Category Archives: church

Thoughts on the death of Hans Küng this week.

I discovered today that Hans Küng died earlier this week. There is an obituary by Peter Stanford in The Guardian. Küng was a Roman Catholic priest and academic theologian, a prolific writer of accessible as well as erudite works on religion.

His work in the 1970s had a formative influence on me, setting the pattern for my own liberal framing of Christian faith. I requested his book On Being a Christian as a 21st birthday present in 1977.

As a significant adviser to the Second Vatican Council Küng was seen by many Christians back then, both inside and beyond the Roman Catholic Church, as a torch-bearer of a new dawn for the Christian Church. I had high hopes as I entered training for the Church of England priesthood that it would not be long before Christian churches, certainly in the West but including the Roman Catholics, would embrace and deliver the kind of agenda Küng and other modernisers outlined. This would include intercommunion and mutual recognition of the ministries of the different churches; a rejection of clericalism and hierarchical structures even in episcopal churches; equality for women including opening all orders of the sacred ministry to them; the end of patriarchy as the default mode of church cultures; a new ethics of human sexuality based on compassion and knowledge, informed by the experiences of the faithful and the human sciences, in genuine dialogue with the ancient traditions.

The unbelievable sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1978 after only a few weeks in office set church history on a different course. In his place came the charismatic but also deeply traditionalist John Paul II. He encouraged others, like Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, who sought to row back from the progressive vision of the Second Vatican Council. Ratzinger had turned away from an earlier radicalism he had shared with Küng, his erstwhile academic colleague.

In politics too in the West, democratic and socially progressive ideals were being stifled and conservative traditionalism reasserted with the elections of Reagan in the USA and Thatcher in the UK as the 1980s began. Globally, religious fundamentalism was on the rise, most evident in the Iranian Revolution; and in the USA and in Britain conservative churches teaching traditional interpretations of Christian faith and ethics, often allied to the methods of market capitalism with a stripping away of the historic Christian symbolism, were seen as growing in relevance and strength. Efforts to bring the institutional churches closer together as institutions failed and churches began to be caught up in the culture war between progressive and reactionary visions of society. Huge resources of creativity in the Church of England for example were sunk into the long arduous battle through the 1980s to get to a positive decision on the ordination of women.

Küng, who was himself delisted as a legitimate teacher of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II, has come to stand for me as a symbol of those who speak the truth before most are ready or willing to receive it. There are many examples in history both inside and outside the Church.

There is no inevitability that the Roman Catholic church, and other churches, will eventually embrace the reforms Küng called for. History does not necessarily run in the direction of greater human flourishing. Yet it’s hard to imagine that 100 years from now the mainline Christian communities will be barring women from any form of leadership, or teaching that same-sex marriage is sinful.

What is easier to imagine is that the institutional forms of the churches as we know them will no longer be the effective carriers of dynamic Christian faith and witness; if they are surviving in fossilised form by 2121it’s more likely they will be social curiosities still practicing archaic customs long since abandoned by the majority across the world.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/08/hans-kung-obituary?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Other

Friday 1st July

I will be taking a simple service of Holy Communion at Murdoch House residential care home in Wokingham,working with home communion team colleague Jennifer Spratley.
Later I will conduct the funeral of the late Mrs Dorothy Chaffe at Eathampstead Park Crematorium.

Christmas UK postage stamps 2008

This afternoon I was in my local Post Office to purchase a book of twelve first-class postage stamps; wearing my clerical collar. The counter assistant said she assumed I didn’t want the Christmas stamps because they’re not really about Christmas – since they depict pantomime. She apologised to me for this. However, later today, on opening my emails I got this via friends who had received it from the communications director of the Church of England Diocese of Guildford:
“Christmas stamps for 2008
This tickled us and may be of use to you. It was sent to Mark Rudall by Norwich Archdeacon and Comms Specialist, Jan McFarlane:
“You may already be aware of this, in which case do press delete now. But I thought it was worth mentioning that the Post Office is producing two sets of Christmas stamps this year. One set has a pantomime theme, the other the Madonna and Child. You have to ask specifically for the Madonna and Child stamps. Is it worth reminding our congregations to ask for them?
Call me an old cynic, but I imagine a day in the not too distant future where the Post Office say they don’t produce Christmas stamps with a religious theme any more because no-one ever asked for them…
You do have to persevere though. I asked at our PO for “the religious Christmas stamps”. The girl dived under the counter and eventually emerged saying, “We’ve got some with a lady and a baby on. Will they do?”
Revd Mark Rudall Director for Communications Diocese of Guildford

Girl power leaves churches emptier

This report in the Daily Telegraph last week cites evidence that women are leaving churches faster than men; and claims that the churches’ old-fashioned atitudes to women are a major cause. Changes in the lives of women are also a factor; as more women work full-time and find less time in their busy schedules to worship in church. Churches are urged to change their attitides and re-think their offer to women if they want to attract and retain modern women as members. The decision of the Church of England to move towards the consecration of women as bishops is seen as a positive step in the right direction.

Church and the gay question

May the Church gives its blessing to homosexual partnerships and remain true to the will of God? Still be faithful in its witness to the love of God as shown in Jesus and revealed in the Bible?

As a minimum it seems to me this is an open question. That is, even if you are reluctant to give a definitive “yes” in answer, then neither can you give  a definitive “no”.  The reasons for this I explain below.

If it is an open question, then isn’t the only proper response of all Christians who take seriously the ethic of love for neighbour, especially bishops and church leaders, compassion and respect between those with differing answers? For me this means learning from and listening  to others; accepting, not condemning, those who in good faith and conscience want to go ahead and affirm homosexual relationships; as well as those who, also in good faith, genuinely believe this can never be an option for a faithful Church.

This much might be agreed by all Christians who have not allowed their party-line allegiances to cloud their spiritual discernment. But can it be shown that this is an open question?

I have several reasons why I think it is.

Firstly, “facts on the ground”. Clearly there are many Christians, homosexual and not, who already believe that homosexual partnerships may be good and right in the sight of God. But these may be false teachers. The New Testament itself warns against those who will lead the Church astray with spurious beliefs. But the errors the New Testament speaks of are central points of faith such as the adequacy of God’s grace in Christ. We are also taught that by their fruits you shall know them. Where there are Christian men and women who are faithful members of the Church and who clearly reveal in their lives the fruits of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ and differ from Christian  brothers and sisters  in no other way than that  they answer “yes” to our question then how can they be regarded as false teachers?

Secondly, our greater knowledge of the human condition. The findings of various branches of science and the personal experiences of many people suggests very strongly that homosexuality is a given feature of human life.

Thirdly, the development of understanding of the biblical texts. Whilst it may be clear that there is very little in the biblical tradition to support a positive assessment of homosexual partnerships, and much to endorse the traditional Christian antipathy, it is not clear that the biblical material should be determinative of a developed Christian ethic for the 21st century.

Fourthly, the development of positive aspects of sexual ethics in public life. Many religiously motivated critics of homosexual partnership consider it to be part of a wider decline in sexual mores in Western society. But this ignores the evidence for many positive  changes in relation to more traditional cultures. Modern intolerance of rape, of domestic violence, of child abuse and of forced marriages shows that the so-called decadence of  Western societies actually displays many strongly moral developments in recent decades.

Therefore in my view there is no case for condemnation on religious grounds of those who believe sincerely that homosexual partnerships may be a faithful Christian expression of human love and companionship.

 

Recently I read about a major change taking place at Willow Creek Community Church in the USA. It’s one of the largest churches in the world, which has grown by adapting a thoroughly contemporary style to its worship and life; geared totally to the lifestyle and experiences of the  younger non-churchy suburban Americans of Chicago. They didn’t only chuck out the chintz and build swish corporate-style facilities; they ditched the candles, the cassocks, the collections; even the crosses; everything that smelt of old-style irrelevant boring church; and they gave people what they wanted. In the words of the Baptist Press report last year:

 

We were told that preaching was out, relevance was in. Doctrine didn’t matter nearly as much as innovation. If it wasn’t “cutting edge” and consumer friendly it was doomed. The mention of sin, salvation and sanctification were taboo and replaced by Starbucks, strategy and sensitivity….Forget what people need, give them what they want. How can you argue with the numbers?”

 

But now a new report for the church based on a multi-year study has shown that most of what they have been doing for so many years has not been forming responsible sincere Christians. It’s been drawing in the crowd for sure; but it has not been helping people grow and develop spiritually. The founding guru of Willow Creek, Bill Hybels has said this:

 

“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility…..”

 

Many churches have looked at the Willow Creek model in the past and felt that it has been the way to go. But it has diluted the challenge of being a Christian. Surely, candles, cassocks and tatty carpets are not intrinsic to Christian worship! But the call to follow Christ in the way of service is an indispensable element of our faith. Willow Creek Community Church has always done things in spectacular style – now they are repenting of their mistake in a big way – but all Christians are on that same journey to fulfil that promise made at baptism: to turn to Christ.

Weddings down

Statistics from the Government show that the proportion of people in the UK getting maried is the lowest its been since 1895. Combined with a growing preference for civil rather than religious weddings this accounts for the decline in numbers of church wedings I have been conducting in recent years.

Reasons given for the fall vary but it includes the lack of tax incentives for getting married as opposed to living together; or according to one commentator, a growing lack of ability to sustain close relationships.

See the report in The Times here

Christmas is coming

About this time I surrender to the inevitability of the advance of Christmas. For the next week it simply takes over my life. Not only do I have family preparations for the great festival but also church ones too. Basically I might as well put on hold any serious work on other things until January.

I read in the Christmas edition of New Stateman magazine a piece by Richard Dawkins, the celebrated atheist. Despite his antithesis to religion he still prefers to call the season Christmas rather than simply “holidays” which is what the Americans do. Of course using the phrase “holidays” is not a secular as it appears because the word derives from the idea of “holy” days. Dawkins also wants us to remember 25th December as the birthday of Isaac Newton because he is one of the greatest scientists ever. This looks to me suspiciously like Dawkins is falling prey to the same spiritual needs for investing time with meaning that faith commmunities are meeting when they designate certsain days for the commemoration of the saints!

Martha or Mary?

A reflection on the gospel set for today in the Anglican calendar
Gospel text: S. Luke 10:38-42
 

Obviously there are several ways of looking at this interesting domestic incident in the home of Martha and Mary. I could talk about the proper balance between doing and being; or between activism and reflection. That strikes a chord with all of us because some of us have more of Martha in us – wanting to be up and doing – some of us have more of Mary in us – wanting to reconnect with our inner sense of purpose and meaning in what we are doing. And of course it is a useful lesson to take from this text that Jesus teaches the prior importance of reflection and sharing – of listening, learning, discovering, praying ,seeking wisdom. As Jesus saw it Martha needed to stop and sit down.  These are the ways in  which  we grow as human beings and in which we grow more sensitive to God’s Spirit. 


But there are dangers in looking at this gospel in that way. It’s too easy to treat the gospel like a self-help manual. The Christian gospels are not first century equivalents of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” or “ The Little Book of Calm”. What’s the danger of using the gospels in that way? Well it’s too easy to domesticate the gospels like that – to make them fit it with our own prejudices and really just use them to help us run our lives the way we run them already but more easily and less painfully. But not only are the gospels really meant  to challenge us about the  purpose and direction and shape  of  our whole lives; the focus of the gospels is Jesus: they challenge us about  who we are and how we do things in relationship to Jesus Christ. 


I think it is fair to say that Jesus was challenging social prejudices here. Maybe Martha was appealing to the conventional assumptions about the role of women – to act as the handmaidens to the men whilst they met and talked – but Jesus rejects that and calls women to a very different role –  to be at the centre of the early Christian community not as vital ancillaries – but as key players making an equally valid and important contribution to the new movement he was calling into being. The Church is still trying to accept that message so the gospel continues to challenge society as well as individuals. What is the one thing necessary? Learning from and sharing with Jesus.