Easter Reflections

Time for a bit of a look back at what I’ve been doing.  And yes, I have rather been banging on about one topic haven’t I?!!  Now honestly, I will be trying to get a bit more variety into things, and occasionally expound a text and not explicitly draw out its connections to my ‘anti-Christendom’ theme.  However, I don’t feel apologetic about concentrating on that theme because – not so much it’s important, more that it has important and often negative and destructive consequences and not enough people are talking about it or even thinking about it.

I really do have a sense of proportion about this and I know that the vast expanse of ‘Mere Christianity’[i] which I share with Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Orthodox, etc. ad infinitum, is far more important than this one issue.  The trouble is that when any of the various versions of the ‘Christian country’ idea get added to that ‘Mere Christianity’, problems arise which seriously handicap the message.  Christians are divided, and often to the point of persecuting each other or even actual warfare because ‘Christendom’ is not pacifist; and other religions also can face not only our legitimate preaching but also persecution, inquisition, oppression and warfare in the name of Jesus. Even in our mostly more tolerant times the attitudes that go with ‘Christendom’ can be off-putting, and even more so actual violence as in Ulster.  Look at that Dawkins guy; a massive proportion of his atheist rants is taken up with criticising NOT anything I regard as important Christian beliefs, but the aberrations of established churches (and of other established religions like Islam).  Lots of people out there are simply not giving the gospel a hearing because they are so put off by such issues; while many – extreme right-wingers, for example – can be attracted for the wrong reasons and if anything add to the problems.

Let me give an example.  A few years ago one of my friends heard a radio talk on ‘The Good Samaritan’; he thought it was really good.  He’d missed the beginning, so when at the end it was announced that the speaker had been Ian Paisley, he was gobsmacked – and then some!  How could the Ulster ogre deliver teaching of such love and care?  For various reasons I’ve long believed that Ian Paisley is basically a sincere and genuine Christian – but his witness is distorted and compromised by his belief that he must assert and defend Ulster as a ‘Protestant country’.  People are put off by the resultant politics who need his sound message of basic Christianity.  My friend would have positively avoided that talk if he’d known in advance who the speaker was.  Preaching the gospel from a ‘Christendom’ standpoint can all too often be preaching with one hand tied behind your back – needlessly!  And despite the good intentions, this dishonours Jesus.

Oh yes; people are often so put off that they also won’t listen to those of us who don’t share the Christendom ideas.  We also face needless struggles to even get a hearing because of the distortions produced by ‘Christendom’.  So yes, I’ll be trying to vary my output more in future; but I don’t apologise for putting the biblical case against those unbiblical ideas….

New posts with this are comment on something Marcus Brigstocke was seen saying on Ann Widdecombe’s recent ‘Christianity and Comedy’ programme – with a post about the programme itself  to follow soon; and the latest instalment of the ‘But seriously’ strand.  Easter has been a bit busy….


[i] Yes, I’m a CS Lewis fan!

But Seriously (4) – ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’

This text is often quoted as support for the notion of ‘Christian’ nations, being interpreted as a promise that a regular geographical or ethnic nation which formally accepts God as Lord by declaring itself Christian will therefore be blessed by God.  Unfortunately this is a grievous misunderstanding of the passage, divorcing it from its proper context.

The original passage is Psalm 33 – let’s look at an extended quote, starting from v10….

The LORD brought to nought the counsel of the Gentiles; He frustrated the purposes of the peoples.  The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the purposes of His heart from generation to generation.  Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he has chosen for His personal inheritance

And there it is – not a promise or offer that by choosing the LORD any nation whatsoever can be blessed, but a statement that the nation God himself has chosen will be blessed.  In the original context, as is shown by the initial reference to the Gentiles, whose efforts will be brought to nought and cannot thwart God’s intentions, this means the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people.  The sentence stating the blessing is an example of the Hebrew poetic practice of ‘parallelism’, saying the same thing twice in different ways so that the two expressions define and reinforce each other; the two halves of the sentence refer to the same subject.  ‘The nation whose God is the LORD’ is the same entity as ‘the people he has chosen for his personal inheritance’ – that is, the nation of Israel.

In Exodus 19; 6 God says to the Israelites ‘You will become to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation’.  But he also of course promised to Abraham that through Abraham’s descendants – i.e., the Israelites – he would bless the whole world, and in Jesus that promise is fulfilled as Gentiles who put their faith in Jesus become co-heirs of God’s promises with the Jews.  So in I Peter 2; 9, in a paraphrase of the Exodus text, Christians – Jews and Gentiles reconciled together in Jesus – are described as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, a people of his acquisition’.  Christians are now ‘the nation whose God is the LORD, the people he has chosen’.  And so Psalm 33 now applies to the Christians as God’s people, and so this statement of blessing is for them.

No ordinary geographical or ethnic nation can off its own bat claim to be God’s holy nation, or formally just call itself ‘Christian’, because the Christians are not those ‘once born’ in such a nation, but those ‘born again’ through the power of the Holy Spirit, not of one earthly nation but of many different nations and races throughout the world.  Therefore the blessing stated in Psalm 33 cannot be claimed by any earthly nation; it belongs only to the Church itself, the nation of the citizens of heaven.  As has been (and will continue to be) pointed out in other posts in this blog, that Christian holy nation lives throughout the world as ‘resident aliens’ in and among the regular geographic and ethnic nations, but not identified with any of them.  To receive the blessing of Psalm 33 you must be among those personally born again through faith in Jesus; if you are not so born again, no legislation by a king or parliament can make you eligible for the blessing.

And therefore this text simply does not prove the ‘Christian state’ point in any way; on the contrary, it underlines the inappropriateness of that notion.

Marcus Brigstocke – whining about Christmas….

During her programme on comedy and Christianity, ‘Are you having a laugh?’  Ann Widdecombe interviewed comedian Marcus Brigstocke; a clip was shown from one of Brigstocke’s performances.  In it he said

I respect a person’s right to have a religion, but just how much do these people want from us?  Christmas starts in October and approximately two months is lights, songs, special meals, promotions, adverts, decorations, trees and nativity plays in thousands of our schools.  So my question is, how much more do you Christian campaigners think you might need from us before you stop your ******** whining?

OK Marcus, I know your tongue will have been a bit in your cheek and your conversation with Ann showed that you are a quite reasonable person when not in on stage mode.  I expect a comedian to exaggerate a bit – and yes, I found your rant funny (though the fun is wearing off a bit after repeated replays to make the above transcript!).  But hang on a minute… how much of those months of agony (and I don’t enjoy it much myself!) is actually to do with us Christians to begin with?

Most Christians in my experience only want to be doing Christmas as such for the month of ‘Advent’ leading up to December 25 itself, and Advent is more than just Christmas anyway.  For those who follow the ‘Christian calendar’ there’s plenty else to do for the rest of the year, including the much more important celebration of Easter.  Though less common, many others do not accept the dubious calculations which led the dubiously established Roman Imperial church to the December 25th date and we don’t feel a particular need to specifically celebrate Jesus’ birthday at all, though we’re usually polite enough to go along with those who do.  And actually in less overtly ‘Xmassy’ ways all Christians celebrate all year round the deep implication of Christmas as the incarnation of God in human form.

The massively extended (over-blown?) celebration that you protest about, Marcus, is really, as your mention of ‘adverts and promotions’ suggests, more to do with a commercialised festival which took off in the early Victorian era, perhaps particularly from the writings of one Charles Dickens, and has now almost taken over from the original religious feast.  It has increasingly taken on a life of its own and apart from using the name ‘Christmas’ (and even that often reduced to the anonymous ‘Xmas’) barely refers to the Christian beliefs at all.  Consequently far from campaigning for it, most Christians actually find this manifestation of ‘Christmas’ a problem.

For this modern materialistic winter festival the true god is ‘Father Christmas’; this figure is ultimately pagan, and is also prefigured by the ‘Spirit of Christmas Present’ in Dickens’ Christmas Carol.  There is confusion with the genuine Christian festival earlier in December of St Nicholas, a 4th Century Bishop famous for some spectacular gifts, but the modern ‘Santa’ has become a completely separate figure with a fairy story legend which makes him a kind of Scandinavian demigod as he allegedly lives at the North Pole with his elves.

Ironically Santa is one of the few religious beliefs on behalf of which you (even you, Marcus) may still be more-or-less officially persecuted in our fairly tolerant country.  If you are invited to visit a junior school and entertain the children, try telling a class of nine-year-olds that Father Christmas doesn’t exist, and see what happens.  If you get out alive… well, it may not be quite that bad, but it could still be an adversely career-changing move for a comedian who does a lot of work for children’s TV!  (Several teachers in recent years have suffered such persecution for misjudging whether their classes had already grown up enough to abandon belief in Father Christmas).  And see how the adults will rush in like the 7th Cavalry to repair the ‘damage’ you have supposedly done by telling the truth to the kids, with ‘special lessons on the meaning of Christmas’ to reinforce the Santa lie.  Most of those adults will have no serious Christian beliefs, and of course they won’t – unless insane – believe in Father Christmas at all!!

So Christians aren’t really responsible for much of the Christmas palaver you are whining about, especially the way it now starts in October (or even, I sometimes feel, in October of the previous year!).  I suppose the staging of nativity plays can’t be so easily disclaimed; though these days there is a considerable element of tradition and custom (“This is the ‘done thing’ at Christmas”) rather than serious faith on the part of teachers.  This is basically because of the many years when most of Europe was formally Christian.  Because this blog deals regularly with that issue I’ll not go into it again in detail right here, just say that according to the New Testament Christianity should not have had that special place in the state.  Mind you, much of the pattern of modern schooling derives from days when the churches provided education for people because the state in those days didn’t; you should at least give the church credit for that, and indeed for being the lead educator in many modern third world countries where un-or-other-believers can’t be bothered.

Christians I think have a right to campaign for their faith; as you, Marcus, have a right to oppose us and make fun of us.  If we are doing things biblically we won’t be seeking special privilege in the state, just humbly seeking to share things that have truly helped our lives.  And we are often dismayed by the modern ‘Christmas’ as much or even more than yourself.

See also a separate post on this blog about the Widdecombe programme….

A Letter to the new Archbishop

Dear Archbishop

Welcome to your new job; you aren’t getting an easy start, are you?  Now really is the time to use the skills you acquired in business, and bring a fresh analysis to your church’s affairs.  May I suggest that the analysis will be inadequate unless you reconsider Anglicanism’s most distinctive feature, prepared to change it.

I put it to you that – The vast majority of the Church of England’s problems either derive from, or are exacerbated by, the Church’s position as an established state church.

You might also consider that problems related to establishment often constitute a considerable obstacle in the way of the Gospel for those who are not Christians; just read one of Richard Dawkins’ books, for example, and see how many of his objections to ‘religion’ are actually objections not to Christianity proper but to things done by established churches (or other ‘established’ religions such as Islam, whose would-be establishment is currently a global problem).

And of course, the problems arising from established churches including Anglicanism tend to cause difficulties for those of your fellow-Christians who do not seek to have established churches.  I actually think that such issues are the main obstacle to unity among Christians.  For example, how can other Christians be united to a body entangled in a particular state?

Now I understand, of course, that regardless of all the problems, if the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles was that Christians should seek to run state churches in ‘Christian countries’, then that’s how you must do it.

But – is that the original teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament?  Or does the New Testament in fact reject that solution and advocate a very different way for Christians to relate to the states they live in and their non-Christian neighbours in those states?  In that case, surely, regardless of any apparent ‘advantages’ of establishment either to church or state, obedience to God would require disestablishment (it being too late for the better option of not getting established in the first place!)  After all, it can hardly benefit either state or church to live in open disobedience to God!!

In my first version of this open letter I spent some time outlining the biblical case against establishment; but then I thought “Hang on!  That’s getting it wrong way round; the real issue is whether there is a biblical case for establishment in the first place.  Why should I do all the hard work?  Let’s put the Archbishop on the spot and ask him if he can prove his position”.  So basically, that’s what I’m now doing.  As this blog develops I will be setting out my position, both negatively by exposing the problems of establishment and positively by expounding the biblical better way; but for now I ask you, Archbishop – or any Anglican who reads this – to put the case for establishment … IF YOU CAN!!!

A few points;

First, I don’t want to read (again) a list of the supposed advantages of establishment; I’ve heard it all before, I think the disadvantages outweigh the advantages anyway, and the supposed advantages are irrelevant compared to the big question “What does the New Testament teach us to do in Jesus’ name?”

Secondly, yes ancient Israel was indeed a ‘sacral’ state with what amounted to an established religion; and it is all too easy to just assume that Christianity, growing out of Judaism, should and would follow a similar pattern.  But is that a valid assumption?  Many other aspects of Judaism, while recognised as important in leading up to the distinctive Christian revelation, have not carried over into Christianity, or have carried over only in a transformed version – is it necessarily true that establishment in the state should carry over?  At the very least, it should not be assumed, but checked thoroughly against the New Testament’s teaching – is a different scheme more appropriate for that New Covenant, as the concept of “God’s People” spread beyond Israel to become a global body of the ‘born again’?

Go to the 39 Articles of Anglicanism – do the proof texts quoted on behalf of establishment actually prove the case adequately?  Or are they in fact rather weak?  You may be surprised …

“We’ve come to exterminate the Crusaders….”

That’s what was reported by an Algerian worker at the gas plant where terrorists had taken hostages; “Don’t worry”, they told him, “As an Algerian Muslim we haven’t come to harm you – we’ve come to exterminate the crusaders!” And that statement says much about the messy situation between Muslims and the West at present.  The extremists, and many other Muslims, interpret the western armies currently in their lands as a renewal of the old Crusades, with Christians again attempting to destroy Islam by war.

We westerners don’t see it that way; to us, the western armies, including the Brits, are not Christian Crusaders at all, but the armies of pluralist democracies defending ourselves against terrorists and if anything defending the freedoms of Muslims.  But it’s understandable that Muslims misinterpret the situation.  Take the UK; we have a national established church whose earthly ‘supreme governor’ – the Queen – is also the head of our state and the effective Commander-in-Chief of our armies.  It is all too easy for Muslims to see the Queen as the equivalent of a Muslim ‘Caliph’ – a religious head of a religious state – and therefore see her country’s armies as Christian armies pursuing Christian aims.  America may not have an established church, but is nevertheless a largely ‘Christian’ nation, very vocally so among the Republican Right/Moral Majority wing of their politics, so again it can appear in Arab eyes that they are ‘Crusaders’.

So long as this mutual misunderstanding prevails, it’s hard to see how the West can win the various wars; our opponents cannot surrender what they see as Allah’s cause, and we can’t, compatibly with our own principles, just exterminate them.  And anyway, killing them tends just to confirm their view of us, and convinces more and more Muslims to join the extremists.

There is another serious consequence of this.  Many Muslim lands have Christian minorities.  In theory, Muslims should be tolerant of Christians as fellow monotheists, but – quite logically – this doesn’t fully apply during war with Christian states.  With Christian armies ‘crusading’ in Muslim lands, those Christian minorities can be seen as allies of the ‘crusaders’; and therefore as fit targets for persecution of all kinds.  We occasionally hear of that persecution; including cases where Christians have been forcibly circumcised, and are then in a terrible position – they have not freely chosen Islam, yet if they return to practising Christianity, they will be treated as ‘apostates’ and may be subjected to the Islamic death penalty for apostasy[i].

Many of the Christians involved – those belonging to the various ‘Anabaptist’ groups, for example – would reject the whole idea of ‘crusading/holy war’, and even the idea of a ‘Christian country’; they haven’t the slightest intention of being ‘allies’ of the supposed crusading armies.  Yet sadly they will still be persecuted, because the Muslims don’t understand that – Islamic thinking makes it difficult to understand a separation of religion and state.  It is also the case that others of these persecuted Christians belong to churches which support the idea of Christian states, or even, as in the case of Anglicanism, are ‘established’ in some way in the western country where their denomination originated.  I’m not going to say that such Christians therefore ‘deserve’ persecution – but I will say that it is understandable that Muslims interpret such Christian-country-minded groups as being allied with the ‘Christendom’ with whose ideas they agree.

Ironically, the supposedly ‘crusading’ West is also having trouble understanding the situation.  We are so accustomed to our pluralism and democracy, with its freedom of religion, that we don’t easily grasp the idea of a religion and state being effectively one entity, so we can’t see the problem the Muslims have with us.

Disentangling the mess

In disentangling it’s a good start to admit that there is a tangle!  Sadly neither politicians nor church people in the west seem to want to make that admission.  Many don’t even appreciate the real nature of Islam; they don’t seem to realise that the idea of a unity of religion and state is built into Islam from square one, as is the idea of holy war.  In the lifetime of Muhammad he both ordered and personally led military expeditions; exiled from Mecca he returned with an army big enough to scare the Meccans into surrender, to set up a Muslim state with himself as effectively king.  It is significant that in Islam the big division is not over creeds and beliefs; Shi’as and Sunnis are divided over who, at a certain time, should have succeeded Muhammad as the ruler of the Muslim state.  I will agree that many of the modern extremist Muslims are probably doing things Muhammad would reject; but the key ideas are deeply embedded in Islam and aren’t going to change.  Muslims who try to go ‘back to basics’ will find that the totalitarian religious state, and war both to defend and expand that state, are among the fundamentals of their faith.  It is a myth of political correctness that there are ‘good Muslims’ who have western values in such matters; such people do exist, but arguably they are not fully faithful Muslims, but Muslims failing to follow the original Islamic teaching.  Because this is so, extremist Islam is not going to go away in a hurry.

Christianity is different; in Christianity, the totalitarianism and warfare are an alien graft, not going back to the original but only to over 300 years after Jesus.  I once saw Nick Griffin in a party political broadcast for the BNP portraying the idea that Christianity started as a violent and intolerant religion like Islam but we wonderful British had changed it into the more tolerant body we know today; he couldn’t be more wrong!  Christians who go ‘back to the Bible’ will not find instructions on setting up a Christian state, but teaching that ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (II Cor 10; 4), that Jesus’ kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18; 36) and instructions to ‘be subject to’ the governments of the various non-Christian states they live in (Rom 13; 1ff, I Pet 2; 13ff).  They will find teaching that people become Christians by a spiritual rebirth beyond human power and legislation (John 1; 12-13), not simply by their natural birth in a supposedly Christian state.  They will find the Church itself described as “God’s holy nation” – yet not ruling this world but living humbly in exile from their real home in heaven  (I Pet 2; 9, 1; 1), and commanded indeed not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi – managers of other people’s affairs’ (I Pet 4; 15).

Nobody can be sure how things might have worked out if Muhammad had faced a Christianity still operating in that spirit; unfortunately he saw in Arabia only a somewhat heretical group whose ideas on the Trinity seemed pagan to him, and beyond Arabia a mainstream church which had changed drastically from the original after some 300 years of being nationalised into the Roman Empire and operating as the imperial state religion.   So he rejected Christianity, while in the end copying the idea of a state faith using military means – well, maybe not exactly copying, just that he never seems to have seen any other model of Christianity to inspire him to act differently from pagan national religions.

Christians let Muhammad down at that time (and let themselves down if you think about it!)  They continued to set Islam a bad example as they fought tooth and nail to hinder the advance of the Islamic empire, in Spain for example, and then actually attacked the ‘Holy Land’ in the era of the Crusades, whose atrocities are effectively coming home to roost as Islamic terrorism in the West.  More recently the interference of ‘Christian’ states in the Middle East as colonial powers stirred up much resentment, and caused many Muslims to go ‘back to the Quran’ to seek Allah’s favour by being more fundamentalist.  In particular arrogant handling of Palestine stirred things up.  Essentially Britain promised the land of Palestine to both the Arabs (as led by Lawrence of Arabia) and the Jews in order to gain their support in the First World War (1914-18) and then muddled through till a rather disgraceful abdication of responsibility in the aftermath of World War II as immigration of displaced Jews to Israel grew and friction between Arab and Jew increased.  The subsequent tendency for the US and UK to favour Israel stoked things up further.  Then we became dependent on Arab oil and the balance changed, leading to a Muslim resurgence.

What now?

We – and I mean Christians, rather than the various states we live in – need to set straight the issue of the Crusades; indeed we need to firmly disavow the Crusades.  We must also recognise that such disavowal won’t mean much unless we also disavow the ‘Christendom’ set up by Constantine, and all the subsequent variants – from Anglicanism and Lutheranism to Ian Paisley and his fellow Unionists in Ulster – which seek to give Christianity a special place in the state and inevitably lead to the idea that it is proper to set up ‘Christian’ states by force, defend them by force, and even use force to spread the faith.  The Roman Catholic Church particularly needs to rethink.  It was that church which actually sponsored the Crusades, and I seriously think that supporting the Crusades casts doubt on the fundamental Roman doctrine of papal infallibility; I mean, what real use is ‘infallibility’ which couldn’t recognise the total wrongness of the Crusades and of that warfare in the name of  Jesus??  Where indeed supposedly infallible Popes personally promoted the Crusades?  The RC version of ‘Christian country/establishment in the state’ is not quite like the Anglican or Orthodox or various other Protestant variants, but all lead to the same kind of position on the use of state power to defend religion.    Only a Christianity separated from the state can be an adequate disavowal of the Crusades.  And only a disavowal of the Crusades will enable us to counter Islam with a truly Christian alternative message.  So actually we, even more than the Islamists, need to ‘exterminate the Crusaders’!

What?!!  Are we to get an army together and start a civil war among Christians, killing those we disagree with?  No, very much NOT!  Our warfare, remember, is not with physical weapons.  But we do need to clear that Crusading spirit, and its holy war ethos, from our churches.

Consider this; I don’t know what language was used by the terrorists themselves in Algeria, but that Algerian being interviewed on TV in French used the word ‘exterminer’, in English ‘exterminate’.  Ironically this word originated in Christendom.  It is derived from the Latin ‘ex terminis’ – literally ‘beyond the borders’.  Originally that was what was supposed to happen to heretics – you exiled them beyond the borders, removing them from your ‘Christian’ society.  The trouble was that the borders of Christendom were continent-wide, making exile difficult in practice, and gradually ‘extermination’ came to mean sending the heretics ‘ex terminis’ in a more absolute way, by burning at the stake or other forms of death penalty (drowning was particularly favoured to deal with Anabaptists).   This was yet another way that Christendom distorts the original teaching, in which the Church was meant to live peaceably among their pagan neighbours, and those who were unacceptable to the church were simply excluded from the fellowship (and even then, with a hope of ultimate restoration); of course those excluded from the church would carry on living in the surrounding society.

 

And that is the kind of ‘extermination of the Crusaders’ that we need; not to kill them, but to simply exclude them from the church, to clear up the confusion that has existed since Constantine about the place of the church in the state and the association of the church with warfare.  It won’t happen overnight, and it needs to be done in a Christian way, by loving persuasion, that recognises the good intentions of those we disagree with.

 

I’ll leave it there for now; obviously there’s a major discussion to be had about ‘the next step’ … blog readers please contribute ….


[i] Yes, another practice which Islam seems to have shared with ‘Christendom’.  Jews or Muslims in Spain had often been coerced into accepting baptism, and then if they continued to practice their original faith, were treated as apostates to be burnt at the stake.  Or indeed, having been coerced, they were simply never trusted by the surrounding ‘Christians’.

But Seriously… (3) Worship in spirit and truth

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman she was impressed but also discomfited by his knowledge of the chequered relationships in her past; and she tried to turn the subject aside

“I perceive, sir, that you are a prophet.  Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, and you say Jerusalem is the proper place to worship”.

Jesus told her, “Believe me, woman, the time has come when you shall worship the Father neither merely in this mountain nor merely in Jerusalem.  You (the Samaritans) worship what you do not know; we (Jews) worship what we know, for salvation comes from among the Jews.  But the hour comes – and now is – when genuine worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is looking for such as his worshippers.  God is a spirit and his worshippers must worship on spirit and truth”.

Now here’s a question; for a time (starting around 1700) England had what was called the ‘Test Act’.  Basically, in an attempt to secure loyalty to the state and discourage the nonconformist movement, this law said that to qualify for certain positions in the state and certain benefits, people would be required to partake of Anglican communion.  In other words, you had to formally worship as an Anglican.  Among things covered by this and similar rules was University attendance, whence the fact that the nonconformists had to found colleges of their own, often of a very high standard, some of which still exist now as full modern universities.

These laws obviously taxed the consciences of serious nonconformists.  Many would refuse to conform; others somehow managed to convince themselves it was allowable, and took university places or became mayors, councillors, etc.  But in some ways the effect was worse on the other side.  Serious nonconformists might not engage in this token worship; but of course cynical unbelievers would be quite happy to formally profess faith and make the token gesture of worship in return for power, social position and money.  Does this sound like ‘worship in spirit and truth’?  How can the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper be truly fellowship when people are attending for social and worldly advantage?  And how could serious Christians use the Lord’s Supper in such a way, or tolerate such use?

To be fair most – though not all – modern Anglicans reject such practices.  In his book ‘Anglicanism’, written in 1958, Bishop Stephen Neill quotes a description of the Test Act as ‘an insidious degradation to which the Anglican Church in its alarm submitted, and from which it was not reluctantly delivered until the nineteenth century was well on its course’.  But the question still remains; how can you have a state privileged faith, either compelling worship, or penalising and discriminating against the non-conformist, or encouraging superficial worship for all kinds of insincere motives – and expect to see much of the sincere worship Jesus talks about?  You don’t need a totalitarian set-up with an inquisition or similar to seriously compromise the worship.

In a way Jesus’ point was precisely that he was bringing a ‘new covenant’ going beyond old ways; future worship would no longer be based on your nation and its customs, but on being reborn through faith.  The externals of worship – this place or that, for example, would no longer matter; sacrifices and temples would be superceded, as would distinctions like Jew and Samaritan, Greek and Roman.  Those changed by the spiritual new birth will gather for worship in a new way, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, people of every earthly nationality now incorporated into the people of God and praising God for their salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice.  And as we saw in the post about new birth (But Seriously) the state can’t properly have anything to do with this.  The state can’t legislate for new birth or for sincere worship; its worldly interference can only confuse and compromise the situation.

I will agree that there will still be some risk of insincerity even when the state is not involved; humans, being sinful, are always finding ways to get it wrong and either kid themselves that they are serving God or cynically act the part because it offers advantage even without the world’s power behind it.  But there is a great deal less risk when the church is as it should be, a ‘kingdom not of this world’:  a body where, if anything, belonging may risk persecution, discrimination, ridicule, and disadvantage within the state.  It is then far more likely that people will sincerely choose membership of the church, and participation in its worship, because they have been truly born again.  As sincere believers they will see spiritual rather than worldly advantage, even spiritual advantage despite material disadvantage.

They all laughed at Christopher Columbus….

… when he said the world was round”.  This belief is widespread; that the obscurantist Catholic Church believed in a flat earth and brave Columbus stood up for the new idea of a spherical earth and proved his point by his voyage to unexpectedly discover America rather than India – or ‘the Indies’ as he had thought.  It’s a good story, but it’s simply not true; in reality, Columbus had got it wrong and was very lucky America was there!

The sphericity of the earth had been known from some time BCE, and had its most thorough expression in the ideas of the astronomer Ptolemy.  In the Ptolemaic system the definitely spherical earth was the centre of the universe, with sun, moon, planets and stars revolving around the earth.  Though ‘pagan’ in origin rather than biblical, this was the system the Roman Catholic Church really believed through the Dark and Middle Ages of Europe.  In England Bede, centuries before Columbus, based his calculations for the date of Easter on the Ptolemaic system, and there is a point in his writings when he refers to the Earth as round, then realises that’s ambiguous and adds ‘that is, a sphere’.  At almost exactly the time of Columbus’ voyage, the Church was actually making the very different mistake of trying to defend the earth-centred Ptolemaic system against the new ‘sun-centred’ ideas of one Nicolas Copernicus!

The real objection in the Spanish court was not because the church taught a flat earth.  They believed in a round earth just as much as Columbus did – the problem was, they knew how big it was….  I can never remember whether it was two centuries before or after Jesus, but a clever Greek-Egyptian mathematician had calculated the circumference of the spherical earth.  He had heard that away south of Alexandria there was a place where on a certain day at midday the sun was absolutely straight overhead shining down a well.  On that day, he set up a pole so that he could measure the angle of the sun at Alexandria; then he had professional distance-measurers pace out the distance between Alexandria and the town with the well – after that simple geometry enabled him to calculate the circumference.  I understand he was right to well within ten-per-cent of the modern value.

And the trouble, which it appears Columbus’ opponents had realised, was that if the earth was that big, then Columbus wouldn’t get to the Indies by sailing westwards – the voyage would be so long he and his sailors would die of thirst or starvation weeks before reaching any known land.  They thought the Pacific and Atlantic were the two sides of the same ocean, and they knew it was big!!  And indeed they were right; by the time Columbus made landfall his supplies were running short and he might well not have been able to return home but for resupplying in what we now call the West Indies.

That being so, how did Columbus persuade the Spanish royalty to support his apparently doomed voyage?  Well the next bit involves some speculation even today, but it seems that in fact Columbus knew that there was a land there – it’s just that he wasn’t quite imaginative enough to envisage a whole ‘New World’ and therefore he reasonably but wrongly believed that land was India.  How did he know?  He knew because it had already been discovered – more than once!

The earliest example with any real certainty is the Irish legend of St Brendan, who set off with fellow monks in a sea-going curragh – a kind of super-coracle with a leather skin over a longship style frame.  Tim Severin has fairly convincingly reconstructed Brendan’s voyage to show how the various islands he describes fit, though a bit exaggerated,  with the real islands you would meet on a voyage across the North Atlantic – the Faeroes, Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland/Labrador.  Other Irish accounts are more fanciful but may have some truth behind them.  Wales has the legend of Prince Madoc founding a colony in America (though ‘Portmadoc’ with its famed Festiniog Railway is named after an early 19th Century Mr Madocks).

Definitely historical, the Vikings have the ‘Vinland Saga’ of a discovery of Labrador c1000CE.  The colony they established has been found archaeologically at ‘Lancey Meadows’ (actually ‘Jellyfish Creek’ from the French ‘L’Anse aux Meduses’) and lasted quite a few years before, like their colony of Greenland, it was made unsustainable by a medieval ‘Little Ice Age’.  The Scottish kingdom of Albany had an account of a New England colony – there is apparently an anomalous (though disputed) medieval tower in one coastal town.  And fishermen from Bristol had long been taking cod from the Grand Banks and may occasionally have gone to the land beyond.  Columbus, it seems, had traded in England and Northern Europe and heard these stories – so he could reassure his royal backers the journey would not be fruitless, even though he’d guessed wrong about the land these northerners had found; he probably thought Labrador was somewhere around Northern Japan/Eastern Siberia.

On the other hand, if the Spaniards wanted to lay claim to their discoveries, it wouldn’t be wise to be too open about that prior knowledge – that would cede a prior claim to those earlier discoverers.   So confusion remained.  Columbus’ discovery meant the opposition looked silly, though as I say in a way they were right apart from the unexpected new continent!

Where did the ‘flat earth’ story come from?  Apparently it came long after Columbus from 19th Century American author Washington Irving, better known for Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow; and it’s not clear whether he really believed his version – but he certainly intended to write anti-Catholic or possibly anti-religious propaganda.  When Irving’s account got attached to that catchy song quoted in my title, it became widely believed.

I am no great supporter of Roman Catholicism and its claims of authority.  It was bad enough that they got it wrong about Copernicus’ theory in a way that held back science in Catholic countries for centuries, and their treatment of Galileo was appalling and must cast serious doubt on the validity and the usefulness of the claim of supposed ‘papal infallibility’.  Bad enough also that they had an unbiblical place of privilege in states which enabled them to force their views upon people against the evidence.  But I’m far from happy to see a false account of the Columbus episode put about as anti-church propaganda and causing serious confusion for people’s understanding of those times – and indeed of earlier times, as people who have fallen for Irving’s travesty will also fail to realise how advanced science and knowledge was even back to ancient Greece.  As a Christian, truth should be paramount because Jesus himself is the Truth.   Lies are of the Devil even when they are attacking and mocking my enemies.  There is plenty for which the Catholics can be legitimately criticised, and no need whatever to make up false stories about them.  And anyway, the truth about the Columbus episode, with its confusion and all those prior stories of the discovery of America, is much more interesting.