Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Reflections on Evensong at Kings College

Last night, Emma and I went to Evensong at King’s College, Cambridge. King’s College is a grand place, full of lush green fields, fantastic stone buildings, and a glorious chapel. We joined the throng of tourists and went in. We sat in very individual booths facing one another. The service was completely ordered including the Nunc Dimittis and Magnifat from Luke’s Gospel. The choir was made up of men and boys accompanied by the organ. Apparently they have mixed and women’s choirs on other occasions. The singing was extraordinarily good, well practiced, full of harmonies and musical overlay. With the organ, if felt appropriate to the setting.

The readings were from the good old King James; entirely appropriate for Kings. The readers’ accents were wonderfully English, and with the old English of the KJV, it was classic; kind of a like being in a time warp. As I listened to the reading from Luke 14, I wondered why the ancient translators had changed the Greek Zeus into Jupiter, and Hermes to Mercury. I know they are equivalents, but why give preference to the Roman equivalents? It tears the text away from its moorings a little. I wondered how many people there truly believe what was said about God in Ps 147 and Luke’s account of miracle through Paul in Lystra. I wondered how many understood the social context – probably quite a few in Cambridge.

For part of the service we knelt. I liked that. I think all churches and not just Anglican should have kneeling seats. There is something actively humbling about doing so. We sing about doing it in our church, but few ever do. Kneeling seats would encourage an appropriate act of homage to God. Mind you, I had mine at a bad angle and didn’t fare too well! I got more than a little uncomfortable – I need to kneel more often!

We recited a version of the Apostle’s Creed which was great. We had to turn and face the front together for that. I noticed the boys knew it by heart. That was great. I am not sure how many of them really believe it; or how many of the crowd. But it is etched into the being of the boys and that can’t be bad.

With all the readings, wonderful songs, anthems, and warmth, I felt that the service had a powerful gentle evangelistic effect for those with ears to hear. For me, it was deeply comforting and touching.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the Apostles Creed. I pondered what was there and what is missing. God is mentioned as Father Almighty and creator, good. But, what about his work in sustaining the universe and providence? Jesus’ Sonship, Lordship, miraculous conception, birth, suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, descent to hell, resurrection, ascension, session, and judgment are mentioned. Again, great. But there is nothing about his earthly ministry and life. I wondered why Pilate is singled out for his death; no mention of the Jewish part in his death, which was significant. Perhaps it is politically incorrect to mention that. Then there is the question of whether Jesus went to hell. I thought, “if he did, as a still incarnate divine being, hell must be a place, as must heaven.” But the evidence for his descent into hell in the NT is very thin at best (not really there). The Spirit gets barely a mention in the creed, surely a few more lines would be good. I like the emphasis on the catholicity (universality) of the church, on unity God’s holy people together and with him (communion of the saints), forgiveness, resurrection, and eternal life. I feel the idea of mission should be there as basic to our faith. Still, saying the creed connects us with our heritage and tradition. It is also evangelistically challenging for seekers.

All in all the experience was great. I think such services have an important role in keeping alive, in a most historic and ascetically pleasing way, the faith. This is critical in a land where the forces of other spiritualities and secularism are powerful and in many places, threatening to drown the church. God is bigger than that though, and the gates of Hades will never prevail. 

British Values at Stake

One of the big news stories here in the UK at the mo is the supposed attempt by Muslims to impose Muslim values in Birmingham schools. This is supposedly being achieved by stealth through a so-called Trojan Horse approach – a careful plan to “take over” schools.

The BBC has reported that Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, see http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/about-us) has bought out a report on 21 schools in which it is claimed that in five of these schools there has been an organised campaign to impose a “narrow, faith-based ideology,” i.e. extremist Islam. This has purportedly led to the removal of some programs (e.g. music), faith based changes to culture and ethos, gender discrimination, biased employment practices, and a narrowing of the curriculum. City Councils are criticized for failing to act. This of course has led to fierce rebuttals and debates (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-27762341). Michael Gove, the head of Ofsted has responded by speaking to Parliament stating that ‘he wants all schools to “actively promote British values” such as democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-27763113). I have asked a few people at Westminster College what these values are, but they respond “we have no idea.” Here in lies a dilemma.

All this is going on while another piece of big news is going on; the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP (http://www.ukip.org/). They are one of other right wing parties gaining real traction in Europe. This party has risen rapidly and from being written off as a nutty or even Nazi right-wing fringe to being a real player and in some ways, dominating the European and local body elections. This party sees the UK as in a crisis with increasing debt, costs, unemployment, and declining education. For them, the real problem is immigration. They are appealing to an increasing number of people here who are worried about things like the things happening in British schools (above), the increase in immigration from eastern Europe with open European borders, and the seeming decline in “British values.” Their answer is to leave Europe which has open borders and strongly limit immigration, especially keeping out those who would bring values that disrupt the British way.

These situations illustrate a massive issue facing nations Britain, and indeed all western nations. How do people talk about immigration without raising the spectre of Hitler where race is a very sensitive issue? What are these “British Values”? Can they be defined? Why do people hold them? What is the philosophical foundation for them? How do people maintain them with an ongoing flood of immigrants with differing values entering our nations? How can you enforce a value? If so, how does one maintain them without violating the premises of individual liberty and without using force and violating the value of tolerance and appearing fundamentalist? What I see is people seeking to maintain tolerance and openness without resorting to a new left-wing social fundamentalism.

The thing that intrigues me is that these values to a large degree drawn from a religious tradition, Christianity? As such, some will say “the UK is a Christian country.” Others will quickly write that off. Or they will quickly qualify it. Some of these values can be argued to be universal, yes, and some drawn from Greek, Roman, other religions, and other cultures? Yet, most of the British and western values that are have been radically adapted over time by Christianity. For example, democracy, which is found in Greek thinking was a limited form, limited to the elite male Roman or Greek citizens. Now, we speak of a full democracy, based equally on Christian egalitarianism. So, how can we maintain Christian values without appealing to a religious tradition? That would seem to be favouring one which violates religious freedom and contradicts secularism.

And what about so-called tolerance? It is clearly valued greatly here. But almost any intolerance is not tolerated, except the intolerance of the intolerant. But what are the limits of tolerance? What about tolerance where people are intolerant of this or that? Is there space for intolerance in a society with British values? How does one express intolerance for a particular perspective, and how does one enforce it in schools?

I have a sneaking suspicion that all this presents the Christian church with a great opportunity here and elsewhere. I don’t think the answer is getting politically active in a direct sense and talking about Christian parties etc. That will reinforce the negative perceptions against religion. Rather, in local communities, churches can be points where we continue to promulgate with grace the values of the Kingdom. We can seek to model them in our communities. We can build schools full of grace and mercy in which they are encouraged. We can articulate thoughtfully and graciously into our societies the great Christian values of mercy and justice. We can serve in the many civic situations our societies present, school boards, local body politics, etc, and bring the values of our faith to bear – as salt and light. Finally, perhaps as these challenges grow and we struggle increasingly to blend cultures and worldviews, many will begin again seek out the one who lies behind it all, our Triune God. If when they encounter us they find us consistently reflecting Jesus, maybe the west can be transformed by the power of God. May it come to be.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Cambridge – Some reflections

At the moment, Emma and I are nearing the end of a two month sabbatical at Westminster College, Cambridge (http://www.westminster.cam.ac.uk/). It is a centre for training URC ministers, the URC (United Reformed Church) being a union of UK Presbyterian, Congregational, and Church of Christ churches (http://www.urc.org.uk/). It is one of the privileges of being Presbyterian to spend time here, enjoying free board in a little cottage, eating and worshiping with the college community, and writing. We also get to experience Cambridge.

Cambridge is an interesting place. Compared to home in Auckland, although there are a range of students from around the world, it feels quite monocultural and well to do. It is full of amazing colleges where many greats like Wilberforce were educated. The river Cam is delightful as a place to have a punt, for walking and riding. It is full of tourists and has a really great feel. I love the names of the parks, like Jesus Green or Christ’s Piece.

Everyone here seems to bike, so we have joined the party hiring bikes and doing a lot of cycling around the town and out on the bike trails to St Ives, Ely, Newcastle, or Saffron Weldon – a great way to see the countryside. Some of this we have done with members of the Cambridge Cyclist’s Touring Club (CTC) in Cambridge, a social cycling group in Cambridge. They have been warm and welcoming and great company (http://www.ctc-cambridge.org.uk/). We have got to see many small villages, all with village greens, pubs, and churches.

For an Aucklander, the weather has been a challenge, it has to be said. Although the locals tell us it is quite nice at the moment, we have found it cold – about the same as a normal Auckland winter’s day (aside from when there is a real southerly flowing through). It has also rained on most days. While the CTC cyclists were very road-smart, the cyclists here are in many cases, mad. They cut through traffic crazily. Very few wear helmets. It is quite chaotic and dangerous. The pedestrians are equally dangerous with people walking out in front of bikes and cars – you have to be on your guard at all times! Many times I have had cause to question the spatial awareness of locals – I wonder if that is the English rugby team’s problem. We will find out in the next few weeks of rugby tests I suppose.

The pubs are fantastic but vary madly in price. If you come here, ask the locals! You can get two red wines for £3 ($6 NZ) in one pub, and across the road pay £9! That said, the pub culture and food is great – if you like that sort of thing. Because of travelling, we haven’t got to church much, but the Holy Trinity night service is great – great worship, preaching, and a mainly university student feel. Loved worshiping there.

We have also jumped in the Tardis and watched Coronation Street live, two years ahead of NZ. Basically the cast is the same, but they have all swapped partners. Soaps are all the same! It will be fun going home and filling in the gaps.

The URC is a very mixed church, with evangelicals and liberals living together. The sexuality issue remains unresolved and is yet to be fully tackled. That will be an interesting journey indeed with varying views as there always are. Aside from that elephant in the room, I think the URC has a positive future with strong unity and signs of renewal.

I had an instant connection with the principal Neil Thorogood who lived many of his formative years in the Cook Islands as did I, and his passion for mission. The college is in good hands. The NT lecturer and soon to be General Secretary of the URC, John Proctor, is a wonderful man full of the Spirit and it is exciting to see him take up his new role in the URC. I have connected with many students and other Sabbaticals. There are some great people heading out into ministry.

I really encourage other PCANZ ministers to take up this opportunity. It is a great springboard for weekends traveling in the UK and Europe. If you do, fly from Stanstead (easy by train) or Cambridge itself. You will be warmly welcomed and cared for. The College is also undergoing renovations and is a great B and B for any travellers – a short walk from the centre of town.


Soon we head to Israel for another part of our adventure. I am looking forward to that greatly.

The Cathedrals of Europe – Questions, questions, questions

In recent weeks I have experienced one of the joys of visiting Europe – trips to visit cathedrals and churches in England, Barcelona, and Venice. These churches are amazing. The Cathedral in Ely dates back to the 7th century and is phenomenal. The La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is a more recent church building designed by the amazing Gaudi, begun in 1882 and still under construction, and likely to be finished in another couple of decades. The story of the Gospel is inscribed in its facades. It is a truly astonishing building. The stand out in Venice was Saint Marco’s Basilica, the spiritual centre of Venetian culture developed since the 9th century AD. These places and other churches across Europe are full of elaborate architecture, art, sculpture, and laden with the stories of the gospel.

Yet as I wander through them I am always full of burning questions. First, there is the very fact that in many of the churches tourists are charged to visit them, and these places are not cheap to visit! Acknowledging that maintenance and building of these churches is extremely costly, should Christians charge people to come into their buildings? Is this a form of peddling the gospel? Is this the gospel sold out to consumerism?

Second, while the churches are full to the brim with tourists and the surrounding hotels, cafes, and restaurants are overflowing, the churches have few worshipers. We saw a decent crowd in the worship space below the La Sagrada and about fifteen at worship at Saint Marks. The Ely Cathedral had signs of a vibrant local church. Yet, in the main these places are tombs to a receding faith (in Europe), places of “spiritual voyeurism” and consumerism rather than worship. So, while to me these are amazing places, I feel in them a deep sadness that so many are turning from the faith that led to the building of these churches and denying the power behind it.

Third, as you hear the stories of these astonishing buildings they are usually stories of imperial power and the domination of the poor. Huge resources were plundered off other nations and the temples are as much a symbol of imperial power as places of worship. They were built on the backs of plundered wealth and servitude of the poor. Yes, they are glorious statements of worship, they are architecturally and artistically spectacular, but at what cost? I always feel great unease as I wander these buildings. What do they represent? How does God view them? Then again, people like my late Dad who had lost touch with any sense of Christian faith as he grew up in NZ find in them a point of connection to the divine. They awakened something in him. God works through these places. God can touch the hard heart through them.

Finally, the churches are full of icons, images, and statues. Mary dominates in many contexts. There are shrines to venerate saints and popes. There are many saints buried under their floor boards – sarcophagi everywhere. The images and icons really get me thinking of the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…” I am torn at the majesty and wonder of these images, especially at La Sagrada where the gospel story is stunningly inscribed on the facades. These images, paintings, crucifixes, and stain glass windows can enhance worship if they are rightly understood as vehicles for worship. Yet, there is a fine line to our worship of the saint, Pope, or Mary, or God becomes limited to the image. I pondered whether it is legalistic to deny the validity of these works; or should I turn away seeing them as idolatry?

So while it is a glorious privilege to see these places and in many instances they take one’s breath away and bring a real sense of worship, they raise more questions than answers. Perhaps like everything we do in the name of Jesus, they tell the story of humanity – wonderfully and gloriously capable of great things, yet deeply flawed. What do you think?