Sept 25th 2014

A couple of weeks ago I was in a conversation with a BBC producer discussing faith schools and their admissions policies. We talked about the possibility of my appearance on BBC1's Sunday Morning Live to debate the subject.

In the end it didn't happen, but I wish I'd had the chance to take on the British Humanist Association's chief executive, Andrew Copson as he repeatedly made claims that there was factual evidence that faith schools select wealthy pupils by the backdoor, are divisive and basically have nothing good to offer. He didn't mention that the 'factual evidence' was drawn from the BHA's own research which only suggests that these might be the case if you join a few dots and squint a bit.

Faith school bashing continues to be a popular pastime for the BHA and their friends but given that they employ someone full-time to campaign for their abolition,  it's not entirely surprising; they've got to do something to keep themselves busy after all. It also doesn't help that the Accord Coalition, which includes the BHA alongside the NUT and ATL teachers' unions campaigns against faith school admission policies with the support of an eclectic bunch of religious individuals.
'Look!' they say, 'It's not just humanists who don't like faith schools there are plenty of religious  leaders who have a problem with them too,' even though the majority of these 'leaders' represent a miniscule number of people. Still it adds enough credence to their message for the media to take notice.and sow a few more seeds of doubt as to whether faith schools should be allowed to carry on as they are despite their continued success and popularity.

The Accord coalition might want to dump admission policies based on belief and collective worship, but they do at least admit that Religious Education serves a useful purpose. Apparently not all of their public supporters agree with this though. The Philosopher, AC Grayling who has been referred to as the 'Fifth Horseman of New Atheism' may have his face on the Accord website, but has written a stinging attack in this week's Times Education Supplement on not just faith schools but the entire subject of RE, which he sees as being no more than a sad and pathetic branch of philosophy.

AC Grayling is a clever man who has held a number of high profile positions and now appears to want to take over the role of arch-antagonist towards all things religious from Richard Dawkins. He has plenty of form when it comes to this matter, having described religious indoctrination of small children as “child abuse” in the past. In his five-page feature that will be sitting on the coffee tables of staff rooms across the country right now, he continues the dogged bombardment , setting out to undermine Religious Education legitimacy as a subject within the school curriculum. He writes:
'Suppose that instead of RE, schools taught the history of humanity's attempts to make sense of itself and the world around it. In this system, it would be seen that religions are just part - and truth be told, a rather primitive part - of a much larger and more complex adventure of thought...

'Placing religion in this much larger context dramatically changes how it is viewed by students. How would our schoolchildren react to the Christian story, for example, if they knew that it was an iteration of commonplace tales abounding in Egyptian and Greek mythology? One could show how every feature of the Christian story is lifted from earlier mythologies.

'Moreover, the "answers to the deepest questions in life" offered by religions are often very bad ones, and it needs to be made clear that much better answers exist in the secular traditions of thought.
'RE should be replaced with a far more general history of ideas, in which the various beliefs of the world are merely one strand. Knowing something about religions is good; it is often remarked that otherwise one could not make sense of paintings in a public art gallery, and this is true.

'Religion is organised superstition, and setting an example for children to respect superstition is wrong... The stories are silly, the promises vague and the concepts largely undefined.'

Grayling is right when he says that philosophy should be an established part of children's education, but his view of religion as a feeble-minded strand of it exposes how little he understands about the nature of religion. If all religions were like Buddhism, which requires no belief the supernatural, then he might have a point, but reducing religious faith to a set of ideas and fairy tales that can be fully explained away at a purely rational level, completely misunderstands what it means to believe in the existence of a God or gods. Grayling reveals that his atheistic mind is unable to make sense of this and it leaves him little option but to dismiss it all lock, stock and barrel. To him, religion is little more than an outdated curiosity.
Perhaps AC Grayling could do with a gentle reminder that as an atheist he is in a small minority in this country and even more so globally. Atheists make up 2 per cent of the world's population and the non-religious another 16 per cent. That leaves 5.9 billion supposedly deluded people he and his comrades in atheism have to convince that religion is of no real significance.

It would be an interesting experiment to put Grayling's proposals into practice and allow him to do the teaching. Would he be able to teach all aspects of philosophy and a neutered version of religion in a way that genuinely allowed pupils to make up their own minds entirely without prejudice? Given his inability to give the New Testament account of Jesus' life a fair hearing, would he be able to find a way to impart in his students what he has been unable to do himself?

Grayling is his own disgust appears to have missed a basic truth.  As soon as you begin to teach children, you start to impart your values and understanding of the world on to them. Encouraging independent thinking is not the same as passing on knowledge and this is always under the control of the teacher.  If the whole concept of God is a load of rubbish then Grayling may potentially have a point about child abuse, but if God is real in any form then surely Grayling’s staunch atheistic approach is actually the one that is potentially more abusive to children.

We are painfully aware in these times that religious belief can lead to suffering, division and bloodshed. But it also capable of producing far more good than evil. Deliberately reducing a generation's already slender grasp of religion and belief is not going to do anything to increase community cohesion in our multicultural society nor make sense of the role of religion in the politics and conflicts we are witnessing daily further afield. Ignorance is certainly not bliss in this case.
Religious education is far from perfect as it stands. The Church of England revealed last week that more than half of its primary schools are delivering poor quality RE lessons that give pupils little more than a “superficial” grounding in the subject. This serious failure to deliver acceptable levels of understanding is not going to be fixed by abandonment. Instead there needs to be a move away from the observation and study of religious paraphernalia to the understanding of core theologies and the impact of faith on the lives of individuals and groups.

AC Grayling's views on this matter are both blinkered and dangerously ignorant. Those who oversee the delivery of religious education would do well to look elsewhere for wise advice on the subject's future.
Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK | September 25, 2014 at 9:33 pm |

Easter break and a reflection on the message 

of the cross

Good Friday crosses

The time has come for God and Politics to have its annual Easter break. Things will be quiet here for a couple of weeks allowing for a guest post that’s on its way. Thank you again for taking the time to stop by and spend a short while here, Many thanks especially if you have left comments – I really wish I was able to respond to more of them than I do. God is continuing to use this blog to do some amazing things and for that I can’t thank Him enough. I’ll sign off with this brief thought for Good Friday/Easter:

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I was reading an article recently in the London Evening Standard  by a Muslim Imam that was lamenting the apparent demise of the Christian faith in our country. As he went along, he also touched on the differences between Islam and Christianity, making this comment:

‘Islam is a vibrant and dynamic religion, dealing with every aspect of life. It provides people with one direct relationship with God and makes it clear that you don’t need some else to die for your sins.’

As I read it I was deeply offended by those last few words. Believing that Jesus died for my sins goes right to the core of who I am. To effectively say that Jesus’ death was pointless is to contest and belittle everything that the Bible tells us about Jesus’ life. What it comes down to is whether we believe Jesus was the Son of God. If you are of the opinion that the historical Jesus was just a man as Muslims do then his death was little more than an unfortunate incident in a moment of time, but if you are willing to accept that Jesus was God incarnate, then his death takes on a whole new dimension. It becomes an incredible and profound sacrifice full of love and grace that forever changes the relationship between mankind and God.

I doubt that I am alone in having trouble getting my head around how and why God should choose to allow His son to die for the forgiveness of every wrong thing each one of us has ever done. It is a profound mystery, yet I would rather believe in a God who cares enough about humanity that he makes Himself known, seeking relationship with us at His expense, rather than staying aloof and expecting us to strive endlessly to earn His favour. And I would certainly take this over believing that there is no God at all.

This is how I make sense of it:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

I’ve read and heard many arguments against the existence of God and why this story of Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection is just nonsense. At a purely rational level when you take any dimension of the spiritual out of the equation, this might be so, but none of them offer the hope and purpose that I long for in life. Easter and the period leading up to it is a challenge to all of us to risk seeing life beyond the relentless everyday drudgery and accept that there is a whole lot more that is waiting to be experienced. It is a brave step to embrace the message of overwhelming love and redemption that is found in the cross, but few who take it ever look back.

Please take a few moments to watch this beautiful video by the artist Charlie Mackesy reflecting on Good Friday. It will be five and a half minutes well spent.


From the Evening Standard - 1st April 2014


Ajmal Masroor

I have been active in the London’s faith scene for a long time, and as an imam I get invited to speak at many interfaith events. But as a Muslim I find the state of Christianity in the inner city deeply distressing. Why is Christianity becoming obsolete so quickly in the vibrant east of the city?

I still remember waking up to the Sunday morning church bells ringing from St George’s church in Cable Street throughout my childhood. I do not hear them any more; what I hear is the muezzin calling for prayers from the mosque’s minaret. I would love to hear the sound of both in my city.

I was watching the latest episode of the new series of the BBC’s comedy Rev the other day and couldn’t stop myself feeling a genuine sense of sympathy for my Christian friends. The inner-city churches are deserted while the surrounding mosques are full. Rev’s lead character, vicar Adam Smallbone, laments seeing how his neighbourhood’s mosques are busy while his own flock dwindles fast: “It is difficult to be a Christian here… even in Hackney! Why is Islam so much more popular? Is it because of all of its rules for life? People like rules. Maybe if Christianity had rules like Islam, my church would be full too.”

I believe the real reason why Christianity is doing so poorly in fast-moving, materialist, secular Britain is that it has failed to fill the spiritual vacuum in the lives of British people. It has provided no coherent solutions to the social issues that are plaguing our city. So Christianity has lost the heart and soul of people.

I believe people are looking for God and spirituality in everyday life. In their handheld gadgets they wish to connect spiritually. In their organic diets they want to feel good in their hearts. When they are volunteering for a local charity they want to feel contented in their souls. Where is Christianity in all that?

Islam, by contrast, provides a clearly defined spiritual path to God — and one that is not dominated by a hierarchical clergy. It sees no conflict between God and spirituality in everyday life and modern technology. Islam is a vibrant and dynamic religion, dealing with every aspect of life. It provides people with one direct relationship with God and makes it clear that you don’t need some else to die for your sins.

I cannot imagine London without inner-city churches. Their loss would be a great tragedy not just for Christianity but for people of all faiths. It works both ways: I have a brilliant Christian friend who tells me that he loves attending Friday prayers at my local mosque. It is a spiritual and social boost for him.

As a fellow believer I would like to have more practical activities with my local church and my Christian neighbours. In the East End of London I would like to see Muslims and Christians running food banks for the poor, homeless shelters for the homeless and befriender programmes for the lonely. These would bring communities together and revive the spirit of the inner-city churches.

The likes of Rev Smallbone need that. People do not like wishy-washy ideas: they like a clear, consistent and coherent philosophy. For the moment, Christianity has lost its way.

Ajmal Masroor is a London imam and broadcaster.


by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

          David Cameron

David Cameron rarely wins plaudits when he mentions his own Christian faith. Secularists think it would be far better if he kept it to himself and many Christians complain that likening your faith to the patchy reception of Magic FM in the Chilterns basically means it is hardly a faith at all. Despite this he continues to talk about it and his annual Number 10 Easter receptions - which he inaugurated - give him the opportunity to say a little more. This year's was held last night. Bearing in mind the events of yesterday morning, it was somewhat ironic that the evening's formalities began with a lone chorister singing 'Ave Maria'.
The full transcript of David Cameron's speech that followed is not yet available, but in the meantime, here are some snippets:
“The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens,” Cameron began. “After the day I’ve had, I’m definitely looking for volunteers.”
He went on to raise three main points:
  • He said that he wanted to ensure that Christians were supported and that he would do all he could to remove any obstacles that prevented Christian churches and groups from flourishing.
  • He said that the government would speak out against persecution of Christians and he also spoke of the draft modern slavery bill.
  • He suggested that the churches and the government had in common a tendency to be deadened by bureaucracy and a need to evangelise, both wanting to work to support people and to improve people's lives.
The Prime Minister thanked the churches for their social work in society, including the growth of food banks to help the poor, “Jesus invented the Big Society 2,000 years ago; I just want to see more of it,” he said. “If there are things that are stopping you from doing more, think of me as a giant Dyno-Rod” to clear the drains.

During the speech Cameron referred to Jesus Christ as “our saviour,” saying his “moments of greatest peace” come “perhaps every other Thursday morning” when he attends the sung Eucharist at St. Mary Abbots, Kensington, which is linked to the school his children attend. “I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a bit of guidance.”

He also paid tribute to the pastoral work of churches, referring to the 2009 death of his oldest child, Ivan, who would have been 12 on April 8. In particular he took time to mention his local vicar in Oxfordshire. Mark Abrey, the vicar of St. Nicholas, Chadlington was “the person who looked after me” during this time . “I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind."

Cameron also urged churches to speak up for persecuted Christians around the world.  He made the commitment that the Government will fight the persecution of Christians abroad: “It is the case that Christians are now the most persecuted religion around the world. We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other faith groups wherever and whenever we can.”

Quite what such a commitment entails is unclear, but the fact that the widespread persecution of Christians has been acknowledged by a prime minister so explicitly is a major step forward and echoes previous comments made by the Minister for Faith and Communities, Baroness Warsi.

David Cameron does deserve credit for allowing Christianity and religious faith to be discussed by government ministers in an open way that had not been the case under the previous government and his Easter receptions are a welcome part of that. It would be harsh to say that he is paying little more than lip service to the churches in this country when he thanks them for their work and the valuable contribution Christians make to our society by engaging with their communities and working with people most others would choose to avoid. There may still be a level of distrust towards the Government from many Christians, but just for now can we please give David Cameron some recognition for his willingness to speak up for the Christian faith and those who follow it?
 

Justin Welby’s debut radio phone-in was a breath of fresh air

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Justin Welby conducted his very first radio phone-in on LBC this morning and from the outcome one wonders why this has taken so long to come about. Spending an hour answering questions he covered plenty of ground and it was refreshing to hear him talking freely on a range of subjects firsthand without his words being reduced to the usual media soundbites. It was very easy to get a taste of his personality, the way that his faith has moulded him and why he is the right person to be the Archbishop of Canterbury at this time. His mixture of honesty, pragmatism and theology were thoroughly engaging, profound and at times entertaining.

Justin Welby LBC

Predictably the main topic of conversation was the Church of England's attitude to homosexuality and equal marriage with Ann Widdecombe calling in early on to happily stir things up. There was a great moment when the Archbishop was asked: "Does the Archbishop seriously believe that after three and a half billion years of evolution including over two million years of the human species, God chose to reveal the truth of His existence and the afterlife to a small tribe of semi-literate shepherds around four thousand years ago?" His simple answer was, "Yes!"

The most revealing point though came right at the very end. A vicar called in to ask why clergy should not be left to their own consciences to decide whether to bless gay marriages or not. Welby continued to defend the rights of gay people, as he had done throughout the show, but also added this:

"I have stood by gravesides in Africa of a group of Christians who had been attacked because of something that had happened in America. We have to listen to that. We have to be aware of the fact," Welby said. If the Church of England celebrated gay marriages, he added, "the impact of that on Christians far from here, in South Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria and other places would be absolutely catastrophic. Everything we say here goes round the world. It's not a simple issue"

There was a brief stunned pause by the host James O'Brien followed by the comment, "That's not something I've heard before." Welby continued:

"I'm afraid it's only too sadly true... What was said was that 'If we leave a Christian community in this area' - I'm quoting; this is obviously not something I think - 'we will all be made to become homosexual and so we're going to kill all the Christians. The mass grave had 369 bodies in it and I was standing with the relatives. That burns itself into your soul, as does the suffering of gay people in this country."

It was a reminder that actions that might appear benign and good in one part of the world can have unforeseen consequences elsewhere.

When politicians are taken out of their comfort zone and put on the spot to be subjected to unplanned questioning by the public there can be great instants of revelation as the public facade is briefly stripped away. What made Justin Welby's appearance different is that right from the start he demonstrated a level of humility and vulnerability that we rarely see from our nation's leaders. This is was the human side of the Church that is seldom portrayed in the media. Justin Welby's appearance on LBC Radio was a great advertisement for him as an individual, for the Christian faith, the good news of Jesus and even possibly the Church of England.

Hopefully this will be the first of many similar opportunities to come.

 

Setting out a vision for the future of the Church

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Future ChurchIt's now just over a week since the latest annual statistics for the Church of England were released. They were an example of how even the church finds it difficult not to spin out figures to paint the best possible picture. The headline news was that 'Overall in 2012, on average 1.05m people attended Church of England churches each week showing no significant change over the past decade. Figures for all age average weekly attendance show around 1 in 5 churches growing, and just over this number declining with 57% remaining stable.'

Compared to the massive decline in church attendance over previous decades that is certainly an improvement of sorts, but stating that there has been no significant change in attendance is perhaps over-egging things slightly. Rev David Keen who regularly crunches these figures on his Opinionated Vicar blog, puts the decline in attendance at about 12 per cent between 2003 and 2012. Even allowing for improved methodology in the most recent report we still find a 4 per cent decline in the last 4 years which equates to about 37,000 adults. Of the 44 C of E dioceses only five grew over that period. One was static with the other 38 declining. Whichever way you look at it, church attendance is still heading in the wrong direction. Social commentators wouldn't be entirely wrong to say that the Church of England - and most of the rest of the church in this country too - is just crawling towards the edge of the cliff of oblivion rather than running at it.

So the current state of play isn't utterly depressing, but it's not exactly rosy either. There is, though, little point in spending too long mulling over what has happened in the past. We can't alter that now, but we can change the future. And that really is the question that needs to be asked repeatedly - Where do we go from here? If the Church of England hasn't changed dramatically in the last ten years, will that still be the case between now and 2024? Putting on a prophetic hat, my gut feeling, which is based on a mixture of evidence and intuition is that things are going to start looking very different. This is how I see the future of the Church in this country panning out over the next decade. It is written from Church of England perspective, but much of it will apply to other denominations too.

Let's start with the impending crisis that is due to aging clergy and church leaders. According to the most recent Church of England report, 23 per cent of full-time clergy are aged 60 or over compared to 12 per cent under 40. The average age of the 3113 self-supporting clergy (unpaid) is 60 with only 2 per cent under 40. Up until now the C of E has managed to get away with managing with older clergy being heavily reliant on those around or beyond retirement age, but in the next ten years at least a quarter of full-time clergy will retire and more than half of other current clergy will be over 70 by 2024. Even though the numbers of younger adults being accepted for ordination is finally on the rise it only represents a small fraction compared to those who will be getting too old to continue. This disastrous policy of recruiting so few younger people into ministry coupled with the slowly declining attendance figures will profoundly change the way the Church of England operates. Increasing the number of churches a member of the clergy is responsible for will be ineffective. Many are already being stretched increasingly thinly and finding it almost impossible to do their job effectively as a result. The parish system will begin to break down, especially in rural areas which tend to have more dwindling elderly congregations, with most younger clergy also being attracted to more urban environments. This will cause a major headache as the C of E seeks to find a manageable way forward. Paradoxically it will also provide more opportunities for church growth. Too often the attitude towards churches working beyond their parish boundaries, has been 'not in my backyard' from others with churches very protective of their geographical patch. Church planting into new areas by growing larger churches will become more common.

There will be an increased divergence between growing and dying churches. Growing churches will grow more quickly and those that are are treading water or declining will struggle to turn things around. Much of this will come down to churches attitude towards pioneering mission. Any church that is not consciously investing time and energy in mission and evangelism is likely to fade away. These churches will see their congregations age and fall away. The more churches realise that they are now placed in a post-Christian environment, where they are seen as largely irrelevant unless they prove otherwise, the better their chances of having a future. Focusing only on internal issues is a recipe for extinction. Ajmal Masroor, a Muslim iman in London wrote this in the Standard yesterday:

'I believe the real reason why Christianity is doing so poorly in fast-moving, materialist, secular Britain is that it has failed to fill the spiritual vacuum in the lives of British people... Christianity has lost the heart and soul of people.'

Churches have an amazing message to share, but have failed miserably over the last few decades to articulate and demonstrate it. Chris Russell, Justin Welby's adviser for evangelism put it like this during an interview in the most recent Christianity Magazine:

'Evangelism needs to be at the forefront of every church's priority. It is not an optional extra. The Church is, by definition, for other people... as Martin Luther said, 'The definition of a sinful heart is a heart curved in on itself.' The definition of a sinful church is a church curved in on itself. Because of who Jesus Christ is and because of what he has done, it is absolutely paramount that we live for other people.

'Not every Christian is called to be an evangelist, but everyone is called to be a witness.'

'The archbishop wants to encourage every single Christian person that Jesus Christ wants to use their lives to draw other people to himself, through his life in them.'

To be effective at reaching out, churches and Christians will need to become increasingly missional minded , going back to the experiences of the Early Church, being a light to a world that has very little prior understanding of the Gospel message. In a YouGov poll carried out last year, 56 per cent of 18-24 year olds have described themselves as having no religion at all and exactly the same number say that they have never attended a church except maybe for events like weddings and funerals. Expect that figure to be even lower for those coming up behind them. If the church is to survive in any meaningful way it must learn to engage with younger generations. The majority of young people have next to no understanding of what the Christian faith is all about and reaching them to share the Good News of Jesus will require new forms and fresh expressions of church. Fiddling with service structures is not even going to come close to attracting them.  Much more creative methods will be needed.

Younger generations have little time for tradition and ritual especially when it makes no sense to them. Fewer and fewer adults have any interest in going near a church, but if they are brought to that point, they will need to find communities which they can relate to with others including leaders of their own age if they are going to feel at home.

Lord Carey's widely reported comments in November ring true:

"So many churches have no ministry to young people, and that means they have no interest in the future. As I have repeated many times in the past, we are one generation away from extinction. We have to give cogent reasons to young people why the Christian faith is relevant to them."

They may be pretty clueless when it comes to making sense of religion, but  studies have found that young people and adults are more spiritual than their parents' generation, they just don't know how it all ties together and unless churches and Christians reach out to explain their message, what hope have they of finding it themselves? There is a spiritual hunger amongst the young, but being preached at or sitting through lifeless services won't cut it with them - they want to have a tangible spiritual experience of God in some way. Those churches that look to grow disciples, who encourage an intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, who turn a desire to serve and demonstrate God's love into practical action and who have a confidence to share the Gospel have a future that will most likely see their numbers grow significantly.  Radical Christianity remains hugely attractive to those wanting to find a deeper meaning to their lives. Take a look at the tens of thousands of teenagers who gather to passionately worship God at the Soul Survivor festivals in the summer and you will taste a great hope for the future of Christianity.

As churches continue to engage with their communities, especially with the poorest, their standing in society will continue to grow as it sees Gospel values and commitment being played out in public. A confident Church speaking out effectively against injustice in a way that other institutions fail to do will continue to gain credibility that will give it the opportunities to explain the faith behind its actions.

The church will continue to go through its long winter over the next few years with much dying still to come, but at the same time the shoots of spring that we see even now if we know where to look will grow stronger and become more obvious. This new emerging church will look very different in places, but God will be in it and His Spirit will be free to move more powerfully, drawing many to Him with society being affected in the process as well.

It very much feels that these words of Jesus are for this season the Church is going through in this country. We need to sit and listen at His feet and then respond accordingly with faith, wisdom, hope and courage:

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.' (John 15:1-8)

Christianity is ‘a religion for losers’  1st April 2014

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

April 1stToday’s guest writer is the Revd. Canon J. John.

J John is an internationally recognised Christian speaker and author. He has written over 50 books and spoken in 69 countries, teaching the Christian faith and addressing over 300,000 people in person each year. His series Just 10 (on the Ten Commandments) has now exceeded one million people in attendance.Canon J John

You can find out more about J John and his work through his Philo Trust website and also follow him on Twitter.

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When it comes to April Fools’ Day, human ingenuity seems to know no limits. Let me list a few of my favourite hoaxes and pranks from April the 1st:

  • The full-page advertisement by Burger King announcing the arrival of the Left-Handed Whopper burger, ‘especially designed for the 32 million left-handed Americans’.
  • The statement that the next pope-mobile would be pulled by a donkey.
  • The announcement from Virgin Atlantic that they would launch an Airbus with a transparent viewing strip on the bottom so that passengers could look straight down onto clouds.
  • The New Zealand DJ who warned listeners that a mile-wide wasp swarm was headed towards Auckland. (A good number took his advice to defend themselves by leaving home wearing their socks over their trousers.)
  • The official US Military statement announcing a new program in which trained cats would work alongside soldiers on the front line.
  • And finally, one that would trouble anyone like myself, who is a Greek speaker. The confident declaration that, as a condition of the EU rescue plan for the troubled Greek economy, the Greeks were going to have to abandon their ancient alphabet and use the same Latin characters as everyone else!

Such hoaxes are so widespread, that come the 1st of April, we find ourselves on guard; checking our email, twitter or Instagram with suspicion. No one likes to be made a fool of.

I like April Fools’ Day tricks, not simply because these pranks bring genuine amusement, but for a far deeper reason: they puncture pomposity and deflate those who are inflated with pride.

A particular concern of mine is the way in which pride gives people immunity against Christianity. To become a Christian is to admit that you have failed morally and that the only thing that can save you is Jesus Christ. Authentic Christianity is a faith for those who know that they are bankrupt before God. We need to be humbled to become a Christian. The sneer is that Christianity is ‘a religion for losers’; the correct response to that allegation is, ‘Exactly!’

Many people refuse to even consider Christianity because in their pride, they consider that it is foolish. To pray to God, to trust in Jesus, to believe the Bible, to stand up for good regardless of what other people think – this for them is the height of foolishness. In a way they are right. By the standards of this world, to be a Christian is to be a fool. Yet I believe that we must all be called a fool in one place or another. In the Bible we read these words; ‘The fool says in his heart, “There is no God”’ (Psalm 14:1). In the Bible, to be a ‘fool’ is not to be intellectually stupid; it is to be someone who wilfully ignores God. The Bible is saying that God’s verdict on someone who does not believe in him is that they are a ‘fool’. We must, it seems be considered fools either by God or by our fellow human beings.

It’s infinitely better to be considered a fool in this life by human beings than to be considered a fool eternally by God. So if this April the 1st you are humbled by some hoax, then be glad; it’s probably good for you. And if you are considered a fool for Christ, then be happy!

Gay marriages are here and this is what I’m celebrating - 29th March 2014

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Equal Marriage Couples

The big day is here. Marriage has become equal marriage and my gay friends now have the chance to join the club, should they choose to do so.

It is still quite remarkable that it was less than two and a half years ago that government ministers announced that a consultation would be held on how to introduce same-sex marriage before 2015. This timing more or less coincided with the formation of this blog and for the duration of Equal Marriage's passage through parliament I've been following it and commenting along the way. Today's piece will be my 34th on the subject. That accounts for 8 per cent of all my posts which probably means I've been writing about it too much. We've come a long way in a short period of time, especially by political standards and it's been helpful for me to go back over some of my old posts and mull over what's been achieved along the way.

It's not too difficult to find media articles like this one telling us why everyone should be celebrating that gay marriage is now part of our society's make-up. Of course not everyone will be celebrating this move and some have been and will continue to oppose the very nature of marriage between two people of the same sex. I've made it clear through previous posts that I have been critical of the way the equal marriage legislation has passed through parliament, but I am in agreement with the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday when he said "I think the church has reacted [to the introduction of equal marriage] by fully accepting that it's the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being."

Even though I hold what would be described by many as an evangelical position on marriage, I don't see the point in this case of fighting what has come to pass.  Instead I'd like to focus on some points I would rather celebrate that have resulted from the Equal Marriage Bill.

  • Despite some very heated exchanges between the opposing sides, I don't get the impression that the somewhat artificial Christians vs Gays strains have become worse over the last two years. In fact I'm inclined to believe that things are now better than they have been previously. There has been a concerted effort by a number of Christian leaders to apologise for the Church's attitudes towards gay people in the past. I am sure there were a great number of Christians who agreed with Justin Welby when he stood up in the House of Lords and said, "Although the majority of Bishops who voted during the whole passage of the Civil Partnerships Act through your Lordships' House were in favour of civil partnerships a few years ago, it is also absolutely true that the church has often not served the LGBT communities in the way it should. I must express my sadness and sorrow for that considerable failure." The invite of gay-rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell to Lambeth Palace was a significant move and having Pink News publishing an article by the Bishop of Buckingham yesterday is an example that the lines of communication have been far from severed.
  • This process has caused Christians and churches to reflect on their attitudes towards gay people. It has been a platform for the liberal and inclusive wings of the church to openly reach out to gay people, but other churches to have stopped to consider how welcoming they are too. There has been a lot more obvious debate within the church on a Biblical understanding of sexuality than I was aware of when civil partnerships were introduced. And this has been as much at a pastoral level as a theological and academic one. Gay Christians have had chances (although maybe not enough) to tell their side of the story too. I've witnessed walls coming down rather than being built up and an acknowledgment that this is far from a black-and-white issue.
  • Those who opposed the Equal Marriage Bill have by-and-large been gracious in defeat. There has not been a backlash since the legislation became law. Churches have been reminded of how little influence they now exert on society and that if it chooses to go in a particular direction, they need to live with it and adapt accordingly, even if they do not agree or approve. If it blows away any remaining illusion that this is an inherently Christian country and that the Church can take its position for granted, then that is no bad thing.
  • On a personal note it has been a revealing journey. I have had to grapple with my theological beliefs and go back to basics and reconsider some of the assumptions I have had. I've been challenged repeatedly over my views and realised that some have been unhelpfully hard-hearted. Through this blog I've been able to get to know some wonderful people from across the spectrum, who have helped me to appreciate the frustrations and difficulties that gay Christians in particular face. It's forced me to make an effort to listen and try to be less judgemental towards those I disagree with. My faith in God and the Bible has become stronger as I've wrestled and prayed. I still don't feel that I have all the answers - I think I would be arrogant if I did, but I now find a lot of issues relating to sexuality and relationships are clearer in my mind and that I am able to live more easily with the unresolved tensions. Most of all it has stirred up my desire to see a Church which is overwhelmingly welcoming whilst at the same time remains consciously faithful to God, even if that means going against the flow. I hope and pray this will be the same for others too.

The 29th of March 2014 will be remembered as an eventful day in the history of this country. There will be more to come. The Church has plenty still to work through when it comes to its dealings with same-sex marriage and there will be pain along the way. But today is one where we need to remember, no matter what our views, that our society still cares about marriage, and that surely is a good thing.

 

9 years into an 18-month sentence and still

waiting to be released: Life on IPP in the UK

Prison Block Wakefield

Today’s guest post is by Neill Harvey-Smith. Neill works for the Church of England in Lichfield. He writes in a personal capacity and tweets @nhs999.

Neill Harvey Smith small————

It is wrong that people who have served their time should remain in prison, if they are required to demonstrate they are safe to release, but denied the means to prove it. You cannot jump through a hoop if there is nobody holding it.

The Bishop of Lichfield regularly visits people in prison. He told me recently about a particularly intelligent and engaging Somali prisoner he met, sentenced to 18 months imprisonment, who has taught himself near-perfect English.

What a quick learner, I thought.

It turns out last Christmas was his 9th in prison.

In 2003, the government introduced Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences. The idea was that an IPP sentence would allow the judge to set a tariff, and once that had expired, it would be for the Parole Board to decide when the risk of re-offending had been reduced to a point where it was safe to release the prisoner. The intention was that a few hundred high-risk offenders would receive IPPs.  In fact, courts used them much more often, sometimes with tariffs as low as 28 days.

In 2012, the government took the positive step of abolishing IPP sentences. Yet around 5,500 IPP prisoners remain within the system. Nearly two-thirds of those 5,500 prisoners are past their tariff.

At the current release rate of about 400 a year, it could take a further nine years to clear the backlog.

It is difficult for a prisoner to prove that they are safe to release. They need to go through an Offending Behaviour Programme which has insufficient places, and carries exclusion criteria which prevent some with learning difficulties or mental health issues from enrolling. The Parole Board is under enormous pressure, with a hugely increased workload.

The Bishop of Lichfield is making a speech in a House of Lords debate today on this issue, furthering two suggestions. Firstly, that the prison governor, not the Parole Board, should make the decision on a move to open prison conditions, which is a requirement to test risk before release can be considered. This is already the practice with those on determinate sentences and might speed up the process. Secondly, the bishop calls for the reinstatement of the right to legal aid for IPP prisoners in relation to their re-categorisation decisions.

IPP prisoners have committed crimes of which there are victims. The risk of further offending must not be taken lightly. But as Christians, we know we are all guilty of sin. Hebrews 13:3 says “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body.“ Prisoners are not a ‘they’ whose rights can be forgotten, but a ‘we’ that we are called to love, however hard it is to do, and however much easier it is to turn our heads away. When Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons describe the impact of IPP sentences as ‘Kafka-esque’, we need to listen and respond.

It is wrong for people who have served their sentence to remain in prison, if they are required to demonstrate they are safe to release, but denied the means to prove it. You cannot jump through a hoop if there is nobody holding it. Let us look again at this area and examine ways to speed up the process, protecting the public while allowing the right decisions to be made in a more timely way.

It makes perfect sense that vicars are ranked as the happiest people

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

RevSo the Rev. Adam Smallbone returned last night to BBC2 for what looks to be his final series as the long-suffering vicar of St Saviour-in-the-Marshes. Like so many others who have experienced the day-to-day life of living in a vicarage, I have come to love the sharply observed writing of Rev. As is the case with this programme and other great comedies they take the genuineness of real life situations and draw them out with a certain amount of exaggeration to great comic effect. We find ourselves sympathising with Adam as he deals with the variety of oddballs and hangers-on that his church attracts.

If Adam Smallbone was a real person, we might be asking why he bothers putting up with all the stress and frustration when the moments of joy are so few and far between. Adam might have a particularly challenging parish to work in, but there are plenty of real life clergy who find themselves living and working in positions that are far from easy. Having grown up with a Rev for a father, I've seen what it takes to give your life to your calling. Sometimes it is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, but it can also be emotionally exhausting and stretch you to the point of breaking.

I was therefore a little surprised to see last week that vicars and priests are ranked on average as the happiest in their jobs compared to those in 273 other professions. The Cabinet Office has carried out research looking at how different professions and levels of life satisfaction compare. The idea is that people should have access to information on the relationship between the salary and the satisfaction associated with a career . It is part of David Cameron's desire to find policies that boost the wellbeing of the nation. I doubt these findings will generate a surge in demand for theological training across the country, but what they do show though is that income is no guarantee of satisfaction with life. A vicar's average salary of £20,568 is below the vast majority of other professions listed, yet they topped the table by a considerable margin.

This apparent contentment only gives a snapshot and masks the complexities and difficulties of all that being a vicar or minister encompasses. It did get me thinking why such a position that sucks up your free time and puts you on call most hours of the day is so attractive. Here are some thoughts:

  •  You can't just go for an interview and get a job as a church leader. Training for ordination is a terribly drawn out and time-consuming process. You won't even get selected unless you are fully committed to the role and are sure it is your calling.
  • Most Chirstians would love to have more time to worship, pray and study the Bible. Doing it for a living gives you that space.
  • Investing your life into God's Kingdom in such a full time way allows you to meet the calling to serve God in a very obvious and practical way.
  • The benefits of investing in your relationship with God, learning more and growing in your faith are tied to the role.

Perhaps the two most important aspects that are may also be the most rewarding are investing heavily in communities and seeing lives changed through the work of the Holy Spirit. Despite the challenges, few jobs allow you to spend significant time building community with a common purpose and getting a know individual lives so closely, especially in times of hardship and joy. There is great satisfaction to be derived from knowing God and sharing His love with others and then encouraging them to do the same. Life becomes more valuable and happiness grows through our relationships - and this works on a spiritual level as well as a physical one.

A fairly recent poll conducted in the US by Gallup found that those who attend a place of worship at least once a week frequently report experiencing more positive emotions and fewer negative ones in general than do those who attend less often or not at all.

average number of daily positive and negative emotions, by church attendance

This difference is most pronounced on a Sunday, which suggests that the act of coming together with others in community is crucial to wellbeing. According to Gallup, additional research found that friendship in church is more strongly correlated with life satisfaction than friendships in other contexts such as the workplace or a book club. It is not only the act of socialising that boosts churchgoers moods, but also worshipping together with those who share the same faith.

Although polling may find it difficult to prove, it's entirely reasonable to expect that a living faith which includes regular commitment to a church family will impact our lives for the better. We are promised that when we choose to become followers of Jesus and accept that he died for us and was raised to life, we are gifted with God's Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit we are transformed bit by bit, being filled with love, joy and peace along with a whole range of other good things.

Christians really ought to be happy people who want to share that happiness with others. It makes sense that this is manifested in different ways such as Livability's Happiness Course for example. We're not talking about happiness as a superficial feeling or a strategy that comes from reading a self-help book, but something that goes much deeper and permeates our entire being remaining secure throughout the highest highs and the lowest lows of life and all that falls in between.

Jesus understood this and set it out in the beatitudes during his Sermon on the Mount. In the original Greek, the word Jesus used that we translate as 'blessed' (makarios) also means 'happy'. So we can paraphrase The Message's paraphrase and read it as follows:

“You’re happy when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re happy when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re happy when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re happy when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re happy when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re happy when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re happy when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re happy when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that—count yourselves happy every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble." (Matthew 5:3-12)

Would vicars still be ranked at the top of the happiness table if they had no faith? Obviously it's a hypothetical question, but it's hard to see how a comparable job without the faith element could have the same effect.

We're constantly being fed a lie in our culture that we can gain happiness through spending more and owning more, by having bigger and better, by looking more beautiful or having better sex, by being more popular or even becoming famous. Too often we see people who on the surface have everything, but still haven't found what they are looking for because they've been looking in the wrong places. And most of the rest of us have bought into the same beliefs too with the same inevitable results. There is something better to be grasped if only we realised it.

On reflection I shouldn't have been surprised that the Cabinet Office has discovered that those who have given their lives to work for God appear to have found the keys to happiness. When those keys belong to God it all makes perfect sense.


The Foreign Office takes another important step in the fight against religious persecution

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK            March 26th 2014

FCO Advisory Group Religious Belief

Yesterday the Minister for Faith & Communities, Baroness Warsi chaired the first meeting of the Foreign Office group on Freedom of Religion or Belief. According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website, the group, which includes Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide and Joel Edwards, the International Director Micah Challenge, is intended to advise FCO Ministers and staff on promoting and protecting the right to freedom of religion or belief worldwide. Referring to the meeting, Baroness Warsi gave this quote:

"Freedom of religion or belief is a personal priority for me. Across the world, people are being singled out and hounded out simply for the faith they follow or the beliefs they hold. The persecution of people because of their faith or belief has, I believe, become a global crisis. I want to make sure we have the best advice available. This is why we have set up this new Advisory Group, made up of real experts in the field, and of those who are working every day in practical ways to defend the right to freedom of religion or belief. I look forward to working with them as we seek to move towards a world where no-one is persecuted for what they believe."

The establishment of this group is a welcome sign that after years of waiting and lobbying by (mainly Christian) organisations, the Government is continuing to slowly wake up to the need to address the crisis of persecution that affects millions of people around the world simply because of the beliefs they hold. Much of the credit for this group coming into existence needs to be attributed to the tireless work of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Barnabas Fund, Open Doors and others for continually raising the plight of so many.

Members of Parliament will shortly be receiving a copy of the latest Advocacy Report from Open Doors. Freedom of Religion and the Persecution of Christians is the 2014. It is based on the extensive research behind the well-respected Open Doors annual World Watch List, which highlights the 50 countries where it is hardest to be a Christian.

The key findings in this report are that there continues to be an increase in the persecution of Christians worldwide and that the persecution of Christians is becoming more intense in more countries of the world; the most significant factor for this change is increased persecution in African countries.

Zoe Baldock, Head of Advocacy at Open Doors has said: “While the report indicates that it is not the only source of persecution, the main engine driving persecution of Christians in 36 of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian is Islamic extremism. Last year we drew the attention of Parliament and the Foreign Office to the new trend of persecution in Africa, including states where Christians are in the majority. This year we reinforce that, emphasising that the most violent region for the persecution of Christians is the African Sahel belt.”

The report also highlights the extent and prevalence of persecution of Christians in failed states, which strongly indicates that freedom of religion or belief is a major casualty of civic and political breakdown – and, indeed, may also be a contributing factor to that breakdown.

North Korea remains the most restrictive country in the world to be a Christian. Like others in that country, Christians have to survive under one of the most oppressive regimes in contemporary times. They have to hide their decision to follow Christ: being caught with a Bible is grounds for execution or a life-long political prison sentence. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians live in concentration camps, prisons and prison-like circumstances under the regime of leader Kim Jong-Un. This month it was reported that as many as 33 people had been sentenced to death because of their alleged contact with Kim Jung-Wook, a South Korean Baptist missionary arrested by North Korean authorities in October on suspicion of trying to establish underground churches. It is possible they have been killed by now.

On March 4th, Open Doors hosted a parliamentary meeting highlighting the urgent need for progress on freedom of religion or belief in North Korea. A packed room heard a first-hand testimony about the plight of Christians in North Korea. Hea Woo, a North Korean refugee and Christian, gave a graphic and powerful account of her time inside a North Korean labour camp - where torture and beatings are routine.

"Sometimes we had soup with nothing in it, just full of dirt," said Hea Woo. "In some places whole families were put into camps. They separated the men from the women...the guards told us that we are not human beings, we are just prisoners, so we don't have any right to love...Even if people died there, they didn't let the family members outside know. "

38 MPs attended with a further seven sending representatives in response to invitations from Open Doors’ supporters who live in their constituency. "I'm stunned and horrified by what has been shared today," said one MP, "How can we do more to help?" Fiona Bruce MP, who co-chaired the meeting said, "We cannot stay silent. North Korea is in breach of every single declaration of the 1948 human rights bill."

The Open Doors report will be shared widely among policy-makers and church leaders. It is through the knowledge and understanding of the realities and trends of persecution that we can continue to remember those for whom faith costs the most and begin to take action.

It is vitally important that governments in free societies do what they can to promote freedom of religion for believers of all faiths and none as a fundamental human right. Our government may not be able to directly stop the shocking human rights abuses going on in North Korea and other countries, but it is important that they, along with other countries who consider this to be a freedom worth protecting raise the subject on the international stage and let the perpetrators know that they are being watched and their crimes are not going unnoticed.

Back in November Baroness Warsi urged politicians to keep their word by ensuring that their national constitutions are met and that international human rights laws are followed: “Politicians do have a responsibility to set the tone, to mark out legal parameters as to what will and will not be tolerated. There is much more that we can do. There’s an international consensus, in the form of a Human Rights Council resolution on the treatment of minorities and tolerance towards other faiths. But we need to build political will behind that.

This is not a problem with a quick or easy fix, but progress can be achieved when governments and faith groups unite against these grave injustices and pledge to take action, presenting a united voice and standing up for those whose lives are being broken and ruined because of deep-seated religious intolerance that grips some cultures and societies. This all starts with awareness and we should therefore be incredibly grateful for those groups who are  constantly telling these stories of persecution and also actually providing support for those who are suffering for their beliefs. The international community has no excuse to sweep these violations under the carpet any more.

The full report is available from Open Doors - it can be downloaded here.

Top 50 Countries Hardest to be Christian

Beer, bingo and budgets – Are we obsessed with other people’s money (or lack of it)?

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK          20 March 2014

Budget Briefcase1


Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.

As goods increase,
so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners
except to feast their eyes on them? (Ecclesiastes 5:10,11)

Is it me or are we becoming increasingly obsessed with money? This opinion is probably a little clouded as I write this by the endless coverage of yesterday's budget with commentators lining up to discuss who will be better off than whom and who the winners and losers are. According to the rather crass Conservative poster doing the rounds last night the big winners are hard-working people who love nothing more than a pint of beer and a night out playing bingo. Hmmm.

#budget2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word http://t.co/5vbL7RDAg5
Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) March 19, 2014

Think about it though. We've been talking endlessly over the last few weeks about food poverty and those who are in real difficulties struggling to make ends meet. Justin Welby's comments have got us talking are everyone's least best friends; the bankers and payday lenders. Yesterday Nick Clegg was talking about childcare costs and Ed Miliband along with the shadow cabinet can't stop going on about the cost of living crisis. Ever since the financial crash back in 2008 it feels as though we've been talking about very little else.

So much of this has been divisive setting the haves against the have-nots and everyone against the have-more-than-enoughs, which almost always is someone else. Oxfam released a report on Monday that told us that the five richest families in the UK are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the entire population. That’s just five households with more money than 12.6 million people – almost the same as the number of people living below the poverty line in the UK. A previous report published prior to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, stated that the richest 85 people on the planet own the same amount between them as 3.5 billion people who make up half the world’s population.

It's hard not to react angrily to the injustice of these numbers. Our sense of fairness recoils at the obscene wealth of the elite few whilst 800 million people around the globe live in extreme poverty on less than one dollar a day. Those extremes are nowhere near as bad in the UK - we have to remember that we are still one of the richest countries in the world with an extensive welfare system - but that doesn't stop poverty leaving its painful scars everywhere we look. Yesterday I read an excellent article by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian lamenting these inequalities:

'What I find objectionable is not disparities in wealth but blatant unfairnesses, the blatant crudity of the extremes. Public rage at bonuses for failure this past month has been staged against a backdrop of "Benefits Street" television. Soaring house prices have been contrasted with "bedroom taxes". Polls have divided between stinging the undeserving rich and stinging the undeserving poor. Wealth porn has clashed with poverty porn.

'It is not the billionaire homes, the non-dom status and the tax scams that are shocking in themselves but the fact that regulators – that is ministers – have allowed them. Labour's failure to curb bank oligopolies and the Tories' failure to call the bonus bluffs at Lloyds and RBS are what exaggerated the gap between wealth and poverty. Bankers are Putins, bullying and bluffing their way across Whitehall.

It's not just wealth in itself that is divisive, it is the politics of wealth and poverty too. Ed Miliband brought us back to this yet again in his predictably negative Budget response speech:

'This is Cameron’s Britain 2014. 350,000 people going to food banks. 400,000 disabled people paying the Bedroom Tax. 1 million more people paying 40p tax. 4.6 million families facing cuts to tax credits. But there is one group who are better off. Much better off.

'We all know who they are. The Chancellor’s chums. The Prime Minister’s friends. The Prime Minister rolls his eyes, he doesn’t want to talk about the millionaire’s tax cut. No mention of it in the Budget speech. The beneficiaries of this year’s millionaire’s tax cut. Because if you are a City banker earning £5m and you are feeling the squeeze, don’t worry because they feel your pain.'

To desire fairness in the distribution of wealth is a just pursuit, but I wonder how many of us mix that sense of fairness with envy and jealously towards those who are well off and comfortably getting by without any financial worries. Hating others just because they have more than us is of no value and shows that we are slaves to the desire for more wealth as well. Jesus said that we will always have the poor with us and so will we always have the rich too - just in smaller numbers. With an economic system such as ours it is inevitable. The question is how much we expect those a the top end to give up their assets and earnings to support the rest of us. Just 1% of Britons pay a third of all income tax. Is that enough? If not, do we want them to pay more into the system because we are resentful or because we believe it would be for the common good? And if we were to become rich ourselves would we still have the same expectations? Those who believe that the rich should contribute more need to make sure they apply the same attitude to themselves.

In the book of Proverbs in the Bible it says this:

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonour the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:8-9)

Wanting neither too little nor too much is both sensible and wise and can allow others to be blessed as a result. So many of us choose to give some of our income away in order to benefit those who have less than us, because we see it as important to share what we have. There are some individuals with huge fortunes who are doing this to change the world. Bill Gates who talks in the latest Rolling Stone magazine about the way his wife's Catholic faith and the morality of religion have inspired him, has ploughed $28 billion into his charitable foundation to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty around the world. Andrew Forrest, the Australian mining magnate and Christian has pledged to use part of his £3 billion fortune to eradicate the trafficking of women and girls for sex and other forms of 21st century slavery by the year 2020 though his Walk Free foundation. He also brought the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches together on Monday to form the Global Freedom Network in order to work together to achieve the same goals.

We also need to remember that the sharing of wealth is not sufficient to fight the causes of poverty. Welfare bureaucracy, drugs, crime, lack of education, family breakdown and debt all need to be tackled too. Calling on politicians to address the explosion of foodbanks is only a start. We need a form of politics that works prudently within the constraints of the current financial situation whilst at the same time also seriously attempts to address the imbalanced unfairness at both ends of the spectrum. We will always have both rich and poor, but the state cannot be allowed to shirk from its responsibility to ensure that its actions do not allow the rich to take advantage of their privileged position or cause the poor to become unbearably poor as a result of their deprivation.


March 18th 2014

Justin Welby and Pope Francis unite in the fight against the evils of modern slavery

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Modern Slavery 2When you live in a country that is one of the most stable in the world, where the vast majority of us can go about our business without the daily fear of attack or abuse and corruption in our law enforcement and legal system is rare, it is incredibly difficult to imagine what it must be like for the hundreds of millions of people elsewhere who cannot enjoy these luxuries. But just because we are not immediately affected by these grave injustices, it gives us absolutely no excuse to ignore these evils that devastate the lives of too many around the world.

Slavery is illegal in every country, yet millions are enslaved by vicious criminals, archaic traditions and brutal greed. As news media uncover shocking stories of modern-day slavery, more and more people are waking up to the need to take action.The reasons why slavery still exists are complex. In many countries the fight against slavery is not a priority. In some countries, existing laws are not being enforced. In some countries, certain forms of slavery are so common that they are almost considered normal.

Christians are called to fight for the dignity and freedom of every individual. After Jesus had emerged from the desert and began his ministry he gave his now famous manifesto:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18,19)

It is therefore a significant and welcome development that the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches have united to establish a ground-breaking ecumenical initiative to combat modern slavery and human trafficking with the full backing of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis.

The Global Freedom Network in partnership with the international anti-slavery Walk Free Foundation will call for urgent action by all Christian Churches and Global Faiths to work together to address the searing personal destructiveness of modern-day slavery and human trafficking. In response to the launch, Justin Welby gave this announcement:

“Anglicans and Roman Catholics have, since 1966, been in serious and prayerful dialogue with each other, to seek the unity that Christ wills for his church in the world. Jesus has said “ May they all be one,” and this imperative has inspired and sustained the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, and the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission, for many years as an act of faith.

“We are now being challenged in these days to find more profound ways of putting our ministry and mission where our faith is; and being called into a deeper unity on the side of the poor and in the cause of the justice and righteousness of God. For this reason, the new Global Freedom Network is being created to join the struggle against modern slavery and human trafficking from a faith base, so that we might witness to God's compassion and act for the benefit of those who are abducted, enslaved and abused in this terrible crime.

“Many are already engaged in the struggle and we join them with much to learn as well as much to contribute. All are called to join common cause to end this crime and suffering. The more we share the pain and oppression of the poor and suffering in the name of God, the more God will draw us closer to each other, because we will need each other’s strength and support to make the kind of difference that is needed. We are struggling against evil in secret places and in deeply entrenched networks of malice and cruelty. No one of us is strong enough, but together we are ready for the challenge God is placing before us today, and we know that he will strengthen us so that all people may live in freedom and dignity.”

Historians tell us that about 11 million slaves were taken forcefully from Africa during the four hundred years of the trans-atlantic slave trade. This is less than half the number of people globally held in slavery right now.

For too long it has been an often hidden modern epidemic that has gone beneath the radar of the international community. Taking the example of forced prostitution alone, this highly profitable global business that generates an estimated $18.5 billion in developing world countries involves between 4 and 11 million victims. However it was only in the 1990s that Human Rights Watch and a few other small advocacy organisations began to bring this global horror to light. According to Gary Haugen, the founder of International Justice Mission (IJM), when his Christian organisation began bringing sex-trafficking survivors to share their stories with the US government in 1998, the problem was received as if it were new. As pointed out at one of the highest level United Nations forums convened to address trafficking in 2008: "For a universally condemned, but globally evident issue, surprisingly little is known about human traffickers - those who enable or partake in the trade and exploitation of individual human beings."

The church as a global community has a unique role to play in combating these crimes, especially in countries where slavery and trafficking are prevalent by seeing and reporting what is going on and working to change hearts and attitudes. As awareness increases, so does the call to action. There is no excuse to walk by on the other side of the road when this evil corruption is exposed. In the joint statement by the Global Freedom Network signatories meeting at the Vatican yesterday, this was said:

'Any indifference to those suffering exploitation must cease. We call to action all people of faith and their leaders, all governments and people of goodwill, to join the movement against modern slavery and human trafficking and support the Global Freedom Network. 

'Only by activating, all over the world, the ideals of faith and of shared human values can we marshal the spiritual power, the joint effort and the liberating vision to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking from our world and for all time. This evil is manmade and can be overcome by faith-inspired human will and human effort.'

For those of us to whom this applies let us pray that it will be so and then act accordingly.


11th March 2014

Can we trust the decision over legalising assisted suicide to politicians’ consciences?

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Syringe

In the words of Han Solo, "I've got a bad feeling about this."

On Saturday we were given the news from the Telegraph that the Government has decided to give MPs  a free vote on Lord Falconer's bill introducing assisted suicide. This, according to the paper, will bring legislation a significant step closer, although the bill still has to negotiate a passage through the Lords if it is to reach the House of Commons.

Lord Falconer's proposals if made law will legalise assisted suicide for mentally competent adults who are terminally ill and expected to die within 6 months.

Despite this bill having already been denounced as failing to pass the safety test by a group of Peers, the fight to bring about euthanasia in the form of assisted dying/suicide continues to batter its way forward bit by bit, refusing to let repeated rejections stand in its way. This is the fourth time in the last 10 years that such a bill has come before the House of Lords, but with each defeat the campaigners for death on demand regroup, look to sway public opinion further in their favour, and return stronger to mount another challenge. Dignity in Dying, (which sounds so much more caring and moral than their previous title of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) have made it explicitly clear in their promotional literature that they 'will not stop until Britons are able to have the death they want at home in their own country'.

They believe along with Lord Falconer and other advocates that the public is on their side and they are probably right to a large degree. There have been various polls that indicate that the majority of the public want to see the law changed. The Westminster Faith Debates commissioned a YouGov survey last year asking whether it should be possible to help someone with an incurable disease die without risk of prosecution for doing so. 70 per cent of respondents agreed with this. The most popular reason for agreeing was that “An individual has the right to choose when and how to die”.

When we look at the news and see the cases of individuals like Tony Nicklinson and Debbie Purdy brought to court, only the callous would not feel a great deal of sympathy for their situations. These high profile, but exceptional examples combined with television documentaries of terminally ill individuals wishing to end their lives and newspaper backing have won the public over. The fear of dying a painful and protracted death is genuine for many, but just because most people now like the idea of being able to pull the plug if the quality of their life has deteriorated significantly, it doesn't mean it should happen or is in society's best interests.  If you asked people whether they would be happier if they didn't have to pay tax, the majority would probably say yes, but the consequences would be devastating - the country would collapse as a result.

perhaps I  am not giving them enough credit, but the fear I have is that if MPs do in time get a free vote on assisted dying, too many will make up their minds based on emotion and the persuasive tactics of the pro-lobby that have won over much of the public rather than thinking through the implications and morality of such a decision.

The voices against changing the law may be quiet in comparison to the onslaught in favour carried out through the media, but they have a powerful argument behind them.

In the Westminster Faith Debates poll the only group to be consistently against assisted dying was the strictly religious, i.e. those of any faith who believe that there is a God and seek to follow their religious teachings. I unashamedly fit myself into this category. My belief, which is not just restricted to Christianity, is that life is precious.  We don't just kick it about and treat it as a commodity that we throw away when we've had enough of it. The Bible might not specifically mention euthanasia, but it talks of each one of us being made in the image of God. That means our lives and bodies have value even in the midst of illness and pain. Nobody's life is worthless or meaningless at any point, ever. By treating our lives as possessions that can be clinically disposed of we degrade our humanity and become increasingly fearful of suffering.

However it is not just those of an actively religious disposition who are rightly concerned about the consequences of assisting another person's death.

We might like the thought of helping our loved ones end their lives if we felt they were suffering acutely, but how many of us would actually go through with it? Most of us couldn't bring ourselves to kill a pet let alone a spouse or parent. Passing the job on to a health professional is the easy answer, but how many doctors would feel comfortable doing it on the family’s behalf? The answer is very few. Two thirds of all doctors are opposed to any change in the law. The British Medical Association opposes assisted suicide and rejected motions to adopt a neutral stance on the issue in June 2012. Only last month the Royal College of General Practitioners carried out an extensive consultation with 77 per cent of respondents wanting the law to remain unchanged. Ask a doctor if they would be happy to kill someone deliberately and you're unlikely to get a positive answer. Doctors and nurses are trained to preserve life and help people to deal with any condition they might have. That is partly why we have such excellent palliative care available in hospices all around the country. Will the high level of public trust of them remain if their approach to protecting life is fundamentally altered?

Sarah Wollaston MP, a former doctor tweeted on Sunday that 'Assisted suicide involves doctors deliberately prescribing with the intention to kill and I cannot support it'.

The disability charity, Scope, came out with an even more strongly worded statement yesterday in reply to the Telegraph's article:

“Many disabled people will be left feeling very concerned by suggestions that a change in the law on assisted suicide could be one step closer.

"The ban on assisted suicide sends a really powerful message countering the view that if you’re disabled it’s not worth being alive, and that you’re a burden. It provides crucial protection to any person who feels under pressure to end their life.

“There are loud, well-organised and influential, calls to legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill adults. But we hope politicians will decide against changing a law that works on the basis of a few powerful, but exceptional cases. "This issue tells us a lot about attitudes to disability. Why is it when someone who is not disabled wants to commit suicide we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide we focus on how we can make that possible?”

Although Lord Falconer's bill does not allow for assisted suicide purely on the grounds of disability, Scope's words demonstrate the level of upset and anxiety this bill is causing. And yet in response Andrew Copson, the CEO of the pro-euthanasia British Humanist Association called the Scope statement shameful and disgraceful.

So who will our parliamentarians listen to? Will it be the single-minded campaigners who are seeking to push through legislation and won't be satisfied until they get their way? Will it be the majority of the public who like to think that an easy way out at the end of their lives might be a good option or will it be the professionals who understand the implications far more than the average person and would also have to decide month after month whether it's time for someone to kill themselves, sign off their life and then give them the drugs to commit the act?

One final thought. Will the pro-euthanasia lobby call it a day if the bill goes through or will they then take their campaign forward and seek to extend its borders encompassing others who were previously excluded? We've witnessed this happening in Belgium where the age limits to assisted suicide were removed last month. It has been legal there for 10 years now and the rapid increase in reported and unreported assisted suicide is grave evidence that the slippery slope is not just hypothetical. Our Lords and MPs will do well to remember this if and when the day comes for them to put their consciences to the test.


8th March 2014


I’m a Christian and this is why failing to vote is not an option

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Polling Station smallFollowing on from the last post in the I'm a Christians and this is why I vote... series where Frank Cranmer gave his reasons for not being able to bring himself to vote, Daniel Stafford, offers his views on why he believes it is imperative that Christians should vote. Daniel works for UCCF and is part of Nexus based at Emmanuel Church, Oxford, which works to equip and motivate churches to engage with politics and society though events, training and resources. Daniel tweets at @nexus_dans.

For another perspective, Archbishop Cranmer has also responded to Frank Cranmer's piece.

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Over the last month this blog has presented Christians supporting all of the major national political parties arguing eloquently and persuasively why their Christian faith has led them to be involved in politics with their chosen party. While great work has been done to show one can be a Christian and belong to any of the parties (with obvious exceptions for parties such as the BNP who hold views wholly incompatible with the Christian faith) there remains an issue in which the church rather sadly reflects modern society, rather than the church influencing society - increasing voter apathy towards all political parties.

Recent statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) give a brief snapshot into this malaise - 42% of 18-24 year olds have no interest at all in politics, compared to 21% of over 65s. 60% of all voters believe voting is the only way to have a say in politics, and despite positive spin by the ONS, one third of respondents do not believe they are seriously neglecting their duty as citizens by failing to vote. Other statistics do not make for more encouraging reading - party membership is in decline and the trend for voter turnout has been steadily falling for some years now. The issue at stake therefore seems to be that, as with society at large, there is a deep set cynicism that any political party can make a difference. In broad terms, I think three clear themes can be identified for why voters feel this way:

1. A general disillusionment with politics

The expenses scandal in the previous parliament exposed a long underlying distrust of politicians by the British public. Whether the perception that politicians never tell the truth or answer direct questions, frustration with the 'Punch and Judy' nature of Parliamentary politics, to much more serious scandals concerning the personal character of MPs, the 'dirty' nature of politics can make it unattractive even to those who are politically minded.

2. Specific disappointment with the political parties

Each of the three main parties has taken adopted a policy position in recent memory that has alienated its traditional support base. The invasion of Iraq, the redefinition of marriage, and the raising of university tuition fees are perhaps the most high profile examples. In each case there has been a cost to the respective parties as their supporters feel 'their' party has let them down and cannot be trusted.

3. Perception that the parties are no different

In some ways informed by the points above, a separate and distinct impression by voters is that the effect of voting for different parties has no impact on government policy. This takes two forms - those who believe there is no actual difference in party policy, and those who think that the mechanisms of government make any genuine policy change impossible to implement. The net effect is that these voters see no point in choosing between the candidates put forth for election.

I will not labour long the argument that we should care about this - it has been argued well that we should care about the health of our nation's governance, of which the health of our democratic institutions is a crucial part. I would add four further reasons why we need to care:

(a) We can make a difference, even if we don't always win

Any person or grouping engaging with politics accepts that they will never win every argument, vote, and decision. Losing is never pleasant, and persistent defeat is difficult to bear, but it is worth participating for those times when you win the argument and make a difference.

(b) We cannot abandon the public square

We are not the only participants looking to make a difference in the public square. If we neglect to speak for those issues we prize and value, we have only ourselves to blame when evil prevails.

(c) Some Christians are called to public life

While not every Christian standing for public office will be a William Wilberforce, they are doing the good work that God prepared in advance for them. Supporting Christians in this hostile environment is something we should care about.

(d) We are meant to be salt and light to the world

In some ways, it can be argued that the electorate get the politicians they deserve. We have the opportunity to model Christ-centred political engagement to a fallen world.

I do not deny that political engagement is difficult - but I hope I have persuaded you that it is worthwhile! In conclusion I have set out three ways that each of us can respond:

The first most straightforward way is to back whichever party best reflects your own views, as we have been encouraged to do so far. We go in accepting we won't win every argument, but trusting we will have some positive impact, and that the present system is capable of delivery policy change. One of the best ways to do this is join a Christian group affiliated to a political party. The Conservative Christian Fellowship, Liberal Democrat Christian Forum and Christians on the Left all work closely with their respective parties and have an extremely important role in keeping the Christian faith at the heart of party politics. The more support they receive, the more effective they can be in the work that they do looking to bring Christian principles and ideals into the political bubble.

For those who believe the system to be fundamentally flawed, my second proposal is to learn about those who are attempting to reform the system such as Labour's Progress group who hosted a joint event with Christians on the Left this week. Each party has a reform wing (Douglas Carswell being a prime example in the Conservative Party) - the Liberal Democrats indeed were the fusion of the historically reformist Liberals, and the SDP, who split from Labour over the issue of democratic reform. One can argue that so-called 'protest parties' such as UKIP and the Greens similarly stand for a policy of democratic reform. In any event, there is no shortage of options and opportunities to stand for Christians to pursue democratic reform should they believe it necessary.

The third way involves a sobering comparison with global politics. The Ukraine may be the example currently on our television screens, but many other nations have no meaningful democracy - the area chairman of my own party grew up in British Guyana under a dictatorship. There may well be occasions where it is legitimate to abstain from voting and delegitimise the government - but it is absurd to suggest that we have reached that point in the United Kingdom. So my challenge is simply "Choose ONE of the above."

If you want to consider this further, my pamphlet for Nexus entitled Getting Engaged; Why and how to interact with MPs and councillors expands on some of the points raised here in more detail.


6th March 2014


Corruption… It’s complicated but we are all implicated

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

CorruptionToday's guest post is by the Rev. Joel Edwards on behalf of the EXPOSED Campaign.

Joel EdwardsJoel is the International Director for Micah Challenge, a global Christian response to extreme poverty.  Prior to his role within Micah Challenge, he was General Director of the Evangelical Alliance UK. Currently Joel is an Advisory Member of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation. He also serves as a member of the Advisory Board on Human Rights & Religious Freedom with the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office and is a regular broadcaster with the BBC and other UK and international media channels.

Micah Challenge, EXPOSED and Joel Edwards can all be followed on Twitter.

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If at the birth of Jesus, you were given 1 trillion U.S dollars and spent 1 million dollars every day since then, you would still have 213 billion dollars left. 1 trillion dollars, that is how much money is paid in brides each year![1] A quarter of Africa’s GDP ($150 billion each year) is stolen from African economies by corruption.[2]

It is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most from secret and corrupt deals as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It’s not just money that is lost though: corruption kills. The lives of 230 children under the age of five could be saved every day if the issue of tax evasion is addressed.[3]

Corruption is active at all levels of society. It ranges from families in developing countries having to pay bribes to go to school to a lack of transparency in extractive industries. From paying to give birth in a hospital to large companies not declaring profits and hiding assets, corruption has simply become a way of life.

We are all implicated. The phones, tablets and laptops we use contain coltan, which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which is torn apart by war and the conflict there is being funded by mined minerals. Injustice is happening in Congo due to a lack of transparency in the production chain of these minerals and our phones, laptops and other electronic devices. We are all implicated in this!

Corruption robs people of the fullness of life that God desires for rich and poor people alike. It is a global problem that is crying out for our attention.

At Micah Challenge International our vision comes from Micah 6:8

He has shown you O man what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Our aim is a world free from extreme poverty with our mission to be a global voice for the Church: to educate, inspire and mobilise Christians to bring impact on the issues of poverty and injustice. We spoke to a wide cross-section of our 40 global partners across the globe in 2009 asking what was the one thing stopping them to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by World Leaders in 2000 and the overwhelming response was corruption.

Exposed LogoThat is what the EXPOSED Campaign is about. We are a coalition of Christian organisations that aim to mobilise churches, governments, businesses and individuals to shine a light on practices that oppress the poor and re-establish integrity in financial and political systems. We are aiming to collect 1 million signatures to hand over to the G20 in Brisbane, Australia in November this year when the world leaders will discuss the international financial system.

EXPOSED vigils

EXPOSED vigils held last October outside St Paul’s Cathedral, in Nepal and in Uganda. Three of hundreds of vigils held around the world.

Signatures for petitions do work! The Jubilee Campaign at the turn of the Millennium saw 21 million signatures with rich countries promising to write off $110 billion of debt from the developing world.[4] In 2005 the biggest ever Anti Poverty Movement - ‘Make Poverty History’ saw 444,000 people e-mail the Prime Minister and the 2005 G8 summit signalled an extra $48 billion a year to be spent on tackling poverty.[5] Campaigns can make a difference! That is why we need you to get involved.

In October last year thousands across the world gathered together to hold vigils to pray in public for integrity within their local communities, businesses, public services and government.

Many signed the EXPOSED global call which is what will be handed over at the G20:

"To G20 leaders

We call on you, as leaders of the world’s largest economies, to take practical steps that promote greater transparency in the financial affairs of business, government and individuals.

We are concerned that the tax evasion activities of some multinational companies and individuals as well as the corrupt use of funds by government officials, are having adverse effects on the world’s poorest people.

Please increase the ability of citizens worldwide to hold their own governments to account for the revenue they receive from taxes and all other payments, helping to ensure that resources are shared fairly and all people have the opportunity to flourish."

Your voice is a powerful one.

As a faith community this is the first global Christian response to corruption and this pioneering campaign is starting to make cracks in the walls that corruption has built. Help us tear down these walls down and shine a light on corruption by being one in a million.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:14-16

Watch the video and please SIGN THE CAMPAIGN!

[1] Interview with Daniel Kaufman, Global Governance Director, The World Bank Institute, “Six Questions about the cost of corruption” April 8th 2004

[2] World Bank (2007) Stolen Asset Recover (StAR) Initiative; Challenges, Opportunities and Acton Plan.

Discovering the meaning of Lent

by Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK

Lent Ash CrossLent is upon us once again and it is good to stop for a moment irrespective of whether we've decided to do anything special over the period and reflect on its meaning. It is one of those occasions in the calendar when plenty of people with no particular faith decide to undertake what is essentially a religious activity. At a time when three in ten children have never heard about Jesus' crucifixion it can provide a chance to share something of the nature of the Christian faith both through words and actions.

Canon J John has kindly provided a short piece on Lent and to finish I've given a few resources that I recommend to be used at this time. It's not too late to make the most of Lent!

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Why keep Lent?

Lent, the forty days before Easter (not counting Sundays), is a somewhat curious period in the Church’s calendar. Most things in the Church’s year are festivals and we happily talk about celebrating them. Lent is very different: it is a minor-key period which is never ‘celebrated’ but only ‘kept’. Some churches and Christians treat Lent very seriously, while others ignore it entirely.

Even among those who keep Lent, there is no agreement on how it should be kept. Many Christians try to give up something: for instance, chocolate, Facebook or television. It’s even become a period for us to try to break bad habits, almost as if Lent gives us another opportunity to retake those New Year’s resolutions!

Now what exactly is Lent about? One word used by those who observe Lent is ‘preparation’. Lent is about three preparations.

Lent is a preparation for Easter. Easter, with its message of Christ destroying sin and death through his death and resurrection, is the most exciting moment in the Church’s year. Yet we can undercut this note of victory by being so occupied that, amid the frantic busyness of our lives, we carelessly stumble upon Easter. Lent provides us with forty days’ build-up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday that forces us to prayerfully ponder the death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. As the best way to appreciate a sunrise is to be there in the darkness before dawn, so the only way to appreciate Easter is to have come to it through Lent. We as Christians are, of course, an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.

Secondly, Lent is a preparation for Existence. A fatal flaw in our culture today is that people do not know how to say ‘no’ to bad things. It is now almost a virtue to give in to every desire that comes upon us. Yet a great element in Christian morality is to be able to say no to wrong desires. Paul, in Titus chapter 2 verses 11 and 12, says this: ‘For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.’ Lent gives us the opportunity to practice resisting harmful and hurtful desires that will continue for life. Trivial as it may appear, a battle won over chocolate or coffee at Lent may help us win a war over lust, lying or loving shortly afterwards.

Finally, Lent is a preparation for Eternity. If you take Lent seriously, then these forty days can seem to be a long and often wearying season in which we never get our own way. Here, for a time, pleasures are put to one side and joys are postponed. But Lent doesn’t last. The darkness is broken by the joyful light of the glorious triumph of Easter Day. Here there is a splendid parallel with our lives. For many of us, much of our life seems to take place in what we might call ‘Lent mode’: things do not go as we hope, we do not get what we want and our joys are absent or at best short-lived. Yet, for the Christian, there is that wonderful and certain hope that however deep and hard the darkness is in our lives, it will ultimately be lifted and replaced by an indestructible joy. For those who love Christ, life’s long Lent will end, one day, in an eternal Easter in which death and sin are destroyed for ever.

Whether or not you keep Lent– and in what way you keep it – is your choice. But to keep Lent, thoughtfully and prayerfully, is to come into a rich and lasting inheritance. Be blessed this Lent and bless others!
Shalom
J.John

J John is an internationally recognised Christian speaker and author. He has written over 50 books and spoken in 69 countries, teaching the Christian faith and addressing over 300,000 people in person each year. His series Just 10 (on the Ten Commandments) has now exceeded one million people in attendance.

You can find out more about J John and his work through his Philo Trust website and also follow him on Twitter.

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One of the most exciting developments I've witnessed during Lent over the last few years is Christian organisations and churches looking at how we can be encouraged to draw upon Lent's roots and turn it into a creative opportunity to do something meaningful that makes a difference in many ways. Below are two initiatives that I've used and recommend:

Christian Aid Count Your BlessingsChristian Aid's Count Your Blessings app

The Count Your Blessing app is back for its second year and is now available in regular and Collective (16-25ish) versions. It's also available as a paper versions including one for children. We used this at home last year and found it worked really well as a family activity. Having it on your phone or tablet means you can do the daily readings, reflections and prayers on the go, which is very helpful. It's challenging and thought-provoking and gives opportunities to respond in different ways too.

24-7 Prayer's Lent podcasts

The team at 24-7 Prayer have been producing incredibly high quality podcasts for a few years now. Their Lent series this time round is entitled Anagnorisis, which means "the moment at which a character makes a critical discovery regarding their identity and true nature."  It will focus on the way individuals' lives were changed when they encountered Jesus. These videos that last just a few minutes have regularly been used to start each day and if this year's are anywhere near as powerful and moving as previous ones, they will be well worth following.

A couple of extras: If you want to really get stuck into Lent I also recommend the award winning 40 Acts which encourages 40 days of giving back, doing good and living generously. If you want something simple then I'm Not Busy is about as straightforward as possible, but also incredibly worthwhile by making a commitment to stop and do nothing for a few minutes each day.

All of this can be used to draw us closer in relationship to God during Lent and that's what really counts.