Protecting religious freedom…or not

There was a column on the New Zealand news and opinion site Newsroom the other day, written in the wake of the Australian same-sex “marriage” referendum result, challenging the notion that Christians (or no doubt people of other faiths who hold that marriage is of one man and one woman, for life) should be free to practice, proclaim, and live consistently with their beliefs.  These are, of course, beliefs that have been largely uncontentious –  and reflected in life, practice, and legislation –  in our cultural traditions for a very long time.

The column was by Caroline Blyth a British religious studies academic at the University of Auckland.  She appears to live in a homosexual relationship herself.   Although she teaches and researches in biblical studies, in digging around it isn’t obvious whether she has any particular religious faith commitment herself.  From the tone of her column, I suspect not.

Blyth does not even like the provision in New Zealand’s own legislation that lets religious celebrants choose not conduct a same-sex “marriage”.

These exemption clauses essentially grant legal recognition to the fact that religious institutions (particularly the Christian church) are deeply invested in preventing certain people from enjoying the same civic rights as everyone else. In other words, the clauses offer a legal mandate for these institutions to preserve and protect their intolerance of individuals and communities who do not comply with established religious doctrine.

Well, that is certainly one way of interpreting that (rather limited) protection.  It could equally be argued that any citizens were free to marry (subject to finding a willing potential spouse etc), but that since marriage was innately something between a man and woman, almost any male/female pair could marry.   The law did not prevent homosexuals living as they chose (most especially since the civil union provisions were introduced) but they couldn’t call their relationship a marriage, because it wasn’t (and isn’t –  in any true sense of the word) one.

And if Blyth really thinks that private bodies, and groups of citizens, should not be able exclude from their membership those who cross boundaries of acceptable behaviour/belief, she is pretty much giving up on any sort of democratic pluralism from the start.   Should the Labour Party be able to exclude from membership people who urge voters to vote, say, ACT?  Of course, it should. Should the womens’ bowls club be able to exclude male members?  Of course, it should.   Should a church be able to exclude from formal membership someone who denies Christ as their only Saviour, and lives a scandalous life?  Of course, it should.  Humanist Association should be able to exclude Christians too?  Indeed

Allowing religious celebrants not to conduct same-sex “weddings” is the bare minimum freedom of religion.   Without that protection, Christian churches serious about a traditional view of marriage should simply abandon civil marriage to the state, and conduct their own –  more important – religious ceremonies for their own members (and any others who sought the blessing of the church).

But that objection was just a start for Dr Blyth.

what interests me more is the way that these clauses testify to the continued power and privilege of religious institutions within self-identified “secular” countries, such as Australia and New Zealand.

Power and privilege?  Wow.  I’m not sure adherents to traditional Christian faiths (let alone their Muslim or Jewish counterparts) would quite recognise any sort of power or privilege.  The maximalist requests –  whether in Australia now, or in US – have really become not much more than a request to be left alone, to practice and live as we believe.  Discipleship I think we call it.

This isn’t Dr Blyth’s Britain with an established church, or some northern European country with a “church tax”.   Perhaps the provisions of the charities legislation under which the advancement of religion still counts as a charitable purpose, but it is really hard to think of much beyond that.  Clergy these days –  perhaps particularly in New Zealand – are welcomed into the public square when, and only to the extent that, they parrot secular liberal/Green agendas.  Other than that, it is a distinctly Christmas and Easter phenomenon –  noting, in passing, that those are actually Christian festivals.    And that is the clergy.  Is there these days a single prominent media figure willing to articulate a traditional Christian perspective on marriage, abortion, sex or (in fact) anything where such a view might be out of step with the mainstream consensus.  And pity the practising Christian who doesn’t want to be part of his employer’s championing of (say) a gay agenda.

Dr Blyth goes on

In certain hands, religious doctrines, traditions and teachings can become powerful weapons that are wielded to validate and sustain homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia. And, while religion is by no means the only or original source of these prejudices, it can undoubtedly play a part in their perpetuation, granting them divine authority and thus enhancing their influence and appeal.

I don’t suppose anyone is going to defend “phobias”, but actually most of things Dr Blyth talks about here having nothing to do with fear at all.  They have to do with sin.  The Christian religion –  as in Judaism before it –  is fundamentally about the reconcilation, at God’s initiative, of man and God, removing the barrier that sin puts in place.  And the response to act of grace, is the call to holiness, to putting off sin.

Sin takes diverse forms.  Some, sadly, in almost any age are socially acceptable.  Others aren’t.  But there is, these days, little overlap between those distinctions, and the standards taught by the Christian church over the centuries.    Covetousness is sin.  Murder is sin  So is adultery.  But looking on another person with lust in our hearts is, Jesus says, sin.  Theft is sin.  Greed is sin.   Fraud is sin.  In many circumstances divorce and remarriage are sinful.  Dishonouring the Sabbath is sin.  And so is any sex outside the confines of marriage (defined as between a man and woman), and thus all non-heterosexual sexual acts.   Homosexual practice isn’t a more serious sin than any other.  They all put up a wall between humans and God, and they all need to be humbly repented of.  The message of the gospel is about repentance, and the grace of restoration and renewal.  When we do church well, we take quite seriously the fact of our sin –  each and every day –  and our grace-filled status of forgiven sinners.  That doesn’t make us take sin hereafter more lightly; if anything we strive all the harder, by the grace of the Spirit, to grow in holiness.   Whatever Dr Blyth’s conception of Christianity it clearly isn’t that one.

She concludes, asking of the Australian churches

How do these institutions feel about being nationally and globally renowned for their intolerance of diversity and inclusivity? What do they think about their global reputation as formidable roadblocks to legal reforms that seek justice and equality for already marginalised and vulnerable groups? What do they make of the power that they wield in contemporary secular societies – a power which compels governments and lawmakers to placate their interests at the expense of committing fully to LGBTI rights? Is this a reputation to be proud of? Is this the legacy that religious institutions wish to be remembered by in years to come? And how will they minister to their own members who also belong to the LGBTI community, all the while clinging on to legal exemptions that deny these members justice and equality?

I wholeheartedly applaud Senator Smith’s bill, and agree with Senator Penny Wong that the bill’s religious exemption clauses give it a far stronger chance of passing into law. Yet these clauses, I suggest, should be regarded by religious institutions less as a welcome safeguard for “religious freedom” than a source of utter shame, which betrays their unrelenting failure to acknowledge the legitimacy and value of LGBTI lives.

I’m quite sure hers is simply an unrecognisable description.  If there is shame, it should be that the church has so manifestly failed, over the last thirty years or more, to proclaim the Gospel compellingly, in ways that might have prevented the continuing degradation or our societies, and the abandonment of the institutions of Western civilisation, including marriage as traditionally understood.  Perhaps same-sex “marriage” really does just normalise what a majority of our fellow citizens have come to accept, but that makes it only something to lament rather than to celebrate.  The Christian church calls followers to a life set apart, a life in which we (perhaps ever so slowly) put on holiness, and put off sin.   That is as true of sexual sin –  important as that is, as one of our most basic human urges that all civilisations channel and disciple –  as of any other sin.  Sin is sin.  And every single member of every single Christian church lives –  or should live –  with the  knowledge that they themselves are sinners, redeemed only by grace.  Unrepented sin –  again of whatever nature –  needs to be dealt with, and failure to do so leaves a blockage in any sort of life of discipleship.

In the meantime, presumably Dr Blyth would be quite comfortable with laws requiring Christians to provide services to same-sex “marriages” –  be it cake-decorating, photography or whatever?  Presumably she would be happy to penalise, say, any teacher who told her class that she happened to believe that marriage was something for one man and one woman, while noting what the current law is?  Would she be happy to see prosecuted a Christian who wrote, or openly spoke, in favour of a restoration of a traditional understanding of marriage to our law books?  Perhaps she would, be if so it would be another step on the slippery slope towards abandoning the freedom of faith and practice our ancestors fought for in centuries past.   That sort of repression won’t change the truth of the gospel, but it will test the extent to which Christians are willing to live openly for their faith and, if necessary, pay the price.

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Reformation Day

It is Reformation Day today: 500 years since, at least by tradition, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church, and in the process beginning something that became the Protestant Reformation and all that followed from that.

A book I was reading recently about religion, politics, and World War One New Zealand reminds me that this is the first of the 100 year anniversaries of the Reformation to have been seriously observed by churches in New Zealand.  In 1917, the German origins of the Reformation were something of an obstacle.

In an age when most Christians have almost no sense of church history, I was impressed that a couple of local churches used the anniversary for a series of sermons and other events, highlighting something of our indebtedness –  Baptists and Presbyterians – to the reformers, and especially to Luther.   In both traditions, the connection is indirect.   Luther wasn’t critical to shaping either the English or Scottish Reformation, and English Baptists didn’t trace their origins back to the German Anabaptists.  Much of Luther’s view of the church –  as distinct perhaps from his views of grace and salvation –  will have almost anathema to my Baptist forefathers.   And yet without the German reformation it isn’t easy to envisage the English reformation having taken hold and endured.  Or, perhaps, to envisage the Counter-Reformation.

500 years on views about the Reformation still differ widely.  Our own local pastor –  not someone overly strong on history –  proclaimed that we owe democracy, liberty, scientific discovery to the reformers and the world they opened up.  There is a similar line run in an article in today’s Herald by AUT history professor Paul Moon.   I suspect the pudding is somewhat over-egged.    Had not the great ages of maritime discovery already gotten well underway before Luther and his theses?  Gutenberg invented the printing press around 1440.   For centuries, the most advanced technology was further east, in the Byzantine territories.  And hadn’t the Venetian Republic been around for many hundreds of years.  The oldest records of double-entry bookkeeping date back, apparently, to around 1340.

Which doesn’t mean the Reformation made no difference.  Surely, the Bible in the common tongue would have before long anyway, but Luther and his successors must have aided dissemination and study of the Scriptures.    Communion in both kinds?  Married clergy once again in the western church.  A great voice for the laity –  at least in traditions like my own Baptist one.  An end to the scourge of indulgences.  All this we should celebgrate, and recall with gratitude.

And yet, and yet.  500 years on, the church is rent into more factions and denominations than ever.  And is weaker, in its claim on the allegiances of people of Europe and its offshoots than it has been for more than 1000 years.   We take our Lord’s promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the kingdom of God, but this is the same Lord who called us to be one, even as he and the Father are one.    How little sign of that is there today, even amid the adversity the church faces.

And if we want to look to less ecclesiastical dimensions, isn’t it true that eugenices thrived more in Protestant territories than in Catholic ones; that abortion culture is more prevalent in Protestant cultures than Catholic ones.  That slavery flourished in the Protestant US South into the 1860s.

So if there are things to be grateful for today, there is also much to regret and recall uneasily.   I celebrate the churches and church traditions that helped shape my faith and practice, halting and inadequate as it is.  The simple brick church in a new suburb, in which my parents dedicated themselves to raise me as Christ’s; the simple and small timber church in a new town where I first made a personal decision to follow Christ.  For another slightly bigger church where I was baptised.  And for various churches – Baptist, Anglican and even briefly a Pentecostal, that God has used as part of my own journey of faith and reformation.  And for parents who nurtured and shaped me in the gospel, as much by example of faithful service as by word.

In fact, by a coincidence I’d never appreciated until a few weeks ago, today –  Reformation Day –  is also the 46th anniversary of the day I made my first public commitment to follow Christ.  It was a Sunday evening service, in the little Kawerau Baptist church, and I was sitting in the front row, virtually right under the pulpit from which my father was leading the service.  When I stood, to signify, my desire to follow he couldn’t even see me –  a Sunday School teacher had to point it out to him afterwards.  It was only a start – even then a continuation of an upbringing in a Christian home –  and it was another reaffirmation three years later than led to my baptism in 1975, aged 12.   But I gave thanks to God for his faithfulness through all those years, and we’ve I’ve slipped and wandered away he’s called me back to himself.  By grace, through faith, I’m a child of the Reformation (in more ways than one). And for all the ambivalence about the (now unchangeable history) that is something to be grateful for.

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There is a hope

I’m fond of many old hymns in the numerous hymnbooks sitting on top of our piano.  In some cases, the words don’t amount to very much.  The appeal then is often about memories of childhood as much as anything else, including singing after church on Sunday night with congregants  clustered round the piano in the manse , often with my mother playing.  Decades on I can still go straight to the page in the hymn book put together for the 1965 Trans-Pacific Crusade where I find the song we sang so often

Jesus my Lord will love me forever
From him no pow’r of evil can sever;
He gave his life to ransom my soul,
Now I belong to him

Chorus:
Now I belong to Jesus,
Jesus belongs to me,
Not for the years of time alone,
But for eternity

or, a couple of pages over (and words I’m less sure I’d sing quite that way today)

Like a river glorious
Is God’s perfect peace,
Over all victorious
In its bright increase;
Perfect yet it floweth
Fuller every day;
Perfect yet it growth
Deeper all the way.

Chorus:
Stayed upon Jehovah,
Hearts are fully blest
Finding as he promised,
Perfect peace and rest

I suspect we lose something important when churches (a) dispense with hymnbooks (established collection of songs of whatever vintage), and (b) move on to new generations of songs every few months or years (I recently heard one song leader introduce a song written 15 years ago as an “old song”).

I was raised Baptist, and my heart always skipped a beat slightly when we sang no 362 in the Baptist Hymn Book “Our Father God, Thy name we praise” – not only was it from a 16th century Anabaptist collection, but the translation had been done by the General Secretary of the Baptist Union in the UK. To this day, my heart skips a beat when we sing John Bunyan’s “Who would true valour see, Let him come hither” in an Anglican church, recalling the persecution Bunyan endured in his pilgrimage of faith. The very next hymn in the same hymn book is Luther’s Ein’ Feste Burg – “A safe stronghold our Gold is still”

“And though they take our life,
Goods, honour, children, wife
Yet is their profit small;
These things shall vainsih all,
The city of God remaineth.”

Sadly I haven’t yet sung it in a month in which we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation.

As an adult I’ve come to appreciate deeply some of the very old songs in our hymnbooks. One attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux

Be near me when I’m dying,
O show Thy cross to me,
And, for my succour flying,
Come Lord, and set me free!
These eyes new faith receiving,
From Jesus shall not move;
For he who dies believing,
Dies safely through his love

or back another 500 years

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray;
Now above the cross the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay;
Tell how Christ the world’s redeemer,
As a victim won the day.

or pre-Reformation Catholic spirituality

Let holy charity
Mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart,
Which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shodtcomings weeps with loathing.

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with many of the new songs we’ve sung in the past few decades (although if I ever sing “This is the day, this is the day, that the Lord has made” it will be several decades too soon, true as the words are). But there is – as there ever was – a winnowing process: time sorts out which of the new songs become part of the canon. It was part of why C S Lewis counselled readers to prefer old books.

But the emphases often differ. Ours is an age seemingly little focused on the fundamental aspect of religion – the block put between man and God by our sin, overcome solely by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the reality of own coming death and God’s judgement. It was only this month that I sat down and read all of Luther’s 95 Theses. The very first of them reads

Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, “Repent ye, etc.,” intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a constant penance.

Not often a theme prominent in modern worship – especially perhaps in non-liturgical churches (the liturgical ones at least preserve something like the General Confession). The gospel isn’t about therapy, it isn’t about political reform – though each of those may flow from a life of faith (and penitence), it isn’t about fellowship.  It is about that recognition of our own fallenness (as individuals and as societies), and our hope that at the last we will be found in Christ. It was – I think – Luther who penned a line that I found powerful some years ago: the most faithful disciple grows daily more conscious of the hold sin still has on his or her life and behaviour. Growing in holiness, such people become still more intensely aware of their dependence on God’s mercy and grace.  Christian worship –  song, Scripture, sacraments –  helps nurture that growth.

But sometimes even modern songs capture the profound truths. Who knows if it will last: whatever the merits of the words, perhaps the musical rhythms won’t appeal 50 years hence. But for me at present Stuart Townsend’s “There is a hope” speaks very deeply.   From the first verse, drawing on St Paul’s observation that now we see through a glass darkly

A glimpse of glory now revealed in meagre part

But in time, face to face.

I can’t reproduce it all here (the words are at the link) but here is his final verse

There is a hope that stands the test of time,
That lifts my eyes beyond the beckoning grave,
To see the matchless beauty of a day divine
When I behold His face!
When sufferings cease and sorrows die,
And every longing satisfied.
Then joy unspeakable will flood my soul,
For I am truly home

The deep realism (“the beckoning grave”), the profound hope, the confident hope of a world renewed and a Kingdom established as our Lord intended. It does what a good hymn should – taking us to our knees in penitence, offering succour for the journey (especially when sung congregationally), and the confident hope of the Saviour in whom we put out trust.

I thank God for hymn writers willing and able to articulate the “old, old story” in ways that draw us more deeply into an awareness of God, his mercy and hope, and our call to discipleship, step by (often) painful and halting step.

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Parliament votes unanimously to hail decadence

In New Zealand’s Parliament earlier this week, the following resolution was passed

The ASSISTANT SPEAKER (Hon Trevor Mallard): The question is that this House apologise to those homosexual New Zealanders who were convicted for consensual adult activity, and recognise the tremendous hurt and suffering those men and their families have gone through, and the continued effects the convictions have had on them.

Motion agreed to.

Until 1986, homosexual practice between consenting males was illegal – it was a criminal offence.  (Female homosexual practice wasn’t illegal, following the English lead.)    Repeal of those criminal provisions occasioned a vigorous – at times vicious – public debate.

Even among evangelical churches at the time there was a range of views.  At the time, probably not many openly looked with favour on homosexual practice.  But reasonable people could differ on to what extent what was sinful should also be unlawful.   On the one hand, the law is a teacher, and homosexuality has long been shunned – not just on narrowly Christian grounds, but as something inconsistent with the fundamental need for societies to reproduce themselves.  On the other hand, plenty of things that were and are sinful are not criminal offences.   Adultery, for example, although still illegal even in some places in the United States, is not a criminal offence in New Zealand.  One could imagine an arguable case that adultery was more of an offence against society than homosexual practice.  It is, after all, specifically mentioned in the Ten Commandments.  Then again, the Bible seems to treat homosexual practice at least as severely as adultery, or rape for that matter.     They are crimes against God, and against society, even if they consensual.

I honestly can’t remember my own views at the time. I do recall going to a public meeting in 1985, in the Wellington Town Hall, held by the opponents of decriminalisation (I was young and single, and went to lots of such things).   I think I was moderately sympathetic to reform, but recall being shocked at the aggressive attempts of a large group of homosexual activists to disrupt the meeting (I found myself seated in the middle of them).

Perhaps what no one could envisage back then –   perhaps some of the champions of reform hoped for it, but even if so wisely kept quiet about their hopes –  was how quickly society has moved from decriminalising behaviour to celebrating it, to becoming almost intolerant of anyone dissenting from the new orthodoxy, in only a few decades.     We have legal provision for something called “marriage” between people of the same-sex.  In the US, tradespeople find themselves penalised, their livelihoods destroyed, if they refuse to assist in the celebration of such “weddings”.   Fortunately – and I’m not quite sure why –  we haven’t yet fallen quite that far in New Zealand.

But this week, the government introduced to Parliament a bill to allow people who had been convicted of homosexual activities up to 1986 to have those convictions expunged.   And with that bill came the motion reproduced at the start of this post.   Perhaps the offences never should have been part of the criminal law –  they apparently weren’t in modern England until 1885 –  but the laws were put in place through a democratic process and were generally accepted as part of our law for many decades.  Even as matter of public policy process, it seems like the height of arrogance, and historical revisionism, for today’s Parliament to retrospectively decriminalise behaviour.   People rightly object to retrospective legislation, and I’m not sure it is any less offensive to criminalise retrospectively something that wasn’t illegal at the time the act was done than (as now) vice versa.    It isn’t as if the law was unknown at the time – people caught unawares.  It isn’t as if there is any evidence that the Court process was abused, or people were denied access to a fair legal hearing and representation.   They committed acts they knew were illegal and risked the consequences.  It was a conscious choice.

There must be many other things over the years that were once offences and are no longer.  Just as many things that are now offences once were not.    How many of those things that are no longer offences is Parliament offering expungement for?  As far as I’m aware, none at all.    Adultery was formerly an offence is many places (still is in some, including many US states).  Abortion was, generally, illegal.

So what makes homosexual practice different?  Well, an effective lobby for one.  But the total number of homosexuals is small, and the number directly affected by this legislation is tiny.   What seems to be different is the determination of our societies –  particularly their elites, but with little real resistance now from the populace  – to not just normalise but to celebrate behaviour that, across cultures and across time, has long been seen as debauched and threatening to society.  Use the word or not, it was sinful, or taboo.   It happened, of course.  Homosexual attraction or desire are real.  The urge to sloth, to gluttony, or to lie, to cheat, to steal, to lust after a woman not one’s wife are real too.

But society today –  at least in the West – seems determined to force people to accept that homosexuality is not of this category: a illicit and damaging desire to be resisted and, where that failed, repented.  It isn’t just a message that homosexuality is no more serious an offence, or sin, than other things –  something that is surely largely true –  but a determination to de-sin it altogether.  To call clean behaviour that God has called unclean.  Sadly, the decadence has made its way into the church –  not just the mainline liberal churches –  but increasingly into the evangelical church, a cancer eating away at the faithfulness to the gospel of the church, as it marries the spirit of the age.   Here is a recent US poll –  not just on tolerance of homosexual practice, but endorsement of same-sex “marriage”.

same sex marriage

I’d be surprised if the New Zealand numbers were much difference.

And so the Minister of Justice came to Parliament the other day and speaking to the bill/motion said

Today we are putting on the record that this House deeply regrets the hurt and stigma suffered by the many hundreds of New Zealand men who were turned into criminals by a law that was profoundly wrong, and for that we are sorry. We are acknowledging that these men should never have been burdened with criminal convictions, and we are recognising the continued effects that the convictions have had on their lives and the lives of their families. New Zealand has a proud reputation for fairness, freedom, and diversity. It is unimaginable today that we would criminalise consensual sexual activity between adults.

Calling right what society for millenia called profoundly wrong.   No doubt the Minister’s statement in that final section is descriptively accurate, but it is a telling reflection of how far New Zealand society has decayed.  A society that no longer recognises that potency and fundamental importance of sex, and the need to channel and discipline those impulses through a committed life of marriage between one man and one woman.

The Minister’s speech was relatively moderate.  She had technocratic details of the bill to get through.    The following speakers were positively celebratory.     Grant Robertson (a leading Labour Party figure, himself gay) ended noting that things still hadn’t gone far enough

Even today the shame and hurt of being different from the majority still exists. Young people are still given the message that being who they are, simply being in love, is something that the rest of society is tolerating, putting up with, allowing. That is not good enough. Today not just gay men but lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and all the colours of the rainbow need to know that we love them for who they are and the rich and amazing contributions that they make. Today is a day to celebrate progress, but if there is change to make right that wrong of the past, we must give the ultimate legacy of a country that includes embraces and cares for all our people.

Not enough people in society yet celebrate sin and depravity.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think –  as the traditional churches don’t –  that homosexual desire is itself sinful.   What matters is what people do with those impulses and desire.   For a man to look at a woman with lust in his heart as at least as serious –  Jesus names it as sin.  For a man to regard a beautiful women isn’t.   For a person to admire a fancy house in a wealthy seaside suburb is no sin. To covet it, to take actions to try to obtain it is.     Actions matter.  Temptation comes, and we are called to resist.  Many times we will fail –  sin is a part of our experience all through life –  but the response to failure isn’t celebration but repentance, and through repentance and forgiveness, restoration.

Perhaps the only slightly surprising thing about the debate is that apparenly not a single member of Parliament believes the expungement legislation is wrong, or that the apology is wrong.    There are Christian MPs.   What of them?  Can they really all have gone over to the decadent side?     The speaker for our one sometimes-conservative party, NZ First declared

Convictions for homosexual offences…… were based on bad law—law that was contrary to natural reason, law that was contrary to natural law.

Unwise? Impractical?  I could see arguments for those stances, but no the stance that was in our criminal law, reflected the practice of the ages, was according to NZ First “contrary to natural law”.  Wow.  One wonders if these people could have imagined 30 years ago what they’d be saying now.

Perhaps some MPs are quietly uneasy, and were simply afraid to speak out – it is, after all only three months until an election.  But even if so, that surely is a mark of how far our society has fallen away, into the path of decadence.  It is no longer even a matter of open debate; there is apparently only one right and publicly acceptable way.  Listening to mainstream media (Radio NZ for example) it was all with a tone of “at last”,  with no reflection on whether there was any wisdom  at all in the stance of thousands of years.  Just the presumption that at this late date, having thrown off the shackles that once constrained, new wisdom is upon us.  Recency errors are no less errors for being modern.

Rarely, if ever, have I heard sin celebrated so openly by our political leaders.  Sometimes, apparently good stuff comes from bad acts –  greed can be part of what leads people to build great companies –  but even then it is usually the outcomes that are celebrated in the open, not the impulses.    It was a day of shame for the New Zealand Parliament, encapsulated in the contributions to the debate and in the favourable vote, without dissent.

 

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Reflecting further on the Christchurch cathedral

A few days ago, on my economics and public policy blog, I wrote a post responding to a newspaper columnist who, responding to a recent column by the Bishop of Christchurch, argued that the fate of the severely earthquake-damaged Anglican cathedral in Christchurch wasn’t really a matter for Christchurch’s Anglicans.   The building should be restored and rebuilt as it was, regardless of the perspectives, needs, and budgetary constraints of the community  –  the church, diocese and congregation – whose building it is or was.  The proposed disregard for property rights was quite breathtaking.    A commenter on that post, himself a member of the diocesan synod, indicated his assessment was that if synod members had a free choice, most or all would vote not to restore the building, but to replace it (with something both cheaper and perhaps more aligned to today’s conceptions of worship and ministry).

Having said all that, I’ve also gone back and read the bishop’s article in the Christchurch Press, and listened to an extensive interview with her on Radio New Zealand yesterday.    She was quite clear that, while the decision will be taken at the diocesan synod in September, she herself would not favour restoring/rebuilding the old building.  But, if so, I have to say that she makes a spectacularly weak case in support of her preferred position.  At the end of the interview, half of me couldn’t help sympathising with the Jim Anderton/Philip Burdon position in favour of rebuild.

I know she was talking, largely, to a secular audience, in both her column and her interview.   But the absence of God was striking.  And the dominance of a therapeutic dimension was equally striking, and odd.

In the bishop’s column, the words “God”, and “worship” didn’t appear at all.   There was nothing at all about beauty.  They crept in towards the end of the radio interview, but as if she was a bit embarrassed to mention them.  No doubt, worship does seen strange to a modern secular audience –  and social work resonates easily –  but the encounter with the divine, revealed in a crucified, risen and ascended Lord, is what we do.  We confront sin, in our own lives in particular, and hear the words of forgiveness and absolution.   In worship, we orient our lives towards God and his purposes.

But instead, there is endless talk about the “pain” of people in Christchurch, in the continuing aftermath of the earthquakes, the need for mental health support.  Even housing shortages and domestic violence are thrown into the mix.  I’m sure they are all real issues.  And perhaps they always will be, in Christchurch and elsewhere –  it was Jesus, after all, who observed that “the poor you will always have with you”.     But is there a shred of evidence to suggest that money that might be raised privately, or even granted by governments, would otherwise be spent on those other pressing needs the bishop highlights?  Frankly, it seems unlikely.   Perhaps that is unfortunate, perhaps not.  But it is almost certainly the reality.  I don’t favour governments (central or local) chipping in for rebuilding the cathedral, but if they did the chances of it making any material difference to the subsequent year’s mental health budget is passsingly small.

The Bishop goes on

Imagine, if you will, the population of the city of Christchurch coming together once again in an effort to help one another, as we experienced immediately after the earthquakes.

Why can we not return to that heroic phase when caring for neighbour was not only what was being done across the city, it was actually what we wanted to do – that is, to help one another.

Perhaps it sounded noble and even prophetic when she penned it.  But to many readers –  Christian or not –   it will simply sound unrealistic, perhaps even out of her depth, as if the bishop doesn’t recognise the difference between periods of immediate crisis and those of simple ongoing need. People behave differently.  Sure, in many respects the gospel to supposed to look “unrealistic” –  the crucified Saviour and all that  –  but that doesn’t mean every unrealistic conception is of God.

Never mentioned either, in all the talk of mental health needs, is the distinction between post-earthquake traumas, which will be with us for time, but which for most –  but not all –  will fade.  There might well be a case for more government and private spending on such services in the next decade.  But in considering what sort of cathedral building to put up, the church faces a choice about a building that it probably hopes will last for 100 years or more (most church buildings do).    If you don’t think you want a Gothic Revival cathedral for the next 100 years –  including perhaps because of the construction and maintenance costs –  say so.   But don’t try to justify a preference for a different sort of (long-lived) building by a current community spending pressure that will have substantially abated a decade hence.  Apart from anything else, even if the church synod decides to restore the previous building, it would surely be the best part of a decade until the building was open for worship again?

People can, and do, worship God on beaches, in wartime trenches, in home churches, in converted warehouses.  In the strand of the church in which I was raised there is almost an unspoken preference for such places.  Every single church building from my childhood was, and is, austere –  and generally, not just austere but utilitarian and even ugly.  We worshipped.  Godliness doesn’t depend on place.

But that has never been the main stream of church architecture and thinking about spaces for worship, whether it is the tabernacle, or Solomon’s Temple, or countless churches and cathedrals across Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox (and other) traditions. Yesterday marked the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople, and the loss as a place of Christian worship, of the Hagia Sophia, one of the most beautiful places of worship ever.

As Vladimir of Kiev’s ambassadors wrote, more than 1000 years ago

Upon attending a service at the glorious Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople, they report:

And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.

Not every parish church, not every cathedral, can have the full beauties of the leading church of a wealthy and powerful empire.  But then, rarely are places built specifically for worship cheap.  And probably nor should they be –  this is the King of Kings, Lord of Lords whom we worship.  I recall reading once that Salisbury Cathedral, completed quite quickly for its day, took all the economic surplus from the surrounding area for decades.  Simple but beautiful local parish churches can be as much of an offering for a small worshipping community.

There is a lot of pushback, especially among evangelicals, against this sort of spending.  It is asserted that much of it is about social prestige, and rivalry between cities and leaders, as about worship of Almighty God. No doubt.   But is anything we humans do done from totally pure motives?    But there is no hint that Solomon’s temple, in all its glory, erected at vast cost, was something of which God disapproved.  I struggled with these issues for years, until at last I read (well, noticed, probably for the first time) of Bezalel, in Exodus 31.   When it came time to construct the tabernacle

“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, or the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts –  to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship.”

It wasn’t just a human offering –  although that too – but omeone actively “filled with the Spirit of God”, and equipped to create something of great beauty.

Yesterday’s style of architecture aren’t necessarily today’s.  Much as I love the choral worship of traditional Anglican cathedrals, it isn’t the only –  or necessarily the best –  way to worship, then or now.  So it seems quite legitimate for Christchurch’s Anglicans to make choices about what sort of building will best serve as seat for the bishop, mother church of the diocese, and forum for congregational worship, that reflects the best of today.

What saddens me is that the bishop seems to have so little confidence in the importance of worship, in the place of beauty in the worship of God creater of all things, that she can’t speak that language when she articulates to a wider audience what the church is about.  I don’t know much about her so this isn’t a reflection on her specifically, but often these days mainline church leaders seem to have confidence in the language of political action and social spending –  bureaucrats of an NGO sector –  than in talking about the God who has visited and redeemed his people, the God who calls us to worship, to repentance, praise, thanksgiving, eucharistic celebration, and the teaching, encouragement and rebuke, in the exposition of Scripture.

When that happens it is a shame.  It subtly diminishes the glory of the living God, and speaks of any old gathering place or forum for the administration of good deeds rather than the glory of Christian worship.  Of course, plenty of worship is mundane, but surely we look to leaders –  bishops for example –  to bear witness to the best of what do in churches or cathedrals, not to be (ever so slightly) embarrased by it.  Jesus wasn’t embarrassed to have the penitent woman pour expensive perfume over his feet.  It could have been used for mental health services  –  something of the sort was suggested at the time –  but it was an expensive act of pure worship.  When we build places for the worship of God, there is something fit and right about it being an expensive offering.  That proposition doesn’t tell me –  or the Christchurch –  which way they should go, or how much they should spend.   And the realism of a declining church, potential torn in two before too long, isn’t something it is wrong to take account of.  But we worship the King of Kings.  And we hold before us – and those to whom we bear witness –  the vision of the John

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

Brides can marry in jeans and t-shirtm but when they have the choice few do.  The church isn’t the building, but all the way back to Bezalel, people have honoured God through their buildings, their art, their music, as well as attempting to live the teaching of Matthew 25.   Creation is good.  And the very best of created things, we offer to God.

 

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Is safety a Christian value?

In this week’s church newsletter, the pastor informs us that the “leadership team” has settled on a new set of “values”.    I wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with, say,

“love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind, and love your neighbour as yourself”

but perhaps it didn’t look corporate/organisational enough.

Anyway, the first of the four new values was “everyone safe”, which was elaborated on as follows

We desire to be a church where people are safe physically, emotionally and spiritually.

It sounds all very therapeutic –  perhaps it wouldn’t seem out of place in a counsellor’s office –  but is it the gospel?

C S Lewis didn’t write Scripture either, and had no formal teaching authority in the church.   I was late to his fiction –  scared by the White Witch as a young child, it took me 30 years to finish The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – but for as long as I’ve known it this extract has made a powerful impression.   Learning of Aslan from Mr and Mrs Beaver, Lucy asks

“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr Beaver sternly. Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great emperor-beyond- the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

“ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

He isn’t safe, but he is good.    There is a profound difference.  Aslan, for Lewis, is an image of the Christ who died a wrenching death for us.

We aren’t Christ of course.   And yet, we  –  Christian believers collectively – are called the body of Christ, the bride of Christ.   We are adopted as children of God.   And Jesus himself described the path of discipleship as a costly one

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Doesn’t sound very safe to me.    It wasn’t for the disciples, most of whom died as martyrs.  It wasn’t for Stephen, or Paul….or for Polycarp, St Lawrence, Felicity and Perpetua, or the countless other Christian martyrs from that day to this.

If I put myself in the place of the leadership team, perhaps I could put a constructive interpretation on the words (protection from abuses within a church community), but one shouldn’t have to.  Words have meaning, and these words encourage us to think of the church as a refuge, a place of comfort and rest.   They aren’t words which speak of a gospel that is intensely counter-cultural (all the more so as our culture moves away again from its Christian roots), or of a call to be rid of sin, or even one that encourages the outward move of evangelism, where all too often what we would face is rejection, indifference, or scoffing.  Safety?  I think not.  We are soldiers of the army of salvation.  And while no serious army spends the lives of soldiers lightly, “safety” won’t be one of the highest values.

The writer of Hebrews put it thus

Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.

We are to be resident aliens, never fully at home, never fully comfortable or safe.

It is all too easy to be “safe”.  I know it.  I’ve probably spent too much of my life there.  But it isn’t what God calls as to.  It is a call to be up-ended, to turn aside from the things of the world that so easily ensnare, to grow in holiness, and to be formed in the likeness of Christ, despised and rejected as he was.  In many ways, it doesn’t seem very attractive.  But very few worthwhile things come through “safe” paths.

Isaiah put it thus

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

Of course, we can look forward to the glorious hope at the end of our journey.    And even then, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress portrays an imagery of an arduous journey, until at least we find ourselves safe home.  still needing to step in faith.

Then the pilgrims, especially Christian, began to despair in their minds. They looked this way and that, but no way could be found to escape the river.

Then they asked the men if the waters were deep everywhere all the time. They told them that sometimes the water was shallow, but that they could not guide them in that matter since the waters were deep or shallow depending upon their faith in the King of the place.

Then they waded into the water, and upon entering, Christian began to sink. He cried out to his good friend Hopeful, saying, “I am sinking in deep waters; the billows are going over my head, all his waves go over me! Selah.”

Then Hopeful said, “Be of good cheer, my brother. I feel the bottom, and it is good.”

Then Christian cried out, “Ah! My friend! ‘The sorrows of death have compassed me about.’m I shall not see the land that flows with milk and honey.”

With that a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see ahead. It was then that Christian lost his senses, and his memory failed him, and he could not talk in an orderly fashion of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his pilgrimage. All the words that he spoke were filled with horror, and he feared that he should die in that river and never obtain entrance at the gate. He was greatly troubled by thoughts of his past sins, committed before and during his pilgrimage. It was also observed that he was troubled with apparitions of hobgoblins and evil spirits, which he continually spoke about.

It was everything that Hopeful could do to keep his brother’s head above water. Sometimes Christian, despite all Hopeful’s help, would slip down into the waters and rise up again half-dead. Hopeful continually tried to comfort him, saying, “Brother, I see the gate, and men standing by to receive us.”

But Christian would answer, “It is you, it is you they wait for. You have been Hopeful ever since I knew you.”

“And so have you,” Hopeful said to Christian.

Christian answered, “If things were right with me, He would now come to help me, but because of my sin He has brought me to this snare, and He will leave me here.”

Then said Hopeful, “My brother, you have forgotten the text where it is said of the wicked, ‘There are no bands in their death; but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men.’ These troubles and distresses that you are going through in these waters are not a sign that God has forsaken you but are sent to try you, to see if you will call to mind all the goodness that you have received from Him. You are being tested to see if you will rely on Him in your distress.”

Then I saw in my dream that Christian was in a bewildered stupor for a while. Hopeful spoke to Christian, encouraging him to “Be of good cheer,” reminding him that Jesus Christ would make him whole. With that Christian shouted out with a loud voice, “Oh, I see Him again, and He tells me, ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.’”

Then they both took courage and crossed the river, and the enemy was as still as a stone. Christian soon found solid ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So Christian and Hopeful crossed over the river and arrived on the other side. As soon as they came out of the river, they saw the two shining men again waiting for them. The men saluted the two pilgrims saying, “We are ministering spirits, sent here to minister to those who shall be heirs of salvation.” Then they all went they along together toward the gate.

Perhaps I often wish it were otherwise, but isn’t the path Jesus calls us to.

 

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Advent and Dr Suess

You might regard that title as somewhat incongruous.  But when I heard that our pastor was planning to organise his services for the four Sundays of Advent around the stories of Dr Suess, I was staggered.   Advent: the quasi-penitential season, focused on preparation for celebrating the first coming of Jesus (the Christmas season itself), and on preparing ourselves in consciousness and confidence that Christ is coming back.  And that at the consummation of all things, we will stand before the judgement seat of God.  Traditionally, Advent was a season for the contemplation of the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

In less liturgical churches, much of that sort of emphasis (if it ever existed) has long since been lost.  Perhaps it is even  more so in the southern hemisphere, where December is absorbed not just in preparing to celebrate Christmas, but in end-of-year celebrations and events, perhaps especially for schools.  Christmas trees appear in church early, Christmas carols appear at odd times (for some reason we sang “O little town of Bethlehem” last Sunday), and suddenly the focus has shifted to the celebration, and off our own unworthiness; in the twee phrase, the reason for the season.  Sin –  our sin – is the harsh reality that religion seeks to deal with: that God, in Christ, came for.  Our hope, and prospect for rejoicing, is that at the Second Coming of Christ, sin will be no more.  Our world will no longer be scarred by sin; our own lives, sometimes despite our best endeavours, no longer marred by the taint of our own wrongdoing –  acts, thoughts, and of commission or omission.

But sure enough, we arrived at church last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, to find the church decked out as a scene from The Lorax.  Despite the heavy-handed environmental focus of the story, cheap plastic poles, decked with cheap plastic toppings were apparently supposed to resemble the truffula trees in the story –  abundant until the evil capitalists began milling them, and then kept going until there were no more.  The pastor had to point out –  I’d missed out –  that only one half of the church had the “trees” and the other was bare.

As part of the service, we listened to British actor Ric Mayall read the entire story.    Were we six I wondered?    By the end of the service, I finally understood the (tenuous) connection to Advent.  Hope was the theme of the service, and at the end of The Lorax, the last seed for a truffula plant is given to the small child listening to the story, raising the possibility that if planted and suitably tended in time the forest might one day return.  This, we were told, was “hope”.

But hope –  in the Bible –  isn’t desperate wishful thinking, some million to one longshot that just might happen.  It is about a confident expectation in the God who made heaven and earth, and who (in Christ) visits and redeems his people.  It is God, all powerful and all wise, who acts, and whose promise to act is the thing on which we stake our faith.

In truth, using The Lorax seemed as much about the pastor’s own Green politics and predilections, in a suburb with a substantial Green Party vote, as about the gospel. It seems a drift that is all too typical.   There was a time when the Church of England was caricatured as the “Tory party at prayer”.  These days the drift, even in hitherto evangelical churches, is towards something that risks being caricatured as the “Labour or Green parties at prayer”.

For all the cutesy rhymes –  of which, no doubt, Dr Suess was a master –  The Lorax was conceived in anger, and in its execution simply reveals a degree of ignorance of how markets and firms work and resources are managed.  Of the anger

The Lorax,” he once explained, “came out of me being angry. In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might.”[2]

And of the ignorance, in The Lorax, there seem to be no property rights, and thus no incentives to manage and sustainably harvest the resource.  And there are no prices either –  so no incentives for anyone to change behaviour, and switch to alternative products.  Can pillage of the sort Suess describes in his story happen?  Sure, when there are no property rights established.  Thus, the cod fisheries off the east coast of North America was fished almost to exhaustion.   When everyone is free to use an asset, no one has an interest in sustainably managing the resource –  everyone’s incentive is to get in before the other person does.

But with private property rights (formal or informal), and mechanisms for allocating harvesting rights of things like fisheries, there are strong incentives to sustainably manage the resource.  Thus, commercial fishermen in New Zealand operate within a system of transferable quotas, governing how much they can each take, within an overall assessment of the sustainability of the resource.  In the United States, there is more land in forests (natural and tended) than was the case 100 years ago.  Advanced economies are not polluted wastelands –  although there will always be aspects that could be improved –  but some of the most pleasant and liveable places mankind has ever known, for hundreds of millions of people.  Are there outstanding issues? No doubt.  To the extent that climate change is a concern, the need to find sustainable mechanisms to allocate the available resource –  capacity to pollute –  remains real.

But to turn the first Sunday of Advent into something focused on something so wrongheaded as The Lorax is to trivialise the season. Perhaps worse, it is to suggest that the big issues –  those from which “salvation” might be needed-  are the actions of other people.  Here in suburbia we don’t pillage forests –  in this particular suburb we are surrounded by (lots of) regenerating native bush, far more of it than was around 100 years ago.  But we do all sin, we do all fall short of the glory of God. We –  and our world –  still need a Saviour and Redeemer, who broke into the world that first Christmas, and who will return and put an end to suffering, sickness, disease and death – all the concomitants of sin.

The Book of Common Prayer’s Collect for the 1st Sunday of Advent, while perhaps little known in non-liturgical churches, remains as vivid, and humbling, as ever.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

 

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