Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Two Christendom anniversaries

28 October is usually recognised as the feast of SS Simon & Jude in church calendars, but it’s also the anniversary of two difficult political moments in church history: one global (or at least European), the other English.

On this day in AD 312, Constantine defeated Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge, near Rome. Constantine certainly thought his victory, against the odds, to be due to divine intervention. At some point it became clear that the divinity involved was the God of the Christians. It is unclear whether the divine intervention was interpreted as Christian from the outset, , not, when it became considered Christian. Constantine and Maxentius were rival claimants to be emperor of the western half of the Roman empire, an empire still very much attached to the ancient Roman religion. Continue reading


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Right, it’s me next!

I spent some time at the British Library today, and popped into The Sound and the Fury exhibition (free entrance; turn right after coming through the main doors). The exhibition is a show case of the British Library’s sound archives, mostly speeches and debates. You can sit yourself at a computer screen, put on the headphones and listen away to whatever takes your fancy.

I was most moved by the retelling of the memories of a not-so-well known speaker, 101 year old Lou Kenton. Born in Stepney to Jewish parents who had fled Ukraine during the tsarist pogroms, Kenton joined the Communist Party of Great Britain after noticing the widespread antisemitism in London. In 1937, when right-wing general Franco staged a coup against the democratically elected government of Spain, Lou Kenton joined the International Brigades and headed to Spain to fight fascism. Continue reading


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Hi, honey, I’m home!

The era of evening- and weekend-only daddies should have gone out with the flatcap and trilby, but, no, fathers on full-time jobs plus overtime are increasingly the norm. The thing is the majority of British dads actually want to be spending more time with their kids. The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Fathers, Family and Work Report, published last Wednesday, says that 62% of dads surveyed want to spend more time caring for their children.

The aphorism goes ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’. So, if all these dads want to be caring for their kids more, there must be a way of doing it. But I’ve the sense that this view has been gaining ground for the last decade, or more, without getting very far. The revolution in fatherhood has only clocked up one major victory so far: two weeks’ paternity leave, at a minimum of £120 a week, secured for the brothers in 2003. Continue reading


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The name, fame and shame of Bartimaeus

Yesterday’s Gospel was Mark’s pericope of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho (Mk 10.46–52; synoptic parallels Mt 9.27–31, 20.29–34, Lk 18.35–43). It struck me that passing characters in the gospels, especially recipients of healing, are anonymous (Luke’s version does not name the blind man, and Matthew makes him two anonymous men). Most of us treat ‘Bartimaeus’ as a straightforward name, but I think it’s unusual for a couple of reasons.

He is introduced as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus” (ὁ υἱὸς Τιμαίου Βαρτιμαῖος, ho huiòs Timaíou Bartimaîos). This is often read as if Bartimaeus is his name, and his father is Timaeus. However, the simple fact that ‘bar’ is the Aramaic for ‘son of’ suggests that ‘son of Timaeus’ is the partial translation of ‘Bartimaeus’. It’s always interesting to see what the Syriac Peshitta does with such translations of Aramaic, seeing as there is usually no need for a gloss on Aramaic (Syriac being a variety of Aramaic). The Peshitta translates the name as ܛܝܡܝ ܒܪ ܛܝܡܝ (Ṭimai bar Ṭimai). Although this suggests once again a proper name ‘Timai bar Timai’, this still does not make a great deal of sense.

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Establishment and the Church of England

Yesterday I spent the day in Oxford for Affirming Catholicism’s The Established Church: Past, Present, Future conference. The speakers were Nigel Biggar (Oxford professor of moral and pastoral theology), Matthew Grimley (Oxford tutor in 20th-century British cultural and religious history), Mark Chapman (Oxford reader in modern theology), Judith Maltby (Oxford reader in church history), Elaine Graham (Manchester professor of social and pastoral theology) and William Whyte (Oxford lecturer in modern history).

Of these, only Biggar and Graham entered into explicit arguments in support of the establishment of the Church of England, and perhaps did so because they alone specifically dealt with the future of our establishment arrangements. Biggar presented a clear and concise argument for establishment based on political and moral philosophy, while Graham presented a compelling version of the sociological argument from localised social capital. Continue reading


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Is Britain Christian?

All HallowsYes, no, maybe? If you think Britain is Christian, perhaps you’re a patriotic Christian, but you have an uncomfortable bed fellow in racist Nick Griffin. In Thursday night’s Question Time, the BNP leader mentioned ‘Christian Britain’ three times, most prominently in the midst of a homophobic rant. If you think Britain is not Christian, perhaps you’re missing the many subtle and not-so-subtle influences of Christendom in this country’s past. Perhaps it’s maybe: Britain was Christian, but we’re not sure now.

Since Henry Tudor jr, England has dealt in caesaropapism: the ruler’s religion is the nation’s religion. So, the answer used to be easier, as we could point to a Christian monarch as a sign of out Christian nation. Gradually, though, we have secularised state power, so where is our sceptred signpost of national faith, and does it matter? Perhaps modern democracies can no longer be assigned a religion, especially one based on a ruler’s personal belief or constitutional obligation to have one. Continue reading


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When democracy meant getting your sword

Battleton Holt, Edgehill; photo by Jonathan Billinger

Battleton Holt, Edgehill; photo by Jonathan Billinger

367 years ago today it all kicked off. The Battle of Edgehill on 23 October 1642 was the first major engagement of the English Civil War. As I sit in my study looking out on this bright but chilly day, with the puddles of yesterday’s rain still glistening on the tarmac, I can only begin to imagine what that day a few miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon was like.

Charles Stuart sr was a tyrant, an autocrat who ruled according to his own whim. While the House of Commons was not a great advert for power to the people, stuffed as it was with landowners and merchants elected on a very limited franchise, it was the nearest thing to democracy we had. This was a world before the revolutions of the US, France and Russia: no one had heard of a president running a country, and democracy was a dirty word. Continue reading


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Alphabet soup of Bibles

My first serious Bible was a pocket New International Version (NIV), soon followed by a heavyweight NIV study Bible. That translation from 1978 has shaped my knowledge of scripture, and will probably always have a ring of correctness for me because of that. I’m sure many a Bible student would consider my NIV background as something to be ashamed of, even scandalous. I’m no great advocate for the NIV; it’s just my biblical first love. But English-reading Bible students are so often divided and derided over which version they use.

Wikipedia lists 123 English Bible translations, or more, seeing as some are grouped under a single entry. I haven’t heard of a lot of those, and some sound like they are intended for a specific niche in the Bible-reading market. There are clear trends in that list. There are the ‘messianic’ versions, translated by/for Christians who are, or feel like they should be, Jewish. There are the translations that are desperate to be as literal as possible. There are translations linked to particular churches or ‘ministries’, and there are those that pride themselves on interdenominational cooperation. There are the paraphrases that attempt to get to the gist of the meaning, but sacrifice formal equivalence on the way.  There are versions that use a particular rendering of sacred names (Jehovah, Yahweh, YWH, Yeshua etc.). There are those that aim to use gender-inclusive language (like my second love, the NRSV). I’m sure that a lot of these Bibles are good, the fruit of hard labour, but I’m sure there are some that are plain awful too. I wonder if there is a special kind of Moses/God complex that drives a pastor/scholar to do a lone Bible translation: this one will be the God’s honest truth. Continue reading


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Nick Griffin on Question Time

Nick Griffin, odious leader of the BNP, was a guest on BBC’s Question Time tonight. It’s a panel-based political discussion programme, but tonight it could not avoid becoming the Nick Griffin show. Not that the ugly racist had it all his own way, he was asked a few searching questions.

I believe the BBC were right to invite Griffin on the programme. I supported the principle of not giving the BNP a platform up until they won two seats in the European Parliament. We cannot deny that the party has a limited mandate. I feel great sympathy for the Unite Against Fascism supporters and others who protested outside Television Centre. I think we need both the protest and the debate; we should not make it easy for them. Continue reading


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Traditionalists welcome change

The news is that Pope Benedict has opened a path for ‘traditionalist’ Anglicans (read ‘misogynists’) to join the Catholic Church without getting too Catholic about it (read priests keeping their wives and their ‘Anglo-Tridentine’ liturgy). He has issued an Apostolic Constitution to provide for Personal Ordinariates for disaffected Anglicans. These mean that Anglicans can join the Catholic Church while retaining their rites and uses, much in the same way Eastern Catholics retain various Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian liturgies).

My first reaction is: please go, we’ve had enough! The Church of England has done all it can and more than it should to keep discontents happy. A few of them have even been gainfully employed as flying bishops. The move towards recognising the equality of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in women has been painfully slow due to the foot dragging of these old boys. Their arguments are roadblocks rather than litanies of reason, their actions are Pharisaic rather than Christlike. Just like the last Anglican exodus, I’m sure the Catholic parishes will not be best pleased with the quality of the new intake. So, if you would like to leave, please form an orderly queue. Continue reading