their own list of the irredeemable: the Hitlers and the Harold Shipmans and the Ian Huntleys. God, our God, is not for them.

'There is a challenge here which says that Christian teaching, lied out in Christian discipleship, has its own demons and dodgy narratives, filled with blessing and cursing. So are we watching out for the angel of the Lord? Whose ass is being whipped? Whose ass is talking?'

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In a recent lecture on inter-religious understanding and responses to global violece, given in Egypt, Dr Rowan Williams chose to explain to a mainly Muslim audience the meaning of Christian thought about the nature of God:

The belief that God could have a son is, for the faithful Muslim, a belief suggesting that God needs something other than himself and is subject to the processes of limited bodies by ‘begetting’ a child. How can such a God be truly free and sovereign? For we know that he is able to bring the world into being by his word alone.

Yet these anxieties do not belong only to Muslims. Egypt was, in the first centuries of the Christian era, the location of great debates on just such matters. Indeed, without the contribution of Egypt, Christian theology would have been infinitely poorer, for many of the greatest minds of that period were natives of Alexandria. And one of the great concerns of these thinkers and their successors was this: if Christians say that the eternal Word and power of God was fully present in Jesus, son of Mary, can we avoid saying this in such a way as to imply that God is subject to a physical process, or that God has a second being alongside him? These Christian sages believed as strongly as any Muslim that God was self-sufficient and free, and that he could not be affected or limited by physical processes and did not act as a physical cause among others. They say quite explicitly that when we speak of the father ‘begetting’ the Son, we must put out of our minds any suggestion that this is a physical thing, a process like the processes of the world.

Those Christian thinkers and their successors developed a doctrine which tried to clarify this: they said that the name ‘God’ is not the name of a person like a human person, a limited being with a father and mother and a place that they inhabit within the world. ‘God’ is the name of a kind of life – eternal and self-sufficient life, always active, needing nothing. And that life is lived eternally in three ways which are made known to us in the history of God’s revelation to the Hebrew people and in the life of Jesus. There is a source of life, an expression of life and a sharing of life. In human language we say, ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’, but we do not mean one God with two beings alongside him, or three gods of limited power. Just as we say, ‘Here is my hand, and these are the actions my one hand performs’, but it is not different from the actions of my five fingers, so with God: this is God, the One, the Living and Self-subsistent, but what God does is not different from the life which is eternally at the same time a source and an expression and a sharing of life. Since God’s life is always an intelligent and purposeful life, each of these dimensions of divine life can be thought of as a centre of mind and love; but this does not mean that God ‘contains’ three different individuals, separate from each other as human individuals are.

And Christians believe that this life enters into ours in a limited degree. When God takes away our evildoing and our guilt, when he forgives us and sets us free, he breathes new life into us, as he breathed life into Adam at the first. That breathing into us we call the ‘Spirit’. As we become mature in our new life, we become more and more like the expression of divine life, the Word whom we encounter in Jesus. Because Jesus prayed to the source of his life as ‘Father’, we call the eternal expression of God’s life the ‘Son’. And so too we pray to the source of divine life in the way that Jesus taught us, and we say ‘Father’ to this divine reality.

But in no way does the true Christian say that the life and action of God could be divided into separate parts, as if it were a material thing. In no way does the true Christian say that there is more than one God or that God needs some other in order to act or that God promotes some other being to share his glory. There is one divine action, one divine will; yet (like the fingers of the hand) there are three ways in which that life is real, and it is only in those three ways that the divine life is real – as source and expression and sharing. It is because of those three ways in which divine life exists that Christians speak as they do about what it means to grow in holiness.

And the Christian also says something which may again be a source of disagreement. God is a loving God, as we all agree; but, says the Christian, God does not love simply because he decides to love. He is always, eternally, loving. His very nature, his definition is love. And the interaction and relation between the three ways in which God lives, the source and the expression and the sharing, is eternally the way God exists. The three centres of divine action, which we call Father, Son and Spirit, pour out the divine life to each other for all eternity, a sort of perfect circle of giving and receiving. And the only word we can use for that relationship of pouring out and giving is love. So as we grow in holiness, we become closer and closer in our actions and thoughts to the complete self-giving that always exists perfectly in God’s life. Towards this fullness we are all called to travel and grow. More.

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Monday, September 13, 2004


'As I began to write [a] review of Jonathan Hill's The History of Christian Thought (Lion Publishing, 2004) a useful distraction surfaced. BBC Radio 4's 'Start The Week' programme, a weekly airing of cultural, literary, social and scientific thought, was broadcasting in the background. The topic was the task of seeking truth, justice and reconciliation in South Africa, in post-war Iraq and in Israel/Palestine. Alongside a journalist, a politician and a psychologist in the studio was an Archbishop. Much of the discussion revolved around religion as a force for both good and evil.

'Most of it was encouraging. Here we had a Christian leader who could acknowledge the deep problems posed by misshaped faith, a non-believing activist who nevertheless considered himself a 'student of the teachings of Jesus', a practitioner interested how our mental / spiritual maps shape the world, and a commentator who brought questions about the internal logic of Judaism and Islam to bear on the issues concerned.

'Nevertheless, even among a well-educated forum, there were some pretty superficial judgements flying around, too. What's more, I couldn't help thinking how difficult it would be to hold a conversation as good as this (let alone better than) in many churches. Whatever is going on ‘out there’, most of our faith communities remain closed in upon themselves -- talking about the wider world as a problem or as an opportunity, perhaps, but often finding it difficult to deploy a wide ranging understanding that would enable us to face the lesions at the core of the Gospel message.

'Jonathan Hill's excellent volume is surely part of the intellectual armoury that can help Christians to shift the balance in favour of faith that seeks understanding and (just as important) understanding that mediates faith. Not 'intellectual' as in obscure, difficult or elitist, I should stress; but as in the necessity of loving God with the head as well as the heart, particularly in a fast-changing, forgetful world.' More.

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The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was interviewed by John Humphreys on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme last week, following the terrorist killing of around 350 people, mostly children, in Beslan. He faced questions on the meaning of belief in God in the light of such horrors. These excerpts are courtesy of the Church Times:

Where was God yesterday morning?
Where was God? Where was God in the Aberfan disaster? Where was God on 9/11? The short answer is that God is where God always is, that is, with those who are trying to comfort and bring light in any such situation. I would guess in such a situation - and how could one begin to imagine the nightmare in the school - there must have been older children putting arms around younger children. You might see God there.

But, in a world in which human decisions are free - even free for the most appalling evil like this - God does not dictate and intervene.

I suppose we all have the sense that some kind of line has been crossed here: that people can not only calculate that the death of children will serve their purpose, but actually sit with suffering children for days, watching in a calculating way. That is the kind of decision which, yes, you have to call evil.

[On the question of freedom of choice] Freedom is a word thrown around. It is a word that has big and dramatic resonances, but it often means very, very small things, a very small gesture.
But choice is denied to people who are victims? That is what it is to be a victim: your choice is restricted; you are imprisoned.

That is what God allows; so he doesn't give us a choice, does he?
It is a fact that people exercise different levels of freedom. One person's freedom interferes with another's. That is why I do not believe that freedom is the essence of Christianity. It is one of those crucial aspects of it, but I would still come back to the question: what is it, in a situation of this dreadful captivity, that an ordinary child can still do with mind and heart?

Does the Church not preach that God is merciful?
Of course, this is nothing to do with God's mercy, it has to do with the kind of reality that the created world is in, which we make our futures in relation to God.

God calls us to co-operate with what he longs for; what he wishes to see, which is justice, which is love, and we are free to resist. Sometimes people resist violently and horribly, as in this case.

So what do you say to people who say: 'I simply can't believe any longer; this is not a good world.'
What I want to ask is: what is it that makes you find the torture and death of children so appalling? What is it that makes you value human beings?

The faith that Christians hold, and other religious people, is that each person has that absolute value in the eyes of God, which means that it is impossible to treat them as a means to your own ends. It requires of us the most self-forgetful respect, the most generous, the most outgoing engagement with other persons. If there is no eternal love focused on each and every individual, including the most vulnerable, including the most unimportant, then it is possible for persons to be used as tools, as objects. More.

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Sunday, September 12, 2004


1. In the Mission Theological Advisory Group there has been a tradition of producing lengthy reports for decision-makers and shapers in the churches. This time we are challenged to produce a series of booklets and hands-on resources.

2. We were given the brief of fresh approaches to 'missionary apologetics'. We have actually spent most of our time getting back into the 'Gospel and popular culture' interaction, with an awareness of its religious, political and cultural resonances.

4. Our focal idea is now to produce materials on the senses - smell, sight, touch, sound, taste and intuition/thought - in the context of the body. Bodily existence is a common human experience across time and culture, and in terms of the Gospel it is offered transformation through the death and risen life of Jesus.

5. This approach enables us to be practical, narrative and experimental - rather than theoretical, propositional and dogmatic. It also enables us to share, at least in part, a 'common language' with those outside the Christian household: that doesn't rely on dodgy epistemic assumptions.

6. We don't want to be individualistic either. We want to look at the senses as media for persons-in-relation (a biblical perspective) and to be conscious of the relations between the body and the body politic - as well as what difference connecting these to the Body of Christ makes.

7. That, I hope, gives you a general idea. I should stress that it's my interpretation, and the group are good at seeing things differently - in a creative way!

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The Mission Theological Advisory Group will be meeting residentially in Belfast, Northern Ireland, from 14-15 September 2004. The aim of the gathering is to begin the writing projects entailed in the latest phase of MTAG's work, and exploration of the relationship between spirituality and culture through the medium of the senses and the body.

The meeting takes place at St Clement's, a Roman Catholic retreat centre five miles outside Belfast city centre. The group will also meet with David Porter, Director of ECONI, an imaginative and innovative project from within the heart of the evangelical Protestant community of northern Ireland aiming at theological understanding and practical reconciliation.

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