The Curious Incident of the Woman Taken in Adultery

I’ve recently seen some very superficial interpretations of the text I discuss here, and thought it was time I put these thoughts out.  In the original essay of some 12+ pages I discussed a couple of other issues and left one of them a bit unfinished – I’ll probably come back to those later in the year….

John 8; 1-1

Early in the morning Jesus went (2) back to the Temple and as all the people came to Him, He sat down and taught them. 

(3)The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in the act of adultery and, placing her in the centre, (4) they said to Him – they were talking to test Him so that they might trump up a charge against Him – “ Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.  (5) Now Moses ordered in the Law to stone such as she, so what do you say?” 

(6) But Jesus stooped down and wrote with his finger on the ground, (7) and as they kept on questioning Him, He raised Himself and told them, “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!” (8) Stooping down again, He wrote with His finger on the ground.  (9) But they on hearing it went away conscience-stricken, one after the other, beginning from the oldest to the last, until Jesus was left alone with the woman as she stood there. 

(10) Jesus raised Himself and asked her, “Woman, where are your accusers?  Has no one condemned you?”

She said (11) “No one, Lord!”  So Jesus told her, “Then I do not condemn you either.  Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

It’s certainly a striking story, and the broad outline of the meaning is clear.  But do we perhaps see it a bit superficially – even take it a bit for granted?  Let’s go through it looking a bit deeper ….

The first thing we may miss is that this is effectively a court scene.  We tend to think of rabbis as the equivalent of Christian ministers, conducting services, preaching, running the synagogue, and so on.  Today this is largely true, but even now there is some residue of a rabbinic function that was more important in New Testament times.  The rabbi was a judge with legal authority in the Jewish community.  We see a hint of this in an episode when a man came to Jesus with the request “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me!”  On that occasion Jesus refused jurisdiction, and made the incident the occasion for words about avoiding greed.  But in fact he really could have acted as a judge as requested; and in this case of adultery, a life-and-death case not serving personal greed, he takes a different attitude.

The point is that when the scribes and Pharisees put this woman in front of Jesus they weren’t just asking for an opinion; they really were in effect putting her in the dock.  Therefore when Jesus eventually said, “… I do not condemn you …” he was not expressing a mere personal opinion;  had he condemned the woman it would have been the equivalent of a judge passing sentence – and the unfortunate woman would have been stoned to death by her accusers.

The Motives of the Accusers

The woman’s accusers had, I think, two motives; one more-or-less good, the other very bad indeed.  The sort-of-good motive is simple – the woman had sinned, she had been caught in the act, they had a straightforward concern that justice be done according to divine law.  We’ll come back to that one in more detail later.  But somewhere along the way the accusers slipped into a far worse motivation – they realised Jesus was nearby, and that they could use the case to make trouble for him.  After that they may still have professed a concern for justice, but the reality was that they were using the woman for other ends altogether, which was an unjust and unfair thing to do.

How would this make trouble for Jesus?  I think they saw a neat ‘catch-22’ in the situation, whereby whatever Jesus did he would lose.  If he said the woman should be stoned, then stoned she would be; and Jesus, as the rabbi who gave that judgement, would be in trouble with the Romans who reserved death sentences to themselves.  (Remember we know that from Jesus’ own trials and death, when the Jewish leaders handed him over to the Romans).  A Jesus executed by the Romans over an illegal death sentence would – so they thought – be discredited as Messiah. As a bonus, if Jesus chose that way, he would appear harsh and unforgiving to the ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ who followed him.  I don’t think they particularly wanted that outcome, however; the other option probably looked both better and more likely.

In this second option, they thought that a Jesus who associated with ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ would let the woman off – and thus would discredit himself by flouting the law and denying justice to the aggrieved husband.  A Jesus who rejected God’s law would be as useless a Messiah as a Jesus executed for breaking Roman law ….  Note that if this was their preferred option, the scribes and Pharisees had little respect for the law themselves – they didn’t care that the guilty woman was likely to escape justice, so long as they hurt Jesus as a result.

They must have thought the scheme foolproof.  Jesus couldn’t wriggle out of this one – support divine law, he was in trouble with the Romans, and probably with the ‘tax-collectors and sinners’ among his supporters; reject divine law, or refuse to pass judgement on so clear a case, and he would lose all Jewish support.  Let’s see how Jesus deals with it ….

He writes on the ground!  All sorts of suggestions have been made about what he wrote – but we don’t know.   One plausible suggestion is that the word used here is not the simple Greek word for ‘write’, but a more specific word which could mean ‘set down a record against’, and that Jesus was writing down the sins of the accusers, or at least key words that would bring their sins to mind.  Whether or not that is true, in the short term, he seemed almost to be ignoring the situation, and we can see some of the effect of that on the accusers.  They press Jesus harder, and in the process commit themselves more deeply to their demand for an answer – whatever other purpose the writing on the ground has, it forces the accusers towards seriousness.

Then he stands up to deliver his verdict.  And it isn’t quite as usually represented; by implication, he agrees with the woman’s accusers, and with the law – she is guilty, she is to be stoned.  But he doesn’t say it that way; instead he takes the guilty verdict for granted and goes straight to an instruction which challenges the accusers’ own righteousness – “Let the sinless one among you throw the first stone at her!”   I’m not sure if, having been effectively appointed judge, Jesus had a positive authority to give orders about how the execution was carried out.  It would I think be appropriate;  a stoning was meant to be solemn and orderly, not just a vicious mob throwing stones any old how;  for example, Deuteronomy 13; 9ff gives the duty to the prosecution witnesses to cast the first stone in cases where someone tempted people to idolatry in ancient Israel.

But in any case, this instruction really put them on the spot.  Having pressed Jesus so insistently for his judgement, they can’t now ignore it – that would be to defy the law they had themselves invoked, the rabbinic judgement on which they had been so insistent.  And he has given them no way of making trouble for him, as they intended, but has put them in a catch-22 of their own!  Whoever picks up that first stone to execute the judgement is claiming to be ‘without sin’.

Now with our stereotypical ideas of ‘scribes and Pharisees’ we might think that they would find it easy to claim to be without sin.  Surely they were the very people who thought themselves above ordinary ‘sinners’?  Well they were, but by that very fact they were unusually sensitive about sin.  On an everyday basis, they might be snooty about their goodness compared to others – but internally they were picky about their own standing as well, constantly watching themselves.  They would be punctilious in making sacrifices for their sins, and so would be well aware of their sinfulness.  Even the modern equivalent of Pharisees will rarely claim actual sinlessness – unless they’re insane….

Furthermore, these were ‘scribes and Pharisees’ – the experts on the scriptures.  They would have known what Paul knew, that ‘All have sinned and come short of the glory of God’.  And like the former Pharisee Paul, they could have quoted the scriptures that prove it, texts like …

They have corrupted their behaviour and made it abominable.  There is none who does right. 

The Lord looked down from heaven upon the descendants of man to see if any were acting wisely, seeking after God. 

All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt. 

There is none who does good, not even one.

(Psalm 14, repeated almost exactly in Psalm 53)

If the scripture says all are sinners, then to claim to be sinless would put them in defiance of God and his word – just like the charge they had hoped to bring against Jesus by their trap!  They could not dare make that claim.

As we saw earlier, possibly Jesus’ writing in the dust may have been a further reminder of their sins.  Whatever, they were conscience-stricken and one after another they backed off.  The text tells us the oldest backed off first.  They of course had longer experience and basically more sin.  Younger members of the group might have been more hot-headed, but they couldn’t act ahead of their elders in such a matter.  Again, the legalism of the Pharisees trapped them.  And seeing those elders conscience-stricken would have forced the younger ones to think hard – if these revered experts could not claim to be sinless, who could?

And of course, having backed off, they weren’t in any position to make trouble for Jesus – they had received their chosen rabbi’s judgement and failed to carry it out!  But what of Jesus who gave the judgement?

The Injustice of Jesus’ Forgiveness?

When they’ve all gone Jesus looks up again; he is alone with the woman.  “Where are they?  Is nobody accusing you?”  She responds, “No one, Sir”.  And Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and do not sin again.”

And here is actually a problem; he clearly knows she has sinned, he is the rabbi called upon to judge the matter, he has actually just given a guilty verdict and authorised a stoning – how can he now ‘not condemn’?  True, on a technicality there are now no accusers – but there is something profoundly unsatisfactory in the idea of Jesus, the arch-anti-legalist, opposer of mere verbal technicalities, and the exponent instead of serious morality, deciding such a matter on what looks very like a technicality.  Has he no respect for God’s law either?  At the time the woman is probably too grateful to even really think about that side of it – but when she reflects later, with the heightened sense of her sinfulness which this encounter must have brought, surely it’s going to occur to her that she didn’t deserve to be forgiven, and how can any rabbi legitimately do what Jesus did?  Consider this also, though of course it would not have been obvious to the people at the time – there was one person present who was not hindered by Jesus’ judgement that a person without sin should cast the first stone – Jesus himself.  He could himself have carried out the verdict that the sinless one present should throw the first stone.

We should perhaps look at her sin.  Adultery is no longer a crime in our society and is often even portrayed favourably in films and books.  Many in our culture tend to regard it as a minor infraction.  Even in Christian circles we have I think lost some understanding of how bad it can be, because it can seem to be only about a brief pleasure with no longer-term consequences.  Of course we see the element of deceit and betrayal, but also, thanks to Jesus’ generous attitude to ‘tax collectors and other sinners’ we at least understand that sexual sins are not as terrible as the spiritual pride of the Pharisees.

In biblical times it was serious at a practical level too, because there wasn’t the kind of efficient contraception now available.  The adulterer was all too likely to father a child.  Think about that – in addition to the deceiving of the husband this is also fraud, it is theft.  The adulterer who gets away with it gets his child raised at another man’s expense.  In many cases, the betrayed husband’s family inheritance could go to the adulterer’s child, and not to the husband’s true children or other blood relatives – again effectively a theft.  And the adulterous woman is an accomplice to that theft and fraud, that possible hijacking of her husband’s family property for her lover’s child.  This isn’t only about a brief pleasure or the devilish deceit; it’s also potentially a serious criminal infringement of the rights of the husband and his family.  How can Jesus let her off on a technicality?  He has escaped the trouble his enemies had planned for him – but has he done so at the expense of righteousness and justice?

In fact this raises a question other opponents of Jesus had raised; look at Mark 2, the story of the paralysed man whose friends dropped him through the roof to Jesus …

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus?  It is blasphemy!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

And that is the point – Jesus is God and can forgive sins; he doesn’t just let the adulteress off on a technicality, he forgives.  Only God can forgive sins against himself, and only God can possibly forgive us when someone else we’ve offended can’t or won’t (in this case the husband), because only God is so far above us yet also so intimately involved in his world and responsible for it that He can do that justly.

So I think, as what scientists call a ‘thought-experiment’, we can rightly imagine the following;

At some time down the line this woman would hear that the strange rabbi who saved her from stoning had been crucified.  At first this may have worried her – did this mean that he’d been sinful and that now God’s judgement had shown Jesus’ judgement to be invalid?  But then she would have heard of the resurrection which vindicated him, showed him to have been right; and she would have heard that his death was a sacrifice through which sins were forgiven, and she would have realised that on that basis her sins had been paid for, and that was the basis on which Jesus had been able to speak those words of acquittal.  She hadn’t been let off on a questionable technicality; she had received, directly from God, a truly loving and costly, but also just, forgiveness ….

Jesus’ forgiveness is not a mere ‘letting-off’ which is indifferent to the harm resulting from sin.  It is a costly forgiveness.  Consider for the moment an example of how forgiveness works among men.  If somebody throws a brick through your window, they owe you a window; if you fully forgive them, they won’t pay for the replacement window – you will bear that cost.  God’s forgiveness of us is similarly costly – the price was the death of Christ on the cross.  God became ‘incarnate’ as a man in order to accomplish that forgiveness; though the Bible also makes clear that the price was more than just the crucifixion of one man for a few hours.  A passage in Hebrews, for example, implies that the earthly crucifixion was merely the visible ‘tip of the iceberg’ of a virtually infinite sacrifice made in a ‘heavenly Temple’ of which the earthly building in Jerusalem was but a shadow or analogy

[*  For fluency here I had relegated some aspects of the ‘Atonement’ to a ‘Part Two’ not posted here but hopefully coming later]

When Jesus said “I do not condemn you” to the woman, he basically meant “Although you won’t understand it straight away, I will pay the price of your sins.  I will suffer the equivalent of your deserved stoning, so that you can not only go free in this world but also be reconciled to God now and forever”.  And he also makes that offer to us today, calling us to repent of our own sins and trust in his sacrifice for forgiveness and reconciliation to God.  Further he calls on us, having been reconciled to God ourselves, to take that message of forgiveness to others.

But as we know, all too often that message has been preached in a way more reminiscent of those Pharisees – or of the Harry Potter character Argus-“I-want-to-see-some-punishment”-Filch.  Christians have preached about sin harshly and self-righteously, giving an impression of thinking themselves wonderful good guys condemning terrible sinners. How do we preach about sin and not be like the Pharisees?  Again, that’s in the rest of the essay, hopefully ‘coming soon….’

The Starting Point

Anabaptists and their Christendom opponents agree, of course, that being a Christian is very important.  It is, after all, no less than your choice whether you are going to live according to the ultimate truth of God’s world as it is – particularly the bit about it being God’s world – or whether you are going to choose, as far as is possible, to live against and in opposition to that ultimate reality.  The choice against God, as John 3; 19-21 points out, is a choice of terrible darkness.  It is far more important than a choice to join the Scouts, a football club, a chess club or a model railway club.

However, and here Anabaptism arguably takes a different view, it is very much part of the message itself that this choice is to be voluntary, a choice ‘in spirit and truth’.  In the context of this choice, the kind of coercive power and influence the state can exercise is wildly inappropriate, as are the kind of temptations and blandishments the state can offer.  Indeed, even when the state is not being exceedingly uncharitably coercive, its involvement can confuse issues; one of the worst ways this happens is when people assume that merely by being born in a ‘Christian country’ they are automatically Christian.  Another way is when the involvement of state with church leads to unChristian activities such as war and persecution, and narrow nationalism instead of the inherent internationalism of our faith.

So the position of the church in the state needs to preserve the voluntariness, and also, it should be said, to glorify God by having it clear than any power and influence is God’s power rather than the kind of power the state has.  Therefore, despite the enormous difference in importance involved, the appropriate position of church in state is to be like the voluntary/hobby organisations mentioned above – Scouts, football and other sports clubs, chess or model railway clubs.

With such clubs, joining is voluntary and they have to attract members by what they offer, not by government coercion or by favoured status in the state.  And leaving is also free; if you choose to leave the model railway club you don’t also have to plan to leave the country to avoid being imprisoned or worse.  Being thrown out – not the Inquisition threatening burning at the stake, but simply “Look mate, if you really won’t keep the rules you can’t be in the club any longer”.   You carry on living in the community, perhaps with slight embarrassment , and you can join other clubs, or even found your own alternative to the original club if enough people are interested.   It should be the same with churches; and thank God it mostly is, these days, but there are too many churches still hanging on to some remnants of a past when many churches did expect a more favoured or even totalitarian position.

It won’t be simply like the hobby clubs.  One major difference is to do with the importance and the distinction of religion.  The various sports and hobbies are not necessarily mutually exclusive – apart from the issue of just not having enough time and/or money for all of them, of course!  There is no ethical or philosophical inconsistency in going to Scouts on Friday night, playing soccer on Saturday, rugby on Sunday, model railway club Monday night, and racing in a stock car on Tuesday night, and so on.  There ARE some ethical and philosophical problems about being Muslim on Friday, Jewish on Saturday, Christian on Sunday, and Hindu during the week.

Another distinction is that there are going to be discussions, even arguments, with people who disagree with us.  And it is a major point about voluntariness that we do that in a loving spirit.  Read I Peter for some guidance about this.  We do have to recognise how important our message is.

A contributor to the forum conversation which inspired this post noted the sometimes oppressive conformity seen among ‘sectarians’ assorted – and I can get a bit fed up myself with Amish arguments about hairstyle or how many straps you’re allowed on your suspenders (in UK, ‘braces’ for trousers, belts being forbidden in many Amish groups as not ‘plain’).  It’s a real problem, though at least these things are not enforced on people outside the community; and, like it or not, any voluntary organisation is human and can get things wrong.  But think in terms of the ‘starting point’.  It may sound a bit trivial at first, but consider three situations involving conformity that a young teenager might face.

Friday night, he enthusiastically puts on his Scout uniform to go to the meeting.  Saturday morning, he enthusiastically puts on his football club’s shirt, and for purposes of this illustration, it doesn’t matter a lot whether that’s a Premier League club he’s going to support, or a junior league club where he is a player himself.  On Monday morning, he puts on his school tie – and you’ll notice I left out the word ‘enthusiastically’….

OK, the ‘free church’ may not always quite live up to its ideal that any conformity should be willingly chosen fellowship/togetherness; but it should never be the kind of compulsion involved in the school uniform, let alone the kind of compulsion seen in the Nazi Party or Hitler Youth.  And this is what I’m getting at with that title ‘the starting point’.   As things now stand we have two broad groups of Christians in the world with two ‘starting points’.  The Anabaptists and other “free church/believer’s church” groups start from that voluntariness, that reliance on God’s power rather than the world’s power, the refusal to coerce.  Others are at the end of a long history of having long ago been ‘Christendomite’ in attitude and though they are no longer the totalitarians they used to be, they still start from the idea that Christianity should somehow be privileged and special, that England is still a ‘Christian country’.   And so they often still think in terms of “We must have laws against gay marriages” and so on, which amount to pushing Christian ideas and practices INvoluntarily on our fellow citizens.  And that is beginning to have all kinds of negative effects….

So what I’m saying is that in facing the world and interacting with it, we are better starting from that ‘like a voluntary club’ position, than from the compromised rags of the old ‘Christendom position; both on grounds of it being closer to what God commands in the Bible, and on grounds of practicality and effectiveness.  It’s also quite likely that in the near future much of what’s left of ‘Christendom’ will be dismantled whether we like it or not.  And I think the world will be more impressed and better served by churches which honestly admit the mistake of Christendom and go willingly, preferably before they are forced to, than by churches which only go reluctantly and hang on grimly to what’s left of their former influence, and carry on afterwards being rebellious troublemakers about their position.

There is another issue.  The importance of our message in the world, not just in the afterlife, does raise questions about how far we can or should be involved in the world’s affairs, even if not in an actually coercive way.  Can we enter politics?  Can we seek to influence government policies?

I’ll hopefully be dealing with that kind of issues in future; but what I want to say for now is “Here’s the starting point.  We are a ‘kingdom not of this world’, a body which must in human terms be voluntary.  How far we may go from that starting point, I am not sure either – but at least it will hopefully be in the right direction.  We should also consider that things are different in a modern democracy; in most of the past, Christians will have had little opportunity at power in the world, but in democracy we do have the vote and other privilege as citizens.  How may we use that?  However it is, we must start our thoughts from the right place, the voluntary nature of the Church.

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….

“Don’t Spoil the Story!”

If you go back in the blog archive to January 30th 2013 You’ll find an item about the Nativity story, explaining how the traditional story of ‘no room at the inn’ is a misunderstanding based on a mistranslation of a word which primarily means a ‘guest-chamber’.   Recently I was discussing this and got a rather unexpected reaction – as my heading has it, “Don’t spoil the story!”

OK, I’m sympathetic, that image of the pregnant Mary turned away from the inn to give birth in a stable is dramatically powerful.  I’ve been trying to rewrite the story as the Bible actually tells it, and it ain’t easy to make it so exciting.  BUT….

For me, the problem has to do with the other group who don’t want us to ‘spoil the story’ in this way – the atheists.  They don’t want us to tell the story the biblical way, they want us to carry on telling the story the traditional way; not because they’re bothered about the drama, but because that version of the story plays into their hands and provides them an opportunity to mock and deride our faith.

In early days – 1500 years or so ago – it probably seemed just a ‘strange foreign thing’ that census officials in the east would send a man back to his ancestral home to register, even though he might have no current connection with the place.  Modern interpreters are not so … er … racist … about other people’s customs, and have largely fully realised that the situation is actually absurd.  Yes, people went back to their home city; though few would need to go far, few people would have left their birthplace and family lands to begin with.  They didn’t go back because of a far off ancestral link, but because that was still the current family home, even if they were among those few who had been taken elsewhere by business and similar reasons.  Having made this point, the atheists will then say that the absurd story is only being told because Jesus ‘had to be’ born in Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy – it’s been made up for that reason.  At the same time all too many Christians haven’t caught up yet and go on thoughtlessly repeating the absurd story, and the essentially wrong nativity plays go on perpetuating it.

After you’ve read this, just have a look on the web and see how many atheists are using the absurd ‘no room at the inn’ story to mock the nativity in general.  It may seem sad to spoil the drama for the five-year-old; but what when that child grows up and as perhaps a thirteen-year-old is faced by atheists and agnostics all to ready to explain the absurdity and mock him for still believing it, and the mockery is not just from school-friends   but from prominent figures like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry?  If then he finds no better attitude from adult Christians than “Don’t spoil the story!” – well far less than that has turned people aside from the faith in the past, and if he never realises that the inn story is wrong, and the actual biblical story perfectly sensible at that point, he is all too likely to continue to regard the faith as discredited and not worth further investigation.

The basic answer to this one is very simple;  Jesus is “The Way, the Truth and the Life” and his people should be telling the truth about His birth, not risking people’s souls for the sake of ‘not spoiling the (untrue version of) the story’.  

American ‘Separation of Church and State’ – or is it?

Steve’s Free Church Blog

Bit of a gap since my last post; all sorts of reasons including a bit of a dearth of web access opportunities since mid-December.  I now have much better access via a ‘dongle’ so as soon as I can wean myself off the excellent but addictive ‘Ship of Fools’ Christian forums….

In another forum where I chat about Christian matters, my advocacy of an Anabaptist approach was challenged by one guy who pointed out that America has ‘separation of Church and State’ and is still all gung-ho patriotic etc. and arguably a more ‘Christian’ state than many with established churches; how, he asked, did that square with my opposition to ‘Constantinianism’?  What follows is a lightly edited version of my response to that,

American ‘separation of Church and state’ – hmmm!  American Anabaptists would tell you that the American version of that separation is not much like the Anabaptist version, though it does have the merit of allowing Anabaptists to exist (mostly) un-persecuted.  As I understand it what happened is something like this….

The original English colonies in America were supposed to be Anglican like England itself; however because the distance across the Atlantic made enforcement harder, many non-conformists and Puritans sought refuge in the New World – the classic example being the Pilgrim Fathers, who by the way didn’t exactly allow religious freedom in their own colony.  Quakers as is well known founded Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island was a Baptist foundation.  After 1688 I assume that the English colonies also benefited from the Act of Toleration, so the colonies of the War of Independence were a considerable mix but mostly Protestant.  Whitfield I understand preached and ‘fellowshipped’ with Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists as well as Anglicans, and towards the end of Wesley’s life American Methodism (and the English version in consequence) formally split from Anglicanism after Anglican indolence led Wesley to ordain clergy (bishops?) to look after the growing Methodist flock.

In the War of Independence the former colonies chose obviously to reject Anglicanism, and instead of adopting a particular alternative establishment opted for a constitutional rule of no establishment of religion.  While some of the leaders seem to have favoured Deism or Unitarianism, this was generally interpreted that the USA would be a Christian land, just that no particular version of Christianity would be privileged over others.  (I’m letting this stand as I originally wrote it, but on the forum it was challenged, with a suggestion that the Founding Fathers really intended full religious liberty – but also an admission that this may have been subverted in practice along the lines I suggested)  As the growing USA absorbed the former colonies of other European countries, French and Spanish, Catholics were also included, and the general freedom allowed oddities and nonChristian groups also to exist so long as they didn’t cause too much trouble/scandal.

However – you still see the basic ‘Christian state’ assumption in many things.  For example, in the 1800s Native American children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to emphatically Christian schools, while Mormons were forced West to Utah and when ‘The Frontier’ caught up with them there was a war which forced them to abandon their polygamy.  The 1920s saw the infamous Daytona ‘Monkey Trial’ over evolutionary teaching (doubly scandalous now it has been revealed to have been pretty much a set-up for the benefit of the local tourist industry!), but atheists were also generally unpopular – see for example Cecil B de Mille’s horribly sentimental late silent film ‘The Godless Girl’.  With Communism emphatically atheist, that distaste continued in the Cold War era.  Catholics remained objects of suspicion even as late as the JFK election in the 1960s.  The USA motto ‘In God we trust’ is a very late apparition, though I don’t have the exact date handy.  More recent shenanigans, e.g., under Bush, have been all over the press in recent years so I’ll not go into details.

In other words, not the Anabaptist version of separation of Church and State; more like a practical compromise between assorted ‘Constantinianisms’ which had realised that in the New World they couldn’t impose their particular version.  Anabaptists across the pond tend to refer to this as ‘Neo-Constantinian’ – the same problem in a slightly different form.  I doubt the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the USA even realised, let alone intended, the use their wording would sometimes be put to in the late 20th Century by nonChristian forces.  (the ‘no establishment of religion’ wording has been used in the 20th Century to, among other things, exclude religious instruction from schools and even prevent students setting up ‘Christian clubs’ in schools; I’m not sure of the current state of play on these issues, but I still see occasional references to it)  The Northern Ireland version is somewhat similar to the USA – a collection of Constantinians willing to sink their differences and forego a fully established position for their own denominations to keep NI a broadly Protestant province.  (This sentence is there because in the original forum I was mainly contributing to a discussion of Northern Ireland)

I was going to add a summary of the Anabaptist version of things, but as this is going on the blog, I’ll just refer you to the rest of the blog….

Sacrifice to Santa

Every year it happens; some poor guy (or girl) tells children the truth that ‘There ain’t no Santa Claus’; and the sky falls on him/her.  A few years ago it was a primary school supply teacher who it seems unfortunately misjudged whether her class were already old enough to know the truth.  She got suspended and special lessons on ‘the meaning of Christmas’ were arranged to put things right by, well, ensuring that the children’s belief in Santa was restored.

This year it’s a priest.  Talking to children he both told them Father Christmas doesn’t exist and also told them the original legend of St Nicholas (‘Santa Claus’), a 4th Century Turkish bishop known for a probably true act of generosity and also for a few less likely miracles, one of which involves some slightly gory details.  Children were reduced to tears, claimed the front page headline press story about this ‘Grinch’.

Now it may well be that the priest misjudged whether the children were quite ready for the gorier bits of the St Nick legend; but given what can be seen on children’s TV currently, I’m a bit dubious on that.  It’s also getting harder and harder in these days of political correctness and such to judge that kind of issue clearly anyway….

But basically, presumably the crying was mainly over the denial of Santa.  And I think it’s time to reconsider this whole business.

First, the modern ‘Father Christmas’ not only doesn’t really exist, even as a myth he’s a surprisingly modern addition to our Christmas; famous Christmas enthusiast Charles Dickens doesn’t seem to have known of him.

St Nicholas did exist; but apart from the hijacking of his name in its Germanic form of ‘Santa Claus’, he really has nothing to do with the modern essentially pagan fat red-cloaked demigod who lives at the North Pole with an elvish toy factory.  St Nicholas was celebrated in Europe by a festival of giving on his proper ‘saint’s day’ of December 6th, a festival which perhaps surprisingly survived even among Protestants after the Reformation.  I’m not clear how he became entangled with Christmas, the earliest example I personally know of is the appallingly sentimental American poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas….”  I think I could go along with the continuation of a proper St Nicholas festival, on the proper date, which was really about giving to the needy rather than the modern consumerism; but that’s not going to happen now, is it?

Take away the St Nick connection (which is effectively abandoned in the modern Santa myth), and the modern Father Christmas has no real connection to the Christian Christmas celebration, or to Christianity at all.  Indeed, Father Christmas has become an alternative to the Christian Christmas story, and an untrue alternative at that.  And if you look around the shops as Christmas approaches you won’t these days see much of the Nativity, of Jesus and his family, the stable and stuff.  OK, stars and angels seem to have survived from the traditional story, but otherwise it’s all Santa and ‘his’ presents, reindeer, elves, snow, robins, Dickensian scenes assorted, Christmas trees, baubles and other jazzy decorations, cards mostly not showing anything Christian….

So why do Christians put up with this?  Why do we, the followers of the Way, the TRUTH and the Life, go along with the – let’s be blunt about it – LIE?  Why does a priest who tells the truth about Santa get reprimanded by panicky superiors?  Why do church members ‘do Santa’ and tell the Santa lie to their children??  What can be wrong in telling children the truth that they get presents from family and friends who love them, and through normal channels, not via the North Pole?

And what about the media who make such a fuss about the truth-teller?  Be honest, if a priest were to tell children a deliberate lie about anything else, the media would be demanding instant unfrocking; but when it’s Santa, it’s the other way round – join in with the lie or we crucify you!  Santa has become the only religion in Britain which is allowed to persecute unbelievers – and that despite the fact that none of the adult persecutors actually believe in Santa themselves!  But why should Christians be pressurised to tell lies – the media and the politically-correct brigade would be up in arms at attempts to make people of other faiths go along with lies related to their faith, or let their festivals be subjected to similarly blasphemous exploitation?  (‘Blasphemous’?  I invite you to consider some of the words of ‘Santa Claus is coming to town…!)

I don’t like making children cry either; but in this case, who really produces the tears – the person who finally tells the truth, or the people who have told such an elaborate and deliberate lie in the first place?  And while I’m in favour of religious toleration, the Father Christmas myth and the modern ‘Christmas’ that goes with him is no genuine religion – rather it is a commercialised parasite on Christianity, and surely we are well entitled to disclaim it and make clear that it’s no real part of the authentic Christmas, the Christmas which is about the incarnation of the Son of God.  I think it is some indication of the bias and unfairness of the ‘political correctness’ brigade that while they’re so keen to supposedly protect those of other faiths from Christianity, they won’t protect Christianity from this parasite.

We Christians often make a token fuss about the commercialisation of Christmas; but I believe that if we really want to make an impact on that commercialisation, we need to be clear to the world out there that ‘Father Christmas’ is nothing to do with our celebrations, and that  CHRISTIANS DON’T BELIEVE IN HIM!!  It’s not just the commercialisation, it’s also the ‘simple truth’ aspect – we compromise Christian truthfulness when we go along with such nonsense.  Having said that, it does look as if the attempt to have a secular Christmas is flagging a bit; indeed the vehemence with which people are attacked for telling the truth about Santa suggests a degree of desperation….

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!!