Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Rowan Williams speakly clearly and lucidly on Radio 4's 'Today' programme


The media is wont to suggest that Williams-speak is impenetrable and obscure; but that's usually when the audience he's been invited to address has a better command of the English language than jobbing journalists. He's not one for 'dumbing down' just because the press is there, thank God. But this short interview demonstrates his ability to match his language to his audience.

Monday, 30 March 2009

All aboard the God bus

I have an idea that the reason why many people don't go to church services is because they believe that people are responsible for developing their own 'spirituality' and don't want to commit to what they presume is a 'fixed package'.

On Sunday we tried a 'Café Church' format in which, rather than (as it were) everybody boarding a tour bus for a fixed tour with running commentary all the way, in this case the 'sights' (that is, 'stations' for prayer, for reflection, for socialising, for singing etc.) were spread out around the building and people were given a printed guide map. So they were free to come and go as they pleased, and spend as much time at as many of the 'stations' as they wanted to. In other words : take responsibility for their own spirituality and worship.

The members, with a couple of exceptions, didn't seem able to handle it, and most of them didn't even come! Sounds like the 'fixed tour' is what they're comfortable with, and they're not even willing to try anything else.

I'm not sure what conclusions to draw. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

All things bright & beautiful - again

One of the consequences of the 'unchurching' of society reveals itself every time I do a funeral or wedding. The last forty years have produced an explosion in hymn-writing as the church has dealt with enormous changes in society and culture. Obviously it takes time for the 'classics' to emerge and the hymns that don't grab the imagination of the people to disappear, but there are plenty of modern 'classic' hymns that will survive generations. The song repertoire of non-churchgoers sometimes seems frozen in the Victorian period it seems. Contemporary culture - at least, in England - simply doesn't produce songs for people to sing together to mark a death or celebrate a wedding. At recent weddings, the couple has dispensed with singing altogether, and Celine Dion gets played - again.

People say they want 'a hymn that everyone knows', but there is no longer any such thing. I don't have an overview of the repertoire in church junior schools, but the secular school I visit regularly (where the singing is excellent) has its own unique - and very good - repertoire, which doesn't include any 'hymns that everyone knows'. And I imagine that due to the pressures successive governments have put on the school curriculum, collective singing has disappeared from senior schools altogether.

It seems terribly sad to me (albeit rather inevitable given the huge changes in society), that we've lost the music that could bring several generations together singing at crucial rites of passage. But it's also exasperating : so many people judge Christianity and call it 'out of date' when all they really know about it is one or two Victorian hymns - in many cases, the naffest ones. And yet there's so much really good stuff being written.

Wasn't it Joni Mitchell who sang ". . you don't know what you've lost till it's gone"?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Did Jesus have a big nose?

I'm recently appointed as a URC rep on Oxfordshire's SACRE (Standing Advisory Committee on Religious Education). My first meeting was a waste of time : neither the chair nor County RE Advisor were there, and the meeting ended an hour early having achieved little. Plus I got a parking ticket! At last week's meeting we learned that there are moves afoot to scale back the County RE Advisor's post.

State-funded Denominational church schools generally have their diocesan education advisers to turn to. (The URC has never run state schools, believing - until recently - that the powers of state and church should be separate, and therefore state schools should not be affiliated to religious institutions). For the unaffiliated schools, the County RE Advisor is it - all they have.

: RE is the only subject the County has a statutory obligation to provide for.

: 53% of RE teaching in England's schools is delivered by teachers with no specialist knowledge of the subject.

: RE teaching is no longer subject to OFSTED inspection. There is no mechanism for finding out what is going on in the classrooms.

: SACRE has no actual power other than offering general advice.

And they're proposing to cut back what little oversight there is?

A couple of years ago I sat in on a number of RE lessons in different schools around Oxford. In one lesson a child wanted to know why Martin Luther King "hated white people" - and the teacher didn't know how to answer. In another Year 9 class we were treated to a 10-minute rambling monologue on what Jesus looked like. Because he was Jewish, he probably had a big nose, apparently. I wanted to crawl under the desk in embarrassment and alarm, and many of the children seemed equally as amazed at what they were hearing. An RE textbook published by Heinemann was circulated approvingly round the SACRE meeting. In it, I learned that the URC has women 'priests'. Given that the constitution of most Reformed Churches (the biggest family of Christian churches in the world, with more adherents than Roman Catholicism) is based on the idea that priesthood should not be vested in individuals for life, but in the collective - i.e. we don't even accept male priests - this is an absolutely basic error.

But RE is only a Cinderella subject in the eyes of the education system. The demand for Philosophy of Religion with Ethics at AS level is rocketing. It's important because it teaches, not what to think, but how to think. As an example of what we're dealing with : in an AS group, after a careful exploration of Descartes' philosophy, one student dismissed it by saying "At the end of the day, it was only his opinion." The idea that you arrive at opinions only after weighing all other opinions and arguing your case is counter-cultural. Am I the only one who thinks it important?

Letters expressing concern in our denominational magazine and suggesting ways in which we might engage as a church just a little with these issues has produced no response at all.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Jesus Madonna

Nice to see that Madonna's got married again : to a hunky guy 28 years her junior, name of Jesus Luz (= 'Jesus Light' . . . or is that 'Jesus Lite'?)

Honestly! It's so obvious : she only wants him for his name.