Thursday, 29 September 2011

Was Jesus political?

For many people Jesus is a politically neutral figure and for them, Christianity should itself be apolitical, concerned more with salvation than with society. Was Jesus therefore himself apolitical? Did he see himself as coming to redeem the soul, but not to change society?

For me the answer has to be a resounding ‘NO’. Having been brought up in the Anglo-Catholic Radical/ Socialist tradition, Jesus is a radical figure – one who comes to change the world, both in terms of human hearts, but also in toppling unjust structures. For me the Bible is a political manual and the Christian tradition one which is both counter-cultural but also profoundly anti-establishment. Such anti-establishment acts including the clearing of the money lenders from the Temple in Jerusalem and Mary’s song of triumph ‘The Magnificat’ in which ‘the starving are fed and the rich sent away  hungry’; a settlement in which the mighty ‘are put down from their thrones and the lowly raised up.’ Truly a vision of the world turned upside down!

Yet Jesus does not just come with a radical agenda for change. He comes in the Israelite/ Levitical tradition of the Jubilee year in which the land is restored to its owners, debts cancelled and slaves released. The Levitical Law also demands that the poor and alien be fed, that the earth not be abused by agriculture, but respected and allowed to rest.

For those whom this is not enough, then Jesus enters Jerusalem as Israel’s King, ‘riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey’. This is a profoundly political act, both anti-empire – he is proclaiming himself as rightful ruler of Israel, but also profoundly anti-violence – he is riding into Jerusalem in peace (without weapons), not in war. He challenges and parodies the entrance of the Governor (Pilate) into Jerusalem, riding with his Praetorian Guard, come to rule and judge a subject and subjugated nation.

The linking of the clearing of the Temple with the triumphal entry is an important one – Jesus and his followers cause a riot, this time challenging the power of the Temple authorities (collaborative political power), a group whom along with the Pharisees Jesus has continually challenged, both on oppression of the people through the implementation of the Jewish religious Law and taxation.

Then we come to the post-resurrection, post-ascension Jesus. The Jesus of the Book of the Apocalypse/ Revelation. Rather than being a guidebook to the end times as Tim LaHaye and others have tried to argue, rather it is a polemic against Empire – the Roman Empire in particular, showing the victory of God over Empire.

Historically, it is only after the time of the Emperor Constantine that Christianity and establishment politics become intertwined and then indistinguishable, forming what we now call ‘Christendom’, a political settlement in which the Church becomes a department of State and in which power is justified through Christian theology. (The Church in Christendom does not challenge the State, rather it supports it and in turn receives power and patronage from it). However, if we go back to earlier times we find that Christianity is profoundly at odds with Empire and many of its saints martyrs, killed by the Empire and its supporters. The Christendom settlement is currently in its death throes (if you follow the thesis put forward by the Ekklesia think tank). We are entering a post-Christendom (and therefore a post-Christian) age in which the Church is freed from its Babylonian captivity to the State. (This is a profoundly unsettling time for many people, esp. conservative Christians who are finding that they no longer ‘call the shots’ and are being challenged with regards to the wearing of religious symbols).

Finally, for many during the Second World War and latterly in places such as the dictatorships of Southern America, Christianity has been shown to be a profoundly radical religion, at odds with the powerful, an over powerful military and their supporters. Priests and Bishops such as Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Gustavo Gutiérrez (the father of Liberation Theology),  Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Oscar Romero, Pastor Martin Niemöller, Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara have shown through words, actions and martyrdom that Christ’s concern is with the poor and the oppressed, hence Câmara’s statement:

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.
“When I ask why are they poor, they call me a Communist.”
Dom Hélder Pessoa Câmara

For them, in the face of oppression, Christianity (and the Mass) are profoundly radical and political acts, ones which are profoundly challenging to those in power. For some of them making this link meant death.

There are also those Anglo-Catholic slum Priests of the Victorian era, who lived out their lives amongst the poorest in the land, bringing them the beauty of heaven and educating them in the faith – much as Fr. Trevor Huddleston did when he was Priest of Christ the King, Sophiatown in S. Africa. To quote Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar:

"You cannot claim to worship
Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum."

This is not to say of course that there aren’t Christian Conservatives, or Christian Lib Dems – how can one person judge the faith of another person?! Rather what (for me at least) it says is that the Christian faith is profoundly orientated towards the poor – it does not sanctify poverty, rather it asks ‘why are the poor, poor?’ and ‘what are we going to do about it?’ (Thus it fits more into a ‘One Nation’ Toryism that say Thatcherite or Monetarist Conservatism).

The question then becomes: ‘How does the Christian Socialist Priest live out his/her life and calling?’

First off, I don’t believe it’s possible to live an apolitical manner – we are all political beings and will live out our lives with reference to that politics. If we are not strongly political then we may tread lightly with regards to politics, but we cannot live in an apolitical manner.

The Priest is called ‘to preach Christ crucified’, that is to be honest about the faith and to preach the full faith, not cutting corners. The Priest must also be honest to themselves – they cannot preach a Gospel in which they do not believe, or will not own. Not only will they be liars (to themselves, to their congregations and most importantly of all, to God), they will also be quickly found-out as they are not being honest.

The Anglican Priest of course has ‘the cure of soul’s for those in his parish. He cannot abandon those who do not follow his theological or political viewpoint, not can he compromise the faith or preach an easy Gospel – the Gospel has always been offensive, because it challenges accepted norms and philosophical assumptions we take for granted. It is against the Christendom settlement, because it is against power and against empire. It is for the poor, because God is for the poor. Rather the Priest must care for and pray for those with whom he disagrees; he must also be honest with them, without seeking to alienate them from the Church. (The Church, after all belong to God, not to the Priest).

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Theological musings

I have spent much of this week reading about and thinking on the various forms of Black & African Theology. (Black Theology is principally a form of liberation theology, creating a theologican hermeneutic which seeks to do theology in a way which speaks for black people, and in particular Afro-Caribbean people in the context of post-Colonial/ post-Slavery N. America and Europe. African Theology is the theology done by new Churches originating in Africa, in particular West/ Atlantic Coast Africa and is often based around Pentecostal theologies).

The reason for this exploration is because the Church at which I minister has a mainly black/ African congregation many of whom worship at second or third congregations. My interest is in why they do this and what Anglican theology can do to meet the needs of people for whom Western Theology neither speaks for nor shares their experience..

Monday, 18 July 2011

Great Beards of the English Reformation and beyond

< This short essay is based on an article written and published in the magazine of Croydon Minster a few years ago and on comments made by Professors Alexandra Walsham and Alec Ryrie during the recent annual lecture of the Church of England Record Society, held  at Lambeth Palace in early July 2011. It explores clerical beards, first in the context of the English Reformation, then more widely in the wider Church, both Roman Catholic and Eastern/ Oriental Orthodox. Interestingly Christianity is one of the few religions which does not lay down dress codes for its believers which is what makes recent arguments over attempts to ban Christians from wearing religious symbols all the more interesting. >

Believe it or not, beards have in the past had religious significance, not for themselves, but because of they have helped betray the inner thoughts of those who’ve worn them, in particular they played an important (if unacknowledged) part in the 16th Century Reformation. The simple rule is that during the early Reformation period, for a Priest, a beard was symptomatic of reforming principles. Catholic Priests were, on the whole, prohibited from growing beards. There is no particular theological reason or this other than that consecrated matter might get caught on the moustache.

A good example of this would be Archbishop Cranmer. Cranmer started off as a Roman Catholic and was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury as such (though he was a latent Protestant since his time at University and had married in secret, though the legend that he kept his wife in a box is surely just that, a legend). Or most of his career as Archbishop (and for the period he served under Henry VIII) he remained clean shaven – the famous picture of Henry on his death bed proves this. It is only after Henry dies and Edward assumes the throne that Cranmer is shown wearing (and ever lengthy) beard.

Why did the reformers grow beards?

It is difficult to know the mind of our predecessors, esp. when they have little in writing about their choice of hair/ beard styles – they had more important things to worry about!

One argument, put forward by Walsham (or possibly Ryrie) is that the beard signifies wisdom and/ or age. (Catholic/ Jesuit missionaries to China often grew lengthy beards to place them in the tradition and image of the Confucian scholar – the beard indicates both age and wisdom). For the Reformers a beard would have helped give an outward appearance of both wisdom but also of age – for them their reforming ideas weren’t new of innovative, but were reconnecting the Church with a more ancient tradition, as they saw their Protestant faith being a more accurate reconnection with the Early Church. The beard then was a symbol of antiquity, not of innovation, of wisdom not of youthfulness.

Another is that beards mark a clear separation from clean shaven Catholicism, where for Protestant/ Reformed thinking there is less of an emphasis on the sanctity of the sacraments and therefore less of a need to protect against misuse or consecrated matter, in particular the wine, becoming caught in the beard. Of course facial hair would not have mattered for the laity where reception was in one kind only, and on a very infrequent basis, e.g. Christmas, Easter and in preparation for death. More normally the laity would have viewed the Mass from afar, i.e. behind the Rood Screen and would have been expected to kiss the Pax Board/Bread.

Yet another argument, put forward the ‘Orthodox England’ website is that Roman Catholic Priests follow the Roman tradition of being clean shaven and that being clean shaven marked one as “civilised” (a member of the Roman Citizenry) as opposed to a “Barbarian” from beyond the city walls, who would have more likely to have been bearded. Beards did continue to be worn by Catholic Priests up until the 11 Century when they started to go out of fashion/ were banned by decrees of the Church Councils (e.g. Aachen) or by Canon Law. (

Following the first flush or the reformation beards rapidly go out of fashion, though the latter two Elizabethan Archbishops of Canterbury (Grindal and Whitgift) are both shown wearing full beards. During the Stewart period beards (in particular beards associated with the Court) become tidier and more dandified and much less Patriarchal. Goatees of various forms become the norm for both Priests and nobles, as can be seen from the paintings/ tomb of Archbishop Laud or Sheldon. This development was presumably because, following the death of Elizabeth, the Church had remained comfortably reformed and there was no need for political statements of this sort (the main problem was with Protestant Reformers/ Puritans who wanted to see the Church reformed further along European Protestant lines – their main beef was with liturgy, Church furniture and vestments, rather than with facial hair fashions).

Catholic Beards

As I have noted above, for Catholic clergy the prohibition against the growing of beards is a strong one, based in culture (the culture coming out of imperial Rome) and by Canon Law. In England for example the prohibition against clergy growing beards goes back to the Middle Ages it was apparently considered uncanonical for a Cleric to grow his beard (though it would seem that the evidence for this is negative, in that there it comes out of a Law promulgated by King Alfred on the fine that should be paid if one person shaves off the beard of another so that he looks like a Priest. However, by 1119 an ordinance was promulgated by the Council of Toulouse, which threatened with excommunication to clerics who "like a layman allowed hair and beard to grow".

However, this is not the end of the story – there are always exceptions to the rule. As with the Sappers of the French Foreign Legion (an unusually hirsute part of the French Army there is a tradition in some monastic orders for the growing of beards, not as an aesthetic consideration, but as a mark of austerity. In particular this is a tradition of the Capuchins and Camaldolese Hermits for whom the growing of a beard is a mark of personal austerity and penance.

Again, it would seem that not every cleric has followed this rule all the time. There are many examples of Popes who have grown beards (some to a good length) and the portraits of many Popes from the 16 Century onwards show them with beards, e.g.: Clement VII; Paul III (who apparently allowed the beard to grow to considerable length!) However, a rule for one was not a rule for all and even in the mid-19 Century a group of Bavarian Clergy were censured by the Vatican for their attempt to gain permission for clergy to grow beards. It has to be noted, however, that they chose a particular inopportune time as the Church was taking on a more ultramontane tone. (Ultramontanism is a Roman Catholic philosophy which emphasises the power of the Pontiff over that of local prerogative, rights of Bishops or other spiritual authorities).

Further information on Roman Catholic beards can be found on the New Advent website from which some of this section has been taken (

Orthodox Beards

Of course, the matter is completely different for Priests in the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) traditions. Here beards and long hair are the norm rather than the exception. Many Orthodox Priests wear beards and long hair because Jesus would have done so and they are following in that tradition and because they are dispensing the Sacraments and Grace given by Christ. They are, as many Catholic and Anglo-Catholic Priests would hold, in persona Christi and so represent Christ to the people, as well as bringing the things of God to the people of God. More information on the Orthodox tradition of growing beards can be found on the Orthodox England website referenced above.

The wearing of beards by Orthodox clergy also places them in the tradition of the Levitical Priests of the Hebrew Testament and in line with other Laws laid down in the Levitical Law (which is why many Orthodox Jewish men wear beards and peyote). S. Paul describes Christ as being ‘our great High Priest’ a clear reference to the Temple and to the Jewish nature of early Christianity. By seeking to emulate the Levitical Law in their own lives, Orthodox clergy are aligning themselves with Christ.

Finally, there is the suggestion made the Roman Catholic on-line encyclopaedia New Advent, that in the Orthodox/ Eastern tradition, to no wear a beard suggests effeminacy.


Outside of the Roma Catholic Church today there seems to be no particular guidance on who can, should or shouldn’t wear beards and it has now has little to do with which Church party you associate with. Many modern Catholic monks sport beards, as do Anglican of differing shades (both ++Rowan, an Anglo-Catholic and +Tom Wright, an evangelical, wear beards) though I would suggest that those who are strongly Catholic or Protestant are less likely (though not totally unlikely) to wear a beard.

Within the Roman Catholic Church things seem to be slightly different, with beards being prohibited to Clergy, other than for those who have a medical exemption. As with the Roman Catholic Church, so the opposite is true for the Orthodox Churches. Being Churches that do not have a magisterium in the way that the Roman Catholic Church does, but rather who follow the teachings of the Church Fathers and tradition, beards remain de rigeur. If only it were so in Anglicanism.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

On "good" bad literature and the "spiritual" landscape

There is something immensley satisfying about "good" bad literature, by which I mean novels which in themselves have no literary merit, but which make good reading. They are a guilty pleasure, something to be enjoyed in place of something more meatier, but also more wholesome.

A good example might be Bram Stoker's 'Dracula', a book with virtually no literary merit (or so the critics tell us) and one in which the major charecters receive virtually no development, and yet is a classic which can be found on the bookshelves of both wannabe Goths and professors of literature. Dracula is a book that has launched a thousand spin-offs, both books and movies, and yet is like literary chocolate, good for a few minutes pleasure, but not for a nutritious meal.

I am writing this caught between reading Stan Nicholls' 'Orcs' and the latest William Horwood novel 'Awakening'. The former is good, weekend reading. It doesn't require too much thought or consideration. It is essentially good reading for a quiet afternoon (though there are far too many battles and 'deus ex machina' for my liking). Horwood is of a similar genre, but cannot be classed as a guilty pleasure. His novels are written well and utilise the historico-mythological landscape of Britain as their backdrop/ canvas.

Whereas Nicholls writing is good, escapist fun, Horwood opens up the English landscape, showing us the old/ hidden pathways which we, as modern people, have forgotten. Wayland's Smithy becomes not just a name on a signpost, but a place of encounter with Wayland. As with Alan Garner's novels, the old meanings of our landscape are opened up to us.

As modern Christians we often reject these symbols of our past, and yet our ancesters included them in their cosmology. The Green Man or the Sheelagh na'gig are often found as additions to our medieval Churches, yet we little understand their significance or meaning today. Horwood and others (such as Robert Holdstock) try to reconnect us with these age old spirits of our landscape. They were friends (and fiends) whom our ancesters feared or revered and remembered their passing in the stonework of the buildings that have lasted the longest, our Churches.

All of which shows us that we've come a long way from where we started. Literature, even books read as a guilty pleasure have a way of doing that to you. As Bilbo warns Frodo, it's a dangerous thing stepping over the threshold of your door, because you've got no inclination as to where the road you are embarking on will lead to.

Harry Potter reflections: Opening Remarks

The Harry Potter series of novels is one of my favourite reads. They are texts I can return to again and again and find new meanings within the text. In particular Christological and theological readings. This is not to say that Harry is Christ, or that Hermione, Ron and the others represent the Disciples, but rather that the stories in themselves reflect the basic Christian story, but also try to understand the nature of such diverse elements as: redemption; love; friendship; failure; weakness; and how what may appear to be weakness or failure can in fact reflect the nature and victory of love over evil.

Much has been written on the Harry Potter novels, one of my favourite writers is the Hogwarts Professor, John Grainger, whose work explore the Christian, English literature and alchemical readings of the texts. His writings show the multilayered readings of the text and how thought through the novels are. He also shows how the novels are deeply theological and Christological. My aim in this blog is to expose these readings and to try and show how they have influenced my own readings of these texts.

Redemptive Arcs

Examples of redemptive love litter the Harry Potter novels like fallen leaves following an autumn storm. In particular redemptive paths can be found in Dudley Dursley, Severus Snape and Draco Malfoy. On first reading none of these characters have anything going for them. All are bullies, all seemingly hate Harry and all that he stands for. And yet each of them responds to redemptive love.

Both Dudley and Malfoy are fairly easy to fathom. At the beginning of the novels, both are obnoxious little boys, spoilt to the point of ruination, they see power and authority over others as their right (over Harry in particular) and choose to reinforce their view of power by coercion or outright violence. Interestingly both of these boys share a similar narrative ark and both find redemption in similar ways – being saved from death.

Both Dudley and Malfoy are the children of abusive relationships: Dudley has been spoilt from birth and has been given no boundaries - what he wants, he gets and when he doesn’t get he throws a tantrum; Malfoy is similarly the child of abusive parents, but the abusive is more subtle and malign. Like Dudley, Malfoy sees power as his right, power over others or power in situations beyond his control. He has been taught by his parents that power is his right and that he should expect subservience from others, who are automatically his inferiors. Everyone else is inferior to Draco, whether because they are poorer than him (the Weasley family); because of race/ birth (Hermione); or, because he feels threatened by innate goodness and wholesomeness which sits at the heart of some people’s characters (Harry).

The narrative ark is easily to follow. Both start out as abusive little boys, gradually turning into older bullies, flexing their muscle, usually by using sycophants as their tool. Both nearly reach rock bottom: Dudley turns to quasi-gang violence to intimidate others; Draco agrees to kill Dumbledore if it will allow him and his family to live. Both, however, have their lives saved by Harry, both metaphorically (they are turned away from their downward narrative ark) and literally. Dudley is saved by Harry’s Patronus from marauding Dementers. Malfoy is saved from the balefire unleashed by his friends in the Chamber of Secrets.

Both redemptions are not wholly selfless however. On both occasions Harry is in the process of saving himself from danger when he comes to save Dudley or Malfoy as well. These are not then totally selfless acts, but they are all the more human for that. Harry is not Jesus and therefore does not act in a Messianic way, he is a young man left with a terrible geas/ burden, yet his redemptive act is ‘Christlike’.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Beginnings ...

Welcome to my blog 'A Place to Think'. The name of blog is also its intention, to provide a place for me to think outside of the box (literally in the case of twitter and Facebook, which limit the amount you can write), but also intellectually. To be a place where I can throw out ideas and allow myself the freedom to think freely on issues that interest and concern me.

As a Christian and an Ordinand I am natually interested in Christian theology, in this instance Anglo-Catholic theology. But I am also interested in Harry Potter, and in particular its theology - it is perhaps one of the most 'Christological' series of novels ever written and has much to tell us about ourselves, as well as about the nature of humanity and belief.

The Church of England also concerns me, in particular its future, in age when it seems to be ever more divided on issues of sexuality or womens' ministry. The old certainties are long past and as a Church we exploring new and exciting/ scary territories. My hope is that we can remain honest to what we believe and affirm in oneanother the image of God, even when we disagree funadamentlally with each other. But that is the way of families.