Democracy and Referenda

In our recent referendum I was basically on the side of ‘Remain’ partly because on the economic side I had realised that compared to when we were last ‘out of Europe’ we had the Commonwealth, the remnants of the former British Empire, still rather geared for trade with us, and we don’t have that any more, and partly because I’m quite worried by some of the narrow nationalism and even sheer racism of many on the ‘Leave’ side. Lots of attitudes there I’m not comfortable with….

But this was a case where there wasn’t really an obvious ‘Christian’ answer on the issue, especially for an Anabaptist with no desire to be bossing the state around. This item is more on the topic of democracy itself.

It is well known that the Greeks invented democracy. And like lots of ‘well known’ things, that’s only a part truth. For starters, it was basically the Athenians, not all the Greeks, Greece back then was rather like Germany before Napoleon, or Dark Age Britain – a collection of small independent states, usually based on a city. And even Athenian democracy wasn’t much like ours. To start with, only Athenian citizens could vote. Adults only, like us; but NOT women, and NOT slaves – so only quite a small minority to begin with. I’m not even sure it was all the men – ancient societies often only recognised a man as adult when his father died or he married and had his own household…. And although Athens ruled quite a wide area and even had an overseas empire, most of the people of the empire couldn’t vote, and even most of those in the mainland Greek bit of the empire wouldn’t be entitled. On top of which, voting only took place in assemblies physically meeting in Athens – so even citizens could only vote when they were around to attend the assemblies, and in an age without phones and internet etc., many decisions would be taken before some citizens even heard about the issue….

And Greeks didn’t, in fact, regard democracy all that highly. Plato, an Athenian himself, really despised it and preferred something we’d regard as pretty much ‘Fascism’. He probably did realise that his hypothetical alternative of ‘philosopher kings’ was idealism a bit outside real world probability….

Why was democracy thought bad? Well basically, because it wasn’t like our system, electing representatives to turn things; rather, it was like having an endless series of referenda, mass public votes in an assembly of thousands gathered together. And the problem was that it could all too easily turn into a nasty kind of ‘mob rule’ with decisions being taken thoughtlessly, irrationally, very heat of the moment and carried away by not always desirable emotions; and often by only the day after they’d have changed their minds and realised the problems of the decision – but it might be too late to correct it. One story has them deciding a brutal punishment for a rebellious place in their empire, and the next day having to send a fast galley to catch the messengers of the first decision and prevent the punishment…. Yes, the people got their say – but at the expense of a lack of stability, and sometimes the unleashing of the nastiest aspects of human feeling.

I’m not suggesting that our system is perfect – it very much ain’t! But our ‘representative’ system is a quite good compromise that avoids much of the faults of Athens’ democracy, and gives some of the good points of other systems but moderating their bad points. We get many of the potential advantages of kingship or aristocratic rule – but with ‘kings’ who are accountable to the wider citizenship through the electoral process, not just selfish ‘autocrats’.

But a referendum sets that aside….

One of the problems is that in the UK we don’t have the kind of formal written constitution that many countries like the USA have, carefully written down to provide all kinds of ‘checks and balances’, including for example the provision for a ‘Supreme Court’ to review our parliament’s decisions to check whether they’re constitutional or not. Our arrangements have evolved in a more ad hoc kind of way and much of it is a matter of ‘convention’ which doesn’t really have any legal binding force and could in theory be overturned by Parliament tomorrow.

Written Constitutions tend to recognise that some rights, for example, should be stable and long-term and not able to be easily changed perhaps on a day when many MPs are absent or some such – or indeed generally changed by a short-term majority. Changing the actual Constitution and the long term rights it enshrines will generally require much more than a simple majority vote. Typically the change will require both that a larger than usual quorum of MPs must be present, AND that even then a larger majority than ‘50%+1’ must vote for the change; and something like a referendum may be required as well, and again with a significant majority required, not just a few. A typical phrasing might be that change requires “Two thirds of those present and voting”. In other words there’s a serious effort to ensure that the change requires pretty much a true majority in the country positively voting for it, as opposed to just the votes of a party that may have been elected by the votes of only a quarter of the country….

And that, I think is arguably the problem of our recent referendum; such a change should have required a greater majority endorsing it, to be a truly clear victory rather than a ‘close call’ that might have been different for essentially accidental reasons. (I’m not sure of the truth of this but I heard the other day that before the referendum Nigel Farage himself had said that a vote as close as 52/48 would be unsatisfactory!) As it is, it is likely to leave things unsettled for quite a while to come, and that’s bad in itself.

So one of the things I’m saying is that it may be time to have a firmer written constitution for the UK, with the necessary provisions to protect the constitution itself and the relevant rights, and provide a firm basis for referenda. Essentially – that constitutional change requires a truly decisive majority.

I’m generally in favour of democracy – other systems may be more efficient at times, but the flexibility and pluralism of democracy generally wins out. Yes, a dictator is more efficient – but what if the guy with that power is evil?

On the other hand, I don’t worship democracy, and I’ve a feeling that too many people in the West do effectively worship it. And democracy has its limits; there are many aspects of reality which simply can’t be changed no matter how often you vote for them to be changed. You can’t change 2 + 2 = 4 by voting for a different answer; the most you can achieve is to change the names of the numbers, which will nevertheless continue themselves to behave as they have always done. And the Earth will basically orbit the Sun like Copernicus said and that can’t be changed by a vote. (And BTW, yes I do know that technically the two bodies actually orbit their common centre of gravity – in this case the practical difference is minimal… and you still can’t make the old Ptolemaic system true just by voting on it!!)

Anyway, the above is thoughts inspired by the referendum. I think I’ll do a separate post on some other aspects, like how you get democracy to work if you also believe in a decidedly monarchical God….

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About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.

Rethinking Ecumenism

It was a good sermon from a guy who is a hospital chaplain, based on Acts 15.  That’s the episode now rather grandly known as the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ though it can’t in reality have been much like the later Nicaea or Vatican II; in this council the mostly Jewish early Christians tried to work out how to accommodate an influx of Gentile Christians, and decide how much Jewish customs they needed to impose on these new recruits – circumcision, kosher diet, and so forth.  I’ll leave you to read the details of the ‘Council’ for yourselves, I want to focus on the principles the preacher drew from the passage and consider their implications for the ecumenical/church unity project.

One principle was “Talk about it”.  Now I recall the ecumenism of the 1960s when everyone was really keen to resolve the differences between Christians by discussing them; but that doesn’t seem to happen much now.  Rather, we seem to have decided that where we differ, we won’t talk about it, just each denomination carry on as before and, well, just not discuss differences.  Now of course in a lot of cases the differences really don’t matter all that much and the churches can just carry on with their different customs; but the trouble is that this silence is also meaning that the important differences don’t get discussed – and one very important one in particular, the relationship of the Church to the world or the ‘Christian country’ issue.  

This issue is particularly important just now because of the difficulties the world is having with Islam.  It really matters, at a life and death/possibility of warfare level, whether Christianity is a religion which expects the kind of dominance in the state that Islam aspires to, with Sharia law to be imposed on all, or some lesser kind of privilege or favour in the state compared to other religions/faiths, or perhaps Christianity doesn’t work that way at all but the NT teaches us some other way to relate to the world around us….  We need to be talking about it, and in talking about it, other ideas from that sermon seem relevant.

Two of the points were actually almost the same thing from different angles – “Stick to basics/essentials” and “No ‘Jesus AND… some other thing’ such as the circumcision and kosher food issues of the original council”. 

The case for ‘Jesus AND circumcision’ or ‘Jesus AND kosher diet’ was plausible in a faith which had grown out of Jewish roots and Old Testament promises, but the apostles and church were able to see that these things were no longer essential in the new covenant.  It might be thought that as Israel not so much had a state church as was a state church, there would be a plausible case for the ‘Christian country’ too.  But interestingly that doesn’t seem to have been considered in the early church.  Partly because the issue wouldn’t arise anyway while the church was only just starting, but more importantly because Jesus had ruled it out.  The Church knew of his trial before Pilate and the implications of his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world, and of his rejection of the sword because those who take it up perish by it, and so on.  They knew they were trying to set up a different kind of kingdom to either the Roman Empire or the old ethnic Jewish kingdom, a kingdom of those who heard and followed Jesus rather than those who were forced by worldly power, those spiritually re-born rather than just born once. 

In line with that they positively set up, and taught as the ideal, a church which was not connected to particular nations, but was itself God’s holy nation throughout the earth, not confused with the surrounding society but called out from it as a witness to God’s ways.  In the context of that kind of thinking, ‘Jesus AND Christian states’ is really impossible, not just non-essential.

“Don’t make things difficult” was another principle our preacher highlighted.  The idea of ‘Christian countries’ makes things difficult for ecumenism and also in many other directions – indeed the other things it makes difficult are a difficulty for ecumenism too, as in how much are you willing to be united with churches that make things difficult for both non-Christians and for other Christians?

As a fairly simple example – obviously I want to be united with my fellow-Christians who are Anglicans, and informally I very much am, in fact.  Not only in religious terms either, a couple of months ago I was showing off one of my model railways at a ‘Model Railway Extravaganza’ at a local parish church, letting the visitors to the show actually drive my trains.  Again, the Baptist church I go to is currently involved with several other local churches, including the Anglicans, in setting up a ‘community café’ in the local high street.  But while the Anglican church is deeply constitutionally entangled with the state, and the head of state is its earthly ‘supreme governor’ and so on, formal union is going to be a bit difficult – union with my fellow Christians, fine; union with England as a supposed ‘Christian country’ carries a lot of real difficulties, just starting with the fact that Christian states are a Bible-defying concept anyway!  

There are also issues of warfare; even if I didn’t anyway believe the Bible teaches pacifism, what am I to make of all the past situations when Christians fought one another – for example WWI, with the Kaiser’s ‘Gott mit uns’ (“God is on our side”) set against similar slogans from the nations allied against Germany, and Christians shooting at each other not even in a properly religious cause (though I’d regard Christians fighting for their religion as worse, actually!).  The Church is God’s holy nation worldwide; are the members of that body to end up killing each other because some local churches have got themselves entangled with the world?  How can we have it that our unity as Christians can depend on the rivalries of worldly states?

How are English Anglicans and, say, Swedish Lutherans to achieve a formal unity while both are deeply embedded in the constitutions of countries which in worldly terms may have all kinds of competing interests?  I’m not even going to try and work that one out…!

Much of the concern in the Council of Jerusalem is with difficulties caused for unbelievers/other-believers/potential believers/ new converts; in a particular form then, related to the Jewish origins of our faith, in slightly different ways today.  .  These issues also have implications for our unity, because they cause confusion about the gospel, they interfere with the work of evangelism.   Remember that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his people applies to their relations to the world!  Also the difficulties can reflect on Christians who don’t practice them as well as on those who do.  And in some cases that actually risks the lives of fellow-Christians for inappropriate reasons, especially when dealing with adherents of other state religions.

For the difficulties posed to atheists and agnostics by the state church kind of set-up, just look at the writings of people like Richard Dawkins.  Huge areas of their objections to ‘religion’ are not about the theology/philosophy but about the antics of various state religions and the warfare, discrimination and so forth not only of the past but still continuing in places like Northern Ireland, and of course also in Islam and other non-Christian religions.  Also I often these days find myself talking to people worried by the state-religion/Sharia-law aspect of Islam and also saying that they don’t want a Christian equivalent.  The shenanigans of the Anglicans about issues like women priests and gay marriage are a major problem precisely because they remain a state church and it can appear that they are therefore the state still discriminating in those areas, and their past conduct, like it or not, has kept such issues unnecessarily heated.  For church unity the issue is whether it is really practical for the rest of us to even work with such bodies, let alone be formally and organisationally united with them, when their position about the state can needlessly hinder our mission to the assorted non-believers around us?

With other religions, the problem is often that like Islam, they are themselves national or state religions in one way or another, and have theologies about warfare which ‘free church’ Christians may find unacceptable.  This brings many issues.  Just for starters, it’s not easy to complain about other religions practising things like national Sharia law enforced on non-Muslims if Christians themselves appear to want something similar.  Unfortunately the argument that it’s all right for us because “We have the true religion” isn’t going to impress anyone else!!  That way round it’s not the difference that poses the difficulty, it’s that some Christians are agreeing with them about the religious state issue and setting a bad example when they shouldn’t!

War is another problem.  Biblically, according to the New Testament, Christians don’t have ‘Christian countries’ with armies to threaten others, we ‘turn the other cheek’ rather than defending ourselves, so we just aren’t in the warfare business – well, shouldn’t be, anyway!  Christian countries fighting wars are a fairly obvious problem to the states adhering to other religions in which the wars take place, and by reflection to adherents of those religions who live in the UK.  A great deal of the difficulty in recent wars has been, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the perception of the West as ‘Christian countries’ and therefore of our armies in the Middle East being ‘Crusading Christian armies’ rather than the liberal democratic armies we perceive.

This is bad enough for the British and other western armies who find themselves fighting a war made intractable by such perceptions and the resulting cross-purposes, and for Britons at home facing terrorism.   But it is even worse for native Christians in Muslim lands throughout the East and Africa, because they are seen as allies of those ‘crusading’ armies of those ‘Christian countries’ and are persecuted for it.  It isn’t easy at best to be a Christian in a Muslim country, there are considerable discriminations and restrictions under Sharia law, but there is supposed to be some basic tolerance.  That tolerance doesn’t work when there are ‘Christians’ at war with Islamic countries.

So there’s the thing; how great an idea is it to be united with Christians whose ambitions for a Christian state are not only unbiblical but put our fellow Christians in unnecessary mortal danger?  Christians being persecuted for being Christians, despite being peaceable, is bad enough; but being persecuted because of unbiblical worldly power and influence seeking by other Christians is surely unacceptable, and the said worldly power-seekers and their unbiblical ideas should themselves be unacceptable in turn.

Also, many of those eastern Christians derive from western missions – missions often by those state churches in their state’s colonies.  This means that they have often inherited those same ‘Christian country’ ideas from the parent churches; and that in turn adds to their problems from the Muslims (or other religions) around them.  In many former Western colonies, Christians and Muslims are effectively at war – real shooting war – because the Christian country idea legitimates that kind of conduct in the same way that the Muslim equivalent does.  You could sort of argue that such Christians ‘deserve’ their problems – but of course they’re just following what they’ve learned from the Western missions.  The whole situation is a mess.

If we take Christian unity seriously, shouldn’t we be trying – REALLY HARD – to get rid of this whole problem??  Shouldn’t we be challenging those who hold this bad idea – seeking to persuade them that it isn’t at all essential, but very much the reverse??  That a comfortable situation in a Western country bought at the price of unnecessarily persecuted brethren overseas is a disgrace, not a benefit.

Another big problem state churches bring to ecumenism is in the history; essentially, most of the things that divide mainstream denominations are things that arose not from the Bible but as traditions in the ‘Christian countries’ back to the Roman Imperial church.  For purposes of this essay I’ll take for granted the Reformation view that over the thousand years since Constantine the Roman Catholic Church had gradually become more corrupted.  As I see it, much of this corruption arose from being a state church, first as part of the wider body that included the later ‘Eastern Orthodox’, and then as the surviving authority of the old Empire in the mixed states that arose in the west from the barbarian invasions. 

Things like monarchical bishops, which had only been trends, became fixed because they suited an imperial church.  Infant baptism was another such trend – before Constantine, this had been sporadic and generally about infants not expected to survive to exercise adult faith, but obviously it suited the Imperial church that everybody was automatically ‘christened’ soon after birth.  Once Theodosius made it a rule that ‘Everybody in my Empire is a Christian or else’, the church necessarily became a mixed body with many members who were just ‘once-born’ rather than spiritually reborn, and whose approach to Christianity was really worldly, including that often people would be seeking high church office because it had become a worldly advantage, and that all kinds of pagan superstitions infiltrated the church with these rather nominal members – and so on….

Come the Reformation, a raft of traditional accretions which had been added to the simple gospel over the centuries were challenged.  Unfortunately the link between church and state wasn’t challenged in far too many places; people had just got too used to thinking of the church in such terms, or if it was raised, there was fear because the state authorities wouldn’t support an independent church and they thought such an independent church couldn’t stand up against the worldly power of the Catholics.  (In honesty they were kind of right about this; at this time Anabaptists were able to grow in a way previously almost impossible in the ‘space’ created by the rivalry of Catholic and Protestant states)  But with a secular authority to satisfy as the new Reformed churches were integrated into their states, there wasn’t freedom to be fully biblical in other areas either, so instead of full reform the state churches ‘settled out’ in various semi-reformed conditions as reformers and governments accommodated to each other.  Some went further than others, but the continued ‘Christian country’ thinking was a hindrance.

Looking at the major things that divide the mainstream churches, there is the link between church and state, there is the style of government/ ministry, and there is baptism, infants vs believers’ (‘Paedobaptism’ vs ‘Credobaptism’).  Most of the other differences are pretty insignificant.

The Church/State link is the main subject of ‘stevesfreechurchblog’ anyway, so not too much detail in this post.  Just to point out that this can range from full establishment of a church as with the Church of England  to various other ways a particular church or Christianity in general can be favoured or privileged in the state and expect the state to conform to our faith.  Ian Paisley, for example, wouldn’t want a fully established church, but he still wants a ‘Protestant country’, with the resulting ‘Troubles’.

Church government; basically most of the state churches have a ‘top-down’ government of some kind and elaborate bureaucracies – the kind of thing you’d expect of a state religion.  The Anglicans and some others have preserved the episcopalian structure of the former Catholic Church, and many would believe in some kind of ‘apostolic succession’ in which clergy appoint clergy and ordination is considered quasi-magical rather than any democratic appointment.  While the NT is arguably fairly free about church government, some of these systems are unhelpful and certainly are ‘non-essentials’.

It is fairly simple fact that when people start from the NT and do ministry as that suggests they all tend to produce very similar patterns, while so many of the other patterns are clearly ‘hangovers’ from the age of state churches.  So again the state church poses a seemingly unnecessary difficulty for unity among Christians.

Baptism; obviously all churches practice believer’s baptism for converts old enough to do their own believing (which can be surprisingly young, though I’d hesitate to follow Spurgeon who I think once baptised an 8-year-old).  Baptising babies is a very different thing and needs some dubious biblical interpretation to justify it.  I think the practice originally arose from two factors, the baptism of children not expected to survive and an understanding of baptism as a quasi-magical washing away of sin rather than a response of faith to God.  But again, the state church with the desire to ‘christen’ everybody for social conformity, and the social ‘rite of passage’ angle (in state not just the church) distorts the argument.

On these ‘big’ differences and also other smaller differences which have arisen in and from the Christendom era, the need is to recognise them as such later developments and to apply to them the tests implied by the Council of Jerusalem and the sermon that triggered this blog – tests of how essential/basic are they, and of the difficulties they may make and whether those are inherent difficulties of the faith or unnecessary difficulties arising from illegitimate traditions. 

At five pages this is about enough.  Our preacher’s message about not making difficulties in the church or with potential converts and so on applies very much to this situation.  This whole Christian country is no part of ‘Mere Christianity’, of the real basics, the real essentials.  Over the centuries it has caused massive distress and mayhem in the name of Christ, and it still does.

LET’S START THINKING OF CHRISTIAN UNITY IN TERMS OF GETTING RID OF IT.

Then we can be united God’s way….

Prince Charles and the Islamic Threat

I picked up a newspaper item about Prince Charles being very concerned at deteriorating Christian/Muslim relations, persecution of Christians in Muslim countries, and so on, particularly that Christianity is now threatened with extinction in the Middle East where it originated.  He was complaining that problems were being deliberately exacerbated by people with an interest in conflict.  He seemed totally oblivious that he – or at least, his family’s relationship to England’s established church – is a major part of the problem

The Prince seemed to hold the view that there’s a ‘nice’ form of Islam which doesn’t do wars and persecutions.  Indeed there is – sort of.  The problem is that any Muslim who goes back to the fundamentals and the origin of the religion will find that during Muhammad’s lifetime he was leading armies himself, ordering followers to conduct military raids, having people put to death, establishing Islam in Mecca by force (as in, a massive battle was only avoided by the Meccans’ surrender), and clearly setting up Islam as an ‘established’ state religion with a clear intent to become the global religion by conquest if necessary.  There are traces of an early period when Muhammad seems to have thought he might spread Islam purely peaceably, but this didn’t last long, though it does leave anomalies like that text often quoted about ‘let there be no compulsion in religion’.  A ‘nice’ war-and-persecution-free Islam is not the authentic original, and Muslims wanting to be authentic will reject that ‘nice’ version.  There isn’t going to be an easy answer to that one….

Having said that, Muslims are supposed to be tolerant of Christians, Jews, and other monotheistic ‘peoples of a/the book’ – though in an Islamic state, that toleration is by Western standards quite severe discrimination.  However, that tolerance understandably does not extend to when those others are actually at war with Islam.

The other part of the problem is that Muslims perceive Christianity as the same kind of religion as Islam; that is, a religion which aims to be established in the state and is willing to extend and defend itself by war, and which in Christian states persecutes dissenters.  And of course by the time of Muhammad that was indeed the case, with the Roman Empire’s ‘Catholic’ church which eventually split into western ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Eastern Orthodox’, while later an alliance of the churches fought the Crusades which are still ingrained in Muslim memory.  And, which is where Prince Charles comes in, there are still various churches to this day which are either fully ‘established’ as state churches or in various ways privileged in western states, and which still teach the ideal of a ‘Christian state’ even if perhaps a bit tenuous and nominal.  [The churches concerned include Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran in various states, and again in various states Presbyterian/Reformed churches.  Many nominally independent churches may nevertheless teach that the state should be broadly Christian and should give Christianity in general a privileged position.  The USA has a strange position of emphatically not having a single favoured church but nevertheless being assumed to be ‘Christian’ by most of its citizens, a perception which as a result is shared by most Muslims.]

With that perception of Christianity it has been all too easy for Muslims to interpret recent western intervention in the east as a renewal of the Crusades, a Christian war against Islam itself.  Even for Muslims who live here in the UK, such is their own faith’s doctrine of ‘taw’hid’ (I think I got that right) or ‘oneness’ that they have serious difficulty with the concept of ‘separation of state and church’ and can’t understand that Britain isn’t that much of a Christian country any more.  The West more or less got way with ‘Gulf War I’, the liberation of Kuwait, because we went in at the invitation of Arab states and stopped when we had achieved what they wanted, rather than carrying on to do further things that we might have wished.  Even so, the mere presence of troops of infidels in holy Saudi Arabia was apparently a major factor for bin Laden, leading to the rise of Al Qaida and it’s targeting of the west.

Afghanistan again we might have got away with had we limited our aims to an attempt to destroy Al Qaida and catch or kill Osama bin Laden, and had we withdrawn when it was clear that Osama wasn’t there anymore.  Other Arab states would probably have accepted such limited aims.  By carrying on and trying to impose western ideas in a country not really ready for them, we have looked more and more like Crusaders against Islam itself, and we have paid the price. 

‘Gulf War II’ against Iraq was a bad idea not least because Saddam was not in league with bin Laden but a different and almost opposed faction in Islam,  and many Muslims considered him a marginal Muslim who only ‘played the Muslim card’ to get support as his gambles got him into trouble.  Again, our continued occupation and attempts to ‘democratise’ Iraq in western style have been provocative to many Muslims.

The perception of the West as ‘Christian’ has made these wars intractable for our soldiers – indeed in realistic terms unwinnable, though we may be near to a withdrawal leaving a messy situation with lots of unresolved issues – and it’s also been a major reason for the persecution of native Christians in the Middle East that worries the Prince.  Why so?  Simply because they are seen as ‘allies’ of the ‘Christian Crusading armies’ of the US and UK and other western states that have become involved.  And how will we convince Muslims that this isn’t true when our state has an established Christian Church, the Church of England, whose supreme earthly governor is our monarch, head of state and ultimate commander of those ‘Christian Crusading armies’?  She is also, of course, Prince Charles’ mother, and when he inherits the monarchy he will also inherit her role in the Church…!

The tragedy and irony of the situation is that Christianity was never meant to be the same kind of state religion as Islam, entangled with earthly governments, but something rather different.  There’s even a reasonably plausible argument that had Muhammad been faced with the original form of Christianity rather than the Roman Imperial version, Islam might never have developed, or could have been significantly different.  The bad example of the Imperial church in Muhammad’s time, and the later wars with ‘Christendom’, both Islamic conquests and the western ‘Crusades’ and other wars, have left a terrible legacy, and it is past time to sort this out.  If Charles really wants to help persecuted Christians, the most useful thing he could do would be to disclaim the established Church of England, and play what limited role he can as a constitutional monarch to free Christianity from the state in the UK so it can be the faith it was designed to be, and set Islam a very different example of how God’s people should live in the world.

In the same week as Charles’ comments, the Sunday Telegraph carried a headline “Labour; We must now ‘do God’”, and two related internal articles in which Labour MP Douglas Alexander said we must do more to ‘address the threat to Christians abroad’, and challenges the way ‘political correctness’ has made politicians unwilling to speak out to defend Christianity.  An editorial piece said much the same.  I was actually quite happy about this – I’d feared on seeing the headline that Labour might be about to reassert the notion of England as a ‘Christian country’, which wouldn’t have been helpful.  Nevertheless Mr Alexander, like the Prince, seemed oblivious to his own part in the problem as a member of the Church of Scotland.  The Church of Scotland is not formally established in quite the same sense as the Anglicans in England, but it is nevertheless formally the national church of Scotland, and the church in which the royals worship when they are in Scotland, and so is part of the same ‘Christian state’ issue which leads Muslims to see Christians as a proper target for persecution.  Again, if Mr Alexander wants to help the foreign Christians, he needs to start by changing the status of his own church in the UK.

And again, just before Christmas the Daily Telegraph carried another front page story about the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, concerned that Christians here in the UK are cowed and fearful of talking about their faith.  Again, he doesn’t seem to see that the onslaught of political correctness here is a backlash against the former improper dominance of Christianity in the UK, particularly in the ‘established’ status of his own church.   While a few have responded by trying to reassert that old dominance and insist on the UK being a ‘Christian country’, many more can see that that isn’t possible or proper; but unfortunately haven’t yet been able to formulate or work out a better idea about their status in the UK.  Consequently they are diffident and don’t have a sound confident biblical response to the PC brigade, and therefore have difficulty in speaking out.  Again the Archbishop needs to realise that he and his church are part of the problem and must change. 

A final thought – if I were to go by those I talk to or meet in internet forums, and most of the others I hear about elsewhere, the Church of England doesn’t have any members who really believe in the establishment, and the only reason they don’t do anything about it is because they don’t believe it matters any more.  Mostly they are comfortable where they are and haven’t realised their establishment is taken more seriously by extremist Muslims, and indeed in this country by extremist ‘Loyalists’ and ‘Unionists’ in Ulster for whom the Protestant establishment is what they are loyal to and want to be united with.  I’m working on a separate blog about this phenomenon, but it’s a bit worrying that a major factor in Christians abroad being persecuted is an establishment here that its own members don’t take seriously.

PS – since writing the above, Christmas saw both the current Archbishop of Canterbury and a leading Roman Catholic also speaking out about the persecution of Christians.  About the Archbishop, see above; for the Roman Catholic, I’m not sure that Muslims will be very convinced by a representative of the Church which basically ran the original Crusades now complaining that Christians are being persecuted by Muslims.  Hmmm!!

Gay Marriage Issues

 

Currently suffering workmen in the flat, I haven’t been able to prepare much for a few weeks, I’ve resorted to re-using something I originally wrote in response to someone else’s blog; his topic was the then headlining ‘gay marriage’ issue.  I’ve slightly edited for its role on my blog….

What many people haven’t realised is that there is a constitutional issue because of our established church in England which means that the gay marriage/civil partnership thing is rather more than just playing with words.

People in society make all kinds of legal relationships of varying degrees of formality, including business deals of all kinds, family affairs, etc.  Some kinds of relationship are so common, and often affect others, that the state provides legal ‘templates’ to facilitate and regulate those relationships/contracts/covenants/ wills, etc.  In some cases, these relationships are so valued by the state, and considered worthy of encouragement, that the state offers various kinds of benefit to those in the relationships, such as tax breaks.  Family agreements – some private, some state recognised – may confer inheritance rights, next of kin rights, and so on.  Marriage has been such a relationship until recently, though there have been some changes.

In a pluralist society, such legal templates of relationships should be largely neutral – that is, they should be about what is convenient in the state, not what one or other religion believes; and they should be available on an equal basis.   In a specifically religious society some such situations will be defined by the religion in question and the state’s support of the relationships may be biased by that priority. 

Exactly how these provisions might best be changed for an equitable settlement in a plural society is probably too complicated to discuss here.  The key for us is to be clear on the Christian position, which is that we don’t expect a privileged position for ourselves in society.  We are citizens of the kingdom of heaven living on earth as ‘resident aliens’; we do marriage voluntarily because we obey God, not because we get tax breaks or because it’s the law of the land.  If society provides an acceptable framework for our marriages in some sort of civil partnership, we can of course use it. 

The current position in our society is that though we are very nearly a fully pluralist democracy, technically we are still a ‘Christian state’ with an established church of which the monarch is earthly ‘supreme governor’.  Therefore in England other beliefs and practices – even though now realistically the majority – are still only ‘tolerated’ rather than fully and equally accepted.   Marriage in the Church of England is therefore still technically slightly privileged and separate in some ways from the system under which civil and non-conformist marriages are conducted.   For gay people, if the Church of England, the state church, continues to see gay life as inferior and refuses to ‘marry’ them in that church, this is essentially still discrimination not just in but by the state itself, whose church the C of E is.  They will not be satisfied that they are equal until the state church gives them the full recognition they seek – in this case, equality in the state’s Anglican church including marriage by its rites.

Equally, so long as the state refuses to tackle this issue of the established church, any debate we have on marriage is going to be confused by the special privileged status of Anglicanism and to a lesser extent of Christianity in general, and therefore the debate will be unsatisfactory.  The Anglicans themselves will be facing serious conflict between on the one hand the desire to continue their special place in the state, and on the other hand the desire to uphold the moral teaching of Christianity on gay issues. 

There is really no way out of this conflict so long as Anglicanism remains a state church.   Which might be OK if that was what the New Testament itself teaches; but my reading is precisely that the NT does not teach that, but teaches a very different way for God’s people to live in the various states throughout the world.  In the NT, it is the Church itself which is God’s holy nation, and no earthly nation can properly make itself a ‘Christian country’.  This doesn’t just affect the gay issues; I was first drawn to consider the ‘Christian country’ issue by seeing its effects in Ulster when the ‘Troubles’ kicked off while I was a student in the late 60s, and it’s also very relevant to all the current problems with Islam.

If Christianity does not have a privileged position in society, the whole issue becomes different; including the proposition that in a truly plural democracy we are entitled to disagree with the gay lobby and others so long as we don’t want our disagreement to be expressed by discrimination by the law.  Again, working that out in detail will need a separate post in future….

Marching as to War

Another night of riots over parades in Ulster.  As near as I can work out, what has happened is that last year a ‘Loyalist’ parade provoked considerable disorder in a ‘Republican’ area.  As a result, the authorities (The Parades Commission?) revised the route of this year’s march.  Loyalists complained that this was ‘rewarding’ the Republicans for the previous year’s violence so they called for a protest which more or less inevitably descended into violence and riot despite calls for peace from the Orange Order and various politicians.

Now the democratic right of protest/demonstration I’m quite happy with.  But this particular cause of violent protest I’m very unhappy about.  Why?  Because these people purport to be ‘Bible-believing Christians’, and their conduct doesn’t fit with biblical teaching.

The basic purpose of these parades is to commemorate the ‘Protestant’ victory of the 17th Century.  The practical effect in modern terms is that the Orange Order and similar bodies stage triumphalist marches whose message is that we won and you Catholics and Republicans lost and are second-class citizens in our state.  Obviously there is no major disorder problem when these events take place in ‘Protestant’ areas; but there are places where the routes run through ‘Catholic’ areas.  I don’t know how much this is original intention – i.e. that the routes always ran through Catholic enclaves with provocative intent – or how much it may be because populations have shifted over the years; but clearly staging such triumphalist parades in Catholic areas is provocative in itself.  Complaining at the Catholics for being provoked is … not really a fair complaint, is it?  Staging your own riot and bomb-throwing in response, at great cost to the public purse and great risk to the police (most of whom are still as individuals Protestants and theoretically on the same side as the rioters), seems a rather strange reaction.

Worse, it’s an unbiblical reaction in all kinds of ways.  Two straightforward quotes just to start with, one from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, one from Paul in Romans 12.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s sons.

In no case paying back evil for evil, determine on the noblest ways of dealing with all people.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Now can someone please explain to me how staging these provocative triumphalist parades can possibly be interpreted as ‘peace-making’?  Simply on that ground, Bible-believing Christians should have nothing to do with them in the first place, let alone be claiming that they are for a ‘Bible-believing Christian’ cause!!  Should they not be seeking to receive the blessing as peacemakers, rather than risking the implicit judgement upon those who break the peace?

In no case paying back evil for evil” – even if you are unhappy at having your parade shortened, the rioting looks to me remarkably like paying back evil for evil.  It certainly doesn’t look like what Paul says about following the noblest ways in dealing with people, or ‘living at peace with everyone so far as it depends on you’ ; still less does it look like what he says at the end of that chapter…

Do not revenge yourselves, dear friends… instead, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; in case he is thirsty, give him drink.  For by doing so you will pile burning coals on his head (i.e. you will make him feel guilt and shame for his evil at your expense).  Be not overpowered by evil, but master evil with good.

Furthermore, defying the Parades Commission and other authorities brings this conduct under Paul’s words in the next chapter, Romans 13.

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been appointed by God.  Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

So the authorities curtailed your parade – be subject to them and let it go!  Now I am aware of ‘the one exception’ to this, which is Peter’s statement in Acts 5; 29 that “We must obey God rather than men”.  I have on my bookshelves Robert Haldane’s massive tome on Romans in which he clearly states that one exception; and I also have on my shelves Ian Paisley’s commentary in which he quotes Haldane on that point.  Or rather, misquotes him, for the one thing Haldane makes clear is that Peter’s words still do not justify ‘resisting the authorities’ by military or other force.  If you have access to a copy of Haldane, check that out for yourself.

Let me explain; it isn’t fully obvious in the English, but Paul in fact is using Greek semi-puns here, words which have a common root.  A bit ago for a sermon I paraphrased the text to bring this out, losing I grant a bit of accuracy but showing the common roots

“Everybody must be subject to the state authorities, because there is no authority except under God, and those that do exist are part of God’s project.  Whoever objects with violence to the existing authority opposes that divine project, and by opposing brings divine judgement upon himself.”

I phrased it ‘object with violence’ because I recall a querulous ‘I violently object ’ as being a somewhat comic or even ‘camp’ phrase not giving quite the right impression.  Paul’s actual word means something on the lines of ‘stand in array against’ like an army, whether a formal army of a state or the less formal forceful opposition of rioters.  It is precisely about resisting the state by force.  Of course Paul recognised the idea of ‘obeying God rather than men’ and in instructing us to ‘be subject’ he is not advocating a servile obedience to whatever wrong the state might require us to do.  But our obeying God does not justify a forceful or violent response; hey, this is the same Paul who clearly told us that “…we do not war with carnal weapons.  For the weapons of our warfare are not physical weapons, but they are powerful with God’s help for the tearing down of fortresses.”

Peter has the same basic position as is clearly shown both by the context of his statement in Acts and by the teaching of his First Epistle.  In Acts, Peter is not raising a rebellion, or gathering Christian paramilitaries to oppose the authorities; he and his fellow apostles were simply preaching the gospel!  When they were arrested, they did not fight back – Peter had learned better on the night of Jesus’ arrest – they peaceably allowed themselves to be arrested and would have clearly submitted to/‘been subject to’ any penalty the authorities might have inflicted.  And Peter teaches the same in his epistle.

Read for yourself the sequence starting in I Peter 2; 12 through to 3; 17 (and echoed in much of the rest of the epistle).  Peter repeats Paul’s admonition to ‘be subject’ to the authorities, and then not only with the authorities of government but also with the lesser authorities of slave-owners and unbelieving husbands, he instructs his readers to be willing, following the example of Jesus, to suffer unjustly.  Again, not to rebel, not to riot – not even to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ or ‘self-appointed managers of other people’s business’ (4; 15), but to be peaceable ‘parepidemoi’ which almost literally translates to our modern phrase ‘resident aliens’ (i.e. citizens of the kingdom of heaven living on earth).

Applying this to the parade situation; well, stop the inflammatory parades!  They aren’t ‘obeying God rather than men’; there is no biblical command or other requirement for Christians to conduct themselves that way, and much to say we shouldn’t.  And likewise, no riots about the authorities limiting the parades; because in addition to the parades being wrong in themselves, the protests are far from obeying the teaching to be ‘subject to the authorities’, and the riots even further from what Paul and Peter instruct us to do.

What might we do?  Well, Christians could obey God by getting out there and preaching the gospel.  Peaceably, humbly and respectfully, and with no retaliation if they meet hostility.  If the authorities intervene, preaching the gospel would be a properly biblical case for saying ‘we must obey God rather than men’.   And if then the authorities decide to imprison or otherwise penalise you – well, the Bible says suffer unjustly following the example of Jesus, Peter, and Paul.  And beyond preaching the gospel, how about some of that turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry enemy, giving the thirsty enemy a drink, going an extra mile.  At simplest, just free your enemy of the fear and aggravation of your noisy provocative parades – show your enemy followers of Jesus who themselves follow the self-sacrificing example of their Lord.

Of course for this preaching and this practical love of the enemy to be credible, you’ll have to give up the idea of Ulster being a ‘Protestant country’, and of needing to defend that country by any kind of force.  It may take a long time, and a great deal of gentleness, to convince Catholics/Republicans that you represent the biblical loving Jesus rather than an enemy who hates them and wants to dominate them and have them as second-class citizens.  You will have to follow Jesus in rejecting a ‘kingdom of this world’ for your party, for your ‘Protestant culture’.

But I submit that if you start on such a road you will be even more ‘Bible-believing Christians’ than you already are; you will be fighting the Christian fight as Paul said you should, not with ‘carnal’ or ‘physical’ weapons, but with the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.  The worst damage you can do with that weapon is to raise guilt and shame in your ‘enemy’; and if you love him as Jesus said you should, you won’t take glee or satisfaction in piling those ‘burning coals’ on his head – you’ll be too busy bringing Jesus’ healing to him.

PS; As I prepared this for final posting, the news was that the Orange Order had actually applied for a fresh march down the contested streets.  It has been refused and I suppose we will have to wait and see whether that provokes yet more riots.  But seriously – by what twisted logic could that possibly be considered compatible with Jesus’ teaching to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’?  Teaching which Jesus backed up with a parable, ‘The Good Samaritan’, set against the equivalent in Israel in his day of the sectarian divide in Ulster….

PPS; The Orange Order apparently did march but no further than was allowed; three lodges had been accompanied by some 1000 supporters who eventually dispersed peacefully in the late afternoon.  I’m obviously glad there was no further violence; but a radio news item showed that one leader had been concerned there would be such a result.  And in any case, how does a march with 1000 supporters square with showing love to your opponents or ‘living at peace so far as it’s up to you’?

And even since then they’ve applied again to do the march next week.  Of course nothing has changed and the Parades Commission are unlikely to allow it, so presumably there will be another march to the brink with the attendant risk of further violence – which of course the march organisers will blame on everything but ourselves.  How can they believe this is biblically justifiable????

PPPS; Though still short of full coverage, these issues are further discussed elsewhere on ‘Steve’s Free Church Blog’, particularly the item ‘As Peace in Ulster Flags’.  Detailed discussion of Romans 12 and 13, and of much of I Peter, is also in preparation.

Women Bishops and Sexism

 

I’ve been exploring this issue for a bit; the texts usually quoted are from the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ – I & II Timothy and Titus.  They do prove the basic point I believe, but it needs detailed examination.  Then I came across a text in Acts, easily overlooked because of the way it’s usually translated.  It’s pretty clear so makes a nice short cut about women bishops.  It’s Acts 20; 17,28.

And from Miletus Paul sent to Ephesus and called to him the elders of the church….

“Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians, to feed the Church of the Lord….”

Elders’ of course translates ‘Presbyters’ which gradually changed into ‘priests’.  ‘Guardians’ translates ‘episkopoi’, or as we call them ‘bishops’.  Now ‘guardians’ is quite a good translation of a word which, in New Testament times hadn’t yet acquired its distinctively ecclesiastical meaning.  Literally from its Greek roots it means ‘overseers’ – ‘epi’ as in ‘epidermis’ plus ‘skopos’ as in ‘telescope/microscope/etc.’ and so ‘managers’ and similar. 

As used in Acts 20 it shows us that to Paul, ‘presbyters’ and ‘bishops’ are the same thing.  As I said, the Pastoral Epistles show the same thing but it’s harder to work out from them. 

Applying this to our modern situation, if the Church of England has ordained women as ‘priests’, then as far as the Bible is concerned, they have already ordained them as ‘bishops’, and they are entitled to do anything that any ‘presbyter/episkopos’ can do.    It might well be logical and biblical for Anglicans to go back and change their minds about ordaining women at all, but otherwise, if they are ‘priests’ they are ‘bishops’.  Simples!! 

The current argument is therefore not about some theological issue of obedience to God.  It’s just that long after the New Testament was written the concepts of ‘priest’ and ‘bishop’ somehow slipped apart so that the word ‘bishop’ came to be applied to a kind of ‘regional CEO’ figure of which the New Testament knows nothing.  The modern dispute is whether the church is willing to let women do that unbiblical role or not – no theological issue, just old-fashioned sexism!

There is a lot more to be said about ministry in general, of course; none of the Anglican grades of ‘priest’, up to and including ‘archbishop’ seem to be really in line with the biblical teaching.  I suspect a lot of trouble could have been avoided if, before arguing about women being priests, the Anglicans had first asked what kind of priests men are supposed to be, biblically speaking….