Problematic polls and collective worship

I’ve been having an interesting Twitter conversation over the last 24 hours with a secularist about a Humanists UK poll on collective worship. As with many polls of this kind, I felt the most appropriate response was to tweet a link to this classic clip, which is what got the conversation started.

The poll is being puffed by Humanists UK, currently seeking to change the law by generating favourable publicity for a case before the courts. For a discussion of the bigger issues, see this post by Jonathan Chaplin on the always informative Law and Religion UK.

There are a number of reasons to be wary of polls, and this one triggers most if not all of my five alerts.

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Theology: training writers in obscurity?

I’ve been writing a review of a book I’m not going to identify here. It has left me reflecting on traditional English theological education. When carried out to doctoral level, it seems to train people to write for an audience of three or four: the supervisors and examiners. 

The most notable feature of the book I’ve just finished is the way the author so clearly wants me to know what he’s read, and that he has read everything relevant to the topic. Trying to follow the main line of thought through the dense thickets of citation was sometimes quite an effort. Since this book is postdoctoral work, this is simply an acquired habit.

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After redundancy

I’ve been very quiet on social media over the last few months. That has largely been because of a significant restructuring at work which led to my post being made redundant. It is a strange and disorienting experience to go through, and I didn’t feel like blogging about it while it was happening. It’s especially uncomfortable when to be made potentially jobless is also (as clergy) to be made potentially homeless. 

Nor do I intend to write much about transitioning over the summer to a newly created post focussed on lay training and discipleship development, which I have been successful in applying for. Nor do I want at present to reflect on “survivor’s guilt” and my concern for those colleagues who are now having to look elsewhere for their future employment. 

Some people may find that kind of blogging therapeutic. I don’t think I’m one of them, but it would seem dishonest not to acknowledge here something of the context in which I have been silent, and from which I am seeking to refocus. If you’re the praying sort, you might remember those in my workplace who are still struggling, alongside all those in the wider economy who are in the same boat.

However, I do think the new role means I’ll be doing some fresh thinking, and I hope to do some of that thinking out loud on this blog in ways I haven’t for some time. I’ve therefore refreshed things slightly, in preparation for a return to more active blogging. 

Mainly I’ve moved the title down to being a subtitle, and stolen a new title from one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It comes from his sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire”.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme; 
 as tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
 stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
 deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
 selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
crying Whát I do is me: for that I came. 

Í say móre: the just man justices; 
 kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
 Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
 to the Father through the features of men’s faces. 

Geracrd Manley Hopkins

The octave looks at how each creature reveals God’s glory by being itself; the sestet suggests a greater human vocation, made possible by God’s assumption of humanity in Christ. 

We share a call to contributing to the richness of creation by being ourselves as all creatures do (“Whát I do is me: for that I came”).  Beyond that we have a call to see and receive (and to be and offer) the richness of God’s grace and gift in the richness of human life and action. The sheer diversity of humanity when ordered towards justice and generosity participates in, reveals, and revels in, the beauty and love of God.

It’s not unrelated to the experience of redundancy and restructuring. I have been sustained by the care-full approach taken by diocesan management, in the shared experience of colleagues going through restructuring, and through the support and love of friends both Christian and non-Christian.

My Christian friends may be more comfortable with the thought that they have been God’s gifts to me more than my non-Christian ones, but I need to acknowledge the diversity of people through whom, and ways in which, I have been sustained through upheaval and fragility. God’s variegated grace in these wonderfully diverse relationships is one part of Hopkins’ meaning for me when he says “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” It is in humanity that God is to be freshly valued. It is in God that humanity is to be newly appreciated.

The C of E Brexit allegation

Cathy Newman’s rather unsatisfactory interview with Justin Welby on Friday early on repeated the not-entirely true “Pollsters say the majority of Anglican churchgoers voted to leave.”

The polling data from the British Election Study (BES) might more carefully be described as saying: those who identified in a poll as Church of England/Anglican/Episcopalian voted 60% to 40% to leave. Figures from British Religion in Numbers, whose graph I reproduce below.

I am not entirely sure these two statements are the same thing.

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A Tanzanian Gallery

I’ve been having a fairly ruthless sort and cull of the photos I brought back from my recent visit to Tanzania – to our partners and friends in the diocese of Morogoro. Here are some of my favourites. I hope you enjoy them too. (Click on any image to enlarge and enter the gallery at that point.)

Bracketing out the sermon?

I find myself increasingly of the opinion that the sign of the cross is a bad way to begin a sermon, and ever more dubious whether a prayer before preaching is much better. I mean this most specifically in the context of the eucharist, and I suppose I’d better say why.

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Candlemas musings

I’ve been pondering a few random thoughts on my way towards a sermon for Sunday.

The Presentation, Fra Angelico 1433-34
Tempera on wood, Museo Diocesano, Cortona

Luke includes three episodes in the life of young Jesus: circumcision, presentation and holding a seminar in the temple at the age of twelve. The first two get a festival, the last gets no liturgical commemoration. Why?

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Brother or believer?

Overall, I like the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. It often combines freshness of language with the King James tradition, and generally does a good job of gender inclusive language about people. But in morning prayer this morning I found myself questioning its gender inclusive choice.

The bema at Corinth – where law cases could be heard
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That’s more like an apology

Last week I outlined the sorts of thing that I don’t think work as arguments for or defences of Christian faith. Today I want to look at some of the things I hold to be more helpful.

Francis Spufford, writer of the excellent Unapologetic (photo credit: James Atkinson)

First, there are those positive accounts people give of why they believe what they believe, and how it makes sense to them. Francis Spufford’s 2012 book Unapologetic is one of the best of these to have been published recently. That doesn’t mean everyone will like it, or that all readers will find it persuasive. It does mean it comes across honestly, personally and thoughtfully, and shows how Spufford sets out the case for what he believes is a reasoned and reasonable response to reality, which also offers wisdom for living in and with that reality.

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Would I call that an apology?

I have been known to use the word “apologetic” (an adjective normally describing works that defend the Christian faith) as an insult. Sometimes, in a piece of academic work, the argument is remarkably unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t share the writer’s presuppositions. To anyone else it looks like, at best, special pleading. Instead of a work of scholarship investigating, say, the early history of the gospels, it comes across as a work of apologetic, trying to make a case that the writer’s view is defensible, but only able to persuade those who already hold that viewpoint.

C. S. Lewis, still the most widely read apologist, over 50 years after his death.

Such writers do have their counterparts on the other side of the argument. I also find myself reading people who, rather than offering a scholarly investigation (again as an example) into the early history of the gospels, seem more keen to construct or stress interpretations of the evidence that are incompatible with traditional Christian faith, than to give a good historical accounting of the complex detail.

(I should add a plug here for History for Atheists, a blog by Tim O’Neill – himself an atheist – doing his best to keep atheist readings of history and Christianity honest.)

Those are not the apologetics I’m looking for.

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