Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Church disestablishment and freedom

Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham in my former diocese, has written a blog post (supposedly based on Andrew Brown’s post about slavery/freedom, atheism/religion, which reads like a lesson on how to perform keyhole surgery with a monster truck) about how Denmark is a wonderfully free country with an incredibly established state church, and this makes church establishment good for the rest of us. He even includes a picture of Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, holding up his God hates fags placard, to show us what religion looks like when it’s privatised!

The perfect societies of Scandinavia is a popular meme in British discussion on social and political issues. The fire behind this smokescreen is that Scandinavian countries have managed their natural resources fairly well, remained relatively homogeneous and retained moderately successful social democratic systems. The two latter reasons mean that the real wealth from natural resources is fairly well distributed. This is a Good Thing, but one cannot take the close church-state relationship in Denmark, transplant it elsewhere and make elsewhere look like Denmark.

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Serving Mammon

Today, the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, stood up at the Labour Party conference in Brighton and had a go at the bankers and their bonuses. So far, so populist. Pointing at naughty bankers, who do deserve to be brought down a peg or two, is simple legerdemain, making sure we don’t see that it is the neoliberalism incarnate in Thatcherism and Blairism that has been the driving force behind this chaos in the UK. We got our MPs expenses scandal (no progress is being made by the flimsy legislation that has come in to deal with the issue), but we haven’t been allowed to analyse the Government economic mismanagement scandal.

A long time ago, I read that money is the second most talked about issue in the gospels (after the kingdom of heaven). Christian moralising is so often hung up on sex, it has no energy left to deal with what seems to me to be Jesus’ bigger issue, Mammon. He is the personification of pelf and lucre. Stock markets have become his temples, bankers his priests, economists are his theologians. Their doctrines are ineffable and inscrutable, keeping us in the pews unaware of what they were up to. The more we ask the question ‘what is money?’, the more we realise that it is an abstract social agreement we no longer comprehend. Money actually isn’t any one thing, but a whole set of related ideas; it doesn’t exist in a coin or banknote, but they are just symbols of money. Doesn’t the whole thing sound not a little theological? Continue reading


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The first shall be first, and the last shall be deported

But many that are first will be last, and the last first. — Matthew 19.30

If we try not to spiritualise what Jesus says in his parable of the workers in the vineyard too much, it is literally about giving a fair minimum wage and equality in the labour market. Although literal exegesis is often given a bad press, it’s useful to state sometimes what the Bible actually says before jumping into interpretative dance with it. This parable is one of many in which Jesus demonstrates his Upside-Down Kingdom, his anti-establishment manifesto. It’s the kind of thing that we in the church try to sermonise out of existence.

This all comes to mind when I think about the raw issues surrounding immigration in Britain, the whipped hysteria served up by the Daily Hate, pandered to by Tories and the Labour Right before even thinking about the absurdist criminals that call themselves BNP. I find it odd how, seeing as migration has been part of human nature since we learnt the trick of walking upright, draconian administration of border controls is a recent phenomenon and has been spun as something right-thinking and normal.

One incident happened recently that showed me what this is all about. On Friday 12 June 2009, members of the cleaning staff at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) were invited to an emergency meeting with their employers, ISS, a subcontractor to SOAS, over pay and conditions. The meeting was raided by immigration officers supported by police in riot gear. It must have been terrifying for the cleaners, many of whom were ‘illegal immigrants’ (almost ‘illegal humans’). Many of them had lived and worked in London for a number of years, and subsisted on meagre wages. They were deported.

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Why I’m an Anglican

The main reason why I’m an Anglican is because I’m English, and being C of E is like a national default (at least it used to be, in the days before opting out of organised religion became the new default). That’s it, mundane and simple. As with so many things in life, the original reason for a decision is often pretty mundane. The reasoning and calculated arguments are added later. This is partly a natural evaluation that we do, but it is also an attempt not to look too stupid. We can go to great lengths to justify all sorts of decisions that, in truth, originated by whim of circumstance. Sometimes it’s liberating to be honest about our reasons. I chose my theological college because they served a nice cheeseboard when I visited, and I couldn’t afford the time or train fare to look elsewhere.

This is not to say that the later reasoning is a cover up. It can be, but it is still important to justify why we are where we are. I find this reasoning increasingly important as I find very good reasons not to be Anglican. I hate the Church of England’s ties with Establishment — Elizabeth Windsor as ‘Supreme Governor’, bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and the general societal superiority this tends to create (varieties of exceptionalism and classism). I hate its history of collusion with British empire building. I hate its lack of courage and self-knowledge and the blinkered pettiness it breeds. Continue reading


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We all prefer socialism when camping

We have been sold a lie. We have become convinced that capitalism and free markets are the necessary trappings of post-modern liberty and democracy. Even with the serious failings on show in this recession, we are told that it is the naughty bankers and poor US people who should not have been allowed the homes for which they defaulted their loans. Communism is described as failed ideology, while capitalism is depicted as realised truth, and its evils, if mentioned at all, are all necessary. These things are lies.

In this last week, I have seen yet more pictures of US right-wingers comparing their new president to Hitler for his perceived ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ — Obamunism! I have watched Michael Winterbottom’s flawed documentary representation of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, which has compelled me to read the book. Then I read an excerpt from Jerry Cohen’s Why Not Socialism? in the New Statesman.

The extreme reaction of the US right to a mildly progressive president (who happens to be black, which is clearly an issue for many)  is a demonstration to me that Klein is on the right track: we have been brainwashed into believing that neoliberalism is the default position for right-thinking nations, and all alternatives are crazy ideologies that would never work in the real world. Jerry Cohen died just over a month ago, but his rambling, discursive style refreshes the mind and takes us back to first principles.

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The Anglican Communion as imagined community

Frank Turner, Professor of History at Yale, has a wonderfully insightful article on the Anglican Communion at Episcopal Café. His thesis is that a group of Anglicans, mainly bishops, have sought to shape the various independent Anglican provinces into a global ecclesiastical community over the past two decades.

Turner calls Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities into play here. The bare bones of Anderson’s theory is that a nation is a socially constructed community based on various presumptions of shared attributes: language, religion, skin colour, culture &c. The question it raises is why do I cheer on an athlete, whom I have never met and with whom I have little in common, at the Olympics just because her uniform says she is British? The question it raises is why it is considered a high ideal to die for ‘queen and country’.

Of course, social constructs are not unreal, but they are perceived realities: nationality is no absolute thing. It is fascinating seeing a ‘nation’ being built over the last score of years, but understanding the Anglican Communion as imagined community does much to help us understand the pressures it is under at this time.

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