Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hello Again

Well I am so sorry to be so long absent. Thank you to those who have kept reading. By way of an apology and to get going again, I am publishing today the first in a series of four short talks I have just completed.

What has been going on lately? Well, I have been speaking on 1 Corithinas during Lent for our Lent Bible Studies. I will tell you more about this when I resume my series on present challenges in my ministry here in Christ Church in a few days time. We have also just had our Annual General Meeting.

I have been uncomfortable with Church AGMs ever since one in my previous Church went horribly and unpredictably wrong. Everything had been going smoothly and the year had gone well. One member took it upon himself to vent some personal prejudices in a way that was hurtful and destrutive to many who were present. We did our best to conatain the damge, but it left a bitter taste in everyone's mouth.

Our AGM last Sunday went well, but I still think that the more we make the Church seem like a secular organization in the way we do business, the more we will think and behave as if it is a secular organization. Please don't misundertsand me. I am sure there needs to be good practice and accountability. I just with we could behave more as if we were different. That we were perhaps the body of Christ.

I also intensely dislike democracy in the Church. There is a wonderful moment in the film, the Mission, when one of the Jesuit priests says to the character played by Jeremy Irons, 'Father, we have discussed the possibility and don't think we should do it.' The reply is, 'We are not a democracy, we are an order.' Democracy in the Church is wasting time, effort, and money and passing off the votes of men as the will of God. But it looks as if we are stuck with it!

Enough of my prejudices against democracy for now. Here is the first talk!

Talk One: Idolatry

One thing that most people know about the Apostle Paul is that he went on journeys. In the past, Paul’s missionary journeys used to be the staple diet of Sunday School children. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across a shop on the Peak here in Hong Kong selling a T-shirt with a map of Paul’s journeys printed on it! It was while on his second journey that he visited Athens. St Luke, who records these journeys, tells us that Paul was shocked by the idolatry he saw there. Of course, for the Athenians and for the ancient world in general, this was just a normal part of everyday life. Pagan temples were at the heart of city culture.

Paul as a good Jew, however, could only regard such worship as both dangerous and wrong. The first commandment that God gave Moses was, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. And the second, ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ The first Christians being Jewish, as Jesus was himself, were also firmly opposed to idolatry.

The problem was that as Jewish-Christians like Paul journeyed telling people about Christ they attracted converts who came, not from a Jewish background with its hatred of idolatry, but from a pagan background where idolatry was very much the thing. Paul and the other Christian teachers had to teach these converts not only to worship God in Christ, but also to abandon their idols. In one of his first letters to Christians in Thessalonica, not far from Athens, Paul writes of them that they had ‘turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.’

In his most famous letter, to the Christians at Rome, Paul elaborates on this theme and explains what the problem with idolatry is. Idolatry says Paul is what happens when people stop worshipping the living and true God. Evidence for the living and true God is to be seen everywhere in the world around us whether we look at it through the eyes of an artist and see its incredible beauty and majesty such as the beauty of a sunset or the majesty of the sea. Or whether we look at it through the eyes of a scientist and see its incredible complexity and design. You don’t need to be a brilliant scientist or theologian to be able to see that there is a God: commonsense should tell you. How could the universe just be?

In popular media, theists, that is those who believe in God, are often portrayed as gullible and naïve, people who have sacrificed their mind and intelligence because of their faith. The Bible tells us that it is, in fact, the other way round. We sacrificed our minds and intellect when we stopped believing in the living and true God. Our thinking became futile and our minds became darkened, says Paul. But we did not stop being spiritual beings when we stopped believing in the living and true God. Made in the image of God, who is himself spirit, we still needed, and need, something and someone to worship, to give our lives meaning, and to replace the God we have lost.

For the ancients, God was replaced with images of animals, of the creation itself, or even of other human beings. Not prepared to worship the Creator, we decided to worship what he had created instead. And the images multiplied. Today we may not worship the images of animals any more, but we still need something to worship and our hearts ache to find that something or someone to give our lives meaning. But as the Apostle Paul told people in his day, only the living and true God can do that.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Present Challenges: 3. The Congregation

It may seem strange listing the congregation as a challenge so I had better explain.

Christ Church is made up of two very distinct congregations. First, there is what I would describe as the Parish Congregation. People have been coming to Christ Church now for nearly 75 years. During this time, it has become very much part of the local community. People have come to regard it as their Church even if they don’t attend it very often. This is not to say that this Parish Congregation part of the Church isn’t represented in worship: it is. It is just that only a small percentage of it is there regularly on a Sunday.

People in the Parish Congregation feel comforted to know that 'the Church is there for you' for births, marriages, and deaths as well as the major festivals of the year. In this way, it is very much like a traditional Parish Church in England, and it is something that Church of England Churches (which we were until comparatively recently) do best. Indeed, the sort of community that the series Friends presents and which many find so attractive(see a previous post), the Parish Church had many, many years ago.

This then is the first congregation: the Parish Congregation, mainly Chinese, part of which comes to worship and part of which will come occasionally, but which values its attachment to the Church.

Secondly, there is the School Congregation. The key ages for children here are 3 and 5. At 3, they have to apply for kindergarten, which covers the ages of 4 and 5. At 5, they have to apply for primary school, which covers the ages of 6-11. The primary school a child attends will normally determine which secondary school the child will eventually go to. The kindergarten will help determine which primary school the child goes to. Getting into what are perceived as the better schools is fiercely competitive. Fiercely!

Children at the age of 3 will have portfolios of achievements. Every waking moment of the child will be occupied in educational activities. Parents will pay any amount of money and make any sacrifice to get their child into the desired kindergarten or the desired primary school. The system is open to the worst of abuses.

It is, then, no big deal for parents to get up on a Sunday morning to take their child to Church. If there is even the slightest chance it might even help a little, it is worth it. If a parent is willing to pay for Maths, Chinese, English, Art, and Music lessons, and much more besides, at the age of 3, it is no great sacrifice to go to Church for an hour on Sunday.

This means that we have a large number of people, easily outnumbering the numbers of the other part of the congregation, who come solely and only for the purpose of being able to say that they attend Christ Church when they apply for schools. Friends in England have said that this goes on there too. To an extent it does. But I have to tell you it is not remotely on the scale it is on here!

I have written about the problems this causes specifically with baptism, but the problems it causes are not confined by any means simply to baptism. For not only do people come to Church, they also say and do all the right things, and for a season become committed members of the Church. They learn the language, beliefs, and ideas. They volunteer for all the jobs. They are often very enthusiastic. They are prepared to give of their time, effort, and money. Until their child has got into the desired school, that is, then we don’t see them again.

The drop-out rate is about 95%. And that is probably only because the other 5% haven’t found the right school yet.

The normal response of people to this is to say it creates opportunities for evangelism and ministry. And it does, and I for one seek to take those opportunities. All I can say is that there is little evidence that such evangelism and ministry meets with any real success.

I suppose I could live with the School Congregation side of things were it not for the effect it has on the Parish Congregation. It is overwhelming and suffocating. Furthermore, it is hard not to become cynical.

Let me give a typical example. I am not referring to anyone specifically.

Imagine John starts coming to Church. He asks to see the Vicar. He explains that his life has been devoted to money and career in the past, but now he wants to find something more. He has discovered great spiritual fulfilment and meaning through coming to Church. He would like to volunteer to help and would like to offer support financially to the Church. He comes to meetings. He is a happy, friendly and apparently very sincere person. He talks about all God has done for him since joining the Church and how important Christ is in his life. People like him.

One day he asks to see the Vicar: ‘I hope you can help me. I have a son who is 3. I want him to have a Christian education. Could the Church help him get into the School?’ Whether or not his child gets into the School, once he knows the decision that is the last that is seen of him in Church.

An added challenge is that many of the Parish Congregation are very comfortable with this situation. It makes the Church feel full and busy. It keeps the show on the road and relieves the regulars of some of the workload. Sadly, it has to be said, it also gives some the feeling of power and influence. For the Vicar won’t be the only person John approaches for help.

I know, in theory at least, how to minister to the Parish Congregation. I haven’t a clue how to minister to the School Congregation. You see its not ministering they want. It’s a place at one of the Schools that they are after. And they are extremely focused on getting it.

And while I have been writing this blog, I have received three requests for baptism from families wanting to get their child into School.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Present Challenges: 2. The Schools

School work in the normal run of things has always been a major part of the work of the Vicar here at Christ Church. The Vicar sits on five school Councils and is intimately involved in the life of two of them. So even if everything was going very smoothly a lot of the Vicar’s time would be spent on School work. I knew this when I came and accepted it gladly. The trouble was that things were going anything but smoothly.

My experience at Banchory was that school-work was a vital part of my own ministry and that of my Church. However, as you may remember from a previous post, when I came here the situation at one of the Schools, DPS, was in meltdown. A popular headteacher had been forced out, an unpopular one appointed, half the teachers had resigned in a protest against the existing management, parents were in uproar, and people outside the daily life of the School were jockeying for position, power, and influence. It was a total nightmare not only for the School but also for the Church, which was being blamed for many of the problems in the first place.

My first goal was to calm it all down and that meant getting us out of the press. I took over responsibility for all news management. This simply meant making sure there was no news! The next immediate problem was the problem of the headteacher. The truth was that he should never have been appointed. He was a perfectly nice man, and it was not his fault that he had been appointed. But given the situation he inherited, he was always going to be in difficulties.

I think those who supported the former headteacher wanted rid of him as a sort of revenge. ‘You got rid of our headteacher so we are going to get rid of yours.’ He had had no co-operation from the moment he arrived and had had a systematic campaign waged against him of the nastiest kind. How do you behave as a Christian in this sort of situation? On the one hand, you can see the problem: that this was not the right person to have been appointed. On the other, he had a right to be treated fairly and legally. This was not an easy message to communicate when people were divided into two camps either for or against him.

I argued that we needed to give him time to prove himself with the support of all involved. Then at the end of this period we could organise an appraisal exercise to be conducted by an independent, outside group of appraisers to be appointed only with his agreement. This I argued would be fair to all. It was eventually accepted by all concerned as a reasonable proposal. I think we did try to offer him support, I know I did often attracting quite a lot of criticism in the process!

Without going into too many details, however, the appraisal was not good. We paid for someone to come from Australia who could not possibly have any prejudice in the matter and sought the support of two very experienced Hong Kong educators. The appraisal was conducted over a week and was very thorough. We had no choice at the end of it. We offered the headteacher the opportunity to resign rather than to be sacked, but he refused. So it fell to me sack him. One of the saddest of jobs given what he had been through.

We were now without a headteacher and to make matters worse the sacked headteacher took us to an industrial tribunal accusing us of unfair dismissal. I found myself both very involved in the day to day management of the School and representing the School in a legal case. Fortunately, because of our genuine desire to be fair, the case against us could only fail. We were completely exonerated of any wrongdoing.

The next job was to appoint a new headteacher. We appointed someone who had been at the School for quite some time and knew it and its problems well. We wanted someone who was competent, but who knew what they were getting into.

The School had suffered terribly in the years of conflict. It was still attracting new parents because of its ‘elite status’, but it was clear to anyone who knew it that it was living off past glory and its close association with the famous secondary School, DBS. One of the problems during the time of the popular headteacher, back in the nineties, had been to do with this close relationship. She had wanted to redevelop the School moving it to the campus of the secondary School. At the risk of oversimplifying, everyone associated with the two Schools supported the idea and everyone associated with the Church didn’t. The idea collapsed amidst much bitterness and recrimination. People who had been friends for years and who had even been pupils together at the two Schools fell out with one another. The argument left wounds that still have not healed and damaged the reputations of all involved including that of the Church.

The idea of redeveloping the existing primary school had collapsed. The former headteacher, however, with the support of the secondary School decided to go it alone and build a new Primary School, which they hoped would replace DPS as the natural Primary School for the Secondary School. This meant that DPS was being cast adrift. Its buildings were old and in need of renovation, its staff demoralised and inexperienced, its headteacher still very new and inexperienced, and what is more, because of all the troubles, it had failed to keep up with all the changes that had been taking place in Hong Kong education. Its curriculum, methods of assessment, and teaching style were all hopelessly out of date.

For the past five years, we have been working hard to turn it around. We have built a new annexe, renovated the old buildings, introduced curriculum reform, recruited new teachers, set up a Parent-Teacher Association, turned co-educational, worked on introducing Mandarin (the language of the mainland) into the School, organized events to raise much needed funds for the School, and much more besides. This would have been demanding enough, but we have had to do it at the same time as the new School was being set up. They not only sought to recruit many of our pupils, they also recruited the whole of our senior staff and our two best English teachers. Maintaining morale amongst the teachers and parents that remained has been no easy task!

We have just had a routine external review conducted by the government body responsible for education in Hong Kong – a bit like an Ofsted review in England. We are waiting their report.

I have wanted us to create a Church School that is a Church School in more than name. I have also wanted to try and deal with arguments, conflicts, and trouble in a Christian manner. How far we have succeeded is for others to judge.

I have gone into all this background for two reasons. First, it has been such a big part of life here, and is, I think, worth recording, albeit it in outline, and, secondly, to try to illustrate how time consuming this part of my work has been. My predecessor had a full-time lay worker and two part-time clergy colleagues. I am effectively on my own. This does not necessarily mean that I work harder; there are, after all, only so many hours in the day. It does mean, however, that something has to give - and I have only described some of my work in one of my Schools.

Now, after nearly seven years here, I am reviewing my priorities. Adjusting the balance can seem like that I am not wanting to continue my involvement in the Schools and there is still much to be done. However, it is also true to say that while much has been achieved in the Schools, it has not had a corresponding benefit for the Church. What worked at Banchory has not worked in the same way here. Anything, but.

I will explain why next time! And I promise it will be soon.

Well, it's been a little while since I posted and I can only apologize for the enforced absence. I won't bore you with the details, but it has been a difficult two weeks. The sort you get from time to time. Thank you to all those who have visited the blog while I have been away and thank you to all those who have remained loyal. The next full blog will appear later today!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

No sooner was I back and busy catching up this week than I came down with a very nasty cold. The trouble was that having been away for Chinese New Year meant that I couldn’t really take any more time off sick. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for a rather nasty cough. It certainly made delivering our Lent Bible Studies on Wednesday that bit more difficult.

This year, we are looking at 1 Corinthians. I wrote a thesis for my Master’s degree on 1 Corinthians and as apart of my preparation for the Lent Studies I have been looking at what academic scholarship has said about it in recent years. Readers of this blog will know that academic theology is an interest of mine because anything to do with the Bible ultimately cannot remain academic. I think many Christians are rather in awe of academic scholars and feel embarrassed when they are in the presence of those who study it academically. This is understandable: after all, we all feel humbled by experts.

Increasingly, however, I am more and more frustrated by experts especially when it comes to studying the Bible, in general, and the New Testament, in particular. Let me try to explain why. In the sixteenth century, a German academic, for that is what Martin Luther was, challenged the Church’s understanding of Paul. He argued that the Church had adopted a belief in salvation by works whereas for Paul salvation was by faith and faith alone. Works of any kind whether good works, such as giving to the poor, or religious works, such as going on pilgrimages, could not save you only Christ do that by grace through faith. You will know the story.

One of the consequences of this was the complete fragmentation of the Church. A small price many would claim for the truth. From this point onwards the doctrine of justification by faith became central to many Protestant churches: the doctrine by which the Church stood or fell. In academic circles, it was seen as the key to understanding Paul and what he believed and taught.

Then, about 450 years, later a very different academic, this time from America, argued that Martin Luther, and all who followed him, had completely misunderstood Paul and the Judaism of his day. Judaism was not a religion of works-righteousness. The Jews were not trying to earn their salvation through good works. The Jews knew that God was a loving gracious God who given them the Covenant and made them his people. The Law was the means by which they responded to God’s grace and generosity.

E P Sanders supported what was at the time a highly controversial claim by a thorough examination of the documents of second temple Judaism, that is, the Judaism of Jesus and Paul. He argued that Luther had got it terribly wrong and that most of the New Testament scholars who had studied Judaism had also got it terribly wrong.

This was a bombshell in the world of New Testament scholarship. The consensus became, however, that Sanders had got it right in his analysis of Judaism. People were less convinced, though, that he had got Paul right. Sanders seemed not to know what to do with Paul. It looked like Paul was fighting an opponent who did not exist. For if the Jews did not believe they were saved by works, why did Paul write as though they did?

Consequently, many scholars undertook to re-examine Paul’s teaching in the light of what Sanders had shown them about Judaism. One scholar, my own supervisor at the time, J D G Dunn, in particular, sought to interpret Paul against the background of this new understanding and to formulate a more satisfactory understanding of Paul’s teaching. It was Dunn who coined a phrase that has become the standard term for all this: the New Perspective on Paul. Dunn argued that when Paul said we were not justified by the ‘works of the law’ what he had in mind was not so much good works, but Jewish religious practices that distinguished them as Jews. Practices like not eating pork, keeping the Sabbath, and cirucumcision.

Dunn was followed by many others, including the now Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. Not only were they pioneering scholars in the world of New Testament scholarship, Dunn and Wright succeeded in popularizing this new understanding so that even if lay people did not use the same terms as the academics, they were being taught the same ideas. Clergy at theological college certainly were.

In Churches that felt that God had revealed something special at the Reformation, there was uproar and New Perspective scholars were, and are, accused of betraying the truth. Wright’s response, which is well documented, has been that we have an obligation to get back to the sources and that this was what the Reformation was all about. All this is described in many places both on the web and in popular Christian books. Those who may not have heard much about it can easily follow it up if they want to.

There has, however, now appeared another book about which many are getting excited called Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul by Chris VanLandingham. This argues that both Luther and Sanders were wrong and that both second temple Judaism and Paul believed in salvation by works. The book is an academic study examining the very same Jewish texts that Sanders based his study on and the very same Bible passages that Luther based his understanding of Paul on. It is not clear yet how this will be received, but some people are getting excited by it.

I give this as an example. A major one certainly, but disagreements like these occur between scholars over almost every point of interpretation of the Bible and its context.

Now in the world of academics all this would be just good fun. Overturning standard wisdom is what the academic game is. As with the Athenians, success in the world of PhDs, journal articles, academic conferences, and university careers is based on saying convincingly anything new and novel. You won’t get a PhD by saying what has already been said - even if what you say is true. You have to get an original angle.

This is all very well and good if what you are studying is the nineteenth century novel or the history of Troy, but for us Christians, whatever our flavour, the Bible is not at this level. Even if we are the most liberal of liberals, the New Testament is still the only way into the origins of Christianity (even if some would prefer it if Dan Brown were right and we could turn instead to the Gnostics). For most of us, however, the Bible is more than a historical record. It still has ongoing authority and, for some us, it is the authority by which we wish to live our lives.

It is not much use as an authority, however, when even the most expert scholars and interpreters can’t agree on whether Paul thought we will be saved by faith or works. This isn’t a minor point, it is absolutely central to understanding the message of the New Testament. My eternal destiny may depend on me getting the answer right and not unreasonably we look to the experts to help us.

That there is something extremely wrong with the expert’s expertise, however, should be apparent from this latest disagreement over the nature of second temple Judaism. We are not talking about a large body of literature here. Luther can be justified in getting it wrong because the resources available to scholars today were not available to him. But when the very best experts can read the literature and come to diametrically opposed conclusions about its interpretation we are in great trouble.

Some will argue that scholars inability ever to agree undermines the whole academic enterprise and calls into question the usefulness of academic scholarship when it comes to understanding the Bible. And, frankly, academics have only themselves to blame if they do. But for those of us who believe that the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men then understanding those men, their culture and their times, becomes essential if we are to understand the Word of God itself.

I don’t have any easy answers. I would however plead with Christian academics to be more responsible and careful when it comes to these issues. Your career and fame as a scholar are less important than rightly handling the word of truth. After all, it is not only our salvation that is dependent on you getting it right.