Tag Archives: Christian

Annual Church Attendance Story

The annual survey of Church attendance figures has just been published, and as usual it is an opportunity for the media to publish a load of stories highlighting the figures. The Times in particular really went for it including this article – Churchgoing on its knees as Christianity falls out of favour – which in particular plays the Muslims will outnumber Christians card, and is being disputed by the organisation who conducted the research. As the Church of England response to the survey points out it does this using a figure taken from census data and compares it with the actual Church attendance – if a similar ploy was used to calculate numbers of Christians from census data the figures would show something like twenty million active Christians in the UK.

Ruth Gledhill also backs up the main piece with a comment article which includes a number of juicy quotes:

As the Religious Trends Survey shows, an ageing generation of churchgoers is about to die out and there could be, within a generation, a God-shaped hole at the heart of our society.

and

The decline forecast for the Church of England is so severe that its position as the established church of the nation with the Queen as Supreme Governor can surely no longer be tenable.

however this point does get to the heart of the problem:

Yet, as the report notes, the decline in attendance coincides with a surge of interest in religion, reflected in the growing numbers of children opting for religious studies at GCSE and A level. There are also increasing numbers of students at theological and Bible colleges.

Somehow, the churches, despite innumerable studies, reports, synod and assembly debates, are failing to get these people into church.

The thing is that whilst as a bit of rabble rousing all the press coverage is good, it doesn’t really reflect the true picture – needless to say that is a lot more complicated. David Keen, a vicar in Yeovil, looks in more detail and points out that a significant number of diocese have already reversed the decline. Bishop Alan gets straight to the point too, highlighting a cutting from the Times in 1971 that said the same thing, and on the basis of which the church will cease to exist in a couple of years. (Amusingly to show the ‘power’ of statistics he goes on to prove that the Diocese of Oxford Reporter will have a larger circulation than The Daily Telegraph by 2050…)

The main Times article again puts forward that only the evangelical churches are growing – which from my point of view is wrong. Seriously, Ruth Gledhill should come along to Finchampstead sometime as St James is anything but evangelical. We’re a mainstream middle of the road Anglican church, and yet for the past two years our electoral roll figures have gone up by more than 10% a year, and as I mentioned back at Easter we were struggling to find seats for everybody then. Whilst it is certainly correct to say that our growth area is in the young families, as our Rural Dean pointed out at his recent inspection we manage to produce a respectable fifty to sixty or so people at our prayer book services too.

As far as I am concerned the parts of the Church are growing aren’t anything to do with their Churchmanship – churches of all denominations and types are growing – it’s about getting the basics right, and looking at what people want. In the case of the prayer book services what people are looking for is familiarity and authenticity, so those are done absolutely straight with traditional hymns, and the King James bible. On the other hand the young families, who often come in via our play-group, are looking for accessibility, which is what they get through our 9:30am Family Services. The main 11am services are a bit more of a blend of the two, so we’re relatively traditional, with organ, choir and sermon, but with more accessible elements. The biggest thing though is to be a welcoming community. It is always frustrating to hear of other churches that are spending more time turning themselves into a private club and excluding people – as far as I am concerned whilst things have changed at St James to bring about our rise in numbers, they haven’t been particularly radical, and to be honest if they were radical we’d only end up marginalising a different group. The whole basis of what we do is to be inclusive of the broad range of people in the village rather than exclusively focusing on one group. Whenever the “how do you do it?â€? question comes up though, most people at St James’ really can’t explain, as from our point of view we aren’t doing anything particularly special or out of the ordinary, and equally the area around the church from which our attendance is drawn isn’t that much different from much of the surrounding area either.

Is Doctor Who Evil?

So, Christians have found another topic of disagreement, to join the multitude of others. We now have a discussion over whether Doctor Who is evil… On the one hand we have Christians holding a Spirituality and Doctor Who event next month, and on the other we have a born again Christian in Trowbridge selling his Doctor Who collection describing it as “the greatest lie that Satan ever told“.

The Passion

Tonight, having decided that rather than watch episode by episode, we’d watch in one go, we sat down to watch the whole of The Passion, the BBC and HBO co-production that aired in the UK in four episodes over Holy Week. (As an aside, the slightly odd one hour, thirty minutes, one hour, thirty minutes running times for the four episodes, plus the fact that only the one hour episode had a recap before the opening credits does seem to imply that the serial was shown as two episodes elsewhere – anyone having seen it on HBO care to confirm?)

My first thoughts having watched it all the way through are firstly the superb production values. The sets and locations looked fantastic, this was a grimy, dusty and rough portrayal of first century Jerusalem. A couple of friends have commented that the mix of accents was a bit off-putting – particularly James Nesbitt as Pilate – certainly I know out of place accents can be distracting, the Visual Bible Gospel of Matthew being one that bugs me when I watch it. About the only way around it is to take the Mel Gibson route and have everyone speaking in original languages, but then that produces it’s own set of problems too. I didn’t have too much of a problem with this production.

The other significant thing I noted was that although this drew on the bible sources, it really wasn’t true to any of the Gospels – it was very much a pick-and-mix, pulling passages and teaching from other places in the Gospels into the final week, and part using other passages to suit the story-line. As an example of the first kind of change, Jesus’ statement about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle that a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven which occurs in the Gospels before the events depicted in the programme is placed within scenes of Jesus teaching in the temple. In terms of the second example, in the foot washing scene during the Last Supper, the first part with Peter refusing to let Jesus wash his feet is there, but his later request that Jesus wash his head and his hands also is not. Moving forward to the resurrection appearances, the point where Jesus asks Peter if he loves him is relocated to Jerusalem, and also Jesus only asks the question once – in the Gospel it is asked three times, paralleling Peter’s three denials – having said that, Peter denies Jesus three times in one conversation rather than the three separate denials mentioned in the Gospels. That scene also includes Jesus statement that in the Gospels is made to Thomas instead being made to Peter.

The programme was quite clearly going for realistic, well-rounded characterisations, so Pilate, Caiaphas and Judas are not presented in the black and white, way that they often can be. Pilate comes over as someone trying to keep an unwilling populous subdued – keen to please his superiors back in Rome, but equally aware that he is being manipulated by the Jewish Temple hierarchy, and being backed into a corner by local politics. Caiaphas again is presented as someone with mixed motives, primarily trying to maintain the status quo, and remove a trouble maker. Judas also is presented as a troubled soul, who on several occasions tries to get Jesus to change his mind. It is made clear that Jesus knows who his betrayer will be, but also that Jesus forgives him, and knows that it is a part that has to be played – at one point crying for Judas and at another saying that there were places in heaven for all his disciples, even his betrayer. The rounded characterisations not surprisingly have led to criticism – for example the preview in the Independent highlights the comments of Stephen Green of Christian Voice.

Amongst the other characters, Mary Magdalene is shown as a close confidante of Jesus, and clearly understanding much more of what is going on. Her love for Jesus is particularly highlighted when Jesus and his followers leave the Last Supper, and Jesus stays back to talk to her – certainly there are hints of a sexual tension between the two, most potently in this scene.

Joseph of Arimathea and Barabbas get significant fuller roles, with Joseph one of the Temple leaders who gets sidelined by Caiaphas and on one occasion challenges Caiaphas to have him crucified too. We also see Barabbas crime that gets him arrested, and he also gets a brief meeting with Jesus, and later with JudasBarabbas is how Judas finds out that Jesus has been condemned to death.

The portrayal of Jesus is also very human – definitely none of the other worldliness of the Robert Powell portrayal in Jesus of Nazareth. In terms of style it is a lot closer to the Henry Ian Cusick in the Gospel of John movie. This Jesus is very much the kind of peasant, itinerant preacher that he was, speaking language that the people understand, and someone who is fundamentally unacceptable to the temple authorities in Jerusalem because of who he is as much as what he is saying. Joseph Mawle’s Jesus seems primarily focused on his works of compassion, and largely disinterested in the high powered political manoeuvres of Caiaphas. Caiaphas is convinced that by removing Jesus he can save his country from a total Roman take-over – Jesus is concerned with saving the people. In particular Jesus comes across as very human as he struggles with what he must do. In the garden in conversation with his disciples that he leaves open the option that he might decide to leave, something they have advised him to do on several occasions. Later he is seen struggling mentally as he is put in a prison cell and during the trial before the Temple elders and Pilate he seems to almost change tactics as the situation changes, note the points where he is silent, and when he answers questions.

Is he the Son of God, or as is said during the programme someone who believes that he is the Son of God. Certainly there are no miracles shown – although Jesus visits the unclean, and is shown caring for them, he isn’t shown healing them. It is clear from his discussion with his mother Mary that he is only her son, but there is nothing to suggest some sort of miraculous conception – what she says could be taken several ways. When Jesus is arrested you see one of the disciples cutting off someone’s ear, and Jesus berating them, but no miracle healing. You don’t get a Mel Gibson style resurrection either – the guards on the tomb go off to get some food and come back to find the tomb empty. The person who Mary meets at the tomb that she recognises as Jesus is played by another actor, and she herself tells the disciples that it didn’t look like him – there is a definite question mark over whether this is just Mary going mad. The same thing happens on the road to Emmaus – it is a different actor, but this time after he breaks bread and uses the words that Jesus has used, the camera cuts back and there is a brief glimpse of Jesus, but is this just us being shown what they are seeing. The final two appearances, to all the disciples, and finally to Peter are less ambiguous, and are clearly Jesus, but equally you don’t have any of the elements of the appearances where you see his wounds, indeed the Jesus who appears seems to have no indication of wounds at all. It seems very much as though any mystical or fantastical elements have been stripped back, so at the beginning we are left to decide whether Jesus is fulfilling prophecy or using it for his ride into Jerusalem. Right at the end Jesus walks away into a crowd – there is no ascension. Quite what the programme is saying about the resurrection I am sure is being left deliberately ambiguous – it is up to the viewer.

So overall, I thought it was a good production – enough elements of drama to keep a casual viewer interested. Nothing massively controversial to annoy Christians – except perhaps those who want two-dimensional comic-strip villains rather that the more rounded characters we got. The resurrection appearances in particular will I’m sure give Christian commentators a good deal of discussion – if you read the biblical accounts of Mary Magdalene at the tomb, and the road to Emmaus, they do clearly say that Jesus wasn’t initially recognised – often shown on film by Jesus face being hidden – but then in the Bible the unrecognised Jesus walks with his disciples and eats part of the meal with them before he is recognised, so what is shown is accurate to what is written – definitely food for discussion.

If you missed it, or perhaps want to see it again, the DVD will be available next month.

THE PASSION originally uploaded by BBC ONE.

Learners

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We finally got around to watching Learners, the comedy drama featuring Jessica Hynes and David Tennant that the BBC showed a few weeks ago.

In the programme Tennant plays Chris, a Christian driving instructor, and Jessica Hynes his pupil. Jessica Hynes character falls in love with her instructor, but he has fallen for Fiona, the boss of the driving school. The scene where Tennant as the driving instructor declares his love to Fiona has probably the funniest line of the whole film (well for C of E viewers at least):

“But Chris, I can’t – I’m a Bhuddist!”

“It doesn’t matter, I’m Anglican and desperate.”

Millions of Dollars Spent, and No Difference

Tonight we had one of our monthly God @ Work (@ The Pub) sessions in the Queens Oak down the hill from St James. This time Becky had been asked to talk about her work, which is as a school nurse focusing in particular sex education. Becky talked about the difficulties of resolving her personal opinions, with what she feels she should be saying to the young people from a professional point of view, and also what she feels her Christian faith should lead her to tell the young people, and the tension between those aspects of her life. As is quite often the case in such discussions the group quite quickly got onto the subject of abstinence programmes, particularly those backed by conservative Christian groups such as the Silver Ring Thing.

This proved to be a somewhat appropriate topic considering an article this weekend reporting on a report on the effectiveness of abstinence programmes by Mathematica Policy Research in the US. Essentially despite the US government having poured nigh on a billion dollars into abstinence programmes over the past decade, this multi-year comparison of such programmes with regular sex education has shown that there is no difference at all in the outcome. It is quite amazing how closely all the major criteria match between the groups on the abstinence programmes, and the control group, and would certainly be seen as a disappointment to those backing such schemes.

In the UK, abstinence programmes are not as widespread, however with our reputation for the Silver Ring Thing do have a UK programme. Looking at what is officially offered an Ofsted report last week into PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) in schools found that young people felt that both parents and teachers were not good at talking about sexuality and as a result they were turning to magazines for help. Barely a year ago, another report said that UK sex education was ‘too biological’. It seems almost inevitable that pressure to run more of these abstinence programmes in the UK is going to come – but are they going to be any more successful?

30 Days – Religious Perception

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I’ve mentioned 30 Days, the series created by Morgan Spurlock after he made Super Size Me earlier in the year. Recently the second series of 30 Days has been showing in the UK, and after our trip to Canada we had one episode left to watch, an episode which finds a confirmed atheist who spends 30 Days living with a devout Christian family, attending both their services and Bible study classes. Interestingly both the atheist and the Christian parents had been brought up in Christian families, and both had reached a point where they had made a big faith decision, in one case having been brought up a Methodist to become atheist, and in the other to move from being Catholic to the McKinney Fellowship Bible Church that the family were now attending.

Unlike some of the other episodes, there wasn’t any significant change in the beliefs of any the participants, although there certainly was a greater understanding of the position of each group. What I found really quite surprising though is quite how much the attitudes and behaviour of most Americans differs from what their constitution actually says.

The first amendment to the US Constitution explicitly forbids the government from establishing a state religion or even being seen to prefer a certain religion, nor to prohibit the free exercise of religion. So unlike the UK, where prayer is a legal requirement in schools for example, any sort of prayer is regarded as unconstitutional. Having said that the show featured in background segments a number of problems that atheists face. For example the show featured a group of atheists who formed a church – an association of people sharing the same set of atheist beliefs – and applied for a tax break that was given by the government to any church. The application was thrown out because they didn’t believe in any sort of deity or divine being. As the group pointed out, they believed this to be contrary to the first amendment. They also highlighted that the decision in 1956 to officially adopt ‘In God We Trust‘, and to put it on bank notes also contravenes the amendment, as does the Pledge of Allegiance – particularly since the words ‘under God’ were added in 1954.

Interestingly the daughter of the atheist in the programme had refused to use the words ‘under God’ when reciting the pledge at school, substituting ‘under the Government’ instead, and been bullied by other students for doing so. This highlighted quite how badly atheists are seen in the US. The programme quoted figures from a survey of 2000 US citizens that found atheist at the bottom of the list of people “sharing their vision of US societyâ€?, and the group in society that respondents were least happy for their offspring to marry. Compare this with the results of the regular Gallup poll into Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design which finds that 53% of respondents believe that ‘God created man exactly as the Bible describes it’ and, the pretty widespread misunderstanding during the street vox pops in the programme that atheists don’t believe in anything at all you can start to see why they are unpopular. For the record, the programme highlighted that atheists believe in a lot of things including humanism and naturalism, and at one point, one person questioned on the street even described atheists as both progressives and communists (obviously hadn’t come across the biblical verses that underpin Christian Communism then…).

The programme also took a look at a couple of Christian groups and places to balance out the atheist group, including a group that I’m sure Howard would appreciate, Denver based Biblically Correct Tours who were shown giving tours of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and trying to fit dinosaurs into the creation story (according to the tour guide shown on the programme they were created on the same day as humans and co-existed with human beings before their extinction – there is apparently no evidence that they existed millions of years before humans even appeared). The followed this up with a visit to the Holy Land Experience theme park in Florida, which alongside a daily passion play includes a number of Christian themed exhibits, and even includes the worlds largest model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. The sequence also included a shot of the price list at the concession stand – King David Chicken Sandwich anyone?

The whole irony of the programme was that a country like the US that seems proud of it’s heritage separating Church and state is largely Christian, and yet the UK, where Christianity is the state religion as a culture is significantly more secular.

More God’s Next Army Discussion

It seems that I am not alone in being disturbed by God’s Next Army last night. Alongside debate in the Channel 4 forums, which includes a topic discussing the programme itself, plus a related discussion about Christians and politics. The forum also includes postings from more mainstream Christians concerned at the impression of Christianity that programmes such as God’s Next Army give to viewers.

There are a number of blogs that have posted on the subject. The Ship of Fools also has an interesting discussion, which as a Christian site starts from a slightly different standpoint.

In amongst all of these are some interesting gems – firstly there is this blog posting from a former fundamentalist Christian, who has some interesting comments:

These students almost universally had no idea how to learn (as opposed to how to be indoctinated), as they have been brought up in environments (including PHC) that discourage questioning and free thought, and reward blind obedience. How many of them even have any idea of the evolution and compilation of their own Bible? How many have even read it all through? To continue to believe in its infallibility when confronted with its numerous contradictions requires a special kind of unconsciousness.

Only an unconscious person could think that Jesus would approve of them opposing workers’ compensation for asbestosis because ot would be bad for big business. Only an unconscious person would believe that the man who rebuked his disciple for defending him by cutting off a soldier’s ear would approve of a gun-toting nation (they approve of a fully armed population).

She also makes a similar point to mine over the similarity of fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam, but in a slightly more amusing a direct way… 😀

When fundamentalists of any type start spreading their thoughts on the evils of homosexuality, or the ‘Truth’ that only they hold, I want to get them, Muslims and Christians, and sit them facing eachother, then say, ‘look. That’s you that is.’

Having said that, reading through the discussions has also highlighted a recent article from Christianity Today which indicates that all is not well at Patrick Henry College. According to the article, almost a third of their full-time faculty members are leaving following a contentious debate over the interpretation of Scripture and academic freedom.

The problems stem from the academics wish to discuss ideas and to hold different beliefs from the college founder. One academic is quoted in the article as saying:

“We are put in a hard position. We’re told this is an open dialogue, but if you engage in open dialogue, you’re in trouble. It’s infuriating because you’re an academic and want to engage in ideas. He told me that a person of the Reformed position to which I hold cannot in good conscience sign the statement of faith. When I responded that I failed to see the discrepancy between the two, he replied, ‘I define the statement of faith.’â€?

Two other of the staff, both ruling elders in their respective Churches, published an article in the campus newsletter, arguing against the notion described in the programme that the Bible is the only source of truth. Their article started with the following:

“A common misconception among American evangelicals, and one that cannot be supported by the Scriptures themselves, is that the Bible is the only source of truth. We argue that this misconception amounts to a blasphemous denial of Christ’s words in Matthew 5 that ‘he sends rain on the just and the unjust.’â€?

Needless to say that produced a swift response from the college founder.

Certainly the whole article is well worth a read, and certainly worth considering in light of the blog posting I highlighted above that asks whether the students are learning or being indoctrinated.

If you missed the programme, Channel 4 are repeating it in the early hours of Saturday morning (3:50am on 10th June) – I would certainly recommend that it is worth watching.