Thursday, 27 March 2008

Bishops & Prime Ministers with whips

The Prime Minister has this week had to acknowledge that some MPs owe loyalty to their religious community as well as the Party and the State. Under pressure of a rebellion in the ranks, he allowed a bill on human embryology to go to a free vote, instead of a whipped one. Roman Catholic bishops had been wielding their own whips in the preceding few days.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

BBC's Passion

Televising an account of Holy Week for national TV is an interesting exercise in bringing religion into the public sphere without offending either religious communities or those who reject religious faith. Fortunately, the particular genius of the Holy Week story is that it bridges the worlds of Roman Empire and established religion, and critiques both. And who can argue with telling a story (as opposed to presenting belief propositions)?

This BBC production is the most credible account I have ever seen (although as yet only the first two episodes have been screened). It has managed to avoid stereotyping Jesus as some human/divine weirdo, or political revolutionary, or guy with sexual or masochistic hangups, and the real dilemmas faced by Pilate and Caiaphas the High Priest are presented such that if you were Caiaphas, presented with the information he is presented with, you would have to follow his logic to its gruesome conclusion. Pilate's historically-attested brutality is not softened, but he also is not one of those Hollywood baddies who for no apparent reason just want to be bad.

The storyline seems to be following John's Gospel closer than the other accounts. As in John, Jesus has prescient knowledge of what the future holds for him, yet presses ahead nonetheless. This would have been a little weird for me a few years ago, until I read Margaret Barker's 'Temple Theology' in which she argues that the historical Jesus consciously took upon himself the missionary role of the High Priest (as a way of non-violently 'deposing' Caiaphas in the popular imagination) and took it to its logical conclusion by 'becoming God for the people' in the great Atonement sacrifice.

The story challenges all the neat boxes and labels that are often used when discussing religion and secular society.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Oaths of (British) allegiance?

A Government commission set up by the Prime Minister and convened by Lord Goldsmith has just published its findings on the question of British identity. Is there a loss of sense of identity and cohesion in the country ('country' being UK and Northern Ireland), and if so, what is to be done? Radio 4's 'Today' programme, true to form, attempted to twist the whole thing into a debate about 'Britishness' (as opposed to 'citizenship') and focus exclusively on the idea of people swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen. No doubt the papers will follow suit, and the opportunity for a serious discussion will again be lost.

Despite John Humphreys best efforts, Lord Goldsmith did manage to get through that the issue is citizenship not Britishness, and that the idea of an oath of allegiance to the Queen is only one of a number of different possibilities. As to why there is a concern at all, he didn't make a very good case, focussing as he did on people's mobility around the country (do I feel less British because I've lived all over the UK?) and the impact of the internet and television. He mentioned how major football teams no longer draw their support locally - a significantly *un*revealing fact, I'd have thought.

He managed to steer it away from a discussion about the impact of immigration - although did cite the success of civil ceremonies introduced by the government for people taking British citizenship. I've been to one and it was, in a curious and rather ramshackle way (in true British style??) moving - very clearly so for many of the participants.

There seemed to be a tacit agreement 'Don't talk about the War' - yet I'd have thought the bonding experience of the Second World War played a major part in welding a sense of national cohesion for my parents' generation. Maybe that's why the media has been so interested in the story of servicemen in Peterborough being advised not to wear uniforms when off duty in public for fear of abuse. Just goes to show that embarking on unjustifiable wars with no popular support can't be guaranteed to work for national cohesion, especially if it tarnishes large numbers of your own citizens with the 'potential terrorist' brush.

However, there is a big issue underlying all this. We live (as Archbishop Williams pointed out) in a country where people have multiple allegiances. I guess I feel (in order of priority) Christian, British, European (significant ancestry is German), English, a Londoner. And also, to some extent, I feel like a 'person of faith' in a country where religion is often patronised, marginalised and insulted. (That's not to say it doesn't sometimes deserve it).

Swearing of oaths is not on, to the Queen or anything else. Not only is it unacceptable for many Christians, but I suspect for Muslims too. However, a public ceremony at which young people coming of age take on the responsibility of citizenship, accept for themselves their obligation to the laws and institutions of the (secular) State - and, perhaps, their responsibility to work for their continued reform (which for a Christian has to be part of the package) - sounds like quite a good idea. Apart from anything else, it might create some pressure to do some real citizenship education in schools. Things have improved a bit since I first emerged as a graduate in 1973 knowing absolutely nothing about how the country is run. Patriotic symbols and myths take on a dangerous tone when they become a substitute for knowledge about how the State actually operates.

Citizens are less likely to participate actively in the continual reformation of our State through the democratic process if they are isolated individuals. Belonging to religious institutions and political parties where some serious thought can (and does) go on about what constitutes good government, where character can be formed and experience gained has to be part of the story.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Blasphemy legalised

Did I gather that at last the so-called 'Blasphemy Laws' were struck out of the rulebook this week?

The laws' purpose (according to the Parliamentary debate) was effectively to protect the essential tenets of the Established Church from slander and thus prevent civil strife. It was ineffective because it never defined what the essential tenets were. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York supported its abolition because they said (as I understand it) its essential purpose was the prevention of civil strife and we now have other legislation relating to religious discrimination and religious hatred that does this far more effectively.

My own MP, Evan Harris, proposed abolition in the Commons and thought the House would be impressed that Richard Dawkins ("who is much admired") supported it. Given that the entirely unadmirable Dawkins enjoys insulting religious believers with a relish it seemed a chancy tactic and betrayed an anti-religion agenda. His list of supporters included all the currently fashionable well-known religion-bashers in the UK. Whether the Archbishops' support was a disappointment to him I don't know.

What I find distressing is not so much people like Dawkins *insulting* religious beliefs as their wilfully *misrepresenting* them, claiming that the 'Aunt Sally' they've set up is the truth. That's the real insult. But just as insult and misrepresentation undermine work for justice and peace, so can laws that try to protect ideas rather than people. So good riddance to the Blasphemy Laws anyway.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Saying grace ungracefully

page 2 of this week's 'Oxford Times' : "Argument at Trinity College over scholars being made to say grace"

"Over the past few weeks, a number of scholars and exhibitioners at Trinity College have refused to recite the meal-time prayer. A response by the chaplain, demanding that the prizewinners say grace, has opened up a rift between the students and the college's governing body. In an email sent to students by the Revd Emma Percy, she wrote : "The personal beliefs of the individual are incidental; the role requires them to speak the words that the college community wish to be said on their behalf." The chaplain also argued that reciting the prayer was not a religious ritual but a tradition that scholars and exhibitioners were obliged to take part in. She added: "There seems to be some confusion about the difference between personal and public prayer, the individual and the role. . . The scholar/exhibitioner is asked to recite the grace; it is a personal matter whether they also pray it," she added.

. . a [subsequent] motion to the Junior Common Room stated that ". . the obligation to say the words of the grace amounts to forced participation in a religious ceremony. . . a scholarship or an exhibition is an award for academic achievement, and should not involve any religious obligation." At the JCR meeting, a motion was passed by 27 votes to 17 to write to the governing body requesting a change in college rules, removing the obligation for scholars and exhibitioners to recite grace. [end of quotations].

I imagine that what is being asked of the students concerned is not to offer a prayer of their own, but to recite the traditional college grace, which is probably in Latin and goes back to mediaeval times. It is normal practice in most Oxford colleges and probably only relates to formal college dinners once a week, although in some colleges every evening hall dinner is formal. Meals at such dinners are not served canteen fashion. Everyone gathers for dinner, and when all are in place, silence is called and the meal starts together - a civilised practice, I think, which befits a college community, not a collection of individuals. The grace signifies the start of the meal.

This little story highlights the confusions we have arrived at over the secular and the religious. I'm with the chaplain on this one. A prayer is a poem until its hearer (or reciter) prays it. That corresponds with Reformed theology in which the communion bread only becomes the 'communion of the Body of Christ' when it is received in faith. The Latin grace provides an opportunity for those members of college who wish to inwardly give thanks in whatever way they choose (a Muslim could be giving thanks in one way, a humanist in another - why should we assume only religious people are thankful for a meal, and the work that it represents?). Its being in Latin (probably) allows such scope. The only grounds for refusing to give the college members such an opportunity is on the grounds that it is harmful to encourage them to consider being thankful.

What the protesting students are doing is claiming that religion is an individualistic, privatised matter to be banished from the secular sphere. ('Secular' misunderstood as 'we don't do God here' - see earlier post). That said, if I were the chaplain faced with someone claiming s/he can't recite a prayer without also praying it I would be inclined not to force it. The important thing is that college pauses to give thanks. I might note that Aristotle said that the mark of an educated person is that they are able to hold thoughts in their head and take them seriously without agreeing with them - it leaves me wondering whether the students have really thought it through. There are many humanists and atheists who nonetheless enjoy singing the (religious) works of Bach without, presumably, feeling that their rights are being trampled on.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

What's the point of an Archbishop?

Interesting to note that BBC Radio 4 ran a programme this morning, "What's the point of the Archbishop of Canterbury?" It was the first in a weekly series. I don't know when it was recorded, and whether it was subsequent to the media fiasco over his lecture. It was depressing to hear vox pop interviews on the streets of Manchester where people were asked if they could identify his face on a photograph and they were saying things like "Isn't that the church bloke that thinks we should have shari'a law in Britain?"

Couldn't hear the whole programme, but it seemed to be grinding (in a grudging sort of way) towards an appreciation of the role.