On The Big Questions: Church buildings and drones

I’m pleased to report that I’ll be on The Big Questions on BBC1 at 10.00am tomorrow (Sunday 12th March).

They have three debates per episode. I’ve been asked on to talk about church buildings (in the light of the potential closure of Guildford Cathedral). However, they’ve also asked me to join in on another topic: the ethics of drones.

My main job now is working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU), a pacifist network that includes people of many religions and none. Tomorrow, I’ll largely be speaking in a personal capacity, particularly when it comes to church buildings. Of course the topic of drones is very relevant to my work at the PPU (although I’m coming from a Christian pacifist position, the PPU includes many other sorts of pacifists as well).

I’ll be back here in the next few days with some thoughts about the programme. If you want to tweet while watching it, I believe the hashtag is #BBCbq. You can link to me on Twitter at @SymonHill or the PPU at @PPUtoday. Your comments on the issues are also welcome below. Thanks!

 

 

Sexuality and the church: Let’s stop listening to bishops

I’m disappointed but not remotely surprised that the Church of England bishops’ latest two-year consultation process on sexuality (which followed their previous two-year consultation process on sexuality) has resulted in a recommendation to keep things exactly the same, except for some very small changes that will be kept as slight as possible so that nobody will notice.
The report’s feeble attempt at talking of welcoming LGBT+ people is revealed for what it is in the use of the phrase “gay and lesbian” to mean people attracted to people of their own gender. Once again, the existence of bisexuals is forgotten. Not that it’s much better for gay and lesbian people.
I don’t want any more consultation processes on sexuality from the Church of England. I won’t support them, co-operate with them or be part of the consultation. While we wait for yet more phoney consultation, yet more LGBT+ people will be denied an equal place in the body of Christ. More people will lose faith, give up, hate themselves or kill themselves. And the Gospel of Christ’s love will be denied and law will be promoted over grace.
Some of the bishops will talk about how painful it was to reach these conclusions, how they wrestled with their decisions and how hard it is to have to deal with competing expectations. I’m sure there’s some truth in this, but after so many pointless processes and delaying tactics, my patience with these sort of comments is rapidly deteriorating. I’ve nothing against the bishops, I just don’t think we should allow them the authority to make decisions like this.
We don’t need church leaders to tell us what we may and may not do when we worship God. We don’t need them to tell us how far we can follow the Spirit’s leadings or how we should read and interpret the Bible. We can do these things ourselves, with support from each other and with guidance from the Holy Spirit. Of course we get it wrong, we will often get it wrong, but there’s no reason to believe that church leaders committed to hierachy and homophobia will be more likely to get it right.
Let’s get on with it.

The Christmas story is a political story

The New Testament opens with a story of conflict. It is a political conflict.

By any standard, King Herod was a vicious ruler. Yet in Matthew’s Gospel, he is frightened. He feels threatened – not by another ruler, not by an army, not by his masters in Rome. He is frightened of a baby.

Herod tries to fool a group of astrologers (not three kings) into passing on information about Jesus, but they are warned and outwit him. They proclaim Jesus, not Herod, to be king. In his desperation, Herod inflicts the unimaginable horror of a massacre of children. But Jesus survives. Mary, Joseph and Jesus become refugees in Egypt.

The story has been distinctly odd even before Herod appears. We have a Jewish couple who look set to break up when Mary becomes pregnant. But Joseph is told that Mary is pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Instead of feeling shame or outrage, he trusts her and goes through with the marriage. Social and family norms are overturned. No “traditional family values” here. Jesus had two fathers.

We are presented with contrasting images of kingship. We have the worldly kingship of Herod, rooted in wealth, violence, deceit and political manipulation. Against that, we have the child of an almost-single mother who becomes a refugee. As the child grows up, he mixes with the marginalised, sides with the poor and exemplifies active nonviolence.

Since the fourth century, when the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity, many churches have shown more affinity with the sort of power represented by Herod than with the upside-down kingship of Jesus.

Few elements of Christianity have been domesticated more thoroughly than Christmas. Stories from Matthew and Luke have been welded together, mixed in with Pagan imagery and used as the sentimental background music to a festival of consumerism.

It is sometimes said that we are losing “the real meaning of Christmas”. I’m not sure that people in Victorian times or the Middle Ages were focused on the radical nature of Jesus’ message any more than we are – at least not if they were listening at the pulpits of state-aligned churches.

The nativity stories are among the parts of the gospels that scholars tend to regard as least likely to be factually accurate. I accept that judgement. Nonetheless, I suggest that these stories mean a lot because they are a microcosm of the conflict and choice that is at the heart of the gospel. The nativity story is not merely a romantic myth but an invitation to take sides.

Will we choose the kingdom of God or the powers of this world? The tyrant or the baby? One side has money and armies. The other has love and nonviolence. It’s up to us.

 

The above article is adapted from a piece I wrote for the December 2016 issue of Reform magazine, in which I was one of four people asked to respond to the question, “What does Christmas mean to you?”. Many thanks to Steve Tomkins, editor of Reform, for asking me to write this.

My latest book is The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, published by Darton, Longman and Todd. It costs £9.99 in paperback or ebook.

Do the anti-strike commentators believe in magic?

Certain middle class commentators seem to have a sizeable sense of entitlement as they direct their anger at the drivers and guards striking against their treatment by Southern Railways.

If you’re a passenger who supports the strike, or at least appreciates the complexity of the issues, you are not the one who is likely to get quoted in the right-wing media. You’re more likely to be heard if you say something like, “Because of the strikers, I’m going to be two hours late for work!”.

I wonder how these people imagine they get to work normally. Do they think that the trains magically glide along without the effort of the very same people who they are now attacking for striking?

Some angrily blame strikers for making them late. When there are no strikes on, I doubt that many of these people put the same energy into thanking the same workers for getting them to their destinations on time.

Similarly, those who blame postal workers for striking should be taken seriously only if, on every other day, they thank postal workers for delivering the post.

Sadly, some people from privileged backgrounds don’t seem to notice that the world works for them only because of other people’s work. Trains move because people drive them. Public toilets are clean because people clean them. They can buy things in shops because people serve them. Their children can go to school because people teach them.

Some workers only get noticed when they stop doing the work for which they are so rarely thanked on every other day.

If workers’ concerns are noticed only when they are striking, then it’s hardly suprising that they choose to do so.

Of course, it’s not just the rich who sometimes display these attitudes. In an atomised society that promotes “independence”, we can easily forget that we are all dependent on each other. I cannot drink a cup of tea without relying on the thousands of people who have picked the tea, packaged it, transported it and sold it, the people who made the mug I’m drinking from and the equally large number of people involved in producing and selling the milk and sugar.

Many commuters affected by the strikes earn less than the staff who are striking – because they don’t have the strong unions that rail workers maintain to promote their concerns.

If, like me, you spend large parts of your life travelling by train in Britain, then you’ve probably spent many hours despairing of delayed trains or getting anxious as you stand crammed in crowded carriages.

You’ve probably not found someone from the Daily Telegraph popping up to get a quote from you about how stressful and inconvenient this is. Unless, of course, this situation arose during a strike, when right-wing journalists trip over each other to gather stories of the “misery” that they can blame on the unions.

The government and their allies allege that these strikes are political. They are right. Putting safety before profit – by keeping guards on trains – is a political position. Suggesting that disabled passengers should have equal access to transport – which is helped by having guards on trains – is political. It is political to ask people to cope with inconvenience so that they can support each other in taking action that protects each others’ needs. These are all political positions that I am happy to hold and to promote.

Yes, the strikes are political. Everything’s political – including safety, access and mutual support.

High food bank use is “fantastic” says preacher at Tory conference service

Fifty years ago today, peace protesters disrupted a Labour Party conference church service as pro-war politicians read out Bible passages about peace.

Sitting in the Conservative Party conference church service this evening, I started to think that the greatest thing I would be likely to protest about was an excess of blandness.

Until, that is, the preacher neared the end of his sermon. Andrew Davies is a Pentecostal minister, a Conservative Party member and a theologian at Birmingham University. In a sermon about Christian engagement in society, he eventually came to talk about the work of Christian charities.

He pointed out that the Trussell Trust had given out 1,109,309 emergency food parcels in 2015-16. This figure was displayed on a PowerPoint slide projected at an enormous size on the wall behind him. He then quoted the figure that the Cinnamon Network (a far more right-wing group than the Trussell Trust) had supposedly contributed to the British economy.

After these examples of Christian service, he said:

“Isn’t that fantastic?”

I sat up in my seat, feeling slightly sick. No, Andrew, it isn’t fantastic. It’s outrageous. It’s disgusting that anybody needs an emergency food parcel, let alone over a million people in one of the richest countries in the world.

It is one thing to praise charities for helping people who have been thrown into poverty. It is another thing to do so after causing the poverty in question.

Tory policies have caused the rise in food poverty. Praising those who alleviate it is like beating someone up and then saying that the person who gave them first aid has done a great job.

Earlier, I had stood outside the church with other members of Christians for Economic Justice (CEJ) as the Conservative conference delegates arrived at the service. We had handed out leaflets pointing out the contrast between Jesus’ example of siding with the poor and Tory support for the interests of the wealthy.

The leaflets – drafted by my friend Nicola Sleapwood, a Christian disability activist living in Birmingham – pointed out that the number of Trussell Trust food parcels in 2015-16 was more than eighteen times higher than in 2010-11. The same figure – 1,109,309 – was given.

Yet less than an hour later I sat in the service, saw this number flashed up on the screen and heard this situation described as “fantastic”.

The service was organised by the Conservative Christian Fellowship. There were some parts it that I would have readily agreed with – were it not for the implication that the views and values expressed were compatible with support for the Conservative Party. Andrew Davies deserves some credit for going out of his way to distinguish Christendom from the Kingdom of God.

Prior to that, there was a lot of vague and shallow talk about the importance of engaging with society and politics. Throughout the service, “politics” was taken to mean the narrow world of Westminster and Whitehall politics. To be fair, Caroline Spellman said, “Life is politics”. But she then went onto to talk of people “going into politics”. In reality, we are all “in politics” simply by being living human beings who are part of communities and societies.

A video was shown by the charity Global Vision, drawing attention to the horror of violence against girls and women around the world. The Tory delegates, whose party’s cuts have closed down rape crisis centres, applauded and nodded their approval.

I am not for a minute claiming to be a better Christian than any of the Tories there. I will have to answer to God as much as they will. I am frequently selfish, I often fail to love my neighbour and I am complicit in all sorts of injustices in the society in which I live.

However, I do maintain that solidarity with the poor and marginalised is not incidental to Jesus’ message but runs unavoidably through it. To seek to follow Jesus without recognising this is to build a house on sand.

Many of the people at the service were friendly, polite and – I’m sure – compassionate. I dare say they care for their families and friends. They may volunteer for charities and pray about the world’s problems. But if we are to follow the encouragement to engage in politics, we cannot have one set of values in everyday life and another in the polling station.

I am sometimes asked, “Can a Christian be a Conservative?”. Of course a Christian can be a Conservative. The question is whether they should be. However well-meaning individual Tory Christians may be, the Tory Party as a whole works to protect the interests of the super-rich. It has been doing so very well for 300 years.

The Conservative Party is for the rich in the same way that a potato peeler is for peeling potatoes. You can try to use it for something else, but it very rarely works.

Resisting militarism – and doing other things

If you’ve visited this site in the last couple of months, you’ll notice that I’m not blogging nearly as often as I used to.

This is mainly because I’ve been busy in the job I started in April: working for the Peace Pledge Union (PPU). It’s a real honour to work at the PPU, as we develop campaigns against militarism and speak up for nonviolence and disarmament. I’m pleased to work alongside some great people at the PPU and to be part of a historic movement.

This is all the more necessary as everyday militarism becomes an ever more visible part of life in the UK: military visits to schools are on the rise; Reserves Day has become an annual event along with Armed Forces Day; Remembrance is heavily militarised; and parts of the right-wing press are effectively arguing that the UK armed forces should be above the law.

My work for the PPU doesn’t mean I want to neglect my other work, or indeed activism more broadly. Many of the same issues are involved in them all. I’ll be very busy at the PPU as we approach Remembrance Day, calling for remembrance for all victims of war and for a focus on peace. One of my resolutions for the slightly quieter period after that time is to blog more often on here. In the meantime, I will try to post links to what’s going on at the PPU as well as on other issues when I get the chance.

Many thanks for the support, encouragement and helpful disagreement that I so often receive in response to my writing and campaigning. It makes a big difference.

Will anti-Trident churches now back direct action?

My abiding memory of today’s debate on Trident will be the sight of Labour MPs falling over each other to declare their enthusiasm for nuclear weapons, their support for the Tories’ policies and their opposition to their own leader.

Playground-style arguing saw at least one Tory MP suggesting that opponents of Trident need to “grow up”, as if a belief in using violence to resolve conflict were a sign of maturity. Meanwhile, Theresa May failed to answer one of the first hostile questions she has received from an MP since becoming Prime Minister (from Caroline Lucas) and stumbled through her answer when challenged by the SNP’s Angus Robertson about costs.

Today’s vote can hardly have been a surprise to anyone familiar with the childish antics and macho posturing that pass for democracy in the House of Commons. The question for opponents of Trident is: What do we now?

Last week, five major church denominations – the Baptist Union, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and the United Reformed Church – collectively urged MPs to reject nuclear weapons and vote against Trident renewal. This was excellent.

It will be even better if they will follow through on their principles and encourage peaceful struggles against Trident to continue by other means.

Parliament is only part of the process. We all share some responsibility for what our society does. Nobody has a right to prepare an act of mass murder. Today’s vote should make us determined to back nonviolent direct action for disarmament, whether in the case of nuclear weapons or others.

The churches’ voices would be stronger if they would vocally back nonviolent direct action, at least against Trident if not against militarism generally. Most of them maintain chaplains in the armed forces. What an impact it would make if they would declare that their chaplains will encourage troops to disobey orders if Trident is renewed.

While several Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops have, as individuals, criticised nuclear weapons, the Church of England as a whole has generally shied clear of lining up with other denominations to oppose it. Last year, however, a Church of England statement suggested that the arguments for Trident need “re-examining”.

I suppose this is progress of a sort. At least the Church of England is beginning tentatively to lean in the right direction. It’s also profoundly mistaken. The arguments do not need re-examining. They have been examined for years. We need to get beyond the call for debates and take up the all to action. Let’s get on with it.