Friday, October 24, 2008

Richard Dawkins: "A serious case could be made for a deistic God."

When I read "The God Delusion" I was deeply shocked. Like most people I have close friends who don't share my world view, but they are at pains to present themselves as well mannered agonisers after truth, admitting the strengths of the opposing argument while pointing out its weaknesses. What shocked me about Dawkins was not his arguments, all of which in a grossly unsophisticated form we covered in Philosophy I and Theology I. It was the fact that HERE WAS THE TRUE FUNDAMENTALIST . . . far more vicious and one-eyed than any hard-core Christian or Muslim fundamentalist of my acquaintance. Over the years I've known many of the former, and a handful of the latter. Some of them scare me. But Dawkins left them all for dead. Read the book if you don't believe me.

That's why a number of scholars whose beliefs are similar to those of Dawkins have distanced themselves from him.


This article by Melanie Phillips in The Spectator would seem to suggest as much. It's well worth reading.

On Tuesday evening I attended the debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox at Oxford’s Natural History Museum. This was the second public encounter between the two men, but it turned out to be very different from the first. Lennox is the Oxford mathematics professor whose book, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? is to my mind an excoriating demolition of Dawkins’s overreach from biology into religion as expressed in his book The God Delusion -- all the more devastating because Lennox attacks him on the basis of science itself. In the first debate, which can be seen on video on this website, Dawkins was badly caught off-balance by Lennox’s argument precisely because, possibly for the first time, he was being challenged on his own chosen scientific ground.

This week’s debate, however, was different because from the off Dawkins moved it onto safer territory– and at the very beginning made a most startling admission. He said:

A serious case could be made for a deistic God.

The rest of the article is HERE.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Language of the Bride

Some time ago I downloaded the following article by Archbishop Mark Coleridge (the Roman Catholic Abp of Canberra - Australia). As the original link is broken, I have reproduced it in its entirety. A great apologia for the new translation of the Roman Missal, it also vindicates those Anglican Catholics who are unwilling to allow the beauty and power of our own liturgical English (and the Extraordinary Rite in its ENGLISH MISSAL form) to disappear completely.

In early 2004 I was invited to be the Chair of the Roman Missal Editorial Committee. In accepting the invitation, I had no idea of what I was in for. I had been involved in liturgical translation for some years, and I had a vague notion of the shape of the new Missal project. But I had no idea that I would be thrust on to a very steep learning-curve as I came to grips with the riches of the Roman Missal. I have had to become a student once again, and that has been a great grace.

My seminary studies were done at a time of upheaval in the Church, and the liturgical training we received was negligible. It was a time of great liturgical ferment, as "the new Mass" in English appeared and took hold. Certainly we never looked at the Latin prayers. Latin was out and English was in: that was the long and short of it.

But in my work with the Editorial Committee, I have been forced to go back to the Latin again and again and again. As a result, I have come to see that the translations I grew up with were often not really translations at all. They were paraphrases that bounced off the Latin original and which in the process lost much of the Latin richness. As I discovered more of what the Latin contained, the Roman Missal stirred in me a sense of awe. Not everything in it is a masterpiece by any means, but I now think the Missal is one of the greatest cultural artefacts the West has ever produced.

The Missal is not some lifeless book of perplexing and irrelevant prayers from other times. It is a great mosaic of the Church's journey through two thousand years. It even draws upon elements which go much further back than that. We hear, for instance, the voice of the Bible at every turn.

As a student and teacher of the Bible, I have been surprised to see just how drenched in Scripture the Missal is. In the translations we have known, many of the biblical references, echoes and allusions have been obscured or even omitted. But when you look at the Latin closely, the many voices of the Old and New Testaments sound at every turn. It is now clear to me that in many ways the Missal is the Bible turned into prayer, or even a prayer-book which is a "How to Read the Bible". The new project of which my Committee is a small part is trying to allow the voice of Scripture to sound more clearly in the English texts we use at Mass, and in that sense to make our worship more biblical.

As well as Scripture, we find in the Missal pre-Christian elements which the Church has made part of her repertoire. We hear, for instance, the voice of ancient Roman religion. The way the Opening Prayers are structured is drawn from ancient Rome. Christianity simply took over the Roman prayer-form and, as it were, baptised it.

One of the most striking features of the Missal is that it can take elements from here, there and everywhere and meld them into a deeply coherent whole. It is like symphonic or polyphonic music: many different sounds or voices are brought together to make a single sound or voice. In that sense, the Missal embodies an understanding of the Church where, though we are many, we are one body. It gives voice to the universality of the Church.

Beyond the Scripture, the many voices of Catholic tradition are heard. The Fathers of the Church from East and West are there. Not surprisingly, the great Doctor of the West, St Augustine, is there. In the translations that we have known, Augustine's voice is somewhat muffled, and as a result the theology of grace of which he was the great proponent is obscured. At times, there is a semi-Pelagian sense that we need God's grace only to a certain point as a help, but that beyond that point we can go it alone.

This is not Augustine's theology of grace. He insists that there is never a time when we do not depend totally upon God's grace. We can never go it alone; we certainly cannot save ourselves, as the heretic monk Pelagius claimed. This sense of grace is something which the new Missal project wants to show forth more clearly, allowing Augustine's voice to sound in the chorus as mightily as it should.

Then beyond the Church Fathers, we hear the voices of Saints of every age. We also hear voices rising from the great moments of the Church's life like the General Councils - not just the Councils of long ago, but also the Second Vatican Council. It is surprising how many traces of Vatican II are found in the Latin texts as they were revised after the Council. New touches were added to old texts and new texts were written, which goes to show that the Roman Missal is always a work in progress. It is never a finished product but bears all the marks of the Church's ongoing journey through time. It will be finished only when the Lord returns in glory at the end of time.

Just as there are many different voices in the Missal, so too there are many different idioms. But for all their differences, these idioms have one thing in common: they are not the language of everyday speech. The language of Christian worship was always more complex and elevated than what was spoken in the streets. Therefore, in attempting to produce an English which is accessible to people, we are not trying to reproduce the English of everyday speech, especially given that we are producing a Missal for the entire English-speaking world where the language is spoken in a bewildering variety of ways.

Yet this does not mean that the language of the new Missal will be hopelessly formal or incomprehensible. It does mean, however, that it will have an elevated quality which may sound strange at first. My hope is that, like Shakespeare's verse, the language of the Missal will have its roots in common speech but will take common speech to far distant realms. It will be a language attuned to all the nuances of the Latin, yet deploying all the rich resources of English. But it will be above all the language of the Church's prayer.

When the work of my Committee becomes tedious and hard, or when I am weary of all the travel it involves, I sometimes remind myself that what we are doing is preparing words to place on the lips of the Bride of Christ as she speaks to the Bridegroom. These must be words of earth but also words that reach to heaven. They cannot be banal or one-dimensional; they cannot be the plain speech of everyday life. They must be worthy of the marriage bond between Christ and the Church, words that unite heaven and earth. I also think of Christ instructing his disciples to prepare a place where they could eat the Passover. In working on the Missal at these long and distant meetings, I like to think of myself as one of the disciples who is simply doing what he was told - preparing an appropriate place where we may sit down with the Lord to eat the Passover.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Singing from the same hymn book!

I copped a bit of flack for my article "Codes of practice" and "Protocols" - You've got to be joking! It was even said that I was being discourteous to all those liberal bishops who are "trying their hardest" to support clergy and people still within the Anglican Church of Australia who cannot in conscience believe that women can be priests and bishops.

So it is good to see that the keynote speakers at this weekend's Forward in Faith National Assembly in London made it quite clear that nothing less than a "structural solution" that gives our constituency its own bishops with REAL EPISCOPAL JURISDICTION will do, also that whatever ecclesial arrangements emerge, the pilgrimage of Anglican Catholics must be towards Catholic unity. Have a listen . . .

Click HERE for Fr David Houlding's speech. Fr Houlding is Chairman of the Catholic Group in the English General Synod, and also the Master General of the Society of the Holy Cross ("SSC").

Click HERE for Bishop John Broadhurst's speech. Bishop Broadhurst - a real friend to us in Australia - is Bishop of Fulham in London Diocese as well as Chairman of Forward in Faith.

Click HERE for Fr Geoffrey Kirk's speech. Fr Kirk is the Secretary of Forward in Faith (UK) and Vicar of St Stephen's Lewisham. (Click HERE for Fr Kirk's introduction to the 2nd Plenary Session, and HERE for his speech on GAFCON)

Click HERE for Fr Jonathan Baker's speech. Fr Baker is Principal of Pusey House, Oxford. He gave a second presentation - his real blockbuster! - the FINAL CHARGE at the end of the Assembly. If you're really pushed for time and can only listen to one of these, THIS is the one!

Click HERE for Bishop Martyn Jarrett's homily at the Assembly Eucharist, HERE for Fr Bill Scott's devotional address, HERE for Fr Sam Philpott's speech, and HERE for Fr Alan Rabjohns on the situation in Wales.

Click HERE to listen to Fr Paul Benfield, and HERE to listen to Fr James Patrick, Members of the FiF Legal Working Party.

Click HERE for Fr Ronald Crane, HERE for three FiF seminarians, HERE for Fr Brownsell & others, and HERE for Fr Darren Smith, all on WHY SHOULD WE BOTHER?

Click HERE to listen to Fr Gareth Jones, Peter Hart, Fr Ed Tomlinson, Christopher Smith, Fr Victor Bullock, Emma Forward, Fr Jeff Woolnough and Claire Epsom on WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE.

For photographs of many of the above, as well as the text of particular resolutions, go to the Forward in Faith website HERE.

How many Lambeth Conferences were there?

Clergy from a number of liberal Australian dioceses have passed on to me the reports of their bishops on the Lambeth Conference. Even given a certain sensationalism on the part of the media, I have to ask, did these bishops attend the SAME conference as a few of my friends who (representing a range of perspectives) speak of the trauma and ungodly manipulation they suffered? Perhaps the liberals (especially the Australians) have sunk to the depths of that political malaise where they actually now believe their own spin!

If you are tired of the liberal spin and you want a realistic and fearless assessment of the Lambeth Conference and related issues, go HERE to listen to Bishop John Broadhurst's keynote address at the 2008 National Assembly of Forward in Faith in London this weekend.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I still believe in . . . CONVERSION!

The Mass readings over the last two Sundays have had us thinking about the real meaning of CONVERSION.

It is really untrendy in some church circles to talk about conversion - especially conversion to Jesus! In my travels I've even heard liberal so-called "missionaries" carry on about how their role is to help Hindus and Muslims etc become better Hindus and Muslims rather than to nudge them along the way to being "converted" to Jesus . . . that "this is what Jesus would want if he were on earth today" (where else have we heard that turn of phrase!!!).

Well, I'm sorry, but Jesus doesn't send us into the world JUST to "dialogue." He sends us into the world to preach the Gospel, to live the Gospel, to incarnate the Gospel in our relationships and communities so that all those people from every background, race, language and culture for whom he died and rose again will be inspired to respond to his love and come to know him as their Saviour and Lord.

Another way of putting this is to say that he sends us out as part of his "loving the world back to himself." So, obviously, we relate to those around us with respect, reverence, acceptance and love, not as potential "pew fodder", but as real people who enrich our lives, even as we long for them to give us the privilege of sharing with them what we have discovered of the Lord. That's the case whether we live in London, New York, Iran, India, China, Africa or suburban Brisbane!

And, as has happened everywhere the community of Jesus has gone over the last two thousand years, some of those we love will be converted. Praise the Lord!

I believe in conversion.

Two Sundays ago we thought about John Newton. He was born in London in 1725, and went to sea with his father at the age of eleven.

As a teenager he reluctantly worked on a battleship. He ran away, but was caught, flogged, stripped of his rank, and bullied. He was allowed to swap over to a slave trading vessel that worked the waters off Sierra Leone. Newton was brutally abused in that job also, but his luck changed when he was rescued by the captain of another ship who had known his father.

By now he had seen how wealthy a man might become trafficking in slaves, and eventually he became captain of his own slave ship.
Newton prospered.

With little or no religious conviction, it didn't matter to him whether God approved or disapproved of what he was doing.

But on one voyage home all that changed. Newton was trying to steer his vessel through a violent storm. He thought he'd come to his end. As his ship was about to sink, he surprised himself by crying out, “Lord, have mercy upon us.”

And, just at that moment the storm began to die down. This really got to John Newton. Eventually he became convinced that God had spoken to him through the storm.

His life changed. He got out of the slave trade. He married, studied theology, was ordained to the priesthood in the Church of England, and spent the rest of his life bringing others to Christ.
He wrote these now famous words:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me;
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears reliev’d;

How precious did that grace appear,

The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;

’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The Gospel reading from two Sundays ago (Matthew 20:1-16) was about workers employed at the eleventh hour who received as much as those who had laboured the whole day. The latter were annoyed about the supposed unfairness of grace.

But, God's grace ("his free gift to us of himself, his love and his help") is amazing, precisely because it saves wretches at the eleventh hour!

I guess it's easy to understand those who think that God was unfair in saving the life of that slave trader, especially when you consider how many hundreds, maybe thousands, died on Newton’s ships . . . just so that he could get rich!

But God's grace really is amazing, and in his grace he reached out to this man who had ignored him for years. And Newton was CONVERTED.

The bottom line is that you and I could never tell God that this is unjust, because we’ve all FREELY received grace from him. And the plain fact that should demolish our foolish pride is that you and I deserved God's grace not one little bit more than John Newton did. So, we're not in a position to begrudge Newton his opportunity to respond to God’s love.

That’s what the parable of the labourers in the vineyard is really about. God’s grace comes to different people at different times and in different ways.

Last Sunday we thought about the very different conversion story of Oscar Wilde.
We considered how in his book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, Joseph Pearce shows Wilde’s conversion before he died to be a true surrender to Jesus - a surrender from which Wilde had backed off a number of times throughout his life.

While rightly celebrating Wilde as the scintillating genius he was, Pearce carefully examines his life-long struggle to respond to Jesus, and his frequent teetering on the brink of damnation (sometimes even courting it). The triumph of God’s grace is seen in Oscar Wilde's surrender to Jesus at the eleventh hour - and it really was the eleventh hour! It is something that all who have a ministry with the dying witness more often than others might imagine. It is always a REAL triumph, and - as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel - never, never, NEVER to be despised!

Of course, understanding this enables us to re-read Wilde in a new way, tracing his
struggle with grace all the way through his life and his writings.

On Sunday we thought about two other experiences of conversion . . .

# the university student who went on to become a priest and bishop as a result of being converted during a concert performance of Schubert's Mass in G. "Before it began," he said, "I didn't believe anything much; as we walked out at the end I realised that something had happened to me, and I now believed the lot"!

# C.S. Lewis, who described his conversion on these words: "I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. 'Emotional' is perhaps the last word we can apply to the most important events. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake." (Surprised by Joy page 237)

Of course, the tricky thing about conversion in the Christian sense is that it's not JUST about helping people change what they BELIEVE (as if our task is complete when we help them tick each of the propositions of the Apostles' Creed). It is about helping people change what (that is, "Who") they LOVE. Truth and love go together. Being converted is even more about surrendering to the drawing power of the Lord's love than it is about coming intellectually to assent to a series of propositions.

Yet we all know that conversion is not as easily divided up as that because our search for truth and our discovery of the Lord's love are really one piece. And, as Pope Benedict reminds us in many of his teachings, it's not just truth and love, but also beauty.

For most of us, the search for truth, love and beauty is immensely complicated, and it is a real triumph of grace when someone eventually sees these realities in Jesus. The movement to this point is a mystery; it usually involves the witness of friends and the accepting love of a congregation; it is always chiefly the work of the Holy Spirit.

In the words of the great charismatic Belgian Cardinal Suenens:

"Christianity cannot be reduced to an ideology. It is first and foremost an event, a person: Jesus Christ acknowledged as Lord.

"A Christian is not a philosopher who has opted for an explanation of the universe: he is someone who has experienced in his own life Jesus of Nazareth, crucified on Good Friday, risen from the tomb on Easter Sunday. The cry of Claudel: 'Why, all of a sudden you have become A PERSON!' is a cry of faith for all generations.'"

Or in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger in the year before he became Pope:

"Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional rather than as an encounter with Christ, which explains why they don't see it as a source of joy. If we stay with this impression, we do not live the essence of Christianity, which is an ever new encounter, an event thanks to which we can encounter the God who speaks to us, who approaches us, who befriends us. It is critical to come to this fundamental point of a personal encounter with God, who also today makes himself present, and who is contemporary. If one finds this essential centre, one also understands all the other things. But if this encounter is not realized, which touches the heart, all the rest remains like a weight, almost like something absurd. We need to understand Christianity in a personal way, from the point of view of an encounter with Christ."

WHEN were you converted?

For some Christian traditions, all that matters is that you can give a date and time to your "conversion experience" . . . "the realization of this personal encounter".

Now, don't get me wrong. I love to hear how people come to Christ, especially those who were hardcore atheists, wishy-washy agnostics, followers of other religions, great public sinners, and even lapsed Anglicans. I honestly believe that when Church members really witness to Jesus and his Gospel in our generation there will be many MORE of these stories!

But I have to be honest and say there are at least three problems with the idea that absolutely everyone should be able to give a "date and a time":

The first is that there are many millions of truly blessed people who can look back over their lives and never remember NOT knowing the Lord. That, too, is a wonderful work of his grace for which we praise and thank him. (It's just that that has not been the particular theme of the readings these last two Sundays!)

The second is that many cannot in all honesty pinpoint things, but they do know that, as they have matured, their lives have come to focus on Jesus.

The third is that sometimes the "date and time" people can be so focused on the past that they've got little to say about their continuing growth in Christ.

What, then, are we to say about this?

It was Archbishop Jensen of Sydney who said not long ago that the really important question is not "WHEN were you converted?" but "ARE you converted?"

For me this means that we should ask ourselves if we know Jesus as a Person, as our LORD - as the One we trust to run our lives, knowing that we only mess them up if we don't surrender to him. In this relationship he forgives us and cleanses us from our sins, he shares with us his strength and his peace, and he assures us of his presence in our struggles and tragedies as well as in our times of happiness and joy. Furthermore, we keep on receiving his truly amazing grace through prayer and the sacramental worship of his Church, the community he gathers around himself that spans heaven and earth.

So, you can see why I still believe in conversion.

And you can see why it is not presumptuous to say in all humility that we are "converted" people, trusting not in ourselves but in the Lord and his grace.

Are YOU converted?

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

This photo is of my friend Father Trevor Jones, the Parish Priest of St Peter's London Docks at the High Altar of that historic Anglo-Catholic church, which you MUST visit if you go to London. And if you can't afford to do that, go to Father Jones' blog HERE. You'll learn a great deal about Anglo-Catholics preaching the Gospel and witnessing to the love and presence of Jesus in the "ordinariness" of human life.