Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Mormon Coffee » Changes to Gospel Principles

The following are the remarks of one man to the changes in the fundamental Mormon Gospel Principles Manual. Aaron Shafovaloff of Mormonism Researched Ministry is doing a good job of cataloguing the changes and although it is no surprise to see these changes it is still shocking to realise how insidious and cynical they are. Aaron’s project is ongoing so readers may wish to keep going back to see what are the latest revelations (pardon the pun).

“1st off, I was quite angry as I read this this morning; as I told my wife, the Bishop stood right here in this living room and told us we were forfeiting our blessings and rejecting precious truths. Truths that are now crossed out. These very things that won’t be taught anymore, were weapons to be held against us last year and this year.

2nd, after that I felt a profound sense of relief. If this is not going to be taught then the Bishop can go eat sand. If these vital teachings can no longer be held inviolate, then the brethren have no right to demand my allenience and I can resign with a clear conscience.

3rd suspicion. Will these teachings get sprung on people once they commit? Or, are people going to join the church and be denied the same teachings, promises and expectations that we had? And if so, why? Is this the day when the very elect will be deceived?

And, could I be punished for teaching new members things that the manual has changed?

Despite this all, these teachings are false anyway. It is important to get rid of them. They are enslaving, they are not biblical, and they are a cause of contention between us and other faiths. But still, if the church was the authority on spiritual matters, it would not adopt the outside world view.

Nevertheless, just this Spring our Bishop stood here in this living room and condemned me and my family for rejecting the things that are now crossed out.”

Mormon Coffee » Changes to Gospel Principles

Monday, 27 July 2009

Should great apes have rights?

The Big Questions, 27 July 2009, BBC1.
I must say, I hand it to this programme for coming up with a very stimulating variety of topics. Chimps and bonobos, apparently, share 98.4% of our DNA and their blood and organs can be harvested for human use. (I did a simple Google, however, and found the DNA similarity may be more like 95%.)
The first expert questioned is Professor Colin Blakemore, whom presenter Nicky Campbell challenges concerning whether a creature than can articulate (via symbols) the phrase, "Can I have an ice cream on my birthday?" should not, in fact, be given rights. The professor replies that simian linguistics is a highly controversial field, and that the conferring of rights in theory is not the same as creating a fairer world (as can already be seen amongst us humans!).
Campbell then brings out the crunch question: are we part of a 'continuum' along with apes, or do we have a special, divinely-conferred status? The former, says Professor Paula Casal of the Great Ape Project. They are persons, she insists, because they can recognise themselves in the mirror, identify their species, remember the past, have plans for the future and even tell jokes and use metaphors. This list is an interesting collection of features in my view because they are evidently sufficient in Casal's mind to constitute 'personhood'. No mention, however, of any moral or spiritual awareness.
At this point, author Jeremy Taylor steps in, describing her view as "anthropomorphic wishful thinking". Deaf people, he maintains, have worked with apes and found them not to be signing after all. Richard D North of the Social Affairs Unit chimes in arguing that humans should 'trump' apes every time - pitting, as an example, a disabled baby over against an able-bodied ape.
Primatologist Ian Redmond, who has lived in the wild with apes who have not been taught anything by humans, argues that in fact apes do have 'minds', and that they are worthy of respect. His reasoning then becomes a little creative when he starts comparing ape-rights with the rights of black people and women. He attacks the notion of 'anthromorphism' and says that in fact we should be thinking in terms of 'zoomorphism' - in other words, we should be thinking of ourselves as animals, rather than imagining apes to be like humans.
Ceri Dingle, strident in canary yellow, intervenes by asking, "Why are you so desperate to prove apes are like humans? I think you're demeaning humanity." It doesn't make us animal-haters to argue that we're a superior species.
Peter Hitchens rejects the notion of rights out of hand, arguing it to be entirely subjective and even 'atheistical', a view that I have a lot of sympathy with. We do have duties, however, which derive from our Christianity, he says. These, he says, tell us that we should treat our fellow creatures with as much kindness as we can.
Campbell continues to show how struck he is with our monkey friends, especially extolling an ape who picked up a stunned starling, carried it the top of a tree and tried to release it back into flight.
Douglas Murray, who normally disagrees with Hitchens, agrees that the emphasis must be on bringing justice for all human beings, rather than trying to elevate apes' rights. Dr Anthony Seldon demurs, questioning why we couldn't aim for both.
The most interesting contributor, possibly, is Paula Stibbe, a lady seeking to become a legal guardian for Matthew, a chimp! She rightly rejects Campbell's premise when he asks how intelligent the ape is - is it right to link value or right to life to intelligence? For me she ruins it when she cites Darwin who, apparently, said that the differentiations between species are blurred.
And this is where we come to the heart of the matter, which Campbell is the only one who faces in the programme: was man (in Adam) made in the image of God, as a special creation, or are we part of an evolutionary continuum? It's the molecules-to-man or 'goo-to-you' question! Is man special, or just another animal?
The Bible speaks on this. Genesis 9 makes the distinction clear: "The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth... they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything...Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man." Nevertheless, though animals are not in God's image, and can be used for food, we must remember that kindness to animals is the mark of a God-reflecting being: "A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel" (Proverbs 12:10).

Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Richmond Briefing

A weekly Bible reading for Bridge Builders

The Richmond Briefing has been a weekly feature of the Reachout web site for five years and is now available on the blog. To find out more and read earlier briefings go here

Reading – Confessing Christ (Luke 9:1-22)

People don’t believe in miracles, not because they haven’t witnessed a miracle but because their world view will not allow them to accept that miracles are possible. Even though someone they respect and venerate should relate an account of a miracle many will not believe it but will reconsider the esteem in which they hold their friend. Showing them a miracle will not guarantee their conversion because they may make every effort to explain it away and we have seen this. So it was with the people who saw the miracles of Jesus and his disciples who drove out demons, healed the sick and preached the kingdom message. They saw Jesus feed five thousand and ate of this bounty but this did not guarantee their becoming aware of whom Jesus was.

When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the crowds say I am? They replied,

‘Some say John the Baptist

Others say Elijah

And still others that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life’”

In the last Briefing I said that a person’s response to God is a sort of tipping point in either coming to a deeper knowledge of the things of God or increasingly failing to understand at all. Jesus spoke plainly and demonstrated his authority but seeing, they did not see and hearing they failed to understand.

Some of course did see and understand and when Jesus asked, “’But what about you? Who do you say I am?’

Peter answered, ‘The Christ of God’” (The predicted Deliverer. Lk.9:19-20, c.f. Lk.2:11; Jn.4:25)

At Pentecost upwards of three thousand saw and understood (Acts 2)

This is crucial because those who see, confess and order their lives accordingly will go on to grasp the mature vision of Christ portrayed by Paul, for instance, in his letter to the church in Colossae. Here Paul places Jesus at the centre of Creation, its cause, keeper and purpose (Col.1:15-20) and of the New Creation. These verses are believed to be a quotation from an early Christian hymn and so represent how those first Christians thought of Christ as the God of Creation and of the New Creation.

Christ is:

· The image of the invisible God (Col.1:15a) and the beginning (Col.18b, c.f. Rev.3:14; Jn.1:1)

· The firstborn of all creation (Col.1:15b) and the firstborn from the dead (Col.1:18c, c.f. Ro.8:29)

· Preeminent because he is before all things (Col.1:17a) and the head of the body, the church (Col.1:18)

· The one who holds all things together (Col.1:17b) and who reconciles all things to himself (Col.1:20a)

· Everything in Creation is by him, through him and for him (Col.1:16b) and so everything in the New Creation (Col.1:20c)

This is mature teaching, requiring deep contemplation and those who accept Jesus as the Christ of God, the promised Deliverer and the image of the invisible God (Col.1:15) have much to ponder. But those who ascribe to Jesus the lesser role of prophet, teacher, great man, or exemplar fail entirely to see him at all and will fail to understand why Christians insist on his being God made flesh, Creator and Saviour.

Such blessings as are to be had from this great hymn in Paul’s letter are not accessible to them since such faith as they have is not in the Christ Paul preached or the disciples witnessed to. Jesus’ question and Peter’s answer place Christ in his rightful place and in our witnessing that is where we always seek to put him. Otherwise we rob people of that wonderful knowledge of him that awaits them as they trust him and grow in him. Any message that does not have Christ as the cause, keeper and purpose of all things is not the Christian message.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Mormons in crisis find online refuge - Salt Lake Tribune

Now here is an interesting development. An “unofficial”  (aren’t they all) Mormon site aimed at helping church members struggling with doubt and disaffection. StayLDS.com is heavily moderated to cut out anti-Mormon stuff which is fair enough so don’t go there looking to put any cats among any pigeons. We are seeing an increasing number of Mormons who are settling for what they can get, trying to find that middle ground where the Mormon Church is neither “all true” nor “all false”. Its rather like finding out that there is no heaven, life after death, truth in the gospel story but still going to church because of the good bits. All the more reason to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with Mormons who don’t need to settle for what they can get because Christ died for sinners to bring us to God.

“Among the strategies offered for finding middle ground: accepting imperfection from the church, it's members and leaders; staying focused on people not doctrine; supplementing spiritual needs with outside sources from other traditions; treat orthodox Mormons with respect; choose the parts of church life that work for you and ignore the rest; let go of the idea that the church is either "all true" or "all false."

Mormons in crisis find online refuge - Salt Lake Tribune

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Richmond Briefing

A weekly Bible reading for Bridge Builders

The Richmond Briefing has been a weekly feature of the Reachout web site for five years and is now available on the blog. To find out more and read earlier briefings go here

Reading – Consider How you Listen (Luke 8:4-56)

We often in our witnessing talk about planting a seed of truth in a person’s heart, expressing our trust and hope that that person will respond and be saved. In the parable of the sower Jesus shows how planting seeds is no guarantee of a positive response but that the sower nevertheless continues to sow and pray for a good crop. It is our responsibility to sow but there is also a responsibility placed on the person in whose heart we sow to listen and respond and, as we have often said, it is possible to want it for them more than they want it for themselves.

Jesus had spoken plainly enough in his ministry and had amply demonstrated his authority; seeds had been sown. However, there comes a time when a failure to respond to Jesus would result in a failure to understand, or even hear properly the message of the kingdom. Those who did respond however would hear, understand and grow. Jesus said:

“The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables so that,

‘though seeing, they may not see;

Though hearing, they may not understand’ (Lk.8:10 c.f. Is.6:9)

A person’s response to God is a sort of tipping point in either coming to a deeper knowledge of the things of God or increasingly failing to understand at all and this is illustrated in this chapter. Of course there is no excuse for not continuing in our witnessing and God’s grace is held out to people all day. However continued hesitation in responding is the same as rejection and ‘not yet’ is the same as ‘no’. Refusal to respond does not put a person in some sort of holding pattern around the church as they think about things but refusal risks the real danger of having the truth snatched away by the devil, by the trials of life and by the cares of this world.

These things should concern every Christian who cares for those around them and we should be clear about the person of Jesus, the message we bring and the seed we plant. Like Jesus we are to be a light to the world and light brings clarity and vision not vagaries and speculation. What are we offering people in our message?

Jesus said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Lk.8:21)

We are not offering a religious system to replace the one they might already have, nor a better list of regulations than the one they have so far failed to follow. We are offering a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ that brings forgiveness and wholeness. Those who respond do not become academics, theologians, moralists or pious but family.

When Jesus calmed the storm (Lk.8:22-25) and delivered a man from possession (Lk.2:26-39) he demonstrated his power over nature and over demons and his willingness to deliver and save. The gospel is not simply an invitation to agree with a set of propositions and ideas but to a call to realise who Jesus is and to trust him.

When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter he demonstrated his power over death itself. When people respond to Jesus they are not simply coming to a mystic who will show them a better way to live but to a person who is the Lord of Life.

These are the things people are rejecting when they prevaricate over Jesus. Not fine points of philosophy or doctrine; not inconvenient changes in lifestyle, nor a better plan than the one they have but a relationship with the living God, whose mission is to bring healing and wholeness to a broken world and who is Lord of life. Listeners should, then, consider how they listen because they cannot afford to be careless about the things of God and Christians should be careful how we sow for the same reason.

Friday, 17 July 2009

The Joseph Smith Papers

The July 2009 issue of the official Mormon Ensign magazine carries an article by Elder Marlin K Jensen, Mormon Church Historian, writes about The Joseph Smith Papers, a collection of “all journals, diaries, correspondence, discourses, revelations, written histories, notices, and legal papers…generated or directed to be created [by Joseph Smith]” He writes:

“The manuscript revelation books contain many of the earliest known copies of the revelations received by Joseph Smith and provide insights into the revelatory process”

Hmmm! “The revelatory process?” What do you think that means? Jensen explains:

“The editing and updating of revelation texts in the early years of the Church demonstrate the process of continuing revelation to Joseph Smith. The revelation manuscripts reveal how men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error. In some instances, when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding. Thus, as his doctrinal knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter. The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.”

Lets see if we can get from this paragraph an understanding of the “revelation process” and why God should need to change his mind about changing his mind:

  • “men grappled in trying to make certain that the ideas and doctrines Joseph received were transcribed and printed accurately—a process that for the publication of any work risks the introduction of error.”

In other words errors in transmission were a real possibility and it was already a struggle to pass on faithfully what Joseph Smith said. Mormons bring to the Bible the charge that it has been transmitted carelessly and that “many plain and precious parts” were taken from it (1 Nephi 13:29). Notwithstanding this claim the Bible we have today is unquestionably accurate and reliable, having been transmitted faithfully. Even in the lifetime of Joseph Smith, however, errors were already creeping into documents that were solely in the possession of and entrusted only to Mormons.

  • “when a new revelation changed or updated what had previously been received, the Prophet edited the earlier written revelation to reflect the new understanding.”

I wonder what they have in mind here? Perhaps they have in mind the 1833 revelation in which the Mormon god says of Joseph Smith:

“And he has a gift to translate the book [of Mormon], and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (Book of Commandments 4:2)

In the revised 1835 version it reads:

And you have a gift to translate the plates and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4)

Didn’t I read somewhere that, “God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should change his mind” (Nu.23:19) Mormonism introduces itself to the world as a restoration of those teachings and principles lost because of changes to Scripture and tampering with doctrine. Now we have a prophet who cannot control his own revelation in his own lifetime and a god who cannot make up his mind.

  • “as his [Joseph’s] knowledge clarified and expanded, so did the recorded revelations. They were characterized by the changing nature of his understanding of the sacred subject matter.”

So when Joseph heard his god say that he should only have one gift he misunderstood because his god actually intended that this should be the first gift in many. That lets his god off the hook but leaves Joseph’s hearing with much to be desired. If we approached the Bible in this way every Mormon would see it as clear evidence of apostasy.

  • “The Prophet did not believe that revelations, once recorded, could not be changed by further revelation.”

Clearly! I mean I can just see God saying, “Oh, I had a bad day and I wasn’t thinking right. Look I meant to say…”

Mormons are traditionally a record keeping people but this has often come back to haunt them as faithful saints have kept meticulous records that have subsequently embarrassed the church. Mormons today, when confronted by such historical evidence, will offer the lame defence, “That was just his opinion”. Even on a more “official” level, records of early church proceedings have been kept, the best known example of which is the 26 volume Journal of Discourses, containing “the words of the Apostles and Prophets, as they were spoken in the assemblies of the Saints of Zion”.

The first volume is presented as something, “the value of which cannot be estimated by man…for the purity of doctrine, simplicity of style, and extensive amount of theological truth which they develop…a source of light, information, and joy…these sermons will be most valuable, as a gauge of doctrine, a rule of rectitude, and a square to life, furnishing at the same time an extensive repository of historical information.” (JOD, vol.1, Intro.)

What place does this invaluable source of doctrine and history have in the modern Mormon Church? It is regarded with suspicion and although Mormon apostle George  Q Cannon called the Journal a “Standard Work of the Church” (an epithet reserved for Mormon scripture) in the introduction to volume eight, it carries no more authority than the personal journals of the day that continue to embarrass the church.

It will be interesting to see how the Mormon Church handles the Joseph Smith Papers, how Mormon scholars interpret their founding prophet and how officially involved Mormon leaders will become in endorsing and quoting them. Experience has shown that “official” Mormonism is confined to the four “Standard Works” and all other writings become historical curios as they are published and then left on the shelves of the few Mormons who will buy them, never reading them but simply happy that they are there as proof of the restoration. I doubt they will carry any more authority than other writings of the day although certainly Mormon watchers may find plenty of food for thought.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Richmond Briefing

A weekly Bible reading for Bridge Builders

The Richmond Briefing has been a weekly feature of the Reachout web site for five years and is now available on the blog. To find out more and read earlier briefings go here

Reading – When You Don’t Need Jesus (Luke 7:36-50)

Have you ever heard someone say that “religion is a crutch”? When I hear this I look at the world and answer, “Perhaps, but look whose limping?” The implication of course is that only the weak and infirm in mind and spirit need a religious crutch. This further implies that the speaker suffers no such weakness and can stand on their merit. Perhaps the most tragic figure in the Bible is the Pharisee who takes such an attitude toward Jesus because, you see, the Pharisee is a very righteous person, careful in following the requirements of their religion, and here is the cause of their tragedy – self-righteousness.

In this passage Jesus is visiting the home of a Pharisee, and a prostitute has entered unawares and begun to weep, washing Jesus feet with her tears. The reaction of the Pharisee is instructional. First he looks at the prostitute, compares his self-righteousness to her sinfulness and recoils in horror. Then he considers the fact that Jesus does not rebuke the woman, comparing Jesus’ apparent lack of discernment with his own “sound judgement”, and deciding that Jesus can’t be so great a prophet otherwise he would have seen what the Pharisee saw and acted accordingly. She is a sinner, the Pharisee stood in his “righteousness” before God and Jesus has proved to be a poor judge of character.

His attitude is typical of many who can see clearly enough why other people need cleansing from sin but can’t begin to see that they need cleansing. They are different; they are upright and respectable, honourable and decent people. They have the right religion, believe the correct orthodoxy, scrupulously follow the right rules and make of themselves paragons that surely others must envy.

But look at the woman’s behaviour and attitude. She has entered the house of a Pharisee; someone she must surely know would judge her like this. Here was Jesus eating with this Pharisee and why should she expect him to be any different? Her faith shows that firstly she had no illusions about her need of cleansing from sin and secondly that Jesus would accept her and grant forgiveness. She trusted Jesus for pardon and cleansing and sought it urgently.

Now look at Jesus. He read the hearts of both the Pharisee and the woman and saw the faith of the woman and the pride of the Pharisee and asked an important question.

“Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?

[The Pharisee replied] ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled’” (Lk.7:41-42)

The woman knew the burden of her debt and it showed in her response to God’s forgiveness. The Pharisee on the other hand felt no great burden of debt to God because of his self-righteousness and his response to Jesus was tardy and neglectful. Here is the tragedy of those who cut themselves off from Jesus not because of their worldly ways but because of their religion. Not because they have committed terrible crimes in the world but because they believe that since they haven’t then they are right with God.

No matter what our religion there are things about our lives, our thoughts and emotions that we would never want anyone, especially those close to us, knowing about. Things that shame us to even think of but Jesus knows these things and loves us so much that he died to cleanse and forgive us. Denying this robs us of the very freedom that only Jesus brings. We can reject Jesus because, like John the Baptist, we can be disappointed because he isn’t what we expected. We can reject him because he doesn’t do things the way we think they should be done. We can reject him because we are too proud to admit that we need him, to self-righteous too confess our sins, seek and find forgiveness.

As Christian Witnesses it is our task to help people see this and encourage them to seek Jesus in the same way as did the prostitute and lay down the guarded, self-righteous ways of the Pharisee. When you don’t need Jesus that is when you are most lost.

“Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement. He is a rebel who must lay down his arms” CS Lewis

Friday, 10 July 2009

Should you try to cure gays?

The Big Questions, BBC1, Sunday 5 July 2009, hosted by Nicky Campbell.

In the light of the half million person Gay Pride march on Saturday, Bishop Michael Nazir Ali’s call to repentance and the massive outcry against him, homosexuality is very much the subject du jour. The inevitable Peter Tatchell was joined by Christina Rees, of the CoE Synod, on the main panel, all of whom joined in the condemnation of Nazir Ali. The usual homophobia = racism equation was spun out, with Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement assistant chief executive Sharon Ferguson comparing homosexuality to left-handedness.

More interesting were the contributions made by Dr Mike Davidson and Phelim McIntyre, both of whom struggled with homosexual behaviours in the past. Davidson spoke warmly of his 29-year marriage, his children and the possibility of change, and questioned why a society so much in favour of free choice would not leave room for people with homosexual feelings to actually want to develop a heterosexual identity. McIntyre rejected the notion that there is any scientific evidence for a ‘gay gene’ and spoke of his success in counselling gay people. ‘Luke’, however, spoke of two years of counselling which did not change his behaviour. An Afro-Caribbean gentleman cited the well-known passages in Leviticus amongst others, only to have them explained away by the LGCM’s Sharon Ferguson who astonishingly argued that the faithful centurion’s servant was his sex slave. I was so stunned at this shameless display of special pleading that I did a bit of research. The Greek word pais is used 24 times in the NT, translated ‘child’ (e.g. the children slain by Herod) or ‘servant’ (e.g. Christ, the suffering servant). Indeed, a quarter of the references refer to Jesus himself, the servant or Son of God. It is an abuse of the text to argue from silence that somehow this godly centurion was having a sexual relationship with his servant, and that our Lord Jesus somehow endorsed this, especially in the light of the many plain texts that plainly outlaw this behaviour.

Though the Bible does condemn all sexual behaviour outside of marriage, there is forgiveness for all kinds of sins, sexual or otherwise. We thank God for Jesus, who did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17).

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Should Catholic priests be allowed to marry?

The Big Questions, BBC1, Sunday 28 June 2009, hosted by Nicky Campbell.

Apparently, the hardest people to book for the programme are Catholic priests, because they have to find another priest to cover their parishes so they can appear on TV. Kind of commendable that they're at their posts. The Big Questions is one of those strange anomalies: a religious programme that is on air when anyone who is a truly committed Christian will probably be attending a church service. Well, watch it on iplayer, like I do: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007zpll. Father John Flynn, chaplain of Salford University, said that he "wouldn't be a priest if there was no celibacy". He held up Christ as his model for celibacy, argued winsomely for the superiority of the kingdom of God and pointed out Christ's comment that there is no marriage in heaven. As a counterpoint, a former Catholic priest Joe Fitzpatrick stated his opposition to compulsory celibacy. He maintained that 75% of French churchgoers wanted the RCC to change its teaching in this issue.

A Methodist minister, Jerry Wilson, then waded in, explaining how Jesus taught the value of marriage and how priests may be denied a very important aspect of the love of God. A woman in the audience questioned how a celibate man could advise a woman with eight children. Programme regular, Father Stephen Maughan, pointed out that, though a hospital chaplain, he's never been in hospital. This does not disqualify him from offering help and advice to the sick. Peter Hitchens, surprisingly, adopted a laissez-faire attitude: it's their church, let them make their rules. This in my mind contrasted with his views on Islam. The now-married former priest pointed out that the majority of Polish priests want the celibacy rule to be overturned, and spoke in favour of marriage in his experience. The burka-ed lady stepped in to say that priests may not be tempted to interfere with children if they were married – amazingly, for a woman covered from head to toe, she criticised them for "suppressing a natural desire."

The most entertaining exchange for me was from Thomas Cahill, a young man who considered the priesthood. He said, "I see celibacy as an affirmation of the beauty of marital love. You can only sacrifice something good: marriage, sex, love." Campbell's reply: "But not whisky, in my experience!"

My closing thought: Peter, supposedly the first bishop of Rome, was married. Paul speaks of apostles having the right to take a believing wife. If apostles, then why not 'ordinary' church leaders?

Monday, 6 July 2009

Agnostics and Alpha

Revelations: How to find God, Channel 4, 28 June 2009, presented by Jon Ronson

The first in an intriguing series on religion, but by no means the first Alpha documentary. Moreover, Jewish-born Ronson has trod this course before, almost a decade ago, both taking Alpha and publishing an interview with Gumbel in 2000 entitled 'The Saviour of Christianity?' (Unfortunately, I can't unearth this article, but I refer to it in a summary of Alpha I wrote that same year.) So why is Ronson still critiquing Alpha decade on? It doesn't seem to have worked for him. But it seems God is doing something with him. Pray for him!

The links between Alpha's mushrooming growth and the Toronto Blessing of 1994 are perhaps fading, but Ronson included clips of that extraordinary time. He also gave full weight to the massive emphasis put on the Holy Spirit weekend, and the creation of the 'right environment' for people to break out in tongues. Charlie Cleverly, vicar of St Aldates, compared the Holy Spirit to a dove, who flies away at the slightest hand clap, and likened tongues to the baby talk of his granddaughter. The mood was punctured by the revving of powerful cars outside, and Cleverly was the only one to speak in tongues.

From the very beginning, I have struggled with Alpha's tendency to 'bypass the mind to reach the heart', bouncing people into the Christian faith via speaking on tongues. Three sessions on the Holy Spirit, two on Jesus, and none on the Father seems lopsided to say the least.

We contrast Alpha with, say, Peter's sermon in Acts 2, where after extolling the life, death and resurrection of Christ, he calls upon his hearers to repent and be baptised for the forgiveness of sins, and then to receive the gift to the Holy Spirit. I have very, very rarely heard any kind of mention of repentance from sin and faith in Christ crucified. In fact, in the entire documentary, these central planks of the gospel are not mentioned at all.

Christianity Explored is a much better bet.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Richmond Briefing

A weekly Bible reading for Bridge Builders

The Richmond Briefing has been a weekly feature of the Reachout web site for five years and is now available on the blog. To find out more and read earlier briefings go here

Reading – As With the Priest (Luke 7:24-35)

The Old Testament prophet Hosea ministered in the eighth century BC at a time when Israel was guilty of great sin and God, through the prophet, brought his charges against his rebellious people. They were guilty of spiritual adultery, of turning to idols and false gods, of using shrine prostitutes, of sacrificing to pagan deities, of rejecting the knowledge of God.

The priests excused themselves by insisting that they were ministering Israel’s religion and the people justified themselves by insisting they were following the priests but God made clear that the priests were simply going through the motions while worshipping foreign gods and the people were not guiltless but would be held to account and their religion would finally not satisfy or feed them. Because they had rejected true knowledge God would reject them and none would be left with excuse.

“And it will be: Like people, like priests. I will punish both of them for their ways and repay them for their ways.” (Hosea 4:9)

The greatest and clearest knowledge of God is found in Jesus Christ. John tells us:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn.1:1, 14)

The writer of Hebrews wrote:

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being...” (Heb.1:3)

And Jesus said of himself:

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn.14:9)

Yet in this week’s passage we find that, while Jesus demonstrated his identity and authority, “[curing] many diseases, sicknesses, and evil spirits and [giving] sight to those who were blind” (Lk.7:21) nevertheless “The Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purposes for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John”. Like the priests in Hosea’s day, they argued their case on a technicality, that is because they had not been baptised by John and therefore were not required to accept God’s purposes in John or Jesus (they were ‘experts in the law’ after all).

Jesus ridiculed these leaders because they rejected John on the basis that he was dangerously zealous and they accused him of being possessed of a demon and then rejected Jesus because he mixed with ordinary folk and looked like everyone else. They had so many rules and so many excuses for why they shouldn’t change. Many people believed Jesus but others rejected him because they saw their leaders reject him. The responsibilities of leaders are onerous and God will hold them to account for how they have handled their stewardship over God’s people. However, everyone will be held to account for how they respond to God and his messengers.

Are we clear and faithful in the way we share the message of salvation and are we honest and challenging in reminding people that each will be accountable for how they respond? Do we pray for our leaders that they will remain humble and faithful and do we encourage them in the ways of the Lord as they encourage us?

Friday, 3 July 2009

Can You “Heft” These Plates?


The Mormon Pageant in Manti has thrown up some interesting encounters and conversations this year. Some of the most interesting involved Bill McKeever of Mormonism Research Ministry who explained the above picture thus:

Our Manti outreach began last week. Once again I've been using my "gold plates" as an illustration. When a Mormon tells me they believe Joseph Smith had gold plates I challenge them to lift my plates (10, ten-pound barbell weights). Most can, but then I explain that my 100 pound plates are only half of what Smith carried if they were gold. The responses are priceless.

So many insist that Joseph Smith was a "strong" farm boy and could have carried the plates. I find myself repeating the phrase " Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime couldn't carry 200 pounds under his arm for a distance of three miles." I have yet to have any Mormon offer proof that God gave Smith supernatural strength (a popular argument), although many see how that excuse doesn't work well after I explain how the likes of FARMS and FAIR are trying so hard to get the weight of the plates down to a reasonable level.

Tumbaga anyone?

Mormons seem to be prepared to go to any lengths to lend credibility to the incredible story of the fabled “Gold Plates”. The latest theory is that they were not made of pure gold but of tumbaga, a non-specific alloy of gold and copper used in pre-Columbian America and discovered by the Spaniards.

Should Britain ban the burka?

The Big Questions, BBC1, Sunday 28 June 2009, hosted by Nicky Campbell.

This fascinating discussion began with Campbell asking the one woman in the studio with a burka why she wears it. Throughout the programme, she consistently maintained that it was an expression of her own personal choice, and that she was not under duress in any way. Nevertheless, she did say that she wore it because certain scholars said so.

Campbell's opening 'googly' bowled the poor woman for a duck. His question: If men and women are equal, why shouldn't men cover their faces too? No answer. Even more interesting was the tirade from the moderate Muslim preacher who insisted that the burka is a pre-Islamic cultural item of dress, which is a relatively new introduction in the UK. He was angry about the infiltration of Saudi Wahhabism and its non-Qur'anic dress codes. He asked several times where the words 'niqab' and 'burka' were in the Qur'an, and criticised the Hadith as erroneous in many places.

Peter Hitchens of The Mail on Sunday was in typically robust form, asking whether the freedom for women to wear what they pleased in a pluralistic culture like the UK would be reproduced in an Islamic culture. Essentially, those who support 'a woman's right to wear a burka' are a walking contradiction (if not, in a French politician's words, "a moving prison").

Islam does not appear to be a religion of choice; but a religion of power, of law, and of force. The Lord Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is the one who came to affirm and liberate all women who will turn to Him in repentance and faith, whatever they wear and, like the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery, whatever their background.