I was talking to some young apprentice priests. I asked them what the opposite of faith was. They said doubt, which is wrong. The opposite of faith is certainty. Faith involves a certain amount of doubt. We all have doubts about whether the Invisible Magic Friend really exists or not.
Ever since he expelled us from the Garden of Eden because of the talking snake incident, humans have been wondering whether the Invisible Magic Friend really exists. (This is a parable by the way as it has now been proved that it couldn't possibly have happened.) Sometimes they've wondered whether lots of Invisible Magic Friends haven't existed.
It's especially difficult to have faith in the Invisible Magic Friend at times of personal loss. Why does the infinitely friendly Invisible Magic Friend allow such beastly things to happen? People with faith in the Invisible Magic Friend have been trying to explain this for thousands of years. Most of the explanations are rubbish. However, in the Book of Job, where the Invisible Magic Friend torments Job for a bet with the Invisible Magic Baddy, there's a much more convincing explanation. There we find that we mere mortals are incapable of understanding the ways of the Invisible Magic Friend, which is why he hasn't bothered explaining them to us. I think most people accept that that's a pretty reasonable explanation of why there's no explanation.
On the other hand, when tragedy strikes, having faith in an Invisible Magic Friend can be an enormous comfort blanket.
The right to die and gay marriage: what does the Church have to say?
Well, mostly it says "No" but I don't want to go into that. The question I want to ask is, why doesn't anyone pay any attention to what we say? It's almost as if people think the Big Book of Magic Stuff is irrelevant. I know, shocking, isn't it? The question is, given that the Big Book of Magic Stuff has nothing to say on many modern moral dilemmas, how can we twist its meaning to make it sound relevant?
In the good old days, people used to ask church leaders if something was moral or not. Church leaders said "No" and everyone dutifully persecuted the sinners. Nowadays people want reasons, which is so very unreasonable of them. It's almost as if people don't like us telling them how to run their lives.
Many people who give up on religion give up on morality as well. They have it surgically removed so that they can run around being as amoral as they like. I think people giving up on morality is a very bad thing. You'll come to regret it you know. In the end you'll wish you'd listened to the arbitrary assertions of church leaders.
Monday, 12 March, 2012, 08:35 AM - BillingsRating 3 out of 5 (Fairly platitudinous)
What are we going to do with the unemployed?
On the one hand, we could view them as down on their luck, forced to live on benefits, the poorest in the land. On the other hand, we could view them as a bunch of lazy, work-shy, good for nothings who live off the taxes of hard working vicars like myself.
Which view does Christianity tend to in regards to poor people? Well, on the one hand, Jesus says to help the poor, to be kind and compassionate. On the other hand, Saint Paul says to knock them down, then maybe kick them about a bit. John Smith thought the same advice applied to gentlemen in his Jamestown colony who thought themselves too good to work. Interestingly, that little nugget of information is on the same Wikipedia page as the Saint Paul quote, which is quite a coincidence. Also on the same page is a bit about how Lenin agreed with Saint Paul, but I'm not going to mention that in case it confuses Christians. On the other hand, that means Lenin disagreed with Jesus, which just goes to show how evil he was.
How have we dealt with poor people over time? On the one hand we used to send them to the Workhouse, which was not very nice. On the other hand, now we don't.
I think we can begin to see a pattern in all of this. On the one hand we might want to come down hard on the unemployed. On the other hand, we might not.
Personally, I don't think I would like to compel the unemployed to do anything that an ordinary, hard working, Rev Canon Dr, such as myself, isn't prepared to do.
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.