Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Sharia, the Musical

posting from URC minister Kim Fabricius :

(to the tune 'Maria' from 'West Side Story')

I’ve just made a speech on Sharia.
And suddenly that name
Has set the press aflame -
Next me!

I’ve just hit a nerve with Sharia.
And suddenly I’ve found
Hysteria unbound
And free!

Say it loud and a lynch mob is braying.
Say it soft and for blood they’re still baying.


Kim Fabricius

Is Individualism rather than Universalism the problem?

Interesting review and summary of Rowan Williams lecture at

The tone of it is to suggest that Williams was defending secular universalism rather more than I've suggested he was, but was attacking a sort of dry *individualism* that sees people only as citizens with a personal but identical relationship to the State : "The actual shape of people’s lives (their ’social identity and personal motivation’) is shaped by other kinds of involvement, other kinds of affiliation, other kinds of community. People are not just citizens.

That’s not something he simply wishes were true - it is, he thinks, a (rather obvious) fact about the actual society that we live in. It is simply not the case that we have a society made up of a large set of private citizens, whose social dispositions and habits are the result of purely private preferences."

Sunday, 24 February 2008

from Babel to Pentecost / Hope in Failure

One thing about Hauerwas that's refreshing to a beleaguered Christian in the UK is his assertion that Christ is the 'Way, the Truth and the Life' - a universal truth, but not at all a triumphalist one (or 'universalist'). Somewhere in his lecture he said something like 'before getting too involved in conflict resolution you need to get your Christology right'. This was for the sort of bleak reasons that Lou Reed, Morrissey or Nick Cave might cite : "Because you may have to watch the innocent suffer for your convictions. Violence may in the short term get worse as a result of your action." Hmm.

But it occurs to me the point made several times in his lecture is not so different from the central assertion in my address for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (full text at, given at St James Church of England, Cowley. Our starting point, each day, is a broken and divided humanity, whose Babel attempts to unify society seem to be frustrated by a God wary of losing his universal authority (Genesis 11:1-9). Jesus's crucifixion means many things to many people, but it seems to me that if nothing else it suggests that the hope of unity — unity of all things, not just the Church — begins with a recognition and acceptance of brokenness and division, and an embracing of this apparent failure in humility, love, obedience and hope.

In short, Unity begins — daily — at the foot of the cross. There can be nothing triumphalist or imperialist about such a message. The Christian vision of 'holding it all together' seems to be a paradox. Unity and reconciliation will only come when we recognise what a dangerous vision it is, and act as if we're building 'the kingdom' from scratch each new morning.
Lou Reed kind of - well, kind of - had it right in his 'Busload of Faith' (on the New York album):

You can't depend on your family
You can't depend on your friends
You can't depend on a beginning
You can't depend on an end
You can't depend on intelligence
You can't depend on a god
You can only depend on one thing
You need a busload of faith to get by.

Friday, 22 February 2008

What does 'Secular' mean?

Correspondence in this week's 'Tablet' suggests a need to clarify the meaning of 'secular'. Is it about religious *institutions* (i.e. secular = independent of any religious institution) or about belief (i.e. secular = not believing in God)?

When I opposed so-called 'faith schools' in a debate organised by the British Humanist Association it was as a religious believer convinced that education needed to happen in a space that is not controlled by any religious institution. I did so out of (misguided?) Reformed conviction. Indeed, it was my desire to stake out a place for committed religious believers in the secular sphere, rather than assume that 'God' is only 'done' within the confines of religious institutions that prompted me to seize the opportunity when it presented itself. (My speech can be found on the Articles and Sermons page of

In this context, I note that plans for a joint Christian-Muslim 'academy' ("faith school", presumably)in Oldham, proposed by the Anglican diocese, have been shelved by the local authority on the grounds that there is already sufficient provision for pupils of faith in the town. Does this betray confusion over the true meaning of 'secular'?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

No need for secular interpreters?

Texan theologian Stanley Hauerwas gave a lecture last night "Against Cosmopolitanism". It was pretty relevant to this discussion. He said that the secular language of 'rights', which is claiming universal applicability (as in the 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights') is not as straightforward as it seems. The claimed 'rights' are "breeding like rabbits".

He asked "Do you have a right to eat meat? Because many Hindus would say that we have no right to eat meat". If, for the sake of argument, Christians would claim we do have such a right, does it really help to have a third (secular) party stepping in to arbitrate, using a third (secular) 'language' of rights? Isn't peace more likely to come if the Hindus and the Christians just have a real dialogue with each other - 'go direct'?

This is a rather more radical position than Archbishop Rowan Williams, and certainly Bp James Jones, I think. Always good value, Stanley Hauerwas, but never comfortable to listen to. He challenged the idea that there is such a thing as 'our common humanity' (on which to base 'rights') except as an eschatological vision formed in the suffering of the risen Christ. "You have to be trained to be a human being - it doesn't come naturally!" (Didn't Aristotle say something like that?)

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Antidisestablishmentarianism afoot?

Interesting to see that Radio 4's 'Sunday' programme also picked up the implications in the archbishop's lecture that my letter to 'Reform' notes. Bishop James Jones of Liverpool hotly denied it, and argued for the Archbishop's right to speak for all religious communities in the UK!

Friday, 15 February 2008

Archbishop was on target

I submitted the following letter to 'Reform', the URC's national magazine, yesterday.

Archbishop Williams seems to have been reading the penultimate clause in the URC's 'Statement of [its] Nature, Faith & Order' (Rejoice & Sing No.761), for his lecture on 'Religion & Law' reads like a call for the separation of the powers of State and religion, with the State, as the pragmatic 'referee,' holding all other authorities — including religious ones — accountable to itself and each other for the 'common good' and the dignity of every individual.

Much of the hostility to that lecture came from those who were stung by his suggestion that secular wisdom doesn't have a monopoly on truth and that justice and peace are likely to be ill-served by a secular 'moral majority' that marginalises all religious insight.

Howling about the abuses heaped on women in the name of Shar'ia in some communities may make the anti-religious (or simply anti-Islamic) feel a glow of self-righteousness, but stereotyping whole communities in that way (the very thing Williams appealed to his hearers to avoid) only serves to drive those women further behind the closed doors of male-dominated communities, because as a result their 'guardians' become ever more defensive and resistant to 'outside' intervention. The only way out that all this self-righteous posturing offers them requires them to reject their entire culture, family and religion, but for economically dependent women this is simply not a practical option. The only practical suggestions for improving matters that I saw in all the coverage (albeit that it was only in the form of underlying principles) were those which the archbishop had offered. A lecture that in itself tentatively offered a way of reaching respectfully into those communities and at least not making those women's situation worse has been turned by the secular Moral Majority and the Christian right into an anti-Islamic frenzy that almost certainly will.

A sad day for British journalism, a sad day for Britain, and a sadder day still for those crushed between the jaws of religious and State power, as was Jesus.
Welcome World! Wolffblog launched Feb 15th 2008. Why? I do a lot of reading, thinking and working around the interface between the secular and the religious world, and not all of it can be shared via the website of my Temple Cowley United Reformed Church, although you'll find sermons there and suchlike.

The views I can express here don't need the official endorsement of either my local church or the denomination.

Thoughts, then, to stimulate, challenge, provoke response? Or maybe you can take us further and deeper.

The trouble with this sort of space it that they tend to get invaded by bigots, of both religious and anti-religious variety. I'm hoping the Galilean obscurity of this one will save us from this fate. But can anything good come from Galilee? (cf John 1:46)