Saturday, 24 July 2010

When is the Church not the Church?

I'm a bit late in the day on this, but someone at work alerted me to this recently and I was a little horrified so I decided to do some digging.

After an 18 year legal battle, a couple have been forced to sell their farm house in order to pay more than £200,000 in repairs to their local parish church because of an archaic medieval law making some land-owners liable for repairs to nearby churches. The Wallbanks have also racked up £250,000 in legal costs contesting this decision which was initially overturned by the Appeal Court as a breach of the couple's human rights. However the PCC (Parish Church Council) then took the case to the House of Lords, who overturned the appeal on the basis that the Human Rights Act did not apply because PCCs are not Public Bodies. 

This is what the Church of England had to say about the case (see here): 

"The Church of England has financial responsibility for 45% of the nation’s Grade 1 listed buildings and many other architecturally important churches. 70% of repair bills are met by local fundraising, with only a minority coming from English Heritage, lottery funds and other non-church sources. This places a considerable financial burden on PCCs, which largely rely on voluntary giving to support their work. Against that background, the Church cannot be expected to forego sources of funding to which it is entitled unless it receives adequate compensation." 

This makes me really angry! 

In the Bible, in the New Testament, the apostle Paul refers to the church as "the body of Christ". The analogy is, that when Jesus lived on earth he went around showing people, by His words and actions, what God was like. He loved people, He taught them, He did miracles and He showed compassion. He also had some angry words to say against systemic corruption and abuse of power! Now that Jesus is no longer physically here on earth, His church - those who follow Him and are filled with His Spirit - have become His "body". We're supposed to go around doing the things that He did and still wants to do through us, His disciples. 

When the church puts financial gain - even financial need - first, and uses this to justify forcing a couple to sell their home for a liability that in real day to day terms (as opposed to obscure legal terms) has little or nothing to do with them, it forfeits the right to be called "the body of Christ" - since Christ would never have dreamed of treating anyone in such a way!

To find out more about the Wallbanks' case from their own perspective, see here, although the site has not been updated since before the couple sold their farm and the petition is now closed, so it looks as though they have sadly had to give up their fight.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The Department for Dodgy Deals

Got this email today from the Jubilee Debt Campaign - I think it speaks for itself:

Dear supporter,

The Export Credits Guarantee Department is a little-known part of the UK Government that uses public money to back exports to the developing world. We call it the Department for Dodgy Deals.

Why? Because all too often, it underwrites dodgy deals like arms sales, coal power plants and oil pipelines. Last month, the Guardian reported on the ECGD's support for a deep-sea drilling platform off the coast of Brazil that is even riskier than BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico.

What’s more, when these exports fail, they create toxic Third World debts. Over 90% of developing country debt to the UK government is now Export Credit debt. And there’s no sign of these debts being cancelled.

The new Coalition Government is urgently considering the future of this department. It's one of the few areas where the two parties haven't worked out what they're going to do. So we have a real opportunity to open this department up to scrutiny.

Since the financial crisis, rather than tightening up the rules to promote responsible exports, the UK has relaxed them even further – exempting some projects from any environmental or social assessment at all and making an existing ban on child and forced labour ‘optional’ in some cases. It’s as outrageous as that.

Our new campaign aims to confront the reality of our unjust global economy: dodgy trade creates toxic debts, and it’s the world’s poorest people who suffer. Here are three examples:

  • The Turkwel Gorge hydro-electric power station in Kenya was built on a known earthquake fault and cost four times what it should have, with ECGD support. The Kenyan press described it as ‘the whitest of white elephants’ and ‘a stinking scandal’.
  • Indonesia is still repaying hundreds of millions of pounds to the UK for Hawk aircraft, Scorpion tanks and other military equipment sold to the dictator General Suharto, with ECGD insurance. Evidence shows they were used against the civilian population, including during the vicious attacks on East Timor.
  • The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline received ECGD backing despite warnings that it would fuel conflict in the Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline led to human rights abuses, environmental devastation and, campaigners claim, was a factor in the escalation to war between Russia and Georgia.

Our campaign is calling for an audit of past UK debts – to uncover the injustices that are keeping people locked into poverty. But it’s also about the future: about ensuring much stronger standards are adopted and enforced to control British ‘lending’ in the decades to come.

Please write to Vince Cable now, and ask him to use his new powers to end Britain’s Dodgy Deals >> 

Best wishes,
Nick Dearden
Jubilee Debt Campaign

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The Shape of Love

Another cartoon from the naked pastor:

This is what the naked pastor has to say about this image:

"This guy has just come into the awareness that love is in the air. He’s realized that he is surrounded and sustained by love. He hears love. He thinks love. He speaks love. He breathes love. No, he hasn’t subscribed to any creed. He has just come to know, deep within, that Love, the Blessed, the Beautiful Benediction, is above all, through all, and in all things. It is That from which all things come and That to which all things go. He smiles."

My view is that without love, nothing ultimately makes sense.  Love is the one thing from which everything derives meaning.  Life, the Universe, everything, is suffused with love - but often, although it's all around us, we just don't seem to know where to look for it!

Love though, isn't something that can simply exist in abstract.  Love is always personal - love has to come from someone.  This is what the Bible has to say:

"God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him."

Many different religions have many different things to say about God.  Some don't even seem to recognise that love is part of the equation, let alone God's primary and over-arching characteristic! Many people on the other hand are against all religious creeds and doctrines because of their capacity to restrict and divide. I assume this is why, according to the naked pastor, the guy in the picture is creed-free.

Well it's true - you don't need to subscribe to any creed or doctrine to understand, appreciate or show love - and neither do you need me to tell you that!  Love transcends race, culture, class, gender, sexuality.  It will cross any barrier except for those of entrenched pride or selfishness and even then it will not give up until it has exhausted every effort.  But the Bible also has this to say:

"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins."

This isn't a creed (although it's been included in many) but it is a statement which you can choose whether to believe or not.  It's one of those places where God's love becomes concrete and personal - in fact in many ways about as personal as it gets!
Love cannot be confined to a creed, but neither is it nebulous or void.  Love has a shape and to me, Jesus is the shape of Love!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Shades of Colour

I recently stumbled across this cartoon on the naked pastor's website (I discovered this via Lesley's Blog, which I discovered in turn, thanks to David Cloake at The Vernacular Curate):

This picture made me want to smile and cringe at the same time! I have to say, with some shame, that this is a phenomenon I can relate to, although for me the timeline has been (and I think to some extent still is) less straightforward.

I instantly want to contrast this picture with the words of Jesus, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full", or according to the New Living Translation, "My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life".

Where have we gone wrong? How did the words of Jesus, above, turn into this picture?

Obviously this picture is not true for all believers, or for all converts to Christianity, but religion often does seem to have this sort of effect on people. Evangelical Christians often don't like the word "religion" for this reason, but what they (we?) are offering often doesn't seem much different!

"Black and white" can mean monochrome as in boring, or it can mean definite, rigid and uncompromising.  I think these concepts are often related.  "Definiteness" however, is one of the things that often attracts people to Christianity - that sense of re-assuring certainty in a perilous and uncertain world.

I remember one of my church leaders once admitting that life isn't always black and white. When faced with a difficult choice or situation, there often isn't a straightforward "right" or "wrong" answer. Instead - we often end up being faced with "shades of grey".  I remember recognising this as true, but also feeling a little short-changed - in response to my desire for strong-minded clarity, I was being rewarded with a drab and unappealing mushy grey!

Since then I've had a bit of a rethink.  The problem with black and white is that the rigidity often seems to be imposed from outside.  These are the rules and you must stick to them - whether or not you understand why.  This is OK and sometimes necessary for children - and to some extent we are all still children - but I think God's desire is for us to become fully mature adults, understanding the rules, but more importantly being motivated by the things that caused the rules to come into being in the first place.

The problem with rules - even good ones - is that they never apply perfectly to every situation, because life is more fluid and dynamic than that.  This is why we have such complex legal systems, and no matter how many laws you make and how complicated they are, people will always find a way round them if they're determined enough.

Someone who lives by the heart and spirit of the law though, rather than by a rarified code, will be able to adapt to new situations and respond appropriately.  This requires creativity and ingenuity, but channeled in positive directions rather than destructive or self-centered ones.  The results are likely to be beautiful and surprising.  And suddenly we find that instead of black and white, we have shades of colour,  rather than shades of grey!