Counting what we are becoming…



Details of the 2011 UK Census are filtering out of the Office for National Statistics. The Guardian is teasing out some of the headliners- here are a selected few;

• The population of England and Wales on 27 March 2011 was 56.1 million. This is a 7% increase (3.7 million) from 2001, and 55% of that is due to immigration.

• The number identifying themselves as Christians is down 13 percentage points. In 2001, 72% (37.3 million) called themselves Christians. In 2011 that had dropped to 59% (33.2 million).

• Interestingly, Christianity is not down everywhere. Newham, Haringey, Brent, Boston and Lambeth have all shown increases in the Christian population.

• The number identifying themselves as having no religion has increased by 10 percentage points from 15% (7.7 million) in 2001 to 25% (14.1 million) last year.

• 13% of residents were born outside the UK (7.5 million). Just over half of these (3.8 million) arrived in the last 10 years.

• The census shows 2 million households in England and Wales where partners or other household members are of different ethnic groups, 47% more than in 2001.

• India, Poland and Pakistan are the top three countries foreign-born people in England and Wales come from.

• The Muslim population was up from 1.55 million to 2.7 million, an increase of 1.15m from 2001 to 2011. Muslims now make up 5% of the population, compared to 3% in 2001.


So we are seeing a picture of an increasingly ethnically diverse nation, which intermarries more and increasingly sees itself as not needing organised religion.

However we also see a rise in people who view themselves as Muslim, probably through immigration rather than conversion.

The British Humanist Association have already commented on this change;

In spite of a biased question that positively encourages religious responses, to see such an increase in the non-religious and such a decrease in those reporting themselves as Christian is astounding. Of course these figures still exaggerate the number of Christians overall – the number of believing, practising Christians is much lower than this and the number of those leading their lives with no reference to religion much higher.

Religious practice, identity, belonging and belief are all in decline in this country, and non-religious identities are on the rise. It is time that public policy caught up with this mass turning away from religious identities and stopped privileging religious bodies with ever increasing numbers of state-funded religious schools and other faith-based initiatives. They are decreasingly relevant to British life and identity and governments should catch up and accept that fact.

Andrew Copson, quoted in The Guardian.

I have some sympathy with Copson’s comments. The age of Christendom is over.

But the Kingdom of God is near.

Guy Fawkes…

We gathered to celebrate the failed terrorist plot to blow up the houses of Parliament today.

(Or from a different perspective…)

They gathered today to burn another Catholic freedom fighter in effigy.

The photo above freaked me a little- it looked like a man being burnt on a cross- which would be slightly appropriate I suppose.

So I chose to engage with the bonfire and fireworks (both of which I love) as a means to remember a time when Protestant and Catholic were set against one another, and truth tribalism was let loose on the land like a pack of raging wolves.

Taliban poetry- the voice of Jihad…

Emily described a news clip she watched the other day- a mother grieving the death of her son, a Jihadi martyr. The poor woman seemed to veer between terrible loss and the cultural sponsored celebration of his violent death.

The terrible contradictions stayed with me.

All those mothers who are told that God is pleased with the death of their sons. Two thousand American and British mothers in Afghanistan. Twelve thousand Afghanis.

The proud, rich culture of Afghanistan is of course well used to war being waged on its soil by foreign invaders; Persian, Greek, Indian, Russian, British, American. The scarred land becomes fertile ground for the raising of revolutionary warriors, but this is not the point of this piece.

Afghanistan is also rich in the tradition of poetry- Ghazal’s have been written there for millennia recording the human conditions- both the pain of loss/separation and the beauty of love in spite of all the pain associated with it. It should then be no surprise that the Taliban in modern times still tell the story of who they are in poetry.

A new book is out telling some of the story;

There is more about the book here and here.

There is of course, much war propaganda arising from Afghan recent history;

Moscow still owes us blood,

I write the terms of my debt on the chest of the arrogant.

They will ride the white horses in the red field,

Then we will install the white banner on the Kremlin’s chest.

The day of red blood will become red with the Red’s blood,

The knife that is stuck into the Chechen’s chest today.

My enemy, go and read the history of heroism,

There is a page written about Macnaghten’s chest.

The Pharoah of the time send arrows everywhere, These arrows will finally strike Washington’s chest.

Amid all the glorification of death and the calling for the blood of the foreigner, there appears to be some hope;

 …a great deal of this Taliban poetry will be comprehensible to western readers who are unable to understand Taliban ideology. The major themes are recognisable, even universal, and the dominant form is the ghazal, or love lyric, which links the Pashtu language to the classical civilisations of Persia and India. The poems describe a land of mountains and pines, each stone a ruby, each bush a medicine, and of laughing blossoms, dancing tomorrows, of twilight arriving with its lap full of red flowers (a poem called Sunset, reproduced here, reads more like a product of a Zen monastery than of a Deobandi madrasa).

What is interesting is that the Taliban’s official face and past practice has been so fiercely anti-Sufi, anti-historical, and seemingly anti-culture. This book provides an entirely different outlook. Indeed, in their rich memory of 19th-century British invasions, of Afghan folklore and Islamic heroism, the Taliban poets seem more awake to history than we are.

As well as raillery and satire against the foreign enemy and its local servants, there is self-criticism aplenty. “Humanity has been forgotten by us,” writes one poet. “And I don’t know when it will come back.”

(From the Guardian.)

Poetry will do that. It can not be tied for ever to narrow ideology- it has to fly. Let us celebrate the open hand over the clenched fist. The space forced open by love in a wall of hate- wherever we find it.

Back to the news story that Emily told me about. Here is my own response in poetry;

Jihad Ghazal

They tell me his death was holy and so I should rejoice

But what care I for dancing now?

He is dead

Tender flesh of my sucking flesh

Is now blown by foreign flies

He is dead

They tell me that his death had purpose

But once his life was all the purpose I ever needed

He is dead

So what care I for all those virgins whom I will never meet

And will never bear my grandchildren?

He is dead

They tell me his name will be written in the book of martyrs

And poems will be made from his bravery

He is dead

But what care I for war stories

The songs I sing will smoke the air with sorrow

My precious son is dead

Crash course in Churchianity…

I heard a story about Church the other day from one of my close friends that made my eyebrows shoot skywards. More on this later…

I have spent too long deconstructing institutional Church in all its glorious contradiction. Initially I did this as someone who had been chewed up by a negative experience of church – burnt out by it all – and then latterly, more from a respectful removed distance. Eventually however, all this deconstructing has to stop and we need to start constructing again, or we are remain caught in some kind of pointless cynical loop.

All things change. The usual human cycle of any project of human organisation always goes something like this; new thing-expansion-slowing down-dissatisfaction-deconstruction-emergence of new ideas-start of new thing. 

Except in Churches, things sometimes seem to go so slowly. It is almost as if the religiosity of these institutions becomes a gate for the flood of change. If the shape of Church is God-ordained, defined by theology, supported by Scripture and managed by the chosen ones then how could it ever need to change?

My answers to this question, thought over long and hard, are as follows;

  • Change will happen, even if you try to ignore it.
  • The institutions of Church are human constructs, not divine templates floated down on angel cushions.
  • Church arises in a particular time, place and culture- it answers the questions of this place, and everything about it is shaped by these requirements.
  • But then the time place and culture have moved on, and there is a danger of disconnection.

Sure, many will suggest that culture may change but not The Truth, but I am afraid I do not agree with this either. What we once held as absolute gospel truth on all sorts of things has shifted- the divine right of Kings, remarriage after divorce, the place of women (even though this is still a work in progress.)

Back to the story;

My friend grew up in a Church in the north of Scotland and she frequently visits her parents there still. The Church they attend has a room at the back, with a glass partition between it and the main auditorium. The sounds of the main Church building are piped in by speakers on the walls, but otherwise the room is a smaller version of the main Church- plain, unadorned, lacking in any distractions such as toys or books.

It is known as ‘The Training Room’- where young people learn how to behave in Church. When to stand and sit, how to keep silent and when to sing, how to dress and to maintain proper decorum.

Initially I was shocked. How far have we come from the Jesus way of putting the kids first (see Matthew 19.)

But is this so very different from what we all have to go through in entering Church? We learn first of all to conform- to how to behave; to what is correct. Later on we may be able to question some of the edges of what we have become, but the pressure to conform, to belong, is too great.

Perhaps this might serve us well in part. We DO have things to learn, and we learn best in our collectives. However, these collectives also need to be learning, changing institutions and this is not an easy thing to achieve. In the worst case scenario the choice we have is to accommodate or take the nuclear option- and leave.

Leaving is no panacea of course, because as individuals or small groups setting out on our own we will start to form our own Training Rooms.

The open question for all of us is; how do we remain open, questioning, teachable, lovers of the way (not sitters on the pew?)

I have some flickerings of an idea as to how we might do this- and it is about being a sent people, not a gathered people. It is about going with love, not staying with doctrinal truth.


Conversations on being a heretic…

There is a great video of a discussion between Brian McLaren and Scot McKnight here;

Conversations of being a heretic

McLaren is always worth listening to even if (like McKnight) you find him to have gone too far down the path of heresy. His intelligence and humanity mingled with a deep faith have been for many of us the means by which faith might live on beyond the religious straight jackets that we have gratefully shed. He has been a pioneer into new and deeper understandings, and these people are always seen by the establishment as heretics. Just read the comments under the video clip.

Is God inspired by our politics?

Interesting article in the Guardian about a study led by Lee Ross of Stanford University in California into the interaction between faith and politics.

 …the Jesus of liberal Christians is very different from the one envisaged by conservatives. The researchers asked respondents to imagine what Jesus would have thought about contemporary issues such as taxation, immigration, same-sex marriage and abortion. Perhaps not surprisingly, Christian Republicans imagined a Jesus who tended to be against wealth redistribution, illegal immigrants, abortion and same-sex marriage; whereas the Jesus of Democrat-voting Christians would have had far more liberal opinions. The Bible may claim that God created man in his own image, but the study suggests man creates God in his own image.

If you are like me, you are right now deciding that those whose political views you do not share are the ones who have invented more of their Jesus than you have.

Because basically Jesus is like a really good version of me. Me on a good day.

 Preachers, politicians and co-believers tend to emphasise and de-emphasise different aspects of the Christian canon; so conservative Americans study the Old Testament with its homophobic rhetoric and eye-for-an-eye morality, whereas liberals look to the New Testament Jesus who was sympathetic to the poor and the meek.

Evangelical politics is not, of course, limited to the US. Many social conservatives in the UK align themselves with the Christian right, and MPs such as Nadine Dorries take inspiration from US campaigns against abortion or gay rights. But perhaps the most striking aspect of the study is that it turns on its head the claims by many religious politicians, such as Republican nomination candidates Rick Santorum (“I’m for income inequality”), Rick Perry (“Homosexuality is a sin”), or the UK’s Nadine Dorries (“My faith tells me who I am”), that their politics is inspired by their God. This study suggests instead that their God is inspired by their politics.

I suppose this was the risk God took in giving us all free will.

The foolishness, the folly of God.

Who lies like a bound lamb on the altars we build.

Knox casts a shadow…

We spent today over in Haddington with my brother Steve and his wife Kate. It was a really lovely time, spent walking around the old market town and visiting one of the lovely beaches that are all over the coast thereabouts.

Haddington is a quiet market town these days, but this was not always the case. It was at one time the fourth biggest city in Scotland, after Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Roxburgh.

As we walked back to Steve and Kate’s house, I noticed a little set of stone stairs, all overgrown and boundaried by old railings. It seemed to lead up to a platform under an old tree. Further investigation revealed a stone monument…

It was hard to read, but basically it commemorated the birthplace of John Knox, protestant reformer, scourge of the unrighteous, whose memory is marked by a far more visible column that towers over the city of Glasgow;


Knox lived a long and colourful life. His reforming zeal burst into a political/religious powder keg and led to armed revolution and murder. Ends justified the means. The Prince of Peace required the intervention of armed mobs.

And it all started in Haddington, when Knox was born a farmer’s son, and lost his mother early. Perhaps in a different place, with a happier childhood…

Today it all seemed to me to be sad, and a little absurd. I found myself asking again what good came out of all this religious warfare. Was any of it necessary? Is there anything that we can still be proud of with the benefit of hindsight?

Knox himself seems to scowl out at us from the pages of history. What kind of splenetic wrath would he subject us to if he could but see the outcome of his reformation?

Meanwhile the sea rolls over the beach and grains grow finer. And I seem to have fewer answers.

And that is OK.