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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

I’ve been very conscious of increasingly strong links between Catholics and evangelical Christians at various levels. The recent HTB Leadership Conference made a big impression – whether it was the high-profile plenary interview between Nicky Gumbel and Cardinal Schönborn, or the conversations between ordinary delegates about faith and mission. And you could even say that the warmth and commonality between Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby is another ‘Catholic-Evangelical’ signal.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mlcas/8630017702/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/mlcas/8630017696/

If you are interested in following up this topic, and in case you have never seen it, take a look at this agreed statement that was made a long way back in 1994, Evangelicals & Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. A couple of weeks ago I heard George Weigel mention the text, and then a friend from the Ordinariate brought it to my attention as well. Something is in the air!

Here is the ‘We Affirm Together’ section from the Evangelicals & Catholics Together document. You can see the full list of participants at the bottom of the statement. Catholic representatives included Weigel himself, Cardinal Avery Dulles, and Cardinal (then Bishop) Francis George.

Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the first and final affirmation that Christians make about all of reality. He is the One sent by God to be Lord and Savior of all: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4) Christians are people ahead of time, those who proclaim now what will one day be acknowledged by all, that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Philippians 2)

We affirm together that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ. Living faith is active in love that is nothing less than the love of Christ, for we together say with Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2)

All who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals and Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ. We have not chosen one another, just as we have not chosen Christ. He has chosen us, and he has chosen us to be his together. (John 15) However imperfect our communion with one another, however deep our disagreements with one another, we recognize that there is but one church of Christ. There is one church because there is one Christ and the church is his body. However difficult the way, we recognize that we are called by God to a fuller realization of our unity in the body of Christ. The only unity to which we would give expression is unity in the truth, and the truth is this: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4)

We affirm together that Christians are to teach and live in obedience to the divinely inspired Scriptures, which are the infallible Word of God. We further affirm together that Christ has promised to his church the gift of the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth in discerning and declaring the teaching of Scripture. (John 16) We recognize together that the Holy Spirit has so guided his church in the past. In, for instance, the formation of the canon of the Scriptures, and in the orthodox response to the great Christological and Trinitarian controversies of the early centuries, we confidently acknowledge the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In faithful response to the Spirit’s leading, the church formulated the Apostles Creed, which we can and hereby do affirm together as an accurate statement of scriptural truth:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

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I was given an impossible task for the BBC News Website: to summarise the theology of Pope Benedict in 150 words; and to complete this impossible task in one hour! This is the way journalists work – brevity; deadlines; “I’d like this by yesterday please!”

Pope Benedict XVI prays in front of the image of Our Lady of Fatima after arriving to catholic Fatima shrine in central Portugal, May 12, 2010 By Catholic Church (England and Wales) Catholic Church England and Wales

Of course I failed. I took 90 minutes, and I couldn’t get it below 263 words. And all I’m aware of is how much I have failed to say…

So I’m not claiming it’s a success; but see if you can do better in the comments box.

The key to Pope Benedict’s theology is the idea of ‘connection’ or ‘continuity’.

How do you preserve the fundamental connections between faith and reason, between the past and the present, between the human and the divine? How do you avoid a rupture that would betray the Christian vision and impoverish everyday life?

His first encyclical letter surprised everyone by being a meditation on love. The joy of human love (‘eros’ or erotic love) leads us to a deeper, sacrificial love (‘agape’), that finds its true fulfilment in the love of Jesus Christ on the Cross. The human and the divine connect; they are not in opposition.

The worship of the Church, whatever new forms it takes, needs to connect with its two thousand year history. The moral values of the Church, even if they are expressed in new ways, need to be rooted in the wisdom of the Bible and the Christian tradition. And Catholic teaching, which is always developing, should never betray the sure faith that has been handed down through the centuries.

He believed in renewal and reform, but always in continuity with the past.

He called on Catholics to deepen their faith, through studying the Catechism. He encouraged the secularised West not to become trapped in a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ – where everything is allowed but nothing has any meaning.

For Pope Benedict, Christianity is a revealed religion, not something we create for ourselves. It surprises and startles us. No wonder that his last published work was about discovering the face of God in Jesus Christ, the child of Bethlehem.

You can read this in context here, which is a longer piece called “Viewpoints: Successes and failures of Benedict XVI”. (I probably don’t need to say that I don’t necessarily agree with all the other views expressed in this piece!)

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I broke my vow – again. It must be four years since I vowed never, ever to see another 3D film at the cinema; and two or three times I have been lured back by simple curiosity, or by the shallow desire to see the ‘unmissable’ film that everyone else is seeing (a playground fear of being left out), or by the reassurances of a friend that this really is worth it.

There are some beautiful images in Life of Pi. It wasn’t actually the visual effects that struck me most, but the fluid cinematography of the first half hour – India in pastel colours rather than the usual primary ones; and a fairy-tale glow about the zoo, the swimming pool, the family dining table. But as a film, it doesn’t work. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel; some of them fun, some of them deadly dull. The spirituality is too syncretistic to have any bite.

Now and then, when a film is getting high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes (in this case 89%), and in my humble opinion it doesn’t deserve them, I delight in searching through the bad reviews – conveniently flagged up by the splattered green tomatoes – for confirmation of my artistic discernment. Peter Bradshaw says everything that needs saying in a single paragraph:

No one can doubt the technical brilliance of Ang Lee‘s new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel‘s Booker-winning bestseller from 2001, a widely acclaimed book that I should say I have yet to read. The effects are stunning, more impressive than anything in the new hi-tech Hobbit, and on that score, Peter Jackson can eat his heart out. But for the film itself, despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story – and I am bemused by the saucer-eyed critical responses it’s been getting.

The last line of the review is a classic version of ‘damning with clear but carefully targeted praise’:

This is an awards-season movie if ever there was one. It deserves every technical prize going.

There was, however, one fascinating theological scene. Pi, from a Hindu family, is dared by his brother to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water from the font by the door. He rushes in, drinks, and then stops and gazes around the interior of the church. We are led to believe that he hasn’t been in a church before, or that he hasn’t ever taken the time to look properly.

When he sees an image of Jesus, he is transfixed. A priest comes through the church and talks to him. Pi asks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Is it true that God became a human being like us? And why? And the priest answers: Yes, he became one like us. He became small so that we would not be frightened by him. He became our brother so that we would be able to approach him. He died for us so that nothing, not even death, would keep us apart from him. Pi, the Hindu boy, announces that he wishes to be baptised.

It’s a simple, un-ironic presentation of the Christian message, and of a child in all innocence discovering a life-changing spiritual truth. It doesn’t happen very often in cinema.

(Then, just a few moments later, he announces that he wants to be a Muslim as well as a Christian, and at the same time to remain a Hindu; it’s very confusing in the film – perhaps it makes more sense in the book, which I haven’t read. This is why I called it syncretistic!)

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There have been lots of reports about the 2011 census statistics for religious affiliation, and how they compare with a decade before.

icons by scjody

Here is the actual summary from the Office for National Statistics:

The question on religious affiliation in the census was introduced in 2001 and is voluntary. The order of the main religion groups by size did not change between 2001 and 2011. Those affiliated with the Christian religion remained the largest group; 59 per cent (33.2 million) of usual residents in England and Wales.

This is a decrease of 13 percentage points since 2001 when 72 per cent (37.3 million) of usual residents stated their religion as Christian. It is the only group to have experienced a decrease in numbers between 2001 and 2011 despite population growth.

The second largest response category in 2011 was no religion. This increased 10 percentage points from 15 per cent (7.7 million) of usual residents in 2001, to 25 per cent (14.1 million) in 2011.

The next most stated religion in England and Wales was Muslim with five per cent (2.7 million) of usual residents stating their religion as Muslim in the 2011 Census; an increase of two percentage points since 2001 when three per cent (1.5 million) of usual residents stated that they were Muslim.

And the table:

England and Wales, 2001 and 2011, all usual residents

Thousand, per cent
Religion 2001 2011 Change
Number Per cent Number Per cent Number Percentage point
Christian 37,338 71.7 33,243 59.3 -4,095 -12.4
No religion 7,709 14.8 14,097 25.1 6,388 10.3
Muslim 1,547 3.0 2,706 4.8 1,159 1.8
Hindu 552 1.1 817 1.5 264 0.4
Sikh 329 0.6 423 0.8 94 0.2
Jewish 260 0.5 263 0.5 3 0.0
Buddhist 144 0.3 248 0.4 103 0.1
Other religion 151 0.3 241 0.4 90 0.1
Religion not stated 4,011 7.7 4,038 7.2 27 -0.5

The report goes on to look at the regional variations.

Between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of residents affiliating themselves with the Christian religion declined in all England regions and Wales.

The highest percentage, 68 per cent (1.8 million) of people who responded that their religion was Christian was in the North East. This represents a 12 percentage point decrease on 2001, when this region also had the highest percentage of people who stated that their religion was Christian. London had the lowest percentage of usual residents stating their religion as Christian in both 2011 (48 per cent, 4.0 million) and 2001 (58 per cent, 4.2 million).

London had the highest percentage of all other religious affiliations except Sikh; Muslim (12 per cent, 1.0 million), Hindu (five per cent, 411,000), Jewish (two per cent, 149,000), Buddhist (one per cent, 82,000), and other religion (less than one per cent, 48,000). The West Midlands had the highest percentage of people who responded that their religion was Sikh (two per cent, 30,000).

These are huge changes. How does one react? For a completely unrepresentative but still interesting range of reactions see the Telegraph blog page, where Damian Thompson is depressed (‘It cannot be said too often: the default position of people born since 1980 is agnosticism or atheism‘ – his emphasis!); Christina Odone still manages to find hope (Headline: ’2011 census shock revelation: Christianity is still the majority religion, and Britain is still a God-fearing country’); and atheist Tom Chivers wonders what it means for the nation’s ‘moral capital’:

What’s worth saying, though, is that as well as the (in many people’s opinion) negative social attitudes it [religion] can entrench, it also has clear and well-documented social benefits. Communities based around a local church (or mosque, or synagogue) are more likely to know each other, more likely to help each other in times of crisis, generally more likely to behave in socially positive ways.Religion, according to the moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, builds up “moral capital“: norms and practices that encourage cooperation within groups, by making people think of themselves as part of that group, rather than an individual. Some of those norms and practices (avoiding pork, or eating a biscuit that represents the Son of God) might seem bizarre to outsiders, but they bring the group closer together. It’s the flip-side of the us-and-them attitude; religion might or might not be bad for your attitude towards “them”, but it’s generally good for your attitude towards “us”.

Not that it’s exclusive to religion, of course. Regular social contact with your neighbours, the building of social and moral capital, the creation of a group in which you subsume your individuality and can work for a common good, can all be achieved in other means: it might sound a bit flippant, but football supporters might feel something similar. The British Humanist Association, which runs church-like regular meetings for humanists, and groups like the Quakers, with their emphasis on community rather than the “religious” side of religion, could build social and moral capital without the need for God or the supernatural. But the point is that right now, as Haidt says, that “religious believers … are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people” (in the United States, at least). This needs to be acknowledged. If religion really is waning in this country (and it seems to be: the number of Muslims is growing, but nowhere near fast enough to replace Christianity), then the challenge for atheists, humanists and others who think it’s possible to be good without God is to build a way of bringing communities together as Christianity has in Britain for centuries.

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By chance I was in my home town of Harpenden on Sunday, and after the 9.45 Mass many people from the Catholic church went down the road to the United Service of Remembrance round the War Memorial on Church Green.

It’s years since I have been present for this. I have memories of a few hundred people scattered around the green in the centre of town. But this Sunday there must have been a crowd of over two thousand people, spilling onto the surrounding roads. Perhaps it has been growing over the years; perhaps it was particularly large this year.

It was very moving, and very Christian! Prayers, hymns, readings. The names of the dead were read out. And it’s so easy to forget, but the whole town was gathered round a standing cross (see the old postcard above). I’ve wandered across the green a thousand times over the years (we moved to Harpenden when I was four), but I’ve hardly stopped to reflect that the focus of unity for the town was and still is the Cross of Jesus Christ. And when people want to reflect on death and life, remember their loved ones, or just come together as a community conscious of itself and its history – they gather round the Cross.

I’m not suggesting that everyone there had faith, or even that Christianity is on the increase in Hertfordshire (who knows?). But the huge crowds present this Sunday made me wonder if there is a deepening hunger for community and for a sense of connection with those in the past. Maybe we are more aware of our military than we used to be; maybe it’s the patriotism of the Jubilee or the communitarianism of the Olympics and the Paralympics; maybe we just long to feel more connected.

This was civic religion at its best: people still broadly connected with the nation’s Christian faith, even though there would be various shades of belief and unbelief; people finding that this faith gives them a unity with each other, and a way of making sense of their human struggles, that perhaps they wouldn’t find in any other place.

And a final note about purgatory: It was an ecumenical service, but I was fascinated how each prayer spoken was actually a prayer for the dead. We kept hearing phrases like: ‘May they find the fulfilment in God they were longing for’; ‘May they rest in peace’; ‘May they come face to face with the Lord’. All of these ‘may they…’ prayers suggest, theologically, that there is still something to be achieved or worked out for those who have died. In other words, this wasn’t just a service of remembrance – whatever the service sheet suggested – it was also a service of prayer for the dead. I don’t think this was very conscious or theologically explicit, but it shows how hard it is to just remember the dead without actually praying for them – at a psychological level. And a Catholic would add that this makes theological sense as well!

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The National Office for Vocation, in association with the Catholic Truth Society, is publishing a new series of leaflets about the different Christian vocations. Take a look at the CTS website here for more information.

They should be very useful, not least because of their size and cost (and of course they are beautifully produced and full of inspiring stories and information!): You get a pack of 25 leaflets for £5.95, so it is easy for a parish or school to splash out, buy a few packs, and distribute the leaflets to various groups without worrying about breaking the bank. Or as an individual you can keep a few in your pocket and hand them out to people on the bus or tube as a form of evangelisation!

The first three were published this month, on marriage, religious life, and diocesan priesthood.

You can also see the new site about religious life from the National Office for Vocation, which also has a micro-site about religious life for 10-16 year olds!

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Bridges and Tangents is on the shortlist for the ‘Most Inspiring Leadership Blog’ (!!) at the Christian New Media Awards.

Why not take a look at the other nominees in the various categories below. I know that many of the readers of this blog are Catholic, so it might interest people to see the fascinating things that go on in the largely non-Catholic (I think) new media world represented by these awards.

People’s Choice

- Free Bible Images
- The Light Project
- Christian Medical Comment
- Busbridge and Hambledon Church
- CSW – Take Action

Best Christian Blog

- Emma Scrivener
- Missing Generation
- Threads
- What You Think Matters
- God and Politics in the UK
- EpilogueTV

Best Christian Blog by someone under 25

- Dean Roberts
- Miriam’s Fusion Blog
- Blogging with Tom
- Arianne Winslow
- Becca is Learning

Most Inspiring Leadership Blog

- benleney
- Learning and Growing
- Biblical Preaching
- Bridges and Tangents
- Rev’d Matthew Porter

Best Newcomer Blog

- Flame Creative Children’s Ministry
- Believer’s Brain
- Ed’s Slipper
- Blogging with Tom
- God and Politics in the UK

Micro-Blogger of the Year

- OneVoice
- Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove
- Restored
- Richard Littledale
- The Church Mouse

Best Christian Organisation Website

- Sunday Night Live
- Wazala
- SGM Lifewords
- Relationship Central
- Green Pastures Housing

I hope to go to the Christian New Media Conference which takes place the day after the awards on 20 Oct 2012, and try to do some serious (and fun) thinking about faith and the new media. It looks as though it will be a good day. Details copied here:

The Christian New Media Conference 2012

Date: 20th October 2012
Time: 9.15am Registration, 10am Start and 5.20pm Finish
Venue: King’s College London, Waterloo Campus, Franklin-Wilkins Building, Stamford Street, London SE1 8WA Directions
Tickets:   £30   Book Now!

If you want to make a greater impact in the digital world, to get to grips with new media technologies, or simply tweet, pin and post better, then the Christian New Media Conference 2012 is the place to be. It will inspire you, equip you and connect you with like-minded people – whatever your level of experience.

Now in its third year, the conference has moved to a new venue with more space, four new seminar streams and 25 expert speakers ready to give practical help and an opportunity to delve deeper.

Whether you come as an individual, a church, charity or business, you’ll be spoilt for choice with 20 breakout sessions available.

The Theme for 2012

The digital revolution has transformed the art of story-telling, bringing it once more to the fore. If you think about it, much of what we are engaged with online is story-telling. We might be telling our story, our church or organisation’s story – but ultimately, as Christians, we are telling God’s story. This will be the theme of the main sessions this year and will have a dedicated seminar stream.

This year’s Theology stream will look at the concept of ‘Depixelating God’ – exploring how we as Christians can help make the image of God clearer to people in the online space.

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Have you come across the phrase ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’ yet? I’ve just read John Allen’s latest book, A People of Hope, which is basically a long interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York. (Dolan has been in the press a lot recently, because of his non-partisan presence at both the Republican and Democrat conventions to say the official prayers.)

Allen says in the Introduction that one of his main reasons for putting time into the book was not just to present a portrayal of Dolan himself, but to make better sense of where the Church in the States is going. Dolan, for Allen, is a figure who represents some of the new-found confidence within the American Catholic Church; and the fact that he has was appointed to New York, and that he increasingly takes centre stage when religion comes into the public square, is a sign that his brand of confident Catholicism is on the rise.

It fits with Pope Benedict’s programme for renewal. Allen writes:

Some time back, I coined the phrase ‘Affirmative Orthodoxy’ to describe the distinctive character of Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching. Both parts of the formula are important. Benedict is certainly ‘orthodox’ in the sense of tenaciously defending the core elements of classic Catholic thought, speech, and practice.

Yet he’s also ‘affirmative’ in the sense of being determined to present the building blocks of orthodoxy in a positive key. The emphasis is on what Catholicism embraces and affirms, what it says ‘yes’ to, rather than what it opposes and condemns.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan is Affirmative Orthodoxy on steroids. He is, to adapt the marketing slogan for the sugar and caffeine-rich Jolt Cola, ‘all the orthodoxy and twice the affirmative!’ [xxi]

And later in the book Allen comes back to this theme.

By any reasonable standard Benedict is a conservative, but his main concern seems to be to systematically reintroduce the building blocks of orthodoxy, trying to dust off centuries of controversy and legalistic gloss in order to lift up the positive ideas at their core.

For Benedict, this commitment to affirmative orthodoxy flows from his diagnosis of the cultural situation in the West, which is that in Europe particularly, too many people think they know what Christianity is all about – a rigidly legalistic system of rules and restrictions, intended to shore up the crumbling authority of the Church’s clerical caste.

In that context, Benedict believes the only way to get a new hearing is to stress the deep Catholic yes beneath the familiar litany of things of which the Church disapproves.

For Dolan, affirmative orthodoxy seems more a matter of personal instincts and temperament. In other words, he doesn’t have to think about it, because his own life experience has disposed him to see Catholicism primarily in terms of adventure, romance, and fellowship, and it almost requires an act of will to think of it in any other way. [128]

Dolan himself says:

The Catholic Church affirms, strengthens, expands what’s most noble, most beautiful, most sacred, in the human project. I like to quote a line from Father Robert Barron, that the Church only says no to another no, and two no’s make a yes. It’s only when the yes of humanity is threatened that the Church will say no, to protect the yes. [129]

I’m not sure I like these phrases being used too often, because there is the danger they help create factions within the Church, in-crowds and out-crowds. But to the extent that ‘affirmative orthodoxy’ means ‘happy to be Catholic’ or ‘it does actually make sense’ or ‘it is actually worth sharing’, then that is fine by me!

I sort-of met Dolan twice. In the mid-90s I was ‘common room man’ at the English College in Rome, which meant I ran the bar. Dolan was a guest of the College for Sunday lunch, when he was Rector at the North American College in Rome. It would be indiscreet of me to blog about his choice of Sunday aperitif; so let’s just say that whatever it was, I poured it for him.

And then for World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, the Westminster group stayed outside the main city in the town of Solingen. Dolan gave the English catechesis one morning. The priests didn’t get to hear much, as we were sitting round the edge of the church hearing confessions; but the feedback was very positive.

(By the way – what is Jolt Cola?!)

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It’s interesting that Danny Boyle has chosen to put Glastonbury Tor at the centre of his Olympic opening ceremony, in his vision of a mythical countryside that will somehow capture the essence of ‘who we are’ as British people.

You can read this in many ways – and I’m sure all will become clear when the ceremony unfolds. On the one hand, Christians should be delighted that a place full of such Christian significance – both in myth and in history - takes centre stage at the Olympics. Glastonbury is where, so the legend goes, Jesus once walked with Joseph of Arimathea. The tree that grew from Joseph’s staff and became the holy thorn is a central part of the Olympic set – linking Jesus’s own supposed international travels with those of the Olympians. And Glastonbury Tor itself has been a Christian shrine for centuries – an outpost of the local abbey, that then became a place of Catholic martyrdom and witness when Richard Whiting, the Abbot, was hanged there for refusing to follow King Henry’s religious reform.

On the other hand, Glastonbury is at the heart of the mythology of pagan Britain, and has become a centre of New Age spirituality and the occult. And surely it is no accident that St Michael’s tower, which dominates the Tor, is completely absent from the models presented to the public by Boyle recently. So I don’t think this will be a nuance-free celebration of the Christian roots of British history and culture.

Paul Kelso writes about Boyle’s presentation:

Revealing details of the opening scenes of a ceremony that will be watched by   more than 500 million people, director Danny Boyle said he was creating a   vision of the “mythic” British countryside that he hoped would capture the   essence of “who we are”.

The main stadium will be transformed into a meadow, with landscaped real grass   laid over the infield and a game of cricket unfolding in one corner. The   theatrical maxim of not working with children or animals will be thoroughly   ignored, as 12 horses, three cows, two goats, 10 chickens, 10 ducks, nine   geese, 70 sheep and three sheep dogs feature in the opening scene.

At one end of the stadium work is already under way on a replica of   Glastonbury Tor, with an oak tree on top instead of the chapel that stands   on the real thing.

In front of the Tor will be a mosh-pit, decorated with the recognisable   Glastonbury flags, where up to 100 members of the public will be allowed to   stand.

At the other end of the stadium, beneath a giant bell, will be the posh-pit,   which will also include members of the public, and reflect, Boyle said, the   spirit of promenaders. In between will stand four maypoles, each styled as the national flower of the   home nations, a rose, a thistle, a daffodil and flax. Overhead on the model unveiled on Tuesday were model clouds, one of which   Boyle said would deliver rain “just in case it doesn’t rain anyway”.

The National Trust, which runs the Tor, explains it’s Christian significance:

For centuries, Glastonbury Tor has been one of the most spiritual places in the world. For many Christians, the Tor was a very important place of pilgrimage.

People have always flocked here to soak up the history surrounding this special site.

Joseph of Arimathea

Some believe that Jesus visited his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, who came to the Mendips to trade in lead and silver.

The story goes that when Joseph was walking on Wearyall Hill and planted his staff into the ground, it took root. It grew into the holy thorn, which is still there today. This was a sign to him to build a church on this site.

The church was made from wattle and daub, and was the first church in England. It’s now known as Glastonbury Abbey. The thorn blooms at Christmas and at Easter time.

The Holy Grail

Legend has it Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail with him after the crucifixion. He hid it in the cavern underneath Glastonbury Tor, which caused two springs to form.

You can fill up bottles of water from this spring today at Chalice Well Lane.

Jesus

It’s said that Joseph of Arimathea brought his sister, Anne, to Israel, where she gave birth to Mary.

Jesus wanted to see the birthplace of his grandmother, so he came to Britain with Joseph of Arimathea.

It’s also said he came to Glastonbury and walked among ‘England’s green and pleasant lands.’

St Patrick visits the Tor

St Patrick is also said to have spent some time at the Tor, as a hermit before he moved on to Ireland.

The Tor quakes

There’s evidence that monks were living on the Tor as far back as the 9th century.

We believe the monks came from the local abbey, to be in solitary reflection at the Tor.

At this point, the church would have been wooden. A stone church was built in the 12th century.

After an earthquake in 1275, the church fell down. In its place a much smaller and sturdier building was put up.

St Michael’s Tower was added later and still remains one of Somerset’s most iconic symbols.

Dissolution and danger

Pilgrimages to the Tor continued, but became more difficult due to the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.

The abbot of the abbey, Richard Whiting, refused to swear his allegiance to Henry. As a consequence, he was hanged from Glastonbury Tor.

His body was then quartered and sent to Wells, Bath, Bridgwater and Illchester. After this, the church fell into disrepair. Its stone was removed, and only the tower remains today.

And if you want to read Simon Jenkin’s guess at where this is all really going, click here.

What was going on? I am reliably informed that this is all a highly crafted – and risky – bit of spin. Two weeks ago Boyle gave a totally different interview about the ceremony, splashed by the Hollywood Reporter. It made no mention of sheep and meadows but said Boyle was “partly inspired by Frankenstein”, about whom he directed a play at the National Theatre last year. The ceremony would be “more like a cauldron, with all the people hovering over and around you.” This implies that something terrible is going to happen to the sheep – and explains the last-minute dropping of pigs as allegedly vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The countryside set was a feint, inducing critics into taking it at face value and “the show”, thus to make the eventual spectacle more shocking. This explains otherwise inexplicable references to The Tempest, William Blake and Frankenstein, which are guiding the subsequent “acts” of Boyle’s show. The second act is a total contrast, the dark side of Blake’s vision, a tableau of storm clouds and satanic mills, of industrial Britain as a place of noise and filth, suffragettes and striking miners.

This is to be followed by a pastiche of cool Britannia. James Bond helicopters zoom up and down the Thames while 900 nurses dance in glorification of the NHS and hi-tech “best of British” products. It sounds like loyal workers dancing in honour of a North Korean “dear leader”. We are told that 10,000 people have needed 157 rehearsals to get the scenes right, and threatened with dismissal if they reveal what they are doing to outsiders or to other parts of the show. The set for prancing nurses at Dagenham is guarded like Guantánamo Bay.

The contents list for all might be a script for the BBC satire, 2012. It is a politically correct miasma of Shakespeare and Frankenstein, Trainspotting and Slumdog, humour and irony, ploughmen and miners, all summoned by a gigantic bell, strangely in honour of Caliban. It is as if Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver were asked to cook the same casserole in the same kitchen. The music is by Underworld, who wrote for Boyle’s Trainspotting and Frankenstein. Paul McCartney will rasp the closing number. This could hardly be further from Tuesday’s vision of Delius and Vaughan Williams. In other words, the countryside was an ironic hors d’oeuvre, to be exploded and splattered over the face the Olympics.

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Bruno Forte, Archbishop of Chieti-Vasto in Italy, gave a talk to the clergy of Westminster Diocese last week about the New Evangelisation. He gave a nice explanation of the meaning of beauty, which is whatever allows us ‘to see the whole in fragments’; it may not be original, but I hadn’t heard it before.

He put this in the context of post-modern culture, where there is such a suspicion of grand narratives, ideologies, and large claims about truth; so the only possibility of helping people to glimpse and then grasp the truth is through fragments – but fragments that eventually allow one to take hold of a greater truth. ‘Witness’ would be another important notion here: we can’t always convince others by argument, but we can still witness to something bigger than ourselves, to a more luminous beauty hidden within the ordinariness of this particular encounter. This is true for all truth, not just religious truth.

Here are a few paragraphs from his talk, which you can read in full here.

The “post-modern” side of this crisis turns into a denial of any ideological standpoint as totalitarian and violent. Typically, ideologies forces the post-modern man to live on fragments: as a period of contamination (everything is contaminated, nothing is worthy) and fruition (it is better to live intensely, enjoying pleasures), the post-modern era turns out to be an era of frustration, a long good-bye to any sense of security (Gianni Vattimo).

Religion is also compared with ideologies, and, therefore, is rejected because of its prejudices. It becomes necessary, then, to clarify the character of the God of Christian faith as totally unlike the totalitarian violence of ideological reason: a God who decided to choose the abandonment of the Cross to show the world the depth of his endless love. Moreover, the denial of the possibility of universal outlook pushes many post-modern people to withdraw into themselves. A return to this kind of produces in fact a “crowd of loners”. The force of Christian charity must be commended as a remedy for loneliness and as a way of creating points of contact and solidarity with others.

Christianity sees the whole in fragments as when the Son who had been abandoned on the Cross is then resurrected to new life. Seeing “the whole in a fragment” can be considered another name for “beauty”. It is important, therefore, in the post-modern era that Christianity show itself as the disclosure of a humble, yet saving beauty—in the most beautiful realisation of our humanity, in the resurrection of the Crucified.

The cultural movements referred to produce ethical consequences. The scattered islands created by the post-modern fragmentation turns others into “moral strangers” whom we must be wary of. This defines the so-called “liquid modernity”, which has been often described by the British sociologist and philosopher of Jewish-Polish origins, Zygmunt Bauman. Nowadays, there are no “given” nor “axiomatic” models and patterns: there are simply too many conflicting instances so that all of them end by losing their force authority. Since there are no absolute points of reference, everything can be justified in terms of the current fashion. Ethical standards, given to the Western World through the Bible, now appear weakened, concealed and hardly evident.

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I led a study day on the New Evangelisation last week. The first talk was simply about what it all means.

In one sense, it’s an odd phrase: Isn’t evangelisation always new?

Even Blessed John Paul II’s famous tag-line is not too helpful in this respect. He said we need an evangelisation that is ‘new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression’. But there is nothing new about needing this newness – haven’t we always needed new ardour, new expressions, new methods? And hasn’t the Church always (well, nearly always) responded with some magnificent and unexpected and new embodiment of the missionary spirit?

Blessed Pope John Paul II during a General Audience

On the other hand, perhaps there is something truly new about the present situation, meaning the situation of the Church during and since Blessed John Paul II’s pontificate. Some of the new factors might include: the crisis of ‘missiology’ (the theology of mission and evangelisation) in the second half of the twentieth century, and the corresponding crisis within the Church’s missionary  outreach; the number of baptised people, of people who have been ‘initiated’ sacramentally, who have not really heard the Gospel message in a personal way, who have not been evangelised themselves, or perhaps have not been well catechised after their initiation; the need to re-evangelise former Christian cultures and societies (this isn’t new, but it is certainly pressing and it feels new to those living through it); or the challenge for Western societies to hold onto their Christian moral and spiritual roots before they truly slip into a post-Christian secularism – one of Pope Benedict’s themes.

I’m just summarising. If you are interested, please listen to the talk yourself.

You can listen here.

You can download the talk here.

[I post about the second half of the study day here, which includes the audio links: The New Evangelisation in practice: five UK initiatives and their significance for the wider Church]

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I was at the Catholic Theological Association last week; I managed to get there for one day of their annual conference. Frank Turner SJ gave a fascinating talk about Europe, the Church, faith etc; and in particular about how those involved in the European Union view religion today. Turner works at the Jesuit European Office in Brussels, so he has quite an insight into the mindset of the politicians, bureaucrats and policy-makers who move in those circles.

What he said was encouraging. In his view, there is a cautious openness to religion on the part of many opinion-formers in the EU, and secularism as an ideological force intent on driving religion from the public sphere is much weaker than it might have been in the past. He senses that the cultural wind has been shifting for the past few years.

Why? Turner gave three reasons. The first is not new, but perhaps its significance has increased with the historical perspective: the atheist ideologies of the twentieth century have not aquitted themselves well in terms of promoting a civilised European culture or a proper context for human flourishing. Second, Islam has become a much more significant factor for European identity on so many levels. And third, the influx into the EU over the last decade of so many countries from central and eastern Europe has shifted the balance of religious sensibilities, not just because many have an explicitly Catholic heritage, but also because at the political level they bring quite different conceptions of Church-State relations from those found, for example, in France.

So things are changing, subtly; even though it’s not yet clear what kind of relationship the European ‘project’ will have with religion in general, and with the Catholic Church in particular.

I didn’t know much about the Jesuit European Office before. Here is some blurb from the website:

The Jesuit European Office – OCIPE
Those in the Ignatian tradition have always inserted themselves in different societies and cultures. The Jesuit European Office, OCIPE, was founded in 1956, at the request of Monseigneur Weber, the Archbishop of Strasbourg. In 2006 OCIPE is present in Brussels, Budapest and Warsaw, with an antenna in Strasbourg.

OCIPE’s Vision
OCIPE seeks to accompany the construction of Europe: in serving its personnel in their professional and spiritual discernment, in sustaining critical reflection from the perspective of Christian faith on European values and responsibilities, and in promoting Europe’s solidarity internally and with the wider world.

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Perhaps I’m overstating it in the title, but new research from the States shows that the Catholic Church there is much better at retaining old members than it is recruiting new ones. Or more precisely, it is not losing members any faster than any other mainstream Christian body; the problem is that it is not gaining them very effectively. As John Allen says: “To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.”

St Patrick's Cathedral, New York

 

Here is his analysis of the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum. You can read his interview with the people at the Pew Forum here.

Try as we might to remind ourselves that the Catholic church isn’t Microsoft and that quantitative measures of success or failure don’t always correspond to the logic of the Gospel, most of us take that lesson to heart only selectively. Some Catholics can’t resist touting the huge crowds at World Youth Day as an endorsement of their version of orthodoxy; others cite polling majorities in favor of reform on birth control and other issues as proof of the sensus fidelium.

The most powerful recent instance of that temptation has been Catholic reaction to the 2008 “Religious Landscape Survey” from the Pew Forum, which documented a remarkable fluidity in religious affiliation in America — almost half of American adults have either switched religions or dropped their ties to religion altogether.

For Catholicism, the banner headline was that there are now 22 million ex-Catholics in America, by far the greatest net loss for any religious body. One in three Americans raised Catholic have left the church. Were it not for immigration, Catholicism in America would be contracting dramatically: for every one member the church adds, it loses four. On the other hand, the study also found that the Catholic church has a higher retention rate than other major Christian denominations, and that 2.6 percent of the adult population is composed of converts to Catholicism, representing a pool of nearly six million new Catholics.

Naturally, critics of various aspects of Catholic life, such as the sexual abuse crisis or what some see as an overly conservative ideological drift, see the defections as proof of malaise. (A prominent American theologian recently claimed the Pew data reveal a “mass exodus” from the church, which he linked to a preoccupation by some bishops with the culture wars.) Equally predictably, Catholics content with the status quo play up the good news.

Given the disparities in interpretation, I turned to the director of the Pew Forum, Luis Lugo, to try to understand what the data really have to say. I spoke to Lugo by phone Thursday morning, and we were joined by Pew senior researcher Greg Smith.

Here’s the bottom line: In comparison with other religious groups in America, the Catholic church’s struggles aren’t really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle. Overall, Catholicism serves existing members fairly well, as measured by the share that chooses to stick around; what it doesn’t do nearly as well is to evangelize. The data do not reflect widespread dissatisfaction in the pews, at least to any greater extent than other religious bodies face. Instead, they reveal a problem with getting people into the pews in the first place.

To put all that into crass capitalistic terms, in America’s highly competitive religious marketplace, the real Catholic problem isn’t customer service but new sales.

Even if one were to focus just on defections, it’s not clear which ideological camp in today’s church could claim vindication. While many former Catholics object to church teachings on issues such as abortion and homosexuality, one in ten Protestant Evangelicals in America today is also an ex-Catholic, many of whom deserted Catholicism because it wasn’t conservative enough. Finally, there’s a clear plug for youth ministry implied in the Pew data: Roughly two-thirds of those who abandon Catholicism do so before they’re 23, which means the make-or-break period is adolescence and early adulthood.

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After posting about the horrific attack on Christian worshippers in Egypt, I was deeply moved to read this account by Yasmine El-Rashidi of thousands of Muslims coming in solidarity to the Coptic churches on Christmas night to offer their bodies as human ‘shields’ to protect the Christian communities.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’s eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

The attack has rocked a nation that is no stranger to acts of terror, against all of Muslims, Copts and Jews. In January of last year, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving Church following mass. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in the Red Sea resorts of Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh claimed over 100 lives, and in the late 90’s, Islamic militants executed a series of bombings and massacres that left dozens dead.

[Thanks to Catherine for the link.]

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The focus of inter-faith concern, at least for Catholics, has shifted from Judaism to Islam over the last decade. This is the observation made by John Allen in a recent article.

The Ortaköy mosque, Istanbul (I managed to find a beautiful mosque beside a glorious suspension bridge!)

 

It doesn’t mean that the relationship between Catholics and Jews is less important. Islam, however, is where the bulk of the Church’s time and energy is being invested. Why? Allen gives four reasons.

First is simple arithmetic. There are 1.6 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians in the world, which adds up to 55 percent of the human population. For good or ill, the relationship is destined to be a driver of global history.

Second, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and subsequent outbreaks of Muslim radicalism such as the assault on Our Lady of Salvation, have made Islam a burning preoccupation for the entire world.

Third, Pope Benedict XVI’s speech at Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006 unleashed massive new energies in Catholic/Muslim relations. The speech triggered a firestorm in the Islamic world [...], yet it also galvanized thoughtful voices on both sides of the relationship — most notably, it produced “A Common Word,” an initiative of 138 Muslim scholars, representing all the schools of Islam, acting together for the first time to outline common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Fourth, the demographic transition in Catholicism from the West to the Southern hemisphere is producing a new generation of leaders from Africa, Asia and Latin America, where Judaism generally does not have a large sociological footprint. This Southern cohort didn’t live through the Holocaust, and they generally don’t feel historical responsibility for it — seeing it as a Western, not a Christian, atrocity. Relations with Islam, however, are a front-burner priority, since many of these southern Catholics live cheek by jowl with large Muslim communities.

Allen goes on to reflect on four implications of this shift to Islam. One of them is particularly interesting for us in Britain after the Papal visit, where Pope Benedict was sometimes wrongly perceived to be against all forms of secularity and pluralism. It’s aggressive secularism that he is against, and not the idea of a secular society. What does that mean? Here is Allen’s analysis:

During Benedict XVI’s Sept. 2008 trip to France, he endorsed what French President Nicolas Sarkozy has dubbed “positive laïcité” — a French term for which there is no exact English equivalent, though the usual translation is “secularism.” The basic idea is that religious freedom and church/state separation are positive things, as long as they mean freedom for, rather than freedom from, religion.

The emergence of Islam as the church’s central interfaith preoccupation has turbo-charged support for “healthy secularism.”

Proof can be found in the Middle East. Squeezed between two religiously defined behemoths, Israel and the Muslim states which surround it, the tiny Christian minority has no future if fundamentalism prevails. Their dream is to lead a democratic revolution in the region. That outlook reflects a basic law of religious life: secularism always looks better to minorities who would be the big losers in a theocracy.

Momentum towards healthy secularism in Catholic thought has implications well beyond the Middle East.

In both Europe and the States these days, there’s considerable debate about the political role of the church. Critics, including many Catholics, sometimes argue that bishops are “too political.” Americans, for instance, are still chewing over the role the U.S. bishops played in the health care reform debate.

If there is a force in Catholicism capable of balancing the scales, it’s likely to be the relationship with Islam, and the perceived need on the Catholic side to offer a credible model of the separation of religion and politics. That points to a keen irony: The specter of shariah might do more to give Catholic leaders pause about blurring church/state lines than a whole legion of liberal Western theologians.

I like that distinction between a secular political space that gives freedom for religion and one which demands a freedom from religion.

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Nothing to do with the Papal visit: I just came across this article about how attendance at Christian services in Britain has not been declining over the last five years or so, and in one or two areas has actually been increasing.

The ‘not declining’ tag might seem rather negative and un-newsworthy, but it is quite a powerful news story when you set it against the common journalistic assumption that Christianity is on the back foot and is unlikely to exist as a significant part of British life a generation from now.

Benita Hewitt from Christian Research gives some of the figures here:

It’s time to believe that the church in this country is no longer in decline. The latest statistics coming from various denominations are clearly showing stability in church attendance and even signs of growth. This news may come as a surprise to many people who believe that the church is a dying institution.

But the news is no surprise to us at Christian Research. We’ve been watching the church adapt and change over recent years, and have been collecting statistics for some time which suggest that the church in this country is in reasonably good health. There is now enough combined evidence to state confidently that the decline is over.

The long term decline in weekly Mass attendance in the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales ended in 2005 and the figures have been broadly stable since. In 2008 there were 918,844 attending Mass, an increase from 915,556 the year before.

The Church of England has seen fairly steady attendance over the last ten years, with 1.67m attending services each month in 2008, compared with 1.71m in 2001. An important point to note is that the statistics over the past decade include all worship during the week, and not just Sunday morning services. One of the most significant changes we have been monitoring in the church is the growth in mid-week worship, which is an indication of how the church has been adapting and changing over recent years.

The Baptist Union of Great Britain has seen attendance rise from 148,835 a week in 2002 to 153,714 in 2008, with particular growth in the contact with young people aged 13 to 18 – up from 34,095 in 2002 to 41,392 in 2008.

In July of this year Christian Research conducted 1000 interviews in the streets of 44 locations in England and Wales with a representative sample of the population. 63% think of themselves as Christian, 14% said they attended church at least once a month and 29% at least once a year. Those are significant proportions of the population. The research also shows that 41% of adults agree “The Bible is an influence for good in society”. Just last week there was also research published which showed that two in three adults agree “British Society should retain its Christian culture”.

All of this paints a picture of the church as living movement rather than a dying institution. And it is a living movement which is generally recognised as a good influence in society, one which many people do not wish to see decline and die. It is time to stop talking about the decline of church and start facing up to the fact that it is here to stay.

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Pope Benedict arrives today. There will be thousands of stories and reports in the press; and the BBC, ITV and Sky – to their credit – have given a huge commitment of airtime to the visit.

It’s worth looking at the official site, where there is also a live webcast of every event in case you can’t find anything on the TV.

Here are few paragraphs to set the scene, politically and historically. First, Eamon Duffy:

The Pope will speak in Westminster Hall from the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to death for his refusal to renounce the papacy and recognise Henry VIII as head of a purely English national church. The resonances of that heroic defiance are overwhelming, as is the mere fact of the Pope’s presence at the symbolic heart of a nation whose identity for centuries focussed itself round the vigorous repudiation of papal authority. The invitation to speak in Westminster Hall suggests that, five centuries after the Reformation, the Pope is perceived as having something worth hearing to say about the values that shape and bind British civil society.

But many within that society, including many Catholics, are conscious that Benedict’s church has been compromised in the eyes of many by its recent history. Neither Church nor Pope can address society now from some imagined moral high ground. The Pope will need to recognise that fact, both in what he says and how he says it.

On his last day in Britain, Pope Benedict will beatify the great Victorian Catholic writer and thinker, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Like the Pope, Newman believed that the society of his day was cutting itself adrift from the religious values which had given the nation its distinctive moral and religious character. But he also believed that mere denunciation did no good. If Christian values were to survive, they had to commend themselves by their intrinsic attraction, “not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”. The young Ratzinger was deeply influenced by the writings of this very English saint: as Pope he could do worse than follow his master’s advice, and make the positive presentation of that “antagonist truth” the keynote of his visit.

And these words from Charles Moore:

I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.

In short, before answering the Thatcher question, “What does one say to a Pope?”, how about waiting to hear what the Pope will say to us?

Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the “deadly boredom” of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – “who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance.” Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call “the big society” and how it can achieve the common good. “Without truth,” he says in one of his encyclicals, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.

It was Newman who famously encapsulated his loyalty both to his faith and to conscience: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards.” Next week, the Pope, as is the custom, will not be attending the state banquet given in his honour. But if he did, he would happily drink that toast. So should this nation.

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The restored shrine of St Alban

I was at the Bright Lights festival a few days ago, which ended with a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Alban in St Alban’s Abbey. I’ve always known that he is Britain’s first martyr, but another obvious thought struck me very forcefully for the first time: that he is our first ever saint. Of course there could have been many other holy men and women before him, but Alban is the first we know about, the first to be honoured as a saint, the first whose shrine still stands.

Here, in this town where I happened to go to school, is where things began. This is where our pagan culture first encountered the beauty and mystery of Christianity. This is where Christianity began to transform that culture from within, not as a threat or a danger, but as a seed of hope, a vision of what the human heart longs for but hardly dares to believe.

If you don’t know Alban’s story, here is a short biography:

St Alban was the first martyr in the British Isles; he was put to death at Verulamium (now called Saint Albans after him), perhaps during the persecution under the emperor Diocletian. According to the story told by St Bede, Alban sheltered in his house a priest who was fleeing from his enemies. He was so impressed by the goodness of his guest that he eagerly received his teaching and became a Christian. In a few days it was known that the priest lay concealed in Alban’s house, and soldiers were sent to seize him. Thereupon Alban put on the priest’s clothes and gave himself up in his stead to be tried.

The judge asked Alban, “Of what family are you?” The saint answered, “That is a matter of no concern to you. I would have you know that I am a Christian.” The judge persisted, and the saint said, “I was called Alban by my parents, and I worship the living and true God the creator of all things.”

Then the judge said, “If you wish to enjoy eternal life, sacrifice to the great gods at once!” The judge was angered at the priest’s escape and threatened Alban with death if he persisted in forsaking the gods of Rome. He replied firmly that he was a Christian, and would not burn incense to the gods. He was condemned to be beaten and then beheaded.

As he was led to the place of execution (traditionally the hill on which Saint Albans abbey church now stands) a miracle wrought by the saint so touched the heart of the executioner that he flung down his sword, threw himself at Alban’s feet, avowing himself a Christian, and begged to suffer either for him or with him. Another soldier picked up the sword, and in the words of Bede, “the valiant martyr’s head was stricken off, and he received the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him.”

The feast of St Alban is kept on the twenty-second day of June each year.

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There have been lots of good articles out about Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary to China, in this year which marks the 400th anniversary of his death. This one by Nicolas Standaert shows how much Ricci and his missionary strategy was shaped by the Chinese culture in which he was immersed.

The first part of the article gives a very helpful summary of the distinctive approach to mission that he developed, under the influence of his former novice master Alessandro Valignano. It would be interesting to apply these principles to the way Christians approach the secular culture in the West today.

Four characteristics of Jesuit missionary strategy in China

As a starting point one can make a first – rather traditional – reading of Ricci’s life by focusing on the missionary himself. The ‘Jesuit missionary strategy’ in China was conceived by Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606), who was the former novice master of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and who was Jesuit visitor for East Asia during the period 1574-1606. His strategy was creatively put into practice by Matteo Ricci. Later generations, well into the eighteenth century, associated this strategy with Ricci and called it the ‘Ricci-method’. It can be described by four major characteristics[7]:

1. A policy of accommodation or adaptation to Chinese culture.[8] Valignano, who had been disappointed by the limited degree of the Jesuits’ adaptation to Japanese culture, insisted in the first place on knowledge of the Chinese language. Therefore he called a few Jesuits to Macao in 1579 ordering them to focus their attention entirely on the study of language (fellow Jesuits criticised them for spending all their time studying Chinese). Two years later Michele Ruggieri (1543-1607) entered China through the south, and Matteo Ricci followed one year later. Probably inspired by the Japanese situation, they dressed like Buddhist monks. In 1595, after nearly fifteen years of experience, they changed this policy and adapted themselves to the life-style and etiquette of the Confucian elite of literati and officials. Ricci was responsible for this change. This new policy remained unchanged throughout the whole seventeenth century and for most Jesuit missionaries Matteo Ricci became the reference point with regard to the accommodation policy.

2. Propagation and evangelisation ‘from the top down’. Jesuits addressed themselves to the literate elite. The underlying idea was that if this elite, preferably the Emperor and his court, were converted, the whole country would be won for Christianity. The elite consisted mainly of literati, who had spent many years of their life preparing for the examinations they needed to pass to become officials. For these examinations they had to learn the Confucian classics and the commentaries. After having passed the Metropolitan examinations, which took place in Beijing every three years and at which about three hundred candidates were selected, they entered the official bureaucracy and received appointments as district magistrates or positions in the ministries. As in modern diplomatic service, the offices usually changed every three years. In order to enter into contact with this elite, Ricci studied the Confucian classics and, with his remarkable gift of memory, became a welcome guest at the philosophical discussion groups that were organised by this elite.

3. Indirect propagation of the faith by using European science and technology in order to attract the attention of the educated Chinese and convince them of the high level of European civilisation. Ricci offered a European clock to the Emperor, he introduced paintings which impressed the Chinese with their use of perspective, translated mathematical writings of Euclid with the commentaries of the famous Jesuit mathematician Christophorus Clavius (1538-1612), and printed an enormous global map which integrated the results of the latest world explorations. By these activities Ricci established friendly relationships which sometimes resulted in the conversion of members of the elite: Xu Guangqi (1562-1633; baptised as Paul in 1603) and Li Zhizao (1565-1630; baptised as Leo in 1610) are the most famous of Ricci’s time.

4. Openness to and tolerance of Chinese values. In China, Matteo Ricci encountered a society with high moral values, for which he expressed his admiration. Educated in the best Jesuit humanistic tradition, he favourably compared Confucius (552-479 BC) with ‘an other Seneca’ and the Confucians with ‘a sect of Epicurians, not in name, but in their laws and opinions’.[9] Ricci was of the opinion that the excellent ethical and social doctrine of Confucianism should be complemented with the metaphysical ideas of Christianity. However, he rejected Buddhism, Taoism, and Neo-Confucianism, which in his eyes was corrupted by Buddhism. Ricci pleaded for a return to original Confucianism, which he considered to be a philosophy based on natural law. In his opinion it contained the idea of God. Finally, he adopted a tolerant attitude towards certain Confucian rites, such as the ancestral worship and the veneration of Confucius, which soon were labelled ‘civil rites’.

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Colosseum by rutty.

The Colosseum - scene of early Christian persecutions

It’s not often that Pope Benedict and the comedian Frank Skinner join theological forces. Skinner has an opinion piece in yesterday’s Times that echoes, in his own chirpy and irreverent way, Pope Benedict’s suggestion that Christianity can have an influential role in the post-Christian West as a creative minority.

I’ll explain at the end why I am not sure about this, but here are some choice quotations from the Skinner article:

Personally, I like our ever-dwindling status. I even like our ever-dwindling numbers. There was a time when social pressure made people go to church. If anything the reverse is now true. Most adults you see in church nowadays are there because they want to be there. That’s not decline, it’s progress. The wheat has been separated from the chaff. We get quality, not quantity, in the churches and the chaff can enjoy a nice lie-in…

Christians have always worked best as an unpopular minority. We were surely at our most dynamic when we knelt, eyes to Heaven, hands clasped in prayer, with a Colosseum lion bounding towards us.

That’s why I think Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is wrong to get his cassock in a twist about changing attitudes to Christianity in this country. He speaks of a “strident and bullying campaign” to marginalise Christianity. But that’s great news. “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake”…

I’m a little wary of muscular Christianity. It’s been used to justify everything from the Crusades to the shooting of abortion doctors. It seems to be in direct contradiction to “Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”…

Surely the central image of Christianity is someone who can shoot fireballs out of his fingertips allowing himself to be nailed to a wooden cross — submission as the ultimate show of strength — love as impenetrable armour. Most British Christians are badly dressed, unattractive people. We’re not pushy and aggressive members of society. We’re a bit like Goths — no one can remember us being fashionable and we talk about death a lot. I love the glorious un-coolness of that…

Christians tend to save their best work for the “voice in the wilderness” genre. We are most impressive when operating as a secret sect, kneeling in small, candle-lit rooms and scrawling fishes on walls. I’m enjoying this current dose of persecution. It’s definitely good for the soul.

This idea works if you believe that people are either wheat or chaff; that we are either ‘true Christians’ or ‘Christians in name only’ who might as well give up the pretence of Christianity now. But, to change the metaphor, I think we are more like seeds: thrown into the soil of the society and culture in which we live.

So if that culture is conducive to Christian faith; if it nourishes it, encourages it, gives it meaning, and helps it to grow — then many of us will indeed grow in our faith. But if it is antagonistic, negative, barren — then many of us who might otherwise have flourished, might give up altogether.

I’m not saying that we bear no responsibility for living our faith, and that we can simply blame the culture. I’m just stating what I think is a historical fact: that in times of severe persecution, despite the heroism and sacrifice of many Christians, many others are pressured into abandoning their faith, and this doesn’t mean that they didn’t have any faith in the first place.

That’s why I believe, much more than I used to, in the importance of building a culture (and institutions) that support Christian faith; and why I am much more sympathetic, and heartbroken, when good people abandon their faith because of the struggles they have had to face.

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World Youth Day 2008 Concert (#458) by Christopher Chan.

World Youth Day - Sydney, 2008

I did a recent post about the religious identity of young Catholics and their desire for a sense of belonging and purpose. John Allen explains how the emergence of a certain brand of ‘evangelical Catholicism’ reflects a broader sociological reality that can be seen across different religions. He draws on the work of the French sociologist Olivier Roy:

It’s not just Catholics passing through an evangelical phase. In fact, the revival of traditional identity and the push to proclaim that identity in public is a defining feature of religion generally in the early 21st century.

In Europe, Roy points to the vigorous defense of the public display of crucifixes by Catholics, the insistence of Muslim women upon wearing veils, and a trend among younger Jewish men to wear the kippah at school and in the workplace. On the Christian side of the ledger, he also includes the massive crowds drawn by the World Youth Days instituted under Pope John Paul II, and the more recent “Christian Pride” festivals organized in some European cities as a self-conscious response to “Gay Pride” rallies. Globally, Roy notes the explosive growth of Evangelical and Pentecostal forms of Christianity, the success of Salafism, Tablighi Jamaat and neo-Sufism within Islam, the comeback of the Lubavich movement inside Judaism, as well as the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the popularity of Sri Lankan theravada Buddhism.

Though highly distinct, Roy argues that these evangelical strains within the world’s major religions share certain defining features: “The individualization of faith, anti‐intellectualism, a stress on salvation and realization of the self, [and] rejection of the surrounding culture as pagan.”

One can debate the merits of certain items on that list, but in the main Roy’s observation is indisputable: The reassertion of traditional markers of religious identity, interpreted in a personal and evangelical key, is part of the physiognomy of our times far beyond the boundaries of the Catholic Church.

I’m not sure all this works as a description of the sources of renewal I have met within British Catholicism, but there is plenty to think about here.

Interestingly, Roy doesn’t see this as a comeback for religion, but a sign that mainstream religion is becoming more and more detached from the broader cultural and political environment. So it is a sign of the success of secularism.

[It's] a body blow, or at least a serious challenge, for religions such as Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, which historically have emphasized the integration of religion with cultural, national and ethnic identity. Certainly the heavy losses Catholicism has suffered to Pentecostals in Latin America, and more recently in parts of Africa, seem to lend credence to that view.

But Allen counters that this might be just the moment for Catholics to re-engage with the culture and show the possibility of integrating faith and reason.

One could argue that Catholicism is uniquely positioned to do justice to the legitimate aspiration for identity expressed in today’s evangelical push, while ensuring that it does not become so thoroughly disengaged from, or antagonistic to, the surrounding culture that it ends in the extremist pathologies Roy describes. That seems to be what Benedict XVI has in mind when he talks about contemporary Christianity as a “creative minority” – clear about what makes it different, but aiming to renew the broader culture from within, not forever warring against it.

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map — nov 28 by theogeo.

Two fascinating stories about China appeared in the press today – both of them, by coincidence, touching on her relationship with the West and her openness to outsiders.

First, a 400 year-old Chinese map went on display yesterday at the Library of Congress in Washington. It’s the first Chinese map to combine both eastern and western cartography, and hence the first to show China in relation to the Americas. Who was it created by? An Italian Jesuit missionary called Matteo Ricci:

One of the first westerners to live in what is now Beijing in the early 1600s, Ricci was famed for introducing western science to China, where he created the map in 1602 at the request of Emperor Wanli.

Shown publicly for the first time in North America, the map provides an impressively detailed vision of the different regions of the world with pictures and annotations.

Africa is noted as having the world’s highest mountain and longest river, while Florida is identified as “the Land of Flowers”. A description of North America mentions “humped oxen” or bison and wild horses, and there is even a reference to the little-known region of “Ka-na-ta”.

Ricci, revered and buried in his adopted home, provided a brief description of the discovery of the Americas. “In olden days, nobody had ever known that there were such places as North and South America or Magellanica,” he wrote, using a label that early mapmakers gave to Australia and Antarctica. “But a hundred years ago, Europeans came sailing in their ships to parts of the sea coast, and so discovered them.”

Ricci went to China with an open mind and an open heart, deeply sensitive to Chinese culture and sensibilities. At the same time, he was unembarrassed to share his own culture with the Chinese – whether scientific, religious, or cartographical… and the Chinese were remarkably open to this.

The second story is about Google’s recent decision to take the gloves off and remove the censorship it previously imposed on its own Chinese search engine. The fear now is that the Chinese authorities will pull the plug:

Google, the world’s leading search engine, has thrown down the gauntlet to China by saying it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The internet giant said the decision followed a cyber attack it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists.

The move follows a clampdown on the internet in China over the last year, which has seen sites and social networking services hosted overseas blocked – including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – and the closure of many sites at home. Chinese authorities ­criticised Google for supplying “vulgar” content in results.

Google acknowledged that the decision “may well mean” the closure of Google.cn and its offices in China.

That is an understatement, given that it had to agree to censor sensitive material – such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – to launch Google.cn.

“We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

My great-grandfather (my father’s father’s father) was a Chinese cloth merchant who converted to Christianity when he was on his travels round southern China in the late 1800s. So when my grandfather eventually settled with his family in Sheffield in the 1930s he was already a Christian, and had a bridge between his own culture and the largely Anglican culture into which he arrived. I often wonder who converted my great-grandfather, what kind of Christian community he encountered on his travels, and what the historical roots of their own Christian life were.

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Is religious education a form of brainwashing? Should children be free to make their own decisions about fundamental matters of faith? These questions are provoked by the new poster sponsored by the British Humanist Association. [See it here.] Two gloriously happy children hold their hands in the air as if they are about to do a cartwheel. The main text reads: “Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.” And floating in the background are the various labels under attack: “Buddhist child. Agnostic child. Protestant child. Humanist child. Catholic child. Atheist child…”

Candelaria religious education 1 + 2 by John Donaghy.

Religious education in Candelaria

I have an article in Timesonline in response to this. I’ll copy most of it below, but put it in quote marks just to acknowledge that it was not written for this blog. I give four reasons why the call to liberate children is superficially appealing but fundamentally naive:

First: The exercise of freedom requires some prior foundation. Children have to learn how to make choices: how to weigh things up, how to judge what is best, how to take responsibility. Any child psychologist knows this. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And an essential part of learning to choose is having some sense of the meaning of the world we inhabit, of the value of our actions, and of the significance of their consequences. In other words, freedom can’t be learnt outside a context of meaning and values.

Religious faith can help establish this context; so can a robust humanism. But to think that freedom can be learnt in a vacuum, without the sharing of any moral or philosophical convictions, is simply naïve. Children who are brought up without inherited values of any kind are actually less able to exercise their freedom and choose for themselves. Just as children who are brought up without boundaries will never be able to learn the significance of crossing them.

Second: If you believe something important to be true, then you shouldn’t pretend it is an open question. This goes for secular humanists as much as for religious believers. If, for example, you are a convinced atheist, and you think that belief in God is false at an intellectual level and damaging through its distorting effects on morality, then of course you would want to share this conviction with your children. It would be unjust to keep it from them. Similarly, if you believe in God, and you believe that this faith is not just a lifestyle choice or a cultural imperative but an objective truth with profound implications for human existence, how could you not share this conviction with your children? Yes, you want to nurture their freedom and you hope they will discover things for themselves. But if it is a question of truth – whether scientific or moral or spiritual – then you will inevitably want to guide your children along a certain path, knowing full well that they may one day choose to veer off in another direction.

Third: It’s a fantasy to imagine that children can be raised in a philosophically neutral environment without some dominant world-view. Theism – as much as atheism, materialism, or secular humanism (these terms are not synonymous) – provides a particular understanding of the meaning of the world and of human life, which will help structure a child’s understanding and values. But if you try to bring your children up in an environment which is indifferent to questions of ultimate meaning, then your purported neutrality will already have been lost. If, in effect, you say to your children, “I don’t care enough about these values or convictions to share them with you”, or “they are important to me but not important in themselves”, then you are presenting them with a very particular world-view. In this view, religious questions and all questions of ultimate meaning are relativised, and indifference is taken to be the predominant value.

To say to a child, “I don’t mind – you choose!” is to give the child the strongest possible impression that the available options are all equally significant, which is to say that none is uniquely significant. So this apparently ‘soft’ form of neutrality suggested in the poster is actually a ‘hard’ form of relativism which relegates religious and philosophical questions to the periphery of human interest.

Fourth: A strong notion of autonomy, which is essential to an individual’s freedom, requires an appreciation of one’s human dignity. Children need to know not just that they are loved but that their life has meaning and is valuable in itself. If this is not communicated in some way, then the love of the parents, however profound, will become distorted, because the children will see themselves as valuable to their parents but not valuable as persons in their own right. It doesn’t matter how this innate value is framed (‘human dignity’, ‘the sanctity of life’, etc.) as long as it is articulated somehow.

Human autonomy, rightly cherished by secular humanists, needs some notion of intrinsic human dignity to support it – otherwise it has no foundation and no meaning. So, paradoxically, in order to liberate children from the limited vision of their parents and culture, you have to imbue them with a strong sense of their own worth, of their dignity, of their significance in a framework of meaning. The humanism of the early Enlightenment held on to a strong notion of human dignity and human uniqueness, even as it became more secular. But as secular humanists have become more and more materialist in their outlook, and as materialism has failed to offer any satisfying accounts of human dignity, it has become almost impossible to avoid describing human nature in reductivist terms.

Contemporary secular humanists are largely unable to explain to children why their freedom and autonomy have any significance, why their life has any meaning – and this is why the exaltation of freedom proposed in this poster feels a bit hollow. If you really want your children to be free, you need to tell them why their freedom matters, and help them appreciate some of the values they might pursue. And to do that, you need to use at least a few labels

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John Allen – always worth listening to – thinks that Christians in Europe overemphasize the global significance of secularization [Go to the final section of the article - 'I was in Spain this week...'].

ze New Atheism by ~C4Chaos.

He agrees that Europe is becoming increasingly secular, but argues that this can hide a more important truth: that the primary challenge facing the Catholic Church outside the West is the diversity and vibrancy of the religious alternatives. It’s worth a long quotation:

Seen exclusively through a European prism, it could perhaps seem as if secularism is the chief, if not the only, pastoral and cultural challenge facing the faith. The truth, however, is that Europe is really the only zone of the world where secularism has an especially large sociological footprint. In the United States, there are influential pockets of secularism among our cultural elites — in the faculty lounges of our universities, for example, and on our newspaper editorial boards — but at the grassroots we remain an intensely religious society. Outside the West, one has to look long and hard to find real secularists.

In most of the rest of the world, the primary pastoral challenge facing Catholicism isn’t secularism but the competitive dynamics of a bustling religious marketplace. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the main competitors to Catholicism are Christian Pentecostalism, or Islam, or revived forms of indigenous religion. As a result, to craft future strategies for Catholicism based largely on defending ourselves against secularization risks misreading the social situation. Most people in the world, most of the time, aren’t seriously tempted by secular agnosticism, but rather by one or another option on the contemporary spiritual smorgasbord – and that smorgasbord is, therefore, where at least some share of your energy and imagination ought to be directed, not just pondering secularism.

Let me offer one practical implication. To the extent we define secularism as our main problem, Catholicism inevitably ends up looking defensive, forever building walls around a tradition we believe to be under assault. When the term of comparison is no longer secularism, however, but rather some forms of Pentecostalism or Islam, or quasi-magical currents in indigenous belief, that change of context positions Catholicism differently, as an alternative to religious movements that at times veer toward fundamentalism, extremism, or thaumaturgy. The capacity of Catholicism to integrate reason and faith, to uphold tradition while at the same time engaging modernity, emerges with greater clarity.

In other words, given what’s actually on offer in today’s religious marketplace, Catholicism often seems a balanced, moderate, and sophisticated option. For the record, this is how most people on the planet right now actually see the Catholic church, in light of what else they see around them.

That realization ought to have consequences not only for our missionary and pastoral strategies, but also for our own attitudes about the church.

I agree with most of this. But I’d add a few comments: (1) Yes, secularization might be a predominantly Western ‘problem’, but as the influence of Western culture increases (and it seems to be doing so), then so will the global challenge of secularization.

Atheism is... by JohnConnell.(2) Despite my appreciation of the deep faith of many Americans, I think that secularism has spread well beyond the cultural elites of university faculties and newspaper editorial boards and at least into the suburbs.

(3) Allen concludes that the ‘defensive’ form of Catholicism that emerges in opposition to secularism is not an appropriate response to the challenge of fundamentalist religious movements. So globally, as an alternative to these competing forms of religion, the Church needs to show an engagement with modernity and an ability to integrate faith and reason. But in my view, both secularism and religious fundamentalism require a similar response: the call to reason, the invitation to faith, the presentation of the transforming beauty of the tradition, and of the continuing newness of revelation. So I’m not sure if this is the wedge issue that Allen thinks it is.

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Chinese mosque by ninjawil.

Two out of three Muslims are Asian, reports Peter Beaumont (witness the Chinese mosque above). A new survey – Mapping the Global Muslim Population - reminds us that Islam is not to be identified with the Arab world, and the Arab world is not to be identified with Islam. Fifty demographers and social scientists have analysed thousands of sources and given the most accurate picture to date of Islam’s global distribution.

The world’s Muslim population stands at 1.57 billion, meaning that nearly one in four people practise Islam, according to the US Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which published the survey. This compares to 2.25 billion Christians.

The top five Muslim countries in the world include only one in the Middle East ‑ Egypt ‑ behind Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in that order. Russia, the survey shows, has more Muslims than the populations of Libya and Jordan combined. Germany has more Muslims than Lebanon. China has a bigger Muslim population than Syria…

Brian Grim, one of the researchers, said: “We started on this work because the estimates for the number of the world’s Muslims ranged so widely, from 1 billion to 1.8 billion. For people who do this kind of work, perhaps the figures are not surprising but there are a lot of highly educated people who do not know that one in four are Muslim.”

A similar survey is planned by the Pew Forum on the distribution of Christians.

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Guardian by goodonpaper.I had a bit of a media day yesterday, so to save me blogging, here are some links, just in case you are interested.

You are probably sick of discussions about the relics of St Thérèse by now. Simon Jenkins wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago that was very dismissive of the custom of venerating relics, and even more dismissive of the rationality of Christian belief. You can read my response here.

And at lunchtime I was involved in a debate on Radio 4 (You and Yours) about the apparent decline of religious practice in the UK, and particularly about the place of institutional religion in peoples lives. It was a live phone-in, with input from panelists representing various religions, and an atheist who edits a popular philosophy magazine. It’s long – an hour. If you have the time you can listen here. [But the link will die after a week - I presume on Tuesday 6th October.]

telephone dial by Leo Reynolds.

When it is well chaired and well sieved, I like the phone-in format for this kind of discussion. You get a real feel for the cross-section of opinions out there. It wasn’t just people giving out about their beliefs; they were talking about how their religious practice or non-practice had influenced their lives, what it meant to them, how they had come to faith, or why they had left it. And especially about this question of whether faith can just be a personal, private conviction, or whether it needs expression and support in a community, in an institution.

There wasn’t much conversation about the content of what people believe – more about the human satisfactions or not of belonging to a religious community. But it was worthwhile nevertheless. See what you think.

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There is still a mystique about film sets. The idea of being involved in some great project, in the magic of cinema; of seeing the director at work, or of meeting the stars. For most of us, it will never happen. For some, the only way in is to become an extra.

ARD Film set by nicholas macgowan.

Richard Johnson writes here about the reality of life as a ‘supporting artist’. It’s everything you’d expect: lots of waiting around; endless worrying about whether you have the right look; the free lunch; the modest fee; if you are lucky, a smile from one of the cast.

I’ve never been an extra on a film set, but I have been an unwanted intruder on a photo shoot. When my brother and I were little, on family holidays, we would play a game of trying to sneak into other people’s photographs. When we spotted someone about to take a photo, we’d do whatever it took to get in the frame – there was more time in those days, when people struggled with the focus and the light meters.

We had two strategies: You could take a long, sideways run into the far background, and stand there innocently, unobtrusively, as part of the distant scenery. Or you could walk boldly just a few feet behind those being shot, at just the right moment. It you timed it right, you made a big splash; but there was always the risk of moving too soon. 

It was a bit of holiday fun. And perhaps something more. A childlike longing, not for fame, but perhaps for immortality. I used to imagine this photo sitting in a frame on a French coffee table, or a German mantelpiece, years later; our cheeky grins jumping out from the background; our new friends wondering who these strangers were, and what they were doing.

mantelpiece by carbide.

Are these normal thoughts? Maybe not. But I do think there are some simple and almost universal longings at work here in our childish pranks and in the pull of the film set: To be part of something bigger; to have a place in the lives of others; to be remembered; to leave a mark. It’s easy to scoff at the contemporary obsession with fame, and the almost compulsive need there is to connect in all sorts of superficial ways. But maybe we should try to understand more what is at the root of these human needs – the desire to belong.

It makes you appreciate what a revolution the first Christian communities were in those highly stratified ancient societies. Places where anyone, absolutely anyone, could belong. Where no-one was excluded because of race or sex or social status or economic power. Where a new and deeper kind of belonging was possible, because of what Christ had done for everyone, and because of the hope he offered to all.

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