Breaks-it and The Fragile English Ego

This very perceptive article by the Dutch writer, Joris Luyendijk, who is abandoning England, recently appeared: How I learnt to loathe England. It immediately suggested to me posting something I wrote in June 2016 just after the Referendum.

In the summer of 1986, when radioactive particles from the recent Chernobyl disaster were reputed to be sweeping across the mainland of Europe, I attended an international workshop on computational lexicography in the pleasant Italian resort of Grosseto. There were probably about fifty of us: Italians (of course), Americans, British, French, Germans, and so on, many of whom knew each other from past conferences and symposiums in what was then a new and burgeoning field of research.

It was a memorable few days for several reasons. The organizers had chartered the whole hotel where the workshop was held, so we had it to ourselves. The weather was sunny and swelteringly hot, and each day we sweated our way through presentations (OHPs—no PowerPoint back then) and discussions.

Mealtimes were exciting, as there was no menu—course after course arrived, but you never knew, if you skipped one, whether you had missed the main course and would be faced by dessert after having had only soup. But as the week wore on, there were fewer courses, so you had to adopt a less risky approach.

One of the delegates was a former Soviet citizen, who regaled us with stories of how he’d been trained in the Army of the USSR to invade specific targets in western Europe. As an émigré settled in the US, he painted the grimmest picture. Somehow, what with Chernobyl, this had us quite scared. We had no idea that the end of the USSR would come within a few years.

Anyway, towards the end of the workshop there was a dinner and a party with various entertainments, and everyone relaxed and had fun.  Then came a suggestion. Let’s have each national group sing a song from their own country. This was greeted enthusiastically by the majority. Most groups set to with alacrity, if with varying degrees of musical proficiency. Some performers produced instruments to accompany themselves with. We had Italian folk songs, Spanish folk songs, probably even Russian folk songs. The Americans came up with something, maybe Stars and Stripes Forever (I can’t remember). A Frenchman, or perhaps it was a French Canadian, got us all to join in Alouette, gentille Alouette, which, as you may know, is one of those incremental songs where you add a bit on each time round. A very plucky Scotsman, with great verve and confidence, sang a heart-rending Scots ballad solo.

At last the British, or rather, the English (since Tom the Mac had done his bit), were called upon. We were one of the largest contingents, a dozen or more. I looked round and saw a row of my compatriots, nervously swigging from their wine glasses and shrinking into their shoes at the very back of the room. They looked white and trembly. They couldn’t think of an English song. Or not one everybody knew. They didn’t think they could sing anything. Could they perhaps be excused?

I’m not a natural leader but I must say I was ashamed at my countrymen’s pusillanimity. For heaven’s sake, I said, surely we can do something? I thought of the last night of the Proms. Come on, we can manage a verse of Jerusalem! So, in a wavery, And-did-the-something-something-someth-upon England’s-something-someth sort of way, we performed it. To an incredulous crowd of foreigners who couldn’t imagine that English folk songs could sound like this.

I’m telling this story because just possibly—and I may be quite wrong—it says something about the English character, or perhaps English culture. As a group, we’re sometimes not very keen on joining in. We feel self-conscious about dropping our reserve and surrendering our autonomy to a bigger community. We’re afraid that we might lose our fragile identity in the crowd. We’re not sure we’d like it. Or, we have tried it but we didn’t really enjoy it.

And I wonder if, in the last analysis, this—not, ideological, political, or even economic factors, and not xenophobia or racism—is what underlies the draw of Brexit.

Dystoxit. A Nightmare of the Near Future

A bit of black humour that I wrote in September 2016. You can tell it was before November from the invented name of the US President.

Q. So how on earth did this country get into such a pickle in such a short time?

A. Are you the only person who doesn’t know what’s been going on? Where’ve you been? Planet Zog?

Q. Well, in a way! I’ve just come back from the orbiting space platform: we have to agree to a political news blackout before we go up.

A. Good grief… Then I’d better fill you in… How did it start? Well, with good intentions, at least I think so. The Prime Minister, Amy Ashtree, invoked Article 50 and got her top brains working hard, negotiating the new deal for Britain. But the negotiations dragged on and on for ages, and nothing much leaked out, and everybody became restless. We all wanted something quick and clearcut, so that we could get on with life. But eventually the PM reported back to the country that the thing couldn’t be done and wasn’t going to be. My private belief is that this might have been her ingenious plan all along—to show people that, desirable or not, unravelling our European ties was literally impossible.

Anyway, it enraged the extreme Brexiteers. The official UKIP though vocal were ineffective. However, one of their leaders, Reg I. Falange, had all this time been building up a sort of corps of activists (who soon got called the Falangists). They began to demonstrate and march—and attack immigrants. EU migrants were still entering the country because no final deal had been done on free movement, so the Falangists were on the warpath.

This was bad enough, but the trouble was that the other half of Brexit hadn’t been sorted either: we’d lost our free trade agreements and the price of everything, especially food, went shooting up. (You know we only have a few days’ supply of food in this country? Nearly all of it comes from abroad.) There was real hardship. The number of people needing foodbanks rocketed, and the foodbanks couldn’t cope. There was a popular movement called the Jermynites—followers of Bryce O. Jermyn, who’d all been expelled from the Labour party. They took up the cudgels on behalf of people struggling with poverty, disability, and unemployment, and they too began to demonstrate and march.

It was just at this moment that the government finally completed the privatization of the NHS. This was the last straw for the Jermynites, who became very assertive, coordinating strikes, occupying public buildings, putting up barricades, and so on. Of course, there were EU immigrants in their ranks and these soon became a target for the Falangists. The result: pitched battles on the streets, violence, murders. We had a three-sided fight: Falangists, Jermynites, and the Government all at odds.

The Government tried to pull together a sort of Centrist Alliance with the support of the official parties, but it didn’t stop the violence. Then wham! there was a terrorist outrage in London. It was more spectacular than harmful—not all that many died—but there was a lot of destruction. Suddenly we saw armed police everywhere. And soldiers. And when the Falangists and Jermynites became violent, they were fired on. And more frightening still, some of them were armed, and they fired back. It was like Syria: three-way battles in the streets.

Q. But it seems calm enough now?

A. On the surface! Only because of the American intervention!

Q. The what?

A. Well, you can imagine the consternation all this caused in the United States: unprecedented civil war in Britain, the pillar of democracy and so on! But what a gift to a new President a successful intervention would be. Obviously the Americans have always had a military contingency plan in case the UK should ever get out of line, so all Trinton Clump had to do was invoke the plan and, bingo, in a week, this country had been secured from air, sea, and land.  Westminster now answers to Washington (rather that than Brussels, some would say!), and armed US troops control the streets. I think they’ll impose a trade agreement on us—one that suits them, presumably.

Q. And what did the Christians do in all this?

A. The Anglican bishops were rather surprised. They’d been quietly reflecting on human sexuality. Actually most of the churches had been thinking that sex or gender in some form was the major problem of the day, so they hadn’t been very focused on the realities.  To be fair, when things got bad, many Christians protested, against Government cuts, against Falangist hate crimes, against Jermynite lawlessness, and latterly against the US crackdown on everyone. They all ended up in the cells. Often with unexpected companions: atheists, secularists, feminists, Muslims, gays. There was no distinction.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the terrorist target was Westminster Abbey. As a result, all churches—indeed all religious meeting places—have been closed ‘for their own safety’. So church life is a bit disrupted, as you can imagine.

Josephsson’s Galilean Economics

From a 1906 article purportedly written by “A Member of the Settlement for the Neglected Rich”. It is a kind of spoof, the point being that the billionaire is the ordinary person who participates in the rich resources that are available to the whole community.

“Do not quote me as saying anything against money or the men who have the capacity for getting it. When society is somewhat better constructed, we shall have more money, not less; and perhaps it will be better distributed. But the great advantage of my form of bookkeeping and of estimating values is that a man can be a billionaire on a very small amount of money.” 

As I took up my hat to leave I cast a glance at a few shelves of books which the billionaire had in his counting-room. They were most of them devoted to political and social economy. 

“I am not tied up,” he remarked, “to any particular school of political or social economy. A man who becomes a doctrinaire in this comparatively unexplored field is soon lost in a maze of crude technicalities, and may become a Philistine before he gets through. But I should be ungrateful not to acknowledge my indebtedness to this volume.” 

He took down a little book, with a title neatly lettered in his own hand: “Josephsson’s Galilean Economics.” 

“It is based on the gold standard, you see: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Some of its fundamental principles are: To him that hath shall be given. That is a recognition of the capacity of the individual to enrich his own personality. Every treasure which he has secured only makes it easier to secure something still higher and better. 

“Other principles are: A man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things he possesseth. 

What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? 

He that loseth his life shall find it. 

“It is a book of parables and precepts. The principle of reciprocity on which its social economy is based is well enunciated by one of the followers of Josephsson: Let every man bear his own burden. That is a recognition of individual duty. And then there is the reciprocal principle: 

Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ. 

“A man who follows Josephsson,” said the billionaire, as he took my hand, “has laid up his treasures where moth doth not corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal. 

—“An Interview with a Billionaire”, Pennsylvania School Jrnl. (1906) July 10/1

By whom do your sons cast them out?

John Shelby Spong, Biblical Literalism: a Gentile Heresy (2016: HarperCollins paperback 2017)
ISBN 978-0-06-236231-5

I came upon this fascinating book in the Durham Cathedral bookshop last week. I was immediately struck by the feeling that Bishop Spong has something important to say to the Church. I was glad to read of his enthusiasm for J. A. T. Robinson, whom I also greatly admire, though not uncritically. The thesis of the book is ingenious; it is a gripping read. Yet gradually as I read on I came to feel, regretfully, that it made some doubtful assumptions, polarized the options too starkly, and let go of too much that really matters.

What is striking about this book.

Its theory that the various sections of Matthew’s Gospel, in sequence, can be directly related to the sequential observances of the Jewish liturgical calendar; that Mark’s Gospel can be related to half the Jewish year, but Matthew completes the coverage of the whole year.

That each Jewish liturgical season incorporates stories, personalities, and images from particular parts of the Hebrew Bible, and that these were incorporated into Matthew’s Gospel to form the nucleus of each of the stories associated with the life of Jesus.

That much of what has generally been assumed to be part of an eyewitness account of Jesus’s deeds and words is in fact haggadah—mythic narrative designed to teach truths about life centred on Jesus—derived from these passages of the Hebrew Bible.

That the early Church in which this process took place was still intensely Jewish, still observing the Jewish liturgical year, and fully cognizant of the haggadic nature of these liturgically motivated Gospel narratives.

That when the Church became fully Gentile, this understanding was lost; the haggada was taken to be literal eyewitness truth; the stories came to be understood as factual, with all their miraculous and supernatural elements, and the teaching came to be regarded as a word of mouth tradition stretching directly back to Jesus himself.

That thus arose the ‘heresy’ of ‘literalism’, the tendency to interpret the Bible literally, which has led to numerous evils such as antisemitism, racism, the persecution of dissent, the suppression of scientific understanding, and modern fundamentalism.

What is problematic about this book.

‘Literalism’ is a very broad brush. It is laudable that the author denounces the various inhumane evils which Christians have all too often promoted on the basis of their reading of Scripture. It is laudable in particular to denounce modern fundamentalism and to expose its shaky Biblical and ethical basis. But this is to polarize matters too far. Actually ‘literalism’ is an unhelpful way to view such Christian deviations. It is arguable that fundamentalism and its kindred abuses are actually not literalist enough. Fundamentalists and their ilk might be better labelled ‘selectivists’, because they all tend to select certain aspects, or passages, or verbal interpretations of the Bible as their declared basis while ignoring others that are not supportive. They tend to derive the conservative sociopolitical tenets which they favour from their prevailing culture and then seek a basis for them in the Bible; they do not (despite their protestations) simply let the Bible speak for itself. Spong himself gives us a very creditable demonstration of true ‘literalism’ when he makes a comprehensive survey of the resurrection stories one by one, letting each speak for itself without importing assumptions from any of the others or from Christian tradition. Modern scholarship, when it examines the biblical text literally, in terms of the known meanings of words and the known cultural background, is true literalism. So it would be better to label this misreading of Gospel haggada, which John Spong posits, as ‘historification’, i.e. taking mythical teaching stories as history: the fundamental difference being not the giving to each word a literal understanding, but the attribution of actual occurrence in the past to a story which is in reality a literary production.

There is a problem with the idea that the shift from haggadic to historical understanding occurred when the Church became fully Gentile. The theory is that the Jewish Christians fully understood the true haggadic, i.e. mythic, nature of the Gospel pericopes, because this was a natural and normal Jewish mode of thought. We know that Jewish ways of thinking have traditionally been passed on by the intensive teaching of the younger generation. Such training would presumably have continued as Gentiles began to join the Church. We know that Gentiles underwent rigorous catechesis before they became full members of the Church, so presumably they would have been inculcated with this traditional Jewish teaching regarding the haggadic/mythic understanding of the Gospels. In any case it would have been natural for them to adopt such an understanding, since Gentile religion was essentially mythical. The major difficulty for the Jewish Christians would surely have been the opposite: convincing Gentile converts that there was a historical element in Christianity and that Jesus wasn’t merely another mythical figure. And then these Gentile Christians, not knowing of any alternative practice, would surely have passed this mode of interpretation on to their successors. Why should they suddenly have switched to a ‘historifying’ approach to the Gospels just because the originally Jewish members of the Church had died out?

Another problem about this hypothetical change in outlook is that it seems to require that the Gentile Christians lost their understanding of the direct links between ‘events’ in the Gospel story and ‘events’ in the Hebrew Scriptures. It needs them to have become unaware that a given item in a Gospel story was actually a symbol derived from a Hebrew forerunner. But surely the documentary record shows us, even in the very earliest exegesis, an exaggerated keenness on the part of theologians to interpret the ‘New’ Testament in the light of the ‘Old’? From early on, items in the Hebrew Scriptures were linked up (as ‘types’) to items in the New Testament (as ‘antitypes’). But both seem to have always been seen, not as mythical or symbolic, but as historical and factual. Rightly or wrongly, they thought from very early times that God had caused certain things to happen in Hebrew history in order to act as pointers forward to the Christian dispensation. It doesn’t look as if these links were ever forgotten, as haggada, and then rediscovered, as factual, but it does look as if both ends of the link were always understood historically, i.e., in the opposite way to that suggested in this book.

Another problematic aspect of the book is that it appears to strip the historical element of Christianity down to a very meagre core. It’s not entirely clear what that core is, but it seems to be roughly commensurate with the few facts that we can glean from the genuine letters of Paul. That may be enough to survive on, but it would be interesting to see how the quite elaborate picture of Jesus, albeit entirely mythical and haggadic according to this book, came into being, if that was all there was to start with; it makes one think of the story of the person who claimed he could make soup with just a stone and boiling water. The essence of Christianity, stripped of its literalized haggada, that we glimpse in this book, seems etiolated, reminiscent of Higher Thought, and without even the transformative power of Buddhism—but that may be a false impression, since it is not fully set forth.

Another problem in the book is that it seems to attribute most of what is significant and original in the Gospels to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, or whoever actually penned the books named after them. On this book’s thesis, the spiritual genius that has forcibly impressed itself on generations of readers has been mistakenly attributed to the historical Jesus and is now shown to belong to these unknown writers. If we accepted this thesis, but still wished to reverence and obey Gospel teachings as having a divine origin, we would have to attribute their inspiration to three isolated anonymous writers who, decades after the events they were mythically portraying, somehow came to be possessed of ‘the mind of Christ’. We would have to postulate that the historical Jesus said and did very little that we can know, while a few followers of his, half a century or so later, stumbled upon a set of doctrines that God wanted believers to receive as having Jesus’s seal of approval. I would say that this would actually be quite a step of faith for the modern sceptic whom John Spong is keen to win over.

One of the doctrines that John Spong very laudably wants to banish is that of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. But I don’t think that his hypothesized ‘historification’ of the haggadic Gospel stories has much to do with the development of that doctrine. The trouble is that Spong is so incensed at inhumane doctrines of this kind that, as I’ve already said, he polarizes things. He offers only one alternative to PSA, what seems a rather watery humanistic understanding of the meaning of the Cross. But there are other alternatives. As I read it, the New Testament writers say that Christ’s death has a transformative effect on human lives, tangible and measurable. If we take a ‘literalist’ approach in the sense defined above, and engage in close reading of the New Testament passages about the Messiah’s death, we encounter a consistently structured and expressed pattern, albeit one that is difficult to interpret fully. Importantly, it is a pattern totally unlike the doctrine of PSA. The scenario of the latter envisages God as angry and prepared to condemn humankind to destruction, Humanity as in a state of sinfulness and guilt, and Christ as the Mediator who takes the punishment in their place so as to enable God to forgive them. It is a courtroom metaphor with a judge, a condemned criminal, and an uneffaceable guilty verdict; though courts don’t usually direct someone else to be punished in the place of the real criminal. The picture that I encounter in the New Testament is quite unlike this. Its scenario depicts a merciful God who has no difficulty in forgiving human beings or in being at peace with them. His problem lies in getting them out of their state of alienation and slavery to evil, getting them to be reconciled to him. Christ by his death and resurrection somehow rescues (redeems or ransoms) humankind out of this state of sin and enmity towards God. The adversary to be dealt with is entirely different in each scenario. In PSA it is, ultimately, God’s antipathy, which Christ takes on himself. In the New Testament it is our subjection to sin and antipathy to the goodness of God, which Christ by his death somehow carries away. I do not profess to know how Christ does this, but I do know that his essential ministry is to reconcile us to God, not God to us; because we, not God, are the implacable party. And unlike PSA, which posits a state of forensic guiltiness in us that we cannot existentially experience, the New Testament doctrine presents a state of subjection to inner evil with which even the most hardened sceptic should be able to identify.

The polarizing tendency emerges again in John Spong’s discussion of the resurrection. As has already been said, he does a great job of what I would call ‘literalist’ exposition on the various treatments of the resurrection. But in his desire to make the Gospels less incredible, Spong goes for extremes. He represents the ‘literalist’ position as a form of resuscitation: the body that had died and decayed being restored to life. But it is plain for all to see who read the New Testament literally that Jesus’s resurrection is not presented as a mere reversal of his death. He is obviously not imagined as returning to a quotidian terrestrial life. He does not reside in a back street of Jerusalem during the forty-day period of his appearances. When he ‘appears’, he is presented as ‘coming’ from some quite different plane of existence about which we know very little, a plane ‘occupied’ also by those who attain the resurrection, both past saints like Moses and Elijah and present and future ones. It seems as if John Spong’s desire to make the Gospels less incredible is based on a rather nineteenth-century concept of the scientific. For him, matter seems to be very real and ‘hard’; spirit is diaphanous and insubstantial. The resurrection appearances get described by New Testament writers in progressively more ‘solid’ and therefore, he thinks, more far-fetched terms. But it’s not as if the problem of understanding these appearances is a new one. John Spong seems relatively happy with Paul’s idea of the resurrection body as something completely Other. But if it is totally Other, why should it not be both able to pass through walls and digest fish? We ourselves are constantly but unconsciously penetrated by showers of particles from outer space and they are matter as much as we are.

Behind the book there is evidently an urgent agenda of banishing the miraculous and supernatural elements from the Christian faith, which are felt to be incredible and a stumbling block to today’s person. But reinterpreting the miracle stories in the Gospels as mythical and haggadic will not be enough to achieve that end. The book of Acts, for a start, is full of miracles: those in the early chapters can perhaps be assigned to a mythic period in the Church’s infancy, way beyond the memory of anyone whom Luke might have been able to interview. But the miracles go on into the ‘we’ passages when Luke claims to have been travelling with Paul (think Eutychus, Agabus, and the seven sons of Sceva). We will have to turn the whole of Acts into haggada to purge out the miraculous. And then there are the reliably Pauline letters. In these too we encounter both references to, and expectation of, miraculous occurrences (‘Does God work miracles among you because you observe the Law?’). From the Apostolic Fathers, through the later documents of the church, and throughout Christian history, miracles have been constantly reported, right down to the present day. Perhaps the only church luminaries not associated with miracles are the gloomy, literal-minded Reformers. The Wesleyan movement saw signs and wonders, and we hardly need to mention the modern Charismatic movement. Padre Pio’s life is an unshakeable testimony to the occurrence of miracles in the last century. Even if we could disprove thousands of these stories as deception or delusion, thousands more would press forward supported by hosts of eyewitnesses. And, as Jesus himself is supposed to have pointed out, what about the first-century Jewish miracle workers? They had no axe to grind on Jesus’s behalf, but they wandered round Palestine healing just as he is supposed to have done. Therefore shall they, we might say, be your judges. We are stuck with a Judaeo-Christian tradition of miracles, and it would be strange if the Founder had neither performed nor envisaged them!

Finally, the thesis of the book is quite heavily dependent on a documentary theory of the Gospels. To my delight, the author rejects the hypothesis that a document Q existed and was used by Matthew and Luke to expand Mark. However, he thinks that there is a straight-line literary transmission, with Matthew expanding Mark and Luke adapting Matthew, and that the bits of evidence that make it appear that Luke was at least partly independent of Matthew can be otherwise explained. But despite the near consensus of modern scholarship on a documentary transmission, with Mark at the head of the tree, and with or without Q, it is thinkable that nothing like this happened at all. It is still possible that the Gospel pericopes began as eyewitness accounts and were repeated by older faithful witnesses to younger faithful disciples, who passed them on in turn; that there were numerous such oral channels of transmission; that Matthew, Mark, and Luke represent just three of these channels which happened to issue in independent written documents; and that once these three Gospels began to circulate in written form the other oral traditions came to an end. This is not a widely accepted view, but it ought to be argued for. When the pericopes that are shared between the three Gospels are compared, the differences are not necessarily best explained as Matthew and Luke making alterations to Mark. These pericopes could as well be regarded as instances of oral literature, transmitted very much as funny stories are nowadays: the general outline of the narrative can be and inevitably is altered as the story is passed around. But just as the punch line of a joke has to be kept almost word for word unchanged for it to make any sense, so the key lines within each pericope are, generally speaking, identical.

Such a non-documentary theory of the Gospel stories would be very much in line with what we know of the transmission of teaching in ancient times. And it offers hope to those who would like to see some historical content in the Gospels. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t exclude human agency and errancy. Just as the Pauline letters come from a fallible human being and have been subject to the changes and chances of time (so that, for example, 1 and 2 Corinthians were probably patched together from three or four letters), so we can allow for human beings retelling the Gospel stories according to familiar patterns and leaving out or adding minor details. It also leaves room for a degree of organizing and tidying at the end of each line of oral transmission. There’s no reason why the set of stories transmitted down the channel that issued in ‘Matthew’ shouldn’t have been organized according to the Jewish liturgical year. However I would suspect that such an activity is unlikely to have been conducted all at once by a single individual: I’d guess it was more likely a process carried out gradually by that particular church over a period of time. This of course still leaves unsettled the very important question of how much in the individual narratives was simply borrowed from parallel stories in the Hebrew Scriptures and never really happened in real time. There is no space to examine this question properly here. Suffice it to say that some of John Spong’s haggadic interpretations of stories in the Gospels are more convincing than others; the birth narratives, for example, are relatively promising candidates. To take just one instance: the idea that Joseph, the husband of Mary, is a haggadic Joseph derived from Genesis, directed by God in dreams to protect the infant Messiah by migrating to Egypt, as Joseph in Genesis protected the infant nation of Israel, is rather compelling. It doesn’t account for everything in the story, and I dare say that second-century exegetes would have drawn the same parallel in reverse, with the Hebrew Joseph interpreted as a type of the true Joseph to come.


Not long before my friend YZ left St X’s Church, the Vicar of St X’s called the Parochial Church Council to an Away Day. YZ being a PCC member duly went along. The subject for consideration was the planned Development Programme, by which the interior of the church building is to be remodelled. The Vicar’s plan for the meeting was for the PCC to do some Bible study in order to establish the spiritual basis of the project. 

A laudable aim, if one overlooks the fact that the PCC had previously determined that the agenda would focus on discussion of the programme itself. Leaving this point aside, I’d like to consider the Vicar’s choice of Bible passage.

The passage before them was from the Gospel of John, chapter 13, verses 1 to 17 and 31 to 35. It is a familiar story to Christians: at the Last Supper, Jesus lays aside his outer garment, takes water and a towel, and washes the feet of his disciples. Peter protests but is told that he must accept; he then asks for an all-over wash, but is told that there is no need for this. Jesus returns to the table and talks about the significance of the action.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (New International Version)

There is a very well established teaching here. Washing the feet of others is service of the most basic kind; and if Christ was prepared to do this for his disciples, how much more should we disciples undertake such service to one another (and by implication, the rest of the world).

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

So the basis of Christian endeavour (and in the specific instance, St X’s Development Project) is Christ’s command to love others in a sacrificial way. All well and good.

We are to show love to others in order to demonstrate in a small way the reality of God’s love, which is on a far grander scale. If we really carry out this sacrificial service, people will be able to see love. They will be able to say, ‘look at their love, shown by the things they are doing.’ In this there is a kind of parallelism: ‘as little a is to little b, so big A is to big B’. ‘As our love is shown by our deeds, so God’s Love is shown by something else.’ The question is, by what?

Now here is the problem YZ has with his Vicar’s theology. He constantly preaches about God’s Love and tells his congregation that knowing it will transform their lives. Naturally he thinks that they can help to reveal it through the outcome of their Development Project. But he never explains how it works. What action does God do that shows his Love, in a parallel way to our washing each other’s feet, and in a parallel way to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples?

Well, if we examine John chapter 13, we can see that the story is in two parts. Part 2 is all about us washing each other’s feet, and about our actions revealing love, the teaching which that Away Day homed in on. But part 1 is about something else. Part 1 is, like many other stories in John’s Gospel, a sign. It’s an enacted parable. Jesus leaves the place of ease at the table, divests himself of his comfortable outer garments, and takes on the role of a servant. With water he removes dirt from the disciples’ feet. He then returns to his place. When Peter objects to the footwashing, Jesus says:

You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.

He can’t be talking about the command he is about to give them almost immediately to wash one another’s feet: that is neither ‘later’ nor hard to understand. It refers to something they will only understand after Jesus’s death and resurrection. When Peter continues to object, Jesus states:

Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.

I think it is reasonably clear that this is about Redemption. The taking away of the dirt recalls the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. And the link between Jesus’s servant role as redeemer and our servant role as disciples made here by St John  is pretty much the same link as that made by St Paul in Philippians chapter 2, verses 6 ff.:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
The story we are considering makes it abundantly clear what St John thinks God’s Love consists in. It is not just the gift of a feeling of confidence. No, it is more practical than that. 

The message that John believed, true or not, is that through Christ God does something tangible for us. Just as Jesus removed the dirt from their feet, so he can remove the dirt, or  ‘sin’ from our lives. But I do not think ‘sin’ means our status as condemned criminals facing the Wrath of the Judge in the heavenly courtroom. That is not a problem that ordinary people experience, and, as far as I can tell from the New Testament, it is a problem constructed by later theologians, without much scriptural support. The problem, as all the New Testament writers present it, is our warped nature: the thoughts, words, and actions, towards ourselves and others, that ruin our lives, defile us, and ultimately kill us. They are real. We can see their effects all round us every minute of every day. The claim of all these writers is that Jesus, as redeemer, can actually and in ‘real time’ remove the things we hate in ourselves (and in others) and change us.

I say ‘can’. It doesn’t happen automatically. It doesn’t happen just because you profess a Christian faith: we can all see that. If it happens at all, it must have to be sought for and worked on. But it seems to me a good message to pass on. It is relevant and it is concrete. It can be tried out. If people try it and it doesn’t seem to work for them, that is a pity, and they can call us names for giving them false hopes. 

But if Christians think it’s true and think that they experience it, it’s what they should be offering: a message about the potential for personal change here and now. Along with the metaphorical foot-washing, the service to others (with or without a church development project), it’s what they should be offering. Not rules, not laws, not judgement, not rejection of people who look different or live differently, not pious hopes, not nebulous well-being, not pie in the sky. And I say offer: not enforce, not preach, not ram down people’s throats, not even argue for. No one should be made to have their feet washed.

Two Cheers for Martin Luther

Five hundred years of separation is enough. If the quincentenary of the start of the Reformation is to be put to any use, it should be to bury the disastrous hostilities and recriminations that have riven the robe of Christ for all that time, and which are such a scandal to the non-Christian world.
I say ‘the robe of Christ’ because I truly believe that the Body of Christ cannot be torn apart—how could it be, being a temple built by God, not made with human hands? This is the ultimate tragedy of Christian disunity: it is all an illusion. In reality, in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the eyes of God, we Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Methodists, Brethren, Quakers, Independents of all shades—all who profess the name of Christ—we are all one Body, whether we like our fellow-members or not, whether we believe them to be genuine or not, whether we label them as heretics or not.

Tearing Christ’s robe in this way, to my mind, is the great ecclesiastical sin. I’m sorry, but I refuse to accept that, when different groups of Christians have formulated different statements about a doctrine, just one of those statements is precisely right in the eyes of God, and every group that holds to a different statement is heretical, disqualified from salvation, and denied entry to God’s Kingdom. I don’t think churches, or individuals, are going to be held to account or damned for getting a factual statement about God or even a rule of Christian behaviour wrong. But I do think that Christians who separate themselves from other Christians, who criticize and judge them for their statements of faith and their teachings, who wage a war of words or weapons with them, who vilify and condemn them and kill them—they, I do think, will answer to God for their treatment of people who are brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow-members of his Body.

And that’s why I don’t give the full three cheers for Martin Luther, 1517. Of course, there had been schisms before his time. The split between the Western and Eastern churches was the first great disaster of this kind. There’s bound to have been wrong on both sides, but it’s instructive that the Western Church has flourished, whereas the Eastern churches have declined and are now vanishing from the original homeland of Christianity. But to Luther belongs the dubious distinction of bringing about a church-wide schism single-handedly by dint of his own dogged (or pig-headed?) adherence to what he thought was right. Not only that, but he bequeathed a strain of schismatic DNA to his whole Protestant progeny, causing it to go on reproducing schism within itself, generation after generation, century after century, right down to the present day. He effectively taught his spiritual descendants ‘read the Scriptures and if that makes you disagree with anything that your church teaches, walk away and start a new church—and call it the true church’. So that is my first reason for not cheering whole-heartedly for Martin Luther, 1517.

My second reason is that Luther misrepresented the teaching of St Paul; with destructive consequences. Luther’s exaltation of ‘justification by faith’ (set out in only two of the Pauline epistles) over everything else that St Paul taught represents Luther’s inner spiritual struggle projected on to a scriptural canvas. Luther, in despair of ever being good enough through carrying out ‘works’, discovered the wonderful truth of salvation through faith. He thought that Judaism, out of which St Paul emerged, was a religion of ‘works’. But in fact it wasn’t, and Paul never said it was. He opposed the adoption of Jewish ritual practices by Gentile Christians; he never relaxed the requirement for moral goodness—how could he? Luther pushed Christian teaching about the Atonement, which was already badly out of kilter in late medieval Catholicism, further into the realm of the courtroom. The New Testament doctrine is well summarized in St Paul’s statement that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. Protestantism developed the idea of the vengeful Judge who can only pardon an offender by having the just requirement of his law satisfied by the death of his Son: effectively this means that Christ was reconciling God to the world. How could Paul have held such a belief, having grown up reciting the ubiquitous verses in the Psalms and Prophets about God’s mercy and readiness to forgive? How can anyone who has assimilated the Parable of the Prodigal Father doubt that the problem of atonement lies not in God’s unwillingness to forgive, but in humankind’s unwillingness to change? But in the light of my first point about toleration, anyone who wants to can of course cling on to the courtroom image of salvation if it really helps them. For me, the battle for virtue against vice calls for a saviour who deals with our human propensity to commit sin and enables us grow into his likeness.

My third reason for giving only two cheers for Martin Luther, 1517, is simply that Luther was not a saint. If someone is going to lead thousands of Christians along a new and blessed spiritual path, I expect that person to show signs of sanctity and Christlikeness. Please don’t remind me that no one is perfect. The fact is, there have been saints throughout Christian history who have been palpably holy, and many of them have had the power, through personal contact, to change people’s lives, physically and spiritually. Generally speaking such people have not usually persuaded secular rulers to favour their movements and to take up arms against those who opposed them. Many of them have cared deeply and sacrificially for the lowliest members of society. Nor have they been foul-mouthed and judgemental. Luther’s attitudes to the rebellious peasants, and to Jews, are too well-known to need repeating. It might have been a good idea if after receiving his revelation about justification by faith, Luther had spent several years developing his personal sanctity, taking the log out of his own eye before he set about removing the admittedly large amount of timber from the eyes of the church leadership.

My fourth reason. Luther’s revolt against the Catholic Church gave a massive boost to secular ways of thinking. In some ways, of course, this was a good thing. People coming to think and act outside the box of religious conformity was a step forward for humanity. But it was probably a natural development, stemming from the changing social, economic, and political scene of the times. Luther’s role in it was disastrous for Christianity. Protestantism teamed up with so-called Renaissance Humanism to reject everything medieval. Effectively it began a process of debunking which has continued down to the present-day philosophy of postmodernism, which teaches that truth is merely a social construct. Once you begin a witch-hunt for ‘superstition’ you find it everywhere. First you clear out medieval Catholic practices which you think are out of line with Scripture. Then you clear out scriptural beliefs that you think are out of line with empirical fact. Finally you clear out empirical fact because it is out of line with what you would like to believe.

My fifth reason is roughly summed up by the word vituperation. The Protestant reformation launched centuries of ugly vilification between Protestant and Catholics. The Church should have been standing united against the immaterial adversaries—wickedness and unbelief— but instead the two parts entered into a mutually destructive internecine battle conducted by material adversaries. Christians vilified one another in barren, unedifying diatribes, of no interest now except to the historical lexicographer. The Protestant side devised a tedious litany of opprobrious stories about the Catholics, repeated over and over: perverted monks, duplicitous Jesuits, tyrannical priests, superstitious laity. Not that it was necessarily all untrue, but so prurient, so self-righteous, so deeply uncharitable. And I’m always intrigued at how one particular medieval idea became a foundational doctrine of Protestantism, maintained all the way down to Ian Paisley, though more delicate churchmen would prefer to draw a veil over it: the curious equation of the Pope with Antichrist. Christianity has no other doctrines that relate specifically to historical persons or places beyond those relating, naturally enough, to the life and work of Jesus Christ: yet here were the Reformers confidently steering themselves towards the possibility of calling good evil.

My sixth reason is to do with the Whig interpretation of history. On the latter theory, which generations of children were taught at school, Protestantism was on the side of ‘progress’ and Catholicism on the side of ‘reaction’. I don’t deny that Catholicism mainly tried to keep things as they were. But not a few aspects of Protestantism were far from promoting social progress and liberty. Women, for example, under Catholicism had a route for avoiding marriage and childbirth and, sometimes, for gaining education, by entering the monastic life. Everyone, of course, believed in the subjection of women, but under the Protestant dispensation subjection to a male became almost inescapable. Or again, in medieval times the Church fought hard (and often dirtily) to maintain its independence of the secular power. This had at least the potential for good. The Church could act as a critic and a conscience to the secular government. Of course it very often didn’t, and of course under the Counter-Reformation the Church got a grip on a number of Catholic governments. But at least there were two spheres, not a monoculture. Protestantism subjected the Church to the secular magistrate. Disloyalty to the one automatically equalled disloyalty to the other. It’s hard not to see the Church of England’s loss of moral appeal to the working class as connected with the cosy alliance between Church and State in England. Bad for the people and bad for the Church. Or again, in medieval England, the monasteries often acted as a kind of informal social service, relieving people in need and providing medical care. The dissolution of the religious houses removed this partial safety net. And I think it was Protestantism that fostered the idea that poverty was related to moral inadequacy, so that the more the poor were allowed to suffer the better it was for their moral welfare.

We don’t know if the world would have been a better or a worse place without Luther. Perhaps a schism in the Western Church would have happened anyway. But after five hundred years we might do more of a kindness to Luther by learning from the mistakes of the past than by celebrating what led to them.

Moving Parish Church

After twenty years, YZ is leaving his parish church, St X’s, and moving to another. St X’s gave him a huge amount when he first came to it, and he has many friends there. But he now finds that St X’s and he seem to have little to offer each other.

YZ’s decision does not issue from a layman’s thwarted ambition. He has had the opportunity to help lead and plan an alternative service, numerous discussion groups, and various walking activities, all worthwhile, though none in the end having much impact on St X’s.

Most people who leave a church probably don’t provide feedback on their reasons for leaving. This is a pity, as an explanation could help a church. Here are YZ’s difficulties with St X’s, expressed as constructively as possible. Each is the shadow side of one of the undoubted strengths of St X’s.

1. The shadow of the Music

The choir is the glory of St X’s. It’s not just the first-class music and the support it gives to worship that makes it so. The choir is a real community. It has members of all ages. The young ones learn indefinable, invaluable life skills from the older ones. It is the matrix of the Sunday School. Its members care for each other. It has its own social life. YZ has even heard a rumour that it has its own Facebook group. In short, it provides almost everything that what some churches would call a ‘Fellowship Group’ should provide.

The problem is that the choir is not counterbalanced by any group or groups for those who do not wish to join it or are not musical. There is no ongoing ‘Fellowship Group’ for anyone else, providing community life, caring, learning, and friendship. There are no permanent groups for ‘fellowship’ at all. There’s no place of similar integration for non-choir children and young people. So St X’s is like an aeroplane with only one wing.

2. The shadow of the Liturgy

The regular round of Eucharist, the Festivals, Saints’ Days, weekday Morning Prayer, and other occasional celebrations is the mainstay of St X’s, and rightly so. The clergy—assisted by para-clerical laity such as the Choir, Servers, Chalice-bearers, Sacristans, and so on—faithfully maintain this cycle of services.

Having the Eucharist in some form is indispensable. But these services, as performed at St X’s, are essentially clerical activities, planned, shaped, and presided over by the clergy, even though they exist for the benefit of the whole church. The laity are not wholly passive, but they are there as additional participants in a ritual that primarily has meaning for the altar party and could take place without any congregation.

The biblical, theological, and spiritual background to these rituals is not effectively imparted to the laity. There are no long-term groups dedicated to passing on the knowledge of the basis of our faith and helping people to grow in holiness. The numerous short-term programmes of study and spiritual instruction have been increasingly ill-attended, probably because in the prevailing culture they are an optional extra. A few lay people in St X’s are theologically knowledgeable but many are hazy about both Scripture and Christian tradition.

Moreover, there are no activities (apart from music) in which the laity participate equally in leadership, such as study or prayer groups. Lay initiatives are not proscribed, but they are not actively supported and not treated as of equal importance with clerical projects. Hence few lay people aspire to lead. Lay participation has actually declined since the 1990s. This is a serious lack: research shows that successful churches (of any denomination) are those in which leadership is genuinely shared between clergy and laity.

And lastly, but significantly, outside the liturgy there is virtually no corporate prayer. It’s not clear whether St X’s theologically disbelieves in it, fears it, or merely lacks commitment to it.

3. The shadow of Christian heritage

St X’s was a wonderful church to join for anyone who’d previously had a difficult time in a more rigid or directive church. Its relaxed and non-dogmatic atmosphere takes one back to the comfortable, middle-of-the-road Church of England of the 1950s, to Scripture lessons, Sunday School, and the values of post-war liberal Britain.

It’s still like this: but the generation to whom these qualities speak is passing away. It is no longer realistic for a church to rely on them, because younger generations have not had that post-war experience. Neither can a church count on people having had even rudimentary Scripture or Sunday School teaching.

If a church like St X’s is to continue to exist, it needs to change. To maintain (let alone augment) the number of active members, new approaches are needed. There should be far greater flexibility in the timing, format, and content of liturgy. There should be much more extensive learning for both children and adults. Without a learning community for adults and young people of all ages you cannot retain many teenagers or parents; toddlers’ services and Saturday morning craft activities alone do not build a church. Active lay involvement is crucial for a generation which is not used to junior partnership in any enterprise.

There was a time at St X’s when it seemed that such change was beginning to happen. The appointment of the last Curate about eight years ago especially seemed to be a new dawn. For a year or so, many hopeful signs of change (in terms of services, preaching, and weekday activities) began to appear. Then quite abruptly, the Curate’s scope was restricted to two or three core children’s activities; participation in any other new developments vanished; and after six years the Curate resigned. In fact there has been a series of Assistant Priests with the vision and gifts to bring about change, each of whom has made forays into new territory, and each of whom has departed abruptly. YZ has been greatly disturbed by these departures, and suspects that whatever causes them may be a key to the malaise of St X’s.

4. The shadow of laissez-faire

St X’s is full of people (both clerical and lay) who are busy getting on with their own thing, privately. Being modest they rarely advertise their good works or other pursuits; and being tolerant they rarely inquire into those of others. The clergy pursue their own individualistic spirituality, from which emanate elevated thoughts on Love and Forgiveness. The laity pursue music, scholarship, and various charitable enterprises. Intermittently there is a surge of corporate enthusiasm, such as the support given to some local homeless people. But there are few ongoing common projects. The main recommended forms of spirituality are intensely individualistic.

The Body of Christ is definitely about diversity. But there also has to be cohesion and collaboration. Everyone at St X’s seems to be more focused on their own activities than on the building up of the Body. This may be why essentially very little change or growth happens (except in the realms of music and real estate). There’s little enthusiasm even for modest joint enterprises, such as the partner charities, Christian Aid, Churches Together, the Deanery, and so on. The clergy launch new schemes which repeatedly come to nothing—there’s a long list of ‘heroic failures’.  This is probably due both to the absence of genuine lay partnership, and to people not appreciating the need for commitment to the corporate nature of the Church; two vital aspects of Christianity which are hardly taught or modelled at St X’s.

5. The shadow of professionalism

Most people at St X's are professionals of some kind, which is what makes it a stimulating social group. But the Christian profession is not a profession in that sense. We are all learners, and clergy and laity are on the same footing. We need each other. Theologically speaking, the clergy exist to support the laity, but in a church like St X’s, where the liturgy is the main communal activity, the reverse order prevails; committed laity support clergy.

St X's is possibly a little over-respectful of professional expertise. The prevailing culture is that if you respect my expertise, I will respect yours. Hence there is an unspoken assumption that clerical expertise is sufficient for the job in hand. Everyone accepts the religious diet that's on offer. No one questions whether it is sufficient to nourish faith, develop holiness, or provide the strength to survive in an increasingly hostile world. Newcomers with little church background presumably believe that the spiritual table d’hôte at St X’s represents the full Christian menu—and would be justified in turning away disappointed. Few perhaps imagine that other and possibly more transformative angles on the faith of Christ might exist. There’s little encouragement to do so.

YZ fears for St X’s long-term prospects.