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Letters to the Editor

23 November 2018

Church of England attendance, asylum claims, and veganism


Responses to latest Church of England numbers

From the Revd Ian Robinson

Sir, — In his musings over the recent Statistics for Mission (News, 16 November), the Bishop of Manchester, Dr Walker, calls for a return to greater formality and high-quality music as a means to extend the Christmas effect throughout the year.

I wonder, from the statistics, exactly how he draws that conclusion. The figures do not show any separation between different styles of worship during the Christmas period, and my own experience and observations would lead me to very a different position.

In parish ministry, the services that have grown dramatically in recent Christmases have been the more family-focused services of Christingle and crib services. Here, entire families join a less formal style of worship with music more appropriate to the congregation.

While I do not doubt that cathedral-style worship with the qualities that Dr Walker aspires to does draw people, most local churches do not have the ability, or the person-power, to provide such an experience. In fact, at Christmas, some of our regular worshippers move to the cathedrals, while we cater for those who do not regularly join us.

What we need is a mixed economy, in which our cathedrals, instead of draining the local churches, rather support them by providing resources and musical expertise to enable them to provide for a wider range of attendance, instead of sticking to the greater formality preferred by many, and particularly cathedral, clergy.

This would take the cathedrals back to acting as the minster mother churches of old.

High Dalby House
Dalby YO18 7LP

From the Revd Dr Stephen Brian

Sir, — The latest Statistics for Mission report makes salutary reading. The Bishop of London is wise enough to recognise that the decline in church attendance has been going on for decades, and refers to “rapid social change” and “people’s working patterns”.

There have, indeed, been huge cultural shifts, going back generations, also involving developments in personal transport, technology, and leisure activities, not to mention education, religious diversity, and independence. These are huge and complex developments that have surely contributed to the decline in church attendance.

Yet the Church of England continues to be largely in denial about this, as the job advertisements in the classified columns testify, believing that if only the right people can be recruited, enough slogans dreamt up, and enough mission officers appointed, it can all be reversed.

This is the Church of England obsessed with itself, and serves only to alienate even more people and hasten its decline. Some churches, we are told in the article, seem to prefer counting something called the “worshipping community” in which clergy provide a “guesstimate” of how many people would attend if they weren’t absent! Surprise, surprise, this gives a much more satisfying figure.

Clergy are under pressure to come up with the numbers, but the unreliability of churches’ reporting their own statistics is made clear in the article by the discrepancy between the optimistic Statistics for Mission figures and those given by the more detached Everyone Counts survey. Churches cannot be trusted to mark their own homework.

Then we are told that a “Youth and Children’s Ministry Consultant and former Youth Adviser” blames “clergy” and “buildings” for the decline in attendance, while failing to notice that this decline correlates precisely with the prioritising of consultants and advisers over clergy and buildings.

We need to take more seriously what ordinary parishioners actually want from their local church these days rather than provide what we think they ought to want.

The Rectory, Church Lane
Earl Soham, Woodbridge
Suffolk IP13 7SD

Asylum and the treatment of those who seek it 

From Suzanne Fletcher

Sir, — You have been rightly publishing articles (News, 16 November) and letters (same issue) about the problems faced by, and the future of, Asia Bibi as a Christian in Pakistan; and also about encouragement for our Government to accept her here to claim asylum.

While this case is receiving a great deal of publicity, we must not forget that there are very many other Christians in Pakistan in danger. A number of those have been able to flee and seek asylum here in the UK. I would hope that attention is paid to the way they are treated here (along with those seeking asylum for many reasons, including faith issues).

They have been put into detention when arriving here, with no time limit, not knowing what is happening, and having done nothing wrong: they have just not been believed by our Home Office.

When out of detention, they are not allowed to work, to supplement the meagre amount they have to live on, to use their skills, and to contribute to their new community.

They are often in accommodation that is unsuitable, and not treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve by those in authority.

Thankfully, they are welcomed by Christian communities and other support groups, but the rules in our country must change, to end indefinite detention for immigration purposes and make detention a last resort. We need to give the right to work. We need housing contracts that can be effectively monitored to be of a decent standard.

In general, treating with dignity and respect those who seek sanctuary here can even be done without changing any rules.

A forthcoming Immigration Bill will be an opportunity to change the law. Please do take the opportunity to lobby MPs about this, as well as our Bishops sitting in the House of Lords.

All who care about Asia Bibi, and the future for her and her family, need to make sure that we do what we can for those already here, too.

3 Hoylake Way, Eaglescliffe
Stockton on Tees TS16 9EU

From Mr George Reiss

Sir, — Asia Bibi’s claim for asylum seems clear and strong, and the present public pressure in her favour is welcome. But we should be aware that the UK Government’s reluctance to accept her applies to many other Christians with equally compelling cases.

In my charitable voluntary work, we meet a small but steady number of such men and women. There are the Christian lay preacher from a Muslim background, the middle-aged man whose faith compelled him to stand up against a paedophile ring, and the human-rights worker in the carnage of the DRC. All three had to flee their different countries in well-founded fear of their lives. All of these are struggling in what my local MP calls “a Home Office culture of disbelief”, where the merits of their individual cases are not properly assessed by officials. Instead, the policy of a “hostile environment” is still being worked out on these innocent people.

As many others have previously noted, the UK’s “impartial” system is harsher on those who come from countries that do not make the headlines, such as those from West Africa.

We need a fair system of asylum, not one that is politically driven to reduce net migration. My lawyer tells me that, if Mary and Joseph had pitched up with baby Jesus at Gatwick Arrivals in 2018, they would have stood little chance.

41A Sandy Lane
Wolverhampton WV6 9EB

Veganism: a religion or a true expression of it? 

Sir, – Canon Angela Tilby is mostly great value, but her critique of veganism (Comment, 9 November) has the understanding and nuance of a critique of Christianity by Richard Dawkins.

Some vegans (like some Christians) are holier-than-thou, but my wife and I laughed out loud when we heard that the editor of Waitrose’s Food magazine had advocated “killing vegans, one by one”. His other remarks, however, sounded nasty and self-righteous, not just “silly and ill-judged”.

Canon Tilby’s description of veganism as a kind of purity religion that might be “imposed on others” is an Aunt Sally. Some vegans, like some Christians, get carried away by outward observance. But, at heart, vegans try to “be the change they want to see”, and influence others by example, just as Christians try to realise God’s Kingdom on earth by living as citizens of heaven.

I don’t see the relevance of Canon Tilby’s statement that “after all, . . . we suckle our young,” except to highlight the weirdness (when you stop to think about it) of adult humans’ eating food that evolution has designed for the unweaned offspring of another species.

Few would deny the incongruity of a small minority of vegans’ resorting to violence. That is a good argument against violence, but a poor argument against veganism. The same might be said of the small minority of Christians who resort to violence.

It is a theological travesty to suggest that, when Jesus “declared all foods clean”, he undermined the rationale of veganism. Jesus appeared to deny Gentiles a place in the saving purposes of God (Matthew 15.24), but he started a process of ever-widening circles of inclusion and compassion.

Against the anthropocentric tendency of the Church and society, we can set St Paul’s vision of the whole of creation set free from bondage (Romans 8.21). Veganism, it seems to me, is a kind of prophetic action in support of that vision.

The Vicarage, Church Lane
Berwick upon Tweed TD15 2LF

Taking God-talk neat  

From Canon Adrian Alker

Sir, — So, Blackburn Cathedral is investing £12,000 to promote its own brand of gin as “an income stream” (News, 16 November).

In 2016, there were 51,507 alcohol-specific deaths in the UK and more than 300,000 alcohol-caused hospital admissions. No doubt the cathedral parishioners who can afford to spend £45 on this gin will not be visiting our town and city centres on Saturday night, blighted by the drunken revelry that necessitates the need for stretched police and ambulance services to be on hand.

What next does the Dean of Blackburn intend to do? Special cathedral cigarettes? Maybe fruit machines in the transept? If the cathedral truly wants to “engage with different groups of people”, why not try talking to them about a different kind of Spirit?

Maybe the way to engage with people under the age of 40, who might well be drinking gin on a night out, is not to offer them a different brand of gin, but a fresh look at what Christian faith might look like today.

Chair, Progressive Christianity Network Britain
23 Meadowhead
Sheffield S8 7UA

Changes to the drumhead service at the Festival of Remembrance 

From Mr Jim Jack

Sir, — The Revd Geoffrey Squire’s letter (16 November) regarding the Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance raises some fundamental matters that, no doubt, the Legion itself finds problematic: how to honour everyone without offending anyone.

The changes that he itemises in his letter are, in my opinion, related solely to matters of symbolism in the Anglican form of worship. Viewed from the Anglican point of view, their absence may have some significance.

In watching, however, what is fundamentally a BBC-produced and -edited outside broadcast of an event of national significance, otherwise only able to be seen by a proportion of members of the Royal British Legion and their guests over the years, there were reminders to the viewer that troops who fought together on the same side in two world wars and in conflicts since have come from many different races, creeds, and cultures.

Going beyond a likelihood that a significant number of troops from the UK, especially Scotland and Wales, will have been from Protestant branches of the Christian faith which rejected these symbols as a necessary part of Christian worship, the Royal British Legion itself has rightly been at pains to point out the significance of the contributions and losses of troops from the former Empire.

When my wife and I attended the 90th anniversary of the Great Pilgrimage in Ypres in August this year, the service at the Menin Gate specified the part played by troops from the Empire, especially from India, then unpartitioned. Many of those fought, protecting our freedom, with no allegiance to the Christian faith, but having strong beliefs in their respective gods. This multifaith dimension was rightly, in my opinion, acknowledged in the prayers at this year’s Festival.

Born in Scotland, baptised in the Congregational Church, confirmed through the Methodist Church in Newcastle, and now worshipping as part of a family in an Anglican church, I can see other matters of detail in the Christian service which could concern some groups. As I understand it, however, the drumhead ceremony is specifically non-denominational.

This, I would submit, puts a particular responsibility on the Anglican Church to lead on this act of Christian worship in a way that concentrates on what is thought, said, and prayed, and which includes rather than marginalises others who fought in their faith and were wounded or died in doing so. As the direct memory of world wars fades, losing much of the symbolism may actually be one small way in which collective and unified remembrance can be fortified.

And we should spare a thought for the Legion itself. Its part in supporting the victims of injury or death in members of the British armed forces relies on donations from the public. The Festival, which is broadcast with its permission, would seem to be a significant way in which the relevance of its work and public support for it can be maintained.

Perhaps the quest for explanations for some of the matters raised in your correspondence would be best directed to the Legion or, indeed, to the Christian leaders who determined the content of the service aspect of the Festival, if that is where decisions were taken. Whatever was decided would have had a rationale, I am sure.

I, for one, absorbed the totality, solemnity, and emotional power of the whole occasion and, in that, carried a remembrance that has gone beyond the specific event.

Alleston, Gallowfields Road
North Yorkshire DL10 4DB

Going on overseas mission without full training 

From Mr Mike Hawthorne

Sir, — Huw Spanner’s article on preparation for those in mission (Features, 16 November) is informative and insightful, but overlooks one aspect. A central reason that many Christians head overseas without full training is because the process is so jolly expensive.

It’s bad enough raising the money for flights and many other essentials — and, while serving, those in mission are typically not well paid, if at all. Little wonder many groups skip the fine courses offered by the mission colleges, who are not being greedy but, according to their current models, have little choice but to charge thousands of pounds a go.

What is to be done? Perhaps we need to become radical in asking why preparation for mission has to be so expensive. At present, the wonderful examples of training described by Mr Spanner remain largely the preserve of affluent middle-class Christians of all nations (no pun intended); and we surely agree that that is not what mission is about.

Arboyne House, Church Road
Herefordshire HR3 6NH

From Mr Jim Thornton

Sir, — Thank you for the thoughtful article by Huw Spanner in your Vocations feature. Whatever mental image the word “missionary” conjures up, we all know that practical whole-life discipleship must include some meaningful communication with those who find our church culture incomprehensible.

Sometimes the culture of our own children is as confusing to us as the culture of some of our neighbours, and so the skill of cross-cultural understanding really does matter. As chair of the board of All Nations, I know the College and its amazing staff want to do everything that they can to help busy time-poor Christians in the UK acquire such skills.

We are called to share good things with folk in our communities, especially those who join us from other places in the world, and we need to be able to explain. Anyone can sign up for the online 20-hour Express course, and you can even do bits of it on the daily commute.

25 Castle Street
Hertford SG14 1HH

Continental link-up of doctoral programmes 

From Professor Nicola Slee

Sir, — I was interested to read Fr Allan R. Jones’s commendation of Cardiff University’s joint doctoral programme with KU Leuven (Letters, 26 October). May I, through your pages, alert readers to a similar opportunity provided at the Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, for doctoral studies with one of Europe’s most prestigious Theology Faculties, at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam?

Students undertaking doctoral studies at Queen’s, through VU Amsterdam, get the best of both worlds. They belong to a small(ish) and yet vibrant, diverse ecumenical and international Christian community at Queen’s, which offers a supportive, warm, and collegial research culture in a context of shared faith and critical theological inquiry. At the same time, through our close contact with colleagues at Amsterdam, our annual residential in the Netherlands, and joint supervisory teams (consisting of supervisors from Queen’s and VU Amsterdam), they have access to the resources and expertise of a world-class university and theology faculty.

The diverse ecumenical constituency of Queen’s — marked by strong Anglican, Methodist, and Pentecostal presence — is enhanced and increased by the presence at VU of Mennonite, Lutheran, Baptist, Jewish, and Islamic students and scholars, as well as research students from around the world.

As Brexit threatens to undercut academic collaboration in Europe, we at Queen’s remain committed, with our Dutch partners, to widening and deepening theological scholarship, inquiry, and research across national and international borders.

Director of Research at the Queen’s Foundation; Professor of Feminist Practical Theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; Visiting Professor at the University of Chester
The Queen’s Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education
Somerset Road
Birmingham B15 2QH

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