Saturday, August 24, 2013

Oil, lemons and bread

It's not often that one comes out of church with their hands smelling lemony fresh unless one has been using a Lemony-Fresh washing up liquid following post-Mass tea and fellowship. However, today, my hands certainly were not smelling of the usual vague traces of Rosa Mystica and burnt finger from fumbling with the thurible.

As the bishop anointed my hands today with the Holy Oil, he cleansed them with lemon juice and mopped them with bread before purging them with water. Of course, there are practical reasons for doing so, especially when one is about to distribute the Holy Sacrament. However, it put me very much in mind of the fact that I have to be of service to my parish, even down to the washing up with Lemon-Fresh washing up liquid, and making sandwiches for hungry mouths.

Admittedly, for someone who is rather inept when it comes to practical things, the commission to serve is very daunting. There is so much need in the world, and in the most unexpected places. St Augustine would tell us that Evil is a privation - Evil only exists as a lack of Good. So there is a true need where evil exists and evil takes so many forms. Our Lord Jesus came to supply whatever we human beings lacked in order to become the people we were meant to be. He came to perfect people. Even Our Lord was not truly perfect until He had fulfilled what He had come to do. He was, of course, absolutely sinless, but no human being is perfect until they have become the person that God intended them to be.

To perfect people, Our Lord got His hands dirty with mud and spittle. He touched running sores, atrophied tongues, stopped ears and bloody wounds. He  washed dirty feet and held the dead. His was a life of trying to make people perfect and then those hands were cut open and stained with his own blood when he died to open the gates of Heaven so that those corrupted by sin might find perfection in Him. If His earthly ministry to us were with us here and now, we would find his hands in the sink, washing up for an elderly lady, or making sandwiches for a picnic for children from the estate, or mopping the brow of a patient in her agony in the hospital, and he would be consecrating every action.

However, this is the ministry that He has passed on to all His followers, including without any exception His priests. Indeed, the priest who doesn't serve is endangering his own soul by not seeking his own perfection in Christ. This of course is a very frightening thought, but we can all be assured that with His grace we can truly serve if we serve with humility and love.

A priest's hands should always be lemony-fresh from doing life's washing up in the Hospital for Sinners that the Church is meant to be.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Eating your words

Sermon preached at the Parish of Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity.

What is an hypostasis? What is perichoresis, or a chorepiscopos? Or do you suffer from floccinaucinihilipilification in the whole matter?

Some people think it clever or intelligent to use long words willy nilly. The more syllables the word has, the better they think they look in front of those who don’t know them. Can you judge a person’s intelligence by the length of the words that they use? Is that possible?


The trouble is, words are supposed to be about communication. Words allow us to share information, understand who another person is or how they are feeling. Words allow us to create or destroy friendships. Words build cities or destroy worlds. The whole point of words is that we understand their meaning and communicate our ideas clearly to other people.

If you were to call someone phlegmatic, would they appreciate that you’ve just called them calm and relaxed, or would you get a smack in the mouth because they think you’ve called them slimy? If we wish to communicate with people, then we have to speak the same language. This is why it is not clever to use long words to demonstrate one’s intelligence – it really isn’t good communication. Either we want to communicate with other people or we don’t.

Of course there are times when long words are necessary. It’s easier to say “Disestablishment” rather than keep repeating “cutting the link between the CofE and Parliament”. The word “velocity” means something slightly different from “speed”: knowing that difference can change our understanding of what’s being said. A teacher needs to use technical language so that her students can grasp the basic lessons and become able to understand things on their own. That teacher herself needed to be taught that language too.


It’s part of a priest’s duty to teach his congregation about God. Think about what that means. A human being has to teach other human beings about Who God is! We run into a particular problem here. Who is God? What is God? Where is He? He is the maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible. But this means that God is not made of anything! It also means that we can’t say where God is! We often talk about God being angry, but can an infinite being who is not affected by time really ever be angry?

God is utterly unfathomable. Often we can say very little about Who he is, rather Who He is not. Now that’s not especially helpful. It’s a bit like trying to make an ice sculpture of God, by chipping bits of ice away and there is an awful lot of ice!

If it’s difficult for us to speak about God, how can God communicate with us? How can we communicate with God?


The first duty of every Christian is prayer. Every Christian should pray daily. The earliest rule of prayer is to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, at morning, noon and bedtime. This at least gives us some meaningful words to pray when we can’t think of words. Having a good rule of daily prayer gets us closer to God and helps us to understand His Will for us. However, it is true to say that God’s communication with us does not seem to happen very obviously. We don’t get great sentences from above that tell us what to do. What we get comes from the still, small voice inside us that we can hear through prayer and study. Even so, it is difficult to hear! What assurance do we get that God does hear prayer? What assurance do we have that God really does want to communicate with us?


At the end of our Mass we hear the Last Gospel, and this Last Gospel usually (not always) begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” What is this Word? Well we know that St John is telling us that Our Lord Jesus is the Word, but what does this really mean?


The whole point of the Incarnation is that God communicates directly with human beings, and Our Lord is the way this communication happens. Jesus does not have to speak in order to communicate with us: He performs miracles; He weeps; He touches and handles us, makes us hear and see and speak and walk and find joy; and He dies for us. In that whole ministry our Lord Jesus, the Word, says as much by Who He is as He does in speech and deed. His death and resurrection tells us more about God’s love for us than we could ever know by what He tells us.

This is why the Mass is as it is. Every word and action has a meaning, and it is the duty of every priest to reflect on that meaning so as to allow the people to experience the living Christ. If you reflect carefully on the words being said and the actions being performed, you will see the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ unfold. That life of Christ unfolds for us, and as we receive communion, we take in Our Lord into our very selves to live and to work for His praise and glory.


We take Christ into our very selves. We, ourselves, carry the Word of God around in us, living and vibrant, connecting our Humanity with the Divinity of God the Almighty Father.

How do we speak such a wonderful Word?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Assumption of Our Lady 2013: Dixit Dominus

Vespers of Our Lady begins with the first Psalm of Sunday, the Dixit Dominus. Again, we see the unbreakable link between the Blessed Virgin and Our Lord. The two cannot be separated, even liturgically. Sunday is the day of Resurrection and the Assumption of Our Lady is reflected in that Resurrection. Our Lady is carried up to Heaven by the power of angels, following her son who ascends through the power of God.

We see here, our destiny in Our Lady. Just as Our Lord divested himself of His Divine power and is re-clothed as the King of Heaven, so Our Lady is given a new dress to wear as she is clothed with her incorruptible body and crowned as Queen Mother of Heaven.

The Dixit Dominus is the psalm that Our Lord demonstrates that the Son of Man surpasses King David:
And Jesus answered and said, while he taught in the temple, How say the scribes that Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Ghost, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool. David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son? And the common people heard him gladly.  (St Mark xii.35-37)
If Jesus surpasses David, and truly honours His mother in obedience to God's Commandments, then He must recognise her as the queen of Heaven because He recognises Himself as King. This is why it is so very reasonable and right to honour Mary with hyperdulia, that unique veneration due to her unique standing in all of Creation. If the Lord honours her, so must we. Likewise if we honour her, then we cannot but honour her son for that is her dearest wish. Ikons of Our Lady always point away from her to her beloved Son and our beloved Saviour. She does not wish to be worshipped but she must accept herself as Queen of Heaven, for her son is the king.

The Psalm itself has rather violent content. Enemies are made footstools, heads are broken, the place is strewn with dead bodies. How can this suit the meekness and humility of Our Lord or Our Lady? The Psalm of course comes from the tales of the great conquests of Israel before its fall to successive powers and empires. Yet, our Lord references it directly. His great conquests are over Evil, Death and Hell and it is clear that His very presence destroys evil. Where Perfect Good is, there can be no evil whatsoever. Any being that takes its life and existence from evil must perish at the presence of God, without exception. Our Lady too, by virtue of the peculiar grace bestowed upon her by Her Son, is a formidable opponent of all that is Evil, just by being herself.

The Psalm speaks of Christ's eternal priesthood following the pattern of the enigmatic Melchisedec whose name literally means "King of Peace". Even though Our Lady has no priesthood, she is the Mother of Priests, for as just as a priest is transfigured by Our Lord in the Mass by participating in this High Priesthood, so the Blessed Virgin becomes the mother of that priest. Every priest, therefore, has a unique relationship with Our Lady and her prayers support him in his ministry to make real the Divine Christ to a dark world. This is not to say that Our Lady prefers only priests, for her love, like her son's reaches out to all people. It is to say that, since we all present ourselves as individuals to God, we receive grace that is peculiar to ourselves. The charism of a priest receives grace peculiar to that charism.

Our Lady is not the source of her Assumption; she receives it at the hands of her son. In receiving this she points the way for us too. While we may not be assumed into Heaven, Our Lady does show us that we have a God who is willing to honour His commitments and promises to us. She points to a faithful God who wills that we should find life with Him. She points to the Love of God for each of us. Catholics do not worship Mary: they rest assured that in seeing the Blessed Virgin, they know that Christ is near and His Salvation will follow.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Methodical and non-circular Catholicism

Having seen another good theological debate destroyed by ad hominem attacks, I do muse on the method that people use to settle questions of Moral Theology in this day and age. Scientific method has been, in some sense, born out of the traditional Church's method of enquiry.

As I see it the method goes as follows:

1) Form the Question.
2) Perform experiment.
3) Make Observations
4) Interpret Observations.
5) Form Conclusion.

So for example:

1) Does this stone float?
2) Drop it in water tank.
3) The stone is now at the bottom of the water tank.
4) The stone has sunk.
5) The stone doesn't float.

In Moral Theology, the question is usually "Is it right to X?" The same method gives us:

1) Is it right to X?
2) Read the Holy Scriptures for information about X.
3) Collate texts about X from Holy Scriptures.
4) Check interpretation of those texts in Church Tradition.
5) Form a conclusion.


1) Should I sleep with that man's wife?
2) Read Exodus
3) Exodus xx.14: "Thou shalt not commit adultery"
4) "There is this further, that in that very debt which married persons pay one to another, even if they demand it with somewhat too great intemperance and incontinence, yet they owe faith alike one to another. Unto which faith the Apostle allows so great right, as to call it ‘power,’ saying, ‘The woman has not power of her own body, but the man; again in like manner also the man has not power of his own body, but the woman.’  But the violation of this faith is called adultery, when either by instigation of one's own lust, or by consent of lust of another, there is sexual intercourse on either side with another against the marriage compact: and thus faith is broken, which, even in things that are of the body, and mean, is a great good of the soul: and therefore it is certain that it ought to be preferred even to the health of the body, wherein even this life of ours is contained." (St Augustine, De Bono Coniugali iv)
 5) I shouldn't sleep with that man's wife.

Of course, that's a very simplistic answer to a well-established question and there are bits we need to consider such as circumstance, intention, or even whether the husband is actually still alive.

However, there is another method being used in the current clime:

1) Should I sleep with that man's wife?
2) I have the gut feeling that it's right to sleep with that man's wife and lots of people seem to be doing it.
3) I John iv.7 "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God."
4) In Exodus xx.14, recent scholarship shows that adultery doesn't mean what we now think it means.
5) I should sleep with that man's wife.

Yes, I know that is a bit of a straw man argument. To be honest, I can't think of an argument that supports adultery - perhaps I'm just not that imaginative - but this is the shape that arguments for recent decisions in Moral Theology seem to be following. Perhaps wiser people would put me right.

This new method seems to be.

1) Form the question.
2) Answer the question based on subjective observations and social conventions.
3) Read Holy Scripture/Tradition to find the bits that fit.
4) Discredit the bits of Holy Scripture/Tradition that don't fit using "modern scholarship".
5) Justify the Conclusion formed in (2).

A rational human being would discredit the New Method on the grounds that it assumes the thing it's trying to prove. It is a circular argument problem, just like

A) God exists.
B) God caused the Bible to be written.
C) Therefore the Bible is infallible.
D) The Bible says God exists.
E) Therefore, God exists.

I still see arguments like that from supposedly learned scholars trying to prove the infallibility of the Bible. It doesn't work and doesn't convince anyone.

If we have a moral question, then we usually have a vested interest in the conclusion - we'd like X to be morally right because we enjoy it. However, as Christians we must concern ourselves with the Truth. Christians have to believe in an objective Truth simply because Our Lord specifically says, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life". If there is an objective Truth, then we have to suspend our desire for X to be morally right in order to put it through objective tests to discern whether it is. The Old Method is objective and there is no room for subjectivity. We can then rule our bodies by making them conform to the objective moral truth that Christianity provides.

If we're really set upon discovering moral truth in this day and age, then we need to take the circles out of our arguments.

Monday, August 05, 2013

St Benedict's Priory Salisbury 2013: Incarnation

It might not have become apparent from the last couple of posts, but I have been away on my usual retreat. This year it was very sorely needed, as my life seems to be changing dramatically and having the wit, wisdom, direction and Christian love of good, honest churchmen around me has enabled me to grab a purchase on who I am while the maelstrom of life tugs me this way and that.

As I said above, to God even the smallest things matter; even the really sub-microscopic entities have a relevance and a value within His grand scheme of Creation. Every particle born of the Big Bang, every little fish that bravely flopped and floundered on dry land, every ape-like being that dared to set foot upon the ground and walk upright, every little child that opens its eyes for the first time, blinking in the light of the outside world, all of these matter to God without exception.

As I approach my ordination to the priesthood, the influence of my sacerdotal friends and soon-to-be colleagues in orders has been very strong and, in reading through the prayers and scrutinising the actions at the direction of the wise, I have found myself drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation. Every ritual and ceremony of the Mass has a reason - a purpose that draws us into God and God into us. I suspect I shall make all kinds of mistakes at my first Mass, but it won't be for lack of desire. The Mass is a great gift to us, a true and powerful way of giving thanks and touching God Himself.

There is nothing wrong with big thoughts! The night sky with it trillions of stars and galaxies, all of immense size and yet at unimaginable distance, certainly enthuses the mind. The majesty of Salisbury Cathedral from which one can see a hundred miles and eight centuries, is the product of big ideas. But big ideas can only grow from little tiny things. The parable of the mustard seed is one of Our Lord's simplest and yet most powerful images.

The Mass is so small.

It is tiny, a little group of people standing as their priest offers on their behalf the sacrifice of the Mass, a little wafer, a little water, a little wine. Each communicant takes into their body something so small it can be swallowed, and yet this something is absorbed into the body, fusing into it and becoming part of it. This little something is Christ Himself! Christ the Priest offers Christ the victim upon the altar of the Cross and distributes Himself entire into the bodies of the people.

In Christ, God Himself is made small, tangible, graspable, embraceable. God knows that little things like us cannot comprehend an Uncreated Being who from nothing creates all of everything, but they can comprehend one of their number. Mixed in the chalice of His body are His humanity and His Divinity in which we are permitted to share through His offering of Himself.

It does not worry me that my Church is small. I would like it to be big because I would dearly love folk to share what I have found for themselves on their own terms. While we are small, we just keep the Faith and do what we are commanded and offer the Mass for a greater and truer personal relationship with Our Lord than could ever come via other means.

The sad thing is that I am not in communion with my monks. The church to which they belong and to which they serve faithfully has different ideas now, but they have not rejected me nor I them. We still have our confraternity. Their smallness is still very visible to God and yet they still possess space for countless friends and well-wishers. The value of their community is priceless.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
(William Blake 1757-1827, from Auguries of Innocence)

The smallness of the Incarnation is truly bigger than the World can hold, and yet a manger can contain it.

How small was the last Mass you attended?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Are all priests corrupt? - Secularisation, sentiment and small things

I have had several reactions to my last post, some of which seem to be concerned that I am becoming a secularist, and others reacting to the language used. Certainly the author of the major substance of the post was neither out to offend but to give an opinion. I stand by posting it because it does raise some issues that lie at the interface between the Church of Christ and the "common society ".

Secularism itself suffers from the same disease as "Protestant" and "Catholic". One has to be very careful about definitions of words. We already see the words "Catholic" and "Protestant" as labelling two tribes in the Northern Ireland of the 1970s who were causing much anger, aggression, and even death. A peaceful society could not function in such circumstances. There needed to be a common forum in which both sides could talk, and this wasn't even achieved until the 90s.

I really do wonder how many of these tribal "Protestants" and tribal "Catholics" actually went to church regularly and were active members of their church community. I wonder how many of them actually lived lives actively living out the two commandments of Christ to love God and neighbour. Surely only God can answer this!

An Anglican Catholic knows too well the problem of definition with people taking their own understanding of the words and making judgements based upon them without any actual enquiry. To many, our status as "Continuing Anglican" reads as "people who broke away from the CofE and are still angry about it". That's not who we are, but that is the way people look at us, rightly or wrongly. We also suffer strange attitudes because of our name. Those who hold to that form of strict Protestantism which regards Rome as the Whore of Babylon think we're quislings and deserving of punishment. Other Protestants believe us to be a tiny little rump church talking itself into insignificance. Some Roman Catholics lump us in with all Anglicans without realising that our understanding of what it means to be Anglican is very slightly different. The point is that we get dismissed easily, especially when people won't listen.

Now that's a big point in the text of my previous post. What is the forum for true dialogue and listening? Where can each member of society meet and raise concerns that really bother them? Can that ever happen in a church in which the priest preaches a sermon and an individual finds an unexpected issue? I am aware that my own sermons and homilies are far from perfect and I dare say that there are people who have found my words actually quite offensive. How they are offensive is a different matter!

There are issues that do cause offense. My stance which is firmly against abortion will be necessarily offensive in the ears of a pro-choice campaigner. My subscription to the Catholic Faith will offend many women on the grounds that I believe that they are not, never have been and cannot be ordained unless there is a clear Divine Mandate which causes the whole Church to accept that change in teaching. If I don't want to be offensive, then I cannot possibly succeed in offending no-one, and perhaps I should stop blogging altogether. Perhaps I should stop preaching altogether.

The main thing here is that I don't want to offend anyone. It is never my intention to cause offence, but rather to put my words into the crucible that forms the reader's mind and let them find the Word of God within it. It might be unpalatable, but it is honestly meant with love.

Intentions are a key issue in today's society. I am sure that bankers, lawyers, politicians, priests, celebrities have, for the most part, good intentions for all of their work. Indeed, why single these folk out? The majority of members of society are good, honest people. But things go wrong. "The pathway to Hell is paved with good intentions" so they say.

Our Western society is based fundamentally on Christian morality - an historical fact. Other societies are often based on the morality of the indigenous religion. So our morals are indeed shaped by the society in which we work. Our society passes laws that allow that society to function. These laws will be based on the indigenous population and will adapt and evolve as that population develops and changes.

So it is that we find ourselves in a society that simply is post-Christian. The majority of people who say they are CofE do not go to church save at hatches, matches and dispatches. That is a well-known fact. It is also a fact that midweek church attendance is growing, though the effects of this are still not known. Furthermore Atheism is growing, as is agnosticism and spiritual indifference. We have other religions now which have a good claim at being called "indigenous". It's interesting to note that the majority of religions do have a submission to lawful authority. For the Christian, this is found in Hebrews xiii. "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves : for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief : for that is unprofitable for you."

The Christian view is definitely a desire to participate in society. The Christian Religion is one in which intention is absolutely central to the relationship between the individual and the divine. In the Christian ideal, there is no need for law because the desire is to do the will of God for the purpose of enjoying life with Him. That's the ideal, but we know about the fallenness of human nature. Legislation is necessary because of sin. In order to protect ourselves from the effects of sin and to make it clear that sin has consequences on the perpetrator, there has to be a code of law. St Paul really does better justice to this notion in his letter to the Romans.

For the Christian, "Christianity may not have a monopoly on morality and goodness but it does believe it has a mandate" (Bishop Damien Mead) . Human beings do not have to be Christian in order to be good, law-abiding or moral. People who hold to other religions still bring themselves to society and have value because they bear the image of God even if the do not necessarily believe that they do so. If people wish to contribute to the well being of society then that should not only be encouraged but the basis of society's fundamental tenet. If we wish to reap the benefits of belonging to society, then we must make the appropriate investment, and this is regardless of what we believe. This is the real essence of a secular society.

Secularism in its proper sense is not synonymous with atheism. Most priests in the country are secular priests as opposed to monastic priests or hieromonks as the orthodox would have them. Secular in this context means working in the common society. Secularism properly done means that those folk who wish to make an investment in society and reap its benefits are allowed to do so and those who wish to take without giving be reprimanded for doing so. The ideal is that all people of all faiths come to the council chamber to run society on an equal footing in proportion to the most common set of beliefs. Our country, having had predominant Judaeo-Christian beliefs, has laws that reflect those sets of beliefs. It has been good that laws which force people to go to church have been abolished - God, after all, wants people to seek him willingly.

At the present moment, Traditional Christianity is a minority and the law of the land have been altered to reflect that. Now this does present big problems, especially on issues that really do matter. For example, the issue of Abortion causes friction because of the beliefs of what constitutes human life. Very clearly, this is an issue in which offence can be taken readily. For the Traditional Christian, Abortion is nothing less than an unlawful killing. We have to be careful though: is it murder? is it manslaughter? How far should we consider the mother's role? What if the child is conceived because of rape? If abortion is legal, then this problem goes away, but it is still the taking of life! If we hold to the immorality of abortion, then it must make sure that the victim of rape is supported every step of the way. The problems of abortion are immense! One can make a blanket statement that Abortion is unlawful killing but the application of that can only ever be on a case-by-case basis. The issue is much easier to deal with in the small, rather than in the large.

This level of care is inherent in the ideals of Traditional Christianity, but not in its actuality. Again, this is the fallenness of humanity. The convolutions of legal and economic systems produce similarly difficult issues. The Welfare State is a case in point. The majority of failures in the welfare system are due to "red tape" or "lack of public funds". One might believe that these are a fobbing off. In fact they are more than likely to be true than due to the corruption of officials. It is the system that is flawed and needs careful re-invention. The trouble is that the system is so complicated that the slightest tweaking can cause another travesty of justice. Yes indeed, there are corrupt bankers, politicians, priests, lawyers and celebrities, yet in many cases of travesties of justice, it is the system itself, man's fallenness in the very operations that he has put together. It is right that the Church get angry at injustice and at any and every single injustice that is hurting the vulnerable. That anger needs to be put to good use.

Since all our systems are flawed, and in the reparation of those flaws become inflexible and unwieldy, we can only hope to deal with what we can seriously and definitely influence. This means starting small. The Christian system is simple in its statement, and yet has produced every political system in the West. Each has had its flaws, and its successes. It has been the size of the system that has produced the complexity which generates the injustices in society. That cannot be helped. All that can be done is for things to be done in the small, and this is where the parish church can have its strength if the laity are clued in and contributing with their peculiar abilities. A well-informed and active laity, cherished for their own wisdom, can make all the difference in the small and particular cases which the System misses.

This is not to say that the laity don't have dominant roles in the System itself. Christians should indeed seek to play a part in the System to influence it on the inside. If the Church can harness the power of the small, then the world itself can indeed be transformed by the tiniest grain of mustard seed.

Most of us can do nothing about the System itself, but our anger and frustration can indeed be motivated to making a difference, not through the blame game, but rather through active service and small acts of the best intentions governed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in properly and well-informed consciences. The Incarnation of Christ allows us to be confident that our efforts will not be in vain. We must not despise the day of small things but use our smallness to grow a new system that will not allow vulnerable individuals to slip through the net and prevent others from taking more than is their due. This is what the great priests like Fr Dolling did. It made a difference. The same is possible for all priests in their little churches as they serve their laity in their becoming lights to the world in reflection of Our Lord.

Let us remember our first duty of prayer, and keep that up.
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved , and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. (I Tim ii.1-4)

Then, when we have prayed, only then we shall repair the system and perhaps secularism will be Christian again through the choice of individuals, rather than coercion.

Friday, August 02, 2013

All priests are corrupt - The damaging implications of sweeping statements

I read with interest Fr Chadwick's post Are the Atheists Our Enemies? On similar lines, I thought it might be eye-opening to hear the views of an insider who happens to be a secularist. I present an opinion of an intelligent member of the Laity and the views that the Church must address if it is to stand any chance of being productive in the present age.
As a member of the laity I have listened to many sermons and informal comments regarding modern society that I do not agree with. At times I have had to consciously stop myself from shouting out “Are you kidding?!” and to retain decorum. Whilst one often hears statements that they disagree with, the church context is rather unusual in that the laity don’t really get a chance to respond. There is no question and answer session after a sermon and, since most members of the laity are not professional theologians, there are limited opportunities to publish disagreements or to engage the clergy in debate. I am no great intellectual and it could be that I do not deserve an opinion on sweeping statements presented by the clergy, but I can no longer resist the urge to respond to the continual attacks on capitalism and secularism. Maybe there is a rational argument behind the aggression towards capitalism and secularism but I never seem to hear it. I may just be a lay person, but I would still like to hear the reasoning behind the argument rather than just the sweeping statements. You never know, I might even understand it and change my own opinion.
I am very grateful for the opportunity of using this blog to express my concerns with some of the attitudes of the church and would like to emphasise that this is only my opinion, which I am happy to reconsider if given evidence to the contrary.

Corruption and Money

The amount of revulsion in the church directed towards the City is rather astounding. I have heard several attacks on the thieving politicians, greedy lawyers and corrupt bankers, all apparently out to swindle the innocent poor people of their hard-earned pennies.
It is interesting that the vast numbers of individuals making up these professions are all lumped together as one. Whenever people talk about the recent abuse scandals involving some priests it is always emphasised that some priests have been guilty, not all. The same eagerness to separate the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ individuals does not apply when it comes to discussing the City. Evil and corrupt systems designed by evil people to make the poor poorer. I’m no psychologist or economist but I don’t quite understand how this works, do banks have some kind of ‘evil test’ that prospective employees have to pass before being allowed to work there? Financial services is one of the UK’s key industries and for graduates heading into the world today the City is brimming with employment opportunities that are just not available in other sectors.

Maybe the clergy do not rely on these services as heavily as I recently have, but I would personally find life very difficult without bankers and lawyers. Also, whilst being very sceptical about the merits of career politicians, I really doubt that anyone chooses a career in politics for the money; a quick look at the salaries of UK politicians should tell you that anyone capable of being an MP probably has a far higher earning potential in the commercial or corporate worlds. Controversially I actually believe that politicians’ salaries should be increased so that people who work for a living can afford to be MPs without a salary sacrifice, rather than the positions being filled by those from monied backgrounds... but that’s a digression for another time.

My other half and I are currently buying a house and we could not have done it without the banking system or a solicitor. The banking system has allowed us to obtain a mortgage so that we can have a home together and the solicitor has been doing all of the paperwork that probably would have given me a nervous breakdown. I’m not pretending to understand exactly how the credit crunch was caused, but I will not be writing off the whole banking system without some reasonable evidence. Are all bankers corrupt? Is it just the commercial or investment arms of banks? Do they take sole responsibility or do other commercial organisations share the blame for the recession? I don’t know the answers but would certainly wish to be informed with a bit of substance before being asked to accept sweeping statements.  

Additionally, the income generated by those sectors is huge. As someone who is rather impecunious and therefore reliant on government-funded services (largely bankrolled by the private sector) I am hugely grateful for the corporations that generate sufficient profits to contribute significant amounts of tax towards national healthcare, defence, infrastructure and the justice system. If my perception here is completely misguided then I would welcome being informed (and would be happy to read relevant texts on the contributions of the private sector to the UK economy) but what I refuse to do is to completely dismiss these industries and the people that work in them on the basis of a sweeping statement with no reasoning behind it. Most priests would be disgusted to be implicated in child abuse because they have been ordained but some seem to write off large groups of people because of the actions of some within those groups. It doesn’t seem terribly Christian, or perceptive.


Having now sat through several sermons attacking secularism and read many similar comments from those in the church, I feel like I’m admitting a terrible secret by stating that I am a secularist. I’m a practising church member and a secularist. Is this inconsistent? Some people in the church seem to think it is.

I must admit that I had never considered secularism as the cause of society’s misery and squalor but rather the separation of the State from religious institutions to allow government and politics to function without religious bias. Secularism allows all citizens to be treated equally, irrespective of personal religious beliefs.

This does not mean that religion cannot play a part in society, but often those who oppose secularism seem to misunderstand the secularist ideal for people to practise their religions ‘privately’. Private here does not mean secretly or guilty, I have no problem with people being very open about their religious beliefs and incorporating their faith into their everyday lives. What I do object to is the State determining public policy on the basis of religious beliefs. This may have worked back when there were no options regarding which faith or denomination to follow and where worship at the Established Church was compulsory at a legal level, but this doesn’t really work in modern society.

How many Christians would be happy if a law was passed to ensure that all meat sold in the UK should be Halal? Or if all baby boys should be routinely circumcised in accordance with Jewish tradition? I’m guessing that there would be uproar, and rightly so, for we shouldn’t have to live in a society where the laws that apply to everyone are determined by the religious beliefs of a minority.

This doesn’t mean that religion will not have an influence on public policy. If, for example, 40% of MPs (who, in theory at least, are supposed to be representative of the wider population) are Roman Catholic then it is likely that their moral viewpoints will be influenced by their faith and therefore reflected in their voting. One must accept that the atheist/agnostic/humanist views would also be represented, along with those of organised religions, but considering how many agnostics/atheists/humanists there are in the UK, I personally feel that they’re probably currently underrepresented in public politics and deserve greater representation in line with democratic principles.

Despite the Church of England no longer having the stranglehold on UK faith, it is still in a very privileged position regarding its status as an Established church. I personally do not believe that this is right or democratic. My personal opinion is that religious beliefs are overrepresented in UK politics and that the resulting inequality between the established church, other churches and those of no religion causes far more contention between the groups than is desirable in a multicultural society. If religion is not entwined with the State then all can be equal under the law, which will make it far easier to respect each other’s beliefs.

What is the intention behind imposing God’s laws on society? Does God want us to blindly follow laws of a Christian nature just because they are entrenched in legislation or should Christians opt in to following the guidelines that have been set out for their benefit. I would argue that imposing Christian laws on society does not actually make it any more Christian but rather removes the freedom of choice to submit to faith. I don’t actually believe that Western societies have been historically significantly more Christian, but have rather had strong incentives to lead Christian lives. It used to be an offence to not attend church on a Sunday; society may be becoming more agnostic but one cannot also ignore the implications of incentives on the worship habits of individuals.

Some of my fellow secularists are very religious, belonging to both the Church of England and other non-established religious organisations, some couldn’t care less about religion, some are atheists and some secularists have become so after facing personal difficulties in not being able to get their child into their nearest school because they don’t go to the right church or faced similar problems. I’ve got to admit that I have particular respect for CofE secularists. I do not for one moment imagine that they are less devoted than other CofE worshippers but rather that they value democracy above their own political privilege. Should this moral objectivity be condemned by other religious people or respected? I hope that religious secularists come to be more accepted by their peers.

Most secularists are not obsessed ranting people trying to force their views onto everyone else, but people who have considered the state of society today and come to their own conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that secularism is a rational way forward to make society more cohesive. They aren’t setting out to destroy society by persecuting religious people, honestly. Sweeping statements about the evils of secularism are generally uninformed and, to be honest, not conducive to any rational debate.

The Angry Church

I am a young, female, capitalist, secularist member of the laity. Maybe I’m not the church’s target audience since I am neither a theologian nor willing to accept sweeping statements without question. However, if the church does want to attract (and keep) inquisitive members of the laity then it needs to engage with them and not just simply intellectually dismiss those who are not ordained. Whilst I understand the need to be inclusive to all, it would be nice to feel like the church was the organisational equivalent of The Sunday Times and not The Sun.

Society is made from a tapestry of individuals and it is rather sad to see so many of them written off as being morally dubious on the basis of their occupation without any clear reasoning behind the judgment. I have not lost any respect for the clergy I know personally on the basis of the actions of other priests and I hope that I would still be welcome in the church if I ever found myself working for a bank. Is it up to the clergy to decide which professions should have access to Christianity and which should not? If I were a priest who believed that bankers, lawyers and politicians were corrupt then I would focus on trying to convert them to change their wicked ways rather than condemning them outright. Fortunately I am not a member of the clergy so will not be doing any condemning.

Do I want to spend my Sunday mornings listening to unsubstantiated statements or intelligent social comment? I find the idea of an intelligent and welcoming church far more appealing than one that tells me what is good and bad without telling me why. An angry church is not a happy church. Which would you rather join?