Has anyone mentioned the Olympics and the Golden Jubilee yet? No? Good job I was here then.
There'll be lots and lots of people looking at Britain during the Olympics and the Golden Jubilee. The big question they'll all be asking themselves is, what religion are they? And the remarkable thing that they'll find, almost unique to Britain and virtually every other secular Western democracy, is that we have lots of religions. Even better still, all these religions get along quite happily with one another, except for Northern Ireland and Scotland. I know, isn't it remarkable! Different religions living (mostly) peacefully side by side. It's so remarkable that it's worth remarking about.
This is because of all the hard work we've put into all our inter-faith meetings and their delicious Halal buffet lunches. It has nothing to do with the fact that hardly anyone cares about religion any more and we all have to band together to ensure that we aren't even more irrelevant than we're rapidly becoming. You can be absolutely certain, that if religion ever came to dominate the public discourse again in this country, it would do so in a tolerant, polite, civilised and totally non-violent way.
If there's one thing that Britain can be rightfully proud of, it's that it's not Nigeria, or Kenya, or Egypt, or Pakistan, or any of the other countries around the world where religion is still considered important.
The trouble with all these countries is that religious people are religious full time. Here in Britain we've learned only to be religious part of the time. The rest of the time we're just like normal people. We have jobs, hobbies, civic duties and clubs where we can meet each other, get to know one another and see beyond the heretic or infidel who's standing in front of us.
So you see, Britain has a really important lesson that it can teach the rest of the world: the less religion there is, the happier and less violent a nation becomes.
Morning prayer begins, "The night has passed and a new day lies open."
What a wonderful sentiment that is. It suggests that the night has passed and a new day lies open. We could say something similar about the new year, the old year has passed and a new year lies open. This too suggests that an old year has passed and a new year lies open.
Of course, things in the past affect things in the future. It is the way of things. But not all things in the past affect all things in the future and there are some things in the future that we can still change, even though there remain some things in the past that will affect the future and that we have no control over.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, a grump middle aged cynic, goes on and on about how nothing ever changes. Well, as I have just shown, things do change, because there are things in the past that do not affect things in the future and so there are things in the future that we can change, even though there are some things in the past that do affect some things in the future, although not all of them.
When we were young, a long long time ago now, the world was full of possibilities. Then we ended up in some dead end career, got married, got a mortgage and settled down to the daily, depressing, endless grind that became our unfulfilling and ultimately pointless life. Just as Ecclesiastes says. Don't you wish you could have a more exciting career, that you could abandon your family and be free again? I know I do.
But wait, some of us can pray to the Invisible Magic Friend! And in praying to the Invisible Magic Friend we become, in an ambiguous and unspecified but nevertheless very real sense, free to gain more knowledge, more understanding, to do more good.
Thanks to the fact that I pray to the Invisible Magic Friend, I am able to be optimistic about the future and wish you all a very Happy New Year. The rest of you will just have to collapse in a depressing, paralysing heap as you contemplate the economic woe or the wearisome drudgery of your inane, irrelevant existence.
Isn't what's happening in Syria just terrible? All this brutal dictatorship and gunning down of people. Tut tut.
In this brutal dictatorship there will be some people who are brutal and dictators. We call these people "wicked" people. But it is important to realise that not all the people of Syria are wicked. Some are not wicked at all. They are mostly being shot. Most people are only slightly wicked, going along with the regime for fear of being shot.
Doubtless the people of Syria will recall the words of the visible bit of the Invisible Magic Friend, as given to us by the real Big Book of Magic Stuff, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." To everyone in Syria who is listening to the Today Programme, do not be confused by the latter part of this saying from Jesus. As a Rev Canon Dr and an Anglican priest, let me just assure you that what it means is this. The people who thought they knew what they were doing when they crucified Jesus, didn't really know what they were doing. If they had known that they were crucifying Jesus then they would have known what they were doing and there would have been no need for Jesus to tell the other bits of the Invisible Magic Friend that they didn't know what they were doing.
Let us not be too hard on the people of Syria who are a little bit wicked, but not a lot. Haven't we all gone along with a brutal dictatorship from time to time? It's just human nature to shrug our shoulders and say, "Well it's only a little bit brutal and not all the time. There's no need to get all revolutionary and shot at, is there?"
The crash on the M5 on Friday killed seven and injured 51 others. Anyone who regularly uses the motorways may well shiver with fear at memories of their own near misses or incidents they may have been involved with. It reminds us just how instantly our lives can be changed by unexpected events.
But it's not just motorway crashes that you should be afraid of. On this dark and gloomy November morning, let us remind ourselves that there are no end of ways in which our lives can be made irredeemably miserable. Your cherished partner, the love of your life, could desert you at any moment. You might get to work this morning, only to find the redundancy notice waiting for you. You could be diagnosed with terminal cancer on your next visit to the doctor. You could be about to retire when a stock market crash destroys your annuity and condemns you to an old age of abject poverty. An earthquake could destroy your home and your possessions, killing your children and burying your beloved grandmother under a hundred tons of rubble. Nuclear Armageddon, with the destruction of our entire civilisation, might be only around the corner. The Invisible Magic Friend could visit no end of horrors upon you on the merest whim.
It is at times like these that we clutch to our cherished memories: a photograph, a small memento or keepsake, a statue of the visible bit of the Invisible Magic Friend being horribly crucified for your sake, or a reading from the Big Book of Magic Stuff.
Religion: the one small comfort we have for when the Invisible Magic Friend comes to visit.
I'm a vicar in Sheffield. Sheffield has two universities you know? As a vicar in Sheffield, I do Sunday services. It's one of the things a vicar in Sheffield does - Sunday services.
Sunday services in Sheffield, where I am a vicar, are attended by a huge and diverse range of Anglican Christians. The young Anglicans who attend the services in Sheffield, which has two universities and where I am the vicar, come from all over the world. This is largely because the young people born in Sheffield, where I am the vicar and which has two universities, don't generally attend Sunday services.
Many of these young people who attend Sunday services in Sheffield, where I am the vicar and which has two universities, come from places like Syria and Libya, where great political turmoil is taking place. I ask them how they have had the courage to take part in their respective revolutions. To which they reply that they are actually in Sheffield, attending one of its two universities and speaking to me after Sunday services where I am the vicar.
However, had they not been in Sheffield, attending one of its two universities and speaking to me after Sunday services where I am the vicar, they say they would be inspired by the words of Jesus, who is the visible bit of the Invisible Magic Friend, and who famously said, "Don't accept military dictatorship. Be a revolutionary. Fight for Democracy and liberal values," shortly before being carted off by the Roman military dictatorship and being executed.
It turns out that the revolutions in the Arab world are being led exclusively by people inspired by these inspirational words of Jesus. Where else could these young Arabs have got their inspiration from?
I am inspired by the words of these young Anglicans, attending one of the two universities in Sheffield and speaking to me after Sunday services where I am the vicar, as they recall the inspirational words of Jesus as he calls for violent revolution against dictatorships. It shows just how relevant the Anglican faith is today, even in the Arab world.
Politicians and commentators are very much into "gangs" at the moment. They think they may have had something to do with the riots. The Hon Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, who got the taxpayer to pay for his £9,000 Bang and Olufsen TV (not one of those grubby Samsungs grabbed by a teenager from Comet in the high street) asked how they could be "reclaimed by society". The PM's even getting advice from America because no one in the police, the probation service or social services here in the UK know anything about gangs.
I used to spend a lot of time in young offenders institutions, scout troops, boys football clubs, YMCA and so on. One youngster told me that the gang gave him what he needed: respect, a sense of worth and something to do - robbing, threatening, thieving, shooting - that sort of thing. In an era when there are few low skilled jobs available, crime was still one profession that required relatively few academic credentials. Here was something where he could be truly successful - he told me from his prison cell.
I just want to make it absolutely clear that I'm not one of those namby pamby liberals who wants to be soft on thugs. Get 'em inside I say, where they can spend long periods of time, confined with other testosterone fuelled teenagers - and that's just the girls. That'll teach 'em. Perhaps they can be visited by the occasional Rev Canon Dr.
What the riots show is that the fate of these young people is intimately connected to the rest of society. We ignore or abandon them at our peril.
Jesus, the visible bit of the Invisible Magic Friend, shook his bling covered fist and famously said, "Don't be disraspectin da Chrischin gang, innit!"
And in up to the minute news, last year I married a young Chinese couple in my Church. Both came from wealthy Chinese families, the kind of people we very much like to see in the Church of England. As China overtakes Europe and the US to become the world's industrial superpower, young people in China see Christianity as the modern way of thinking, the way of the future, the bright shining way forward, the religion of bold new ideas, the religion that dares to say: a guy died on a stick to save you from a talking snake.
These prosperous, well educated, young Chinese, recognise Christianity as the fresh, fashionable alternative to the outmoded ideologies of the past. Communism, a cruel, evil way of thinking, where individuals were barred from becoming outrageously wealthy and joining the Church of England, is now seem as the dogma of the past. Christianity welcomes those who have done well for themselves. Jesus frequently condemned communism and encouraged all of his followers to accumulate as much economic capital as possible.
But Christianity isn't only for the fabulously rich. You see, Christianity is the religion that cares. Christianity cares about people, about society, about you. As China's economic power and personal wealth begins to overtake the USA, you'll find more and more Christian preachers there - where the money is.
Monday, 25 July, 2011, 07:49 AM - BillingsRating 3 out of 5 (Fairly platitudinous)
It used to be far left extremists who were responsible for terrorism. Then some people who didn't properly understand Islam, hijacked the Religion of Peace to use it to justify terrorism. Now it seems, it is the far right's turn, this time claiming to uphold Christian fundamentalism.
In blowing up government offices in Oslo and shooting teenagers in cold blood on Utoeya island, Anders Behring Breivik attacked both the current leadership of Norway's Labour Party and its next generation leaders.
This reminds me of Jesus, who fought the Invisible Magic Baddy in the desert for 40 days. I think the relevance to Norway's worst massacre since World War II is clear.
I know lots of young people have died, but what's really important here is that Christianity doesn't get represented as a violent, intolerant religion. We really stopped being violent quite some time ago and quite a few have even given up being intolerant. We can't have people who don't understand Christianity properly doing what the people who didn't understand Islam properly did. Some of them actually thought that Jihad was meant to be taken literally as a fight for Islam, rather than a deep inner struggle. They failed to realise how Islam deeply innerly struggled all the way across Arabia, the Middle East, the Far East and North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries.
That's why it's really important to explain to people that Breivik's Christianity isn't real Christianity, it isn't true Christianity, it isn't my Christianity.
As anyone mentioned Easter yet? Happy Easter everyone!
Phew, well thank goodness the papers said some nice things about Christians for a change. At least the various denominations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre managed to avoid a brawl this year.
Quite why some people don't like Christians is a bit of a puzzle. They seem to think that Christianity is, in some unspecified way, divisive. Nothing could be further from the truth. Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans (both high and low church), Calvinists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic and Evangelical Christians couldn't be more united. It's ridiculous to suggest that Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans (both high and low church), Calvinists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic and Evangelical Christians are in any way in conflict with one another.
It's probably unwise to say we feel "persecuted", although we do. Think of all the high profile cases lately where, quite unreasonably, we haven't been allowed to push our beliefs on others, or even discriminate against The Gays - a fine, ancient church tradition that must surely be allowed to continue.
Everyday church attendance may be constantly dwindling but we get good turnouts on big days like Easter, when people know that we put on a bit of a show. Even more encouraging, government spending cuts will soon start to bite. There'll be big increases in poverty, destitution, homelessness and drug and alcohol dependency. What's more, there aren't going to be the government agencies to help them. It's boom time for the churches again. "Want a nice, hot, cup of thick, nutritious soup? Just step inside, into the warmth and sing a few hymns to Jesus. Is that really so much to ask?"
We're everywhere. We've got the buildings, we've got the people, we've got the schools, we've got our hands on the social services in all the most deprived areas. You just see if church attendance doesn't start to go up. Although we're still persecuted because we don't get to do absolutely everything we want.
Oh, and Jesus did rise from the dead, so there.
The conflict in Libya highlights the need for some urgent theology. As Christians, we must obey the words of the visible bit of the Invisible Magic Friend: do good to those who hate you, love your enemies, turn the other cheek. Thanks to the genius of Christian theologians down the ages, we now realise that this was not intended to be taken literally. What Our Lord was actually saying was, "Go in there with all guns blazing and kill anything that gets in your way."
This was a tactic that, in a more profoundly religious age, was happily adopted in the conventional fire bombing and nuclear holocaust of various enemy cities. Unfortunately, in this more heathen, secular age, we don't do that sort of thing any more. Nowadays we seem to be limited to "humanitarian intervention" and other such, unchristian, namby pamby conflicts.
Christian theology is severely out of date when it comes to such limited action. We need to supplement Just War Theory with a "Just Bomb the Hell out of Whoever we don't Like Theory." The United Nations and International Law are just rubbish when it comes to getting in there and bombing things. They want to sit around and talk about it, when what we really need are big, expensive, hi-tech fighter bombers, whooshing over enemy troops, targeting them with precision, high explosive bombs, rattling them with heavy calibre machine gun fire, chasing them away from the charred, bloody, dismembered remains of their defeated comrades.
That's the Christian way of doing things.