Tension between academia and Church on the Bible
From the Revd Dr Ian Paul
Sir, — Your two articles on the Bible (26 April) set out very clearly the key challenges that the Church faces in reading scripture.
Ted Harrison (Faith) is quite right to highlight the importance of numerology to the biblical writers, though he gets his sums slightly wrong (the hypotenuse of a 12–3 triangle is the square root of 153), and fails to mention a more important feature, that 153 is the 17th triangular number, one that is the sum of consecutive integers (so the 15 red balls on a snooker table represent the sixth triangular number).
To read the Bible is to enter, culturally, a foreign country; but how do we navigate our way around, and how do we discern which of these things are most important?
The interview with Professor John Barton (Features) highlights quite a different kind of challenge. In stating that “I tend not to think of [the Bible] as ‘inspired’. . . When it speaks, we must listen, but need not agree,” he is locating himself four-square in the critical tradition of liberal Protestantism, in which the critic stands above scripture and outside the historic tradition of faith, and acts as an autonomous interpreter and evaluator of the text.
That might well be appropriate for a professional academic, but it raises large questions for someone ordained in the Church of England, since it sets aside scripture’s own evaluation of itself (in the prophetic language of “the word of the Lord came to me. . .”, Jesus’s language of “Did God not say . . .?”, and the Pauline formula in 2 Timothy 3.16), it rejects the universal view of the Fathers, and is contrary to the Church’s own position as set out in the Thirty-Nine Articles, especially Article XX (“it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written”).
The real difficulty here is that this tradition of critical scholarship is remarkably uncritical of its own assumptions and conclusions.
In his review of Professor Barton’s A History of the Bible (Books, 5 April), Canon Anthony Phillips welcomes and applauds its conclusions, including the historical unreliability of the Old Testament, the Hellenised nature of the New, the discontinuity of Pauline theology with the Early Church, the uncertainty of the Gospel record of Jesus’s teaching, and the instability of the text of the New Testament.
Despite the “assured results” of this modern scholarship, all these issues are highly contested, scholarship of the past 40 years has pushed back on all of them, and I, for one, think that the conclusions are largely mistaken. They also rob the Church of scripture as its primary resource for ethics, doctrine, and spiritual formation.
Someone said a few years ago that there were two kinds of hard sayings in the Bible: those that were hard to understand, and those that were easier to understand but hard to accept and live out. The Church of England does have problems with the Bible, but for many, it appears, the problems are of the second kind rather than the first.
102 Cator Lane
Nottingham NG9 4BB
Colonial attitudes persist in the House of Bishops
From Miss Vasantha Gnanadoss
Sir, — Referring to Jeremy Hunt’s independent review of Foreign and Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians, which he chairs, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Philip Mounstephen, suggested in a press interview that “There is a lot of post-colonial guilt around a residual sense that the Christian faith is an expression of white Western privilege. Whereas actually the Christian faith is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the global poor and people who, by their very socio-economic status, are vulnerable.”
This stereotyping is inaccurate and is, itself, an example of colonial attitudes. USPG has challenged this “dominant and inattentive” mind-set, which characterises Christians overseas as generally poor and in need of help (News, 15 February).
Is the Bishop of Truro not aware of the prevailing white colonial attitudes of the Church of England, where since 2002 all new diocesan bishops have been white?
A current example is the amendment (put down by a bishop) to the Southwark diocesan motion on refugee professionals which is due to be debated at the General Synod. The motion recognises that many refugees have professional qualifications, and that we would all benefit from their talents if they were helped to gain UK accreditation. The amendment would wreck the purpose of the motion and affirm once again the stereotype of refugees as needy people. The amendment should be withdrawn.
242 Links Road
London SW17 9ER
Hugh Montefiore and today’s climate campaigners
From the Revd Laura Garnham
Sir, — I was interested in Richard Douglas’s article, “Extinction Rebellion’s prophecies are not new” (Comment, 26 April).
In the late 1960s, when I was a student in Canterbury, the then Dean, Ian White-Thomson, introduced Hugh Montefiore’s The Question Mark to his congregation (I still have a copy), and he preached regularly on the challenge of the environment.
In the 1980s, the then Dean of Bristol, Horace Dammers, started the Lifestyle Movement. Its guidelines were: “We can make a positive contribution to the process of becoming ‘One World’’ in these ways: Sharing the Earth’s Resources; Using the Earth’s Resources Responsibly; Personal Change; Joining with Others.”
The strapline “Live simply so that all may simply live” is still in use by the Life Style Movement, which continues, with an excellent regular newsletter. The Church of England was an “early adopter”. Those prophetic people who have been challenging the way in which the environment has been treated have blazed a trail for more than 50 years. And, of course, there is still much work to be done in this generation.
1 Church Road, Wrabness
Essex CO11 2TG
From the Revd Dr David L. Gosling
Sir, — Richard Douglas’s article is important and timely. I was secretary to public hearings on nuclear power chaired by Hugh Montefiore under the auspices of the British Council of Churches (BCC) in 1976, which led to a case being presented by the BCC at the Windscale Public Local Inquiry the following year. Such was Hugh’s stature and that of his associates — Giles Ecclestone, for example — that government ministers and the entire nuclear top brass turned out to give evidence.
Hugh probably differed from many current ecological enthusiasts in his support for nuclear power once the radioactive-waste disposal facilities had been improved. But he certainly believed that a religious interpretation of our relationship with the natural world was foundational to our resolution of the issues and of our need, as Christians, to prioritise care for it.
The impressive ecological programmes of the 1970s and ’80s with which Hugh Montefiore and his contemporaries were associated came to end with the demise of the British Council of Churches, and the churches themselves, which once led in this field, have been overtaken by largely secular-inspired initiatives.
DAVID L. GOSLING
2 St Luke’s Mews
Cambridge CB4 3DF
From Mr Andrew Lane
Sir, — On Thursday 18 April, our little parish of Warleggan declared a climate emergency. There were no dissenters, and we will collectively now seek ways to get our parish carbon-neutral by 2030.
On Easter Day, after tolling our single bell 33 times to commemorate the life of Christ, we paused briefly and then tolled the bell a further 12 times, to represent the 12 years that the UN believes that we have left to us to reduce carbon emissions to zero. We will toll the bell 12 times every Sunday until the end of the year, and then we will change to 11 and continue to reduce it by one ring every year from thereon.
May I urge that every church and cathedral join in with us?
Churchwarden, St Bartholomew’s, Warleggan
Castle Dewey, Warleggan
Cornwall PL30 4HE
From Mr Alan Ramage
Sir, — In the south-west, Cornwall and Devon County Councils and Plymouth City Council, the latter unanimously, have declared climate emergencies. Many other councils have also made this declaration. Is it not time for the Church of England through the General Synod to fulfil its prophetic ministry by doing likewise, to emphasise the urgency of the need for Christians to change their lifestyles, pray for appropriate action by society, lobby politicians, and, in their own institutions, become Eco-Churches as a witness to their communities?
27 Reddicliff Road, Radford
Plymouth PL9 9NF
Panorama programme won’t be the last scandal
From Mr Andrew Graystone
Sir, — Church leaders, from the Archbishops up, acknowledge that the Church is failing in its care of victims of clergy abuse. But ask them who is responsible for sorting out the mess, and nobody knows. Is it the job of the Archbishops’ Council? or the General Synod? or the National Safeguarding Steering Group? or Lambeth Palace? or the House of Bishops? Or is it, perhaps, a matter for each individual diocese?
Everybody points to someone else. Nobody steps forward. After a decade or more of crisis, which continues to eat away at the Church’s standing in society, there has been a complete failure from those in authority to grasp the issue. One reason that some survivors of church abuse are so painfully vocal is that they are filling a vacuum of leadership on this most crucial of issues for the Church.
Monday’s Panorama, with its focus on the shameful mismanagement of abuse in Lincoln diocese, was entitled Scandal in the Church of England. It could have been made at any point in the past decade, and it could have focused on almost any diocese. Stories will continue to emerge, and the scandal of abuse past and present will continue to undermine the Church’s wider mission, until some individual or body takes responsibility and institutes decisive action.
In the mean time, it is victims of abuse, past and present, who bear the cruelty and pain of the Church’s failure.
17 Rushford Avenue
Manchester M19 2HG
‘Equal’ campaign expects a long haul
From the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain
Sir, — Last month brought the launch of a campaign for the conscience of every member of the Church of England to be respected. The Campaign for Equal Marriage in the Church of England has simple aims:
• We believe that same-sex couples should be able to be married in Church of England parishes.
• We believe that people in such marriages should have the same opportunities for lay and ordained ministry in the Church of England as anyone else.
• We believe that the consciences of everyone should be protected: no member of the clergy should be forced to conduct a marriage they disagree with. No member of the clergy should be prevented from celebrating a marriage involving a same-sex couple.
Equal is simply a campaign to ensure that the official policy of the Church properly respects and protects the conscience of all its members on these matters of deep human importance.
We are clear that this campaign will be a long one, and that we want to work with rather than constantly be in conflict with, the Church of England. What lies ahead of us is a slow process of education, support, and sharing of information and stories, to move the hearts and minds of the Church. We are encouraged that so many others are already working across many areas of LGBTI equality and progress and want to work together with them to support each other and to help hold each other to account in what will be a long, slow and sometimes hard process.
We would ask the prayers of your readers for the Campaign and for the Church of England as together we move forward to justice and equality for all
The Old Vicarage
23 High Street
Chapel en le Frith SK23 0HD
Homer nods again
From Mr Finn Jarvis
Sir, — As one of the pedants addressed by Catherine Fox (Features) in your excellent latest issue, I do indeed rejoice in the correct etymology of Utopia; but I also feel I ought to point out that of the two Greek words there given in explanation, neither was accented, and one was printed in the wrong alphabet.
Trinity College, Oxford OX1 3BH
Our apologies for the misprint.