Dissenting Radical

The Common Good: A 'Christian-Left' perspective on radical theology, progressive politics, authentic culture and sustainable living.

Category: Spiritual Reflection

Reimagining Church

It is important to distinguish between belonging to the church (to a community of fellow-followers founded by Jesus that exists invisibly and universally, throughout time and space) and belonging to a church (a particular denomination, structure, congregation or place).

Belonging to the church is integral to the christian life. If we have decided, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to follow Jesus’ Way, Truth and Life, then we are necessarily members of the universal church.

But I’m not so sure about ‘church’ in the ‘sitting in pews on a Sunday morning listening to the man at the front and giving him your money’ sense of the word. Belonging to a church might be helpful for some, at certain times, and in certain ways, but it is not always necessary for everyone. I don’t see any clear mandate from Jesus that the universal, invisible church should take any particular institutional form. There is an assumption in the New Testament that fellow-followers will gather together to encourage and support one another. But no requirement that it be done in a dusty building with a leaking roof, that there be a ‘worship team’ with electric guitars, or that there should be a pastor who calls all the shots and does all the talking.

In other words, being written in the Lamb’s Book of Life is not dependent on being written in the membership rolls of any particular congregation. For many, membership of a local congregation can be a source of help, blessing and community. I don’t doubt it. For some, however, it can become an idol. It’s all about building ‘our’ church, expanding, raising more money, doing ‘exciting’ things. It’s just empire-building, and its endemic in the institutional church. It’s this sort of thing (coupled with intellectually shallow, brittle, conservative preaching) that makes the institutional church a source of frustration, misgivings and disillusionment for some of us. It actually gets in the way, for us, of authentically following Jesus.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about how I am done and disillusioned with the institutional church, so I will not labour that point further here. I would like to reflect a little, however, on possible alternatives. How might it be possible to achieve a specific incarnated community of members of the universal church in a way that doesn’t just become institutional cash-cow?

I have no definite answers to this question, although it is one that I think about very often. Nevertheless, I’d like to offer some preliminary ideas, if only as a spark to further thought and discussion, on the principles on which such a community might be built.

1. Intellectually robust teaching that takes modern biblical scholarship, science, comparative religions, and the findings of history and anthropology seriously. We cannot have a church in which the message of Jesus is contingent on accepting 1st century worldviews about the origins or nature of existence.

2. Recognition of plurality and difference. Christianity is complex and many faceted. We don’t all have to agree on everything. The core on which we do have to agree might, in fact, be very small indeed: ‘Jesus is Lord’ was the first creed, and perhaps the best that has very been devised. There should be room for different soteriologies, christologies, eschatologies – as long as we can learn from one another, remain open to one another, and not condemn one another for such differences of opinion. We should place Jesus at the centre, not doctrines.

3. A firm commitment to tackling poverty, homelessness, racism, exploitation, slavery, war, and abuse of power at the heart of everything we do. Christianity is about standing on the side of freedom, peace, justice and love. If we get this wrong, we might as well pack up and go home, because we will have missed the point of what the gospel is about: liberation and transformation, setting captives free, wiping away tears, bringing love and joy and hope and life and abundance – in practical (and most often edible) ways, in the here and now.

4. Democratic, plural leadership. No one person in charge. No ‘senior pastor’ who claims to be primus-inter-pares but runs the show like a dictator. Congregationalism should be taken seriously – not just in business meetings, but also in meetings for worship: that is, everyone should be able to contribute, to share in the preaching, testifying, singing and music making.

5. Following from point 4, no paid clergy, no paid staff, no church buildings. Once a church has a building, so much of their time, work and money is put into serving the building, and not into serving the community. The church can meet in people’s homes. Larger conservations, gatherings and events can take place in venues hired for the occasion.

6. Limitations on size. Each congregation should be no bigger than can meet comfortably in a large living room. But several of these congregations co-operate in order to achieve common goals (particularly in terms of serving the community, doing charitable outreach etc). Keeping it small prevents empire building. Of course we want the church (universal and invisible) to grow, but we can do that by creating new small congregations that branch off like amoeba, not by building massive mega-churches that are invariably filled with tithing pew-sitters being lectured at by a millionaire pastor-entreprenuer who is only in it for the private jet.

7. Just as I see the future church as post-evangelical, I also see it as post-Catholic and post-Orthodox; that is to say, the little house church is a manifestation not of the Protestant branch of christianity, but of the whole universal christian experience. I can envisage a combination that pairs progressive theology with the cycles of the liturgical year, action for social justice with the Common Lectionary, fully egalitarian participatory congregationalism with Gregorian chants, and sermons on environmental stewardship with icons and candles.

8. I envisage a ‘rule’ for christian communities, a little bit like a monastic rule (but obviously much shorter, and not necessarily intended for a residential community) in which these principles could be embodied. This rule would be replicable, thereby providing a simple and accessible basis for the incorporation of independent house-church congregations in keeping with these principles. It wouldn’t be necessary to constitute each house church from scratch – any group of people could download the rule and use it as a baseline for establishing their own little congregation on these lines.



Bad Religion

There’s an excellent little article [here] on why contemporary American Christianity would be unrecognisable to 1st century Christians.

But it’s not just Americans, I’m very sorry to say. In Europe and the rest of the world we are not entirely immune to such things. Indeed, the chances are that this brittle, shallow, capitalist, loveless, manipulating, commodified, militaristic, sanitised, hierarchical, xenophobic, doctrinaire, slickly packaged, narcissistic, graceless, hopeless, selfish, money-grabbing, judgmental, corrupt, pharisaical parody of christianity is probably on sale right now at a steeple-house near you. Flee from it.

Of course, this isn’t about finding a ‘perfect church’ or a congregation where everything is precisely as one likes it. (Those things don’t exist.) It’s simply a matter of re-assessing and returning to the core of Jesus’ Way . Christianity was supposed to be a commitment to a transformative way of life, not a religion, and the Church was supposed to be a movement, not a religious institution.

Babylon is Fallen

A splendid rendition of one of my favourite songs:


‘Babylon’ represents the imperial systems of the world – systems of politics and economics that rely on violence and deceit, that deny the common good, that diminish life, and that treat people in an exploitative, dehumanising way. Like the current empires, Babylon is outwardly golden, but rotten to the core; rich, but drenched in poverty and squalor; powerful in terms of military and commercial might, but weak in legitimacy.

The image of the fall of Babylon references the historical liberation of the Jews from the Babylonian exile. It is a story of return, of coming home, of restoration. Yet it also looks forward in hopeful expectation, to a coming day when the ‘Babylonian’ systems of our own time and place will fall, when alienation and exploitation will end, and when peace, justice and freedom will prevail.



Bishops (female) in the Church of England: II.

The ‘Church of England’ decided earlier this year to allow the appointment of women as bishops. Effect has now been given to this decision through the appointment of Elizabeth Lane to the Suffragan See of Stockport.

As far as it goes, this is a mildly encouraging development. It shows that the two conservative wings of the church – a motley alliance of fundamentalist evangelicals and conservative Anglo-Catholics* – have had to give way (if only a bit, only on grounds of pragmatism, and only under political pressure) to the moderately liberalish ‘More Tea Vicar?’ centre-ground.

Yet, although I heartily welcome and embrace the idea that Christian leadership does not require the possession of a penis, this decision bothers me. In as much as Scotland remains (for the time being and for the foreseeable future) a part of the United Kingdom, what bothers me is not whether or not there are female bishops, but the very notion of having a Church of England as an established church in our non-constitutional monarchic state, with reserved seats in the Westminster Parliament and a privileged  role in education and public life.

Yes, the Church of England’s decision to admit female bishops is a good thing, but it does not make up for the sorry fact that there are male bishops, and a so-called ‘Church of England’, in the first place.

For me, this is a matter of both religious as well as democratic principle.

Jesus subverted both kingship and priesthood: we are all our own and each other’s priests; and there is no king on earth equal to the royal prince of love that reigns in our hearts.  In spite of this, the mitred ones have impressed themselves on the timid consciences of their fellow men, for the advancement of their own wealth pride, power and position. This is a betrayal of the egalitarian, democratic and voluntaristic principles of the Jesus-movement.

In objecting to bishops, I mean also to object to all those  cunning conjurors who pretend to special spiritual authority or priestly powers. Every trace of simony and priestcraft must be thrown down – whether the culprit lives in an Archbishop’s palace or a televangelist’s Californian mansion.

Instead, let those people who have  freely chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which is the enlightened conscience, peaceably gather together where they will. These local gatherings are the only church, and, while each is part of the universal church – which consists of all who choose and resolve to follow the Way of Jesus – each is entire and complete in itself. Let each local church freely elect from amongst its members such as are learned, wise and virtuous – regardless of their gender – and let them be elders, preachers, pastors and counsellors. These officers are not to rule or dominate, but to guide and to reflect; they must not claim sole or predominant voice, but should encourage everyone to use their gifts and follow their callings.

Neither should church-officers they be paid, as if piety were a trade, and religion a rent-charge upon the people. A paid clergy is the root of all corruption and dishonesty in religion: once it is admitted, there will be no end to inquisitions, lies, tithes, heretic-burnings and crusades. A paid clergy gives a class of men (and women), who must live by their religious functions, a stake in hiding, rather than in striving to discover and reveal, the truths of God and Nature. It encourages them to confuse, rather than to enlighten, the minds of their fellows (for it is only by creating imaginary notions, fears, and doctrines, hells and punishments, and then by selling imaginary relief, that these people can maintain their trade).

Finally, while church officers can have authority over all matters of practice and organisation in the local church (subject always to the consent and approval of the whole congregation, deliberating freely and deciding), authority over all matters of faith, and all speculative matters of belief, must be left to the conscience of each individual – for no one can believe or accept anything which is not agreeable to their own reason and understanding.

When this is done, and when the whole vain and corrupt hierarchy is swept away in the great levelling work of Christ’s Spirit – when the last shall be first and the first shall be last – then all the nit-picking arguments about female bishops will cease.

* In normal circumstances, of course, these two groups wouldn’t even speak:  the evangelicals would look askance at the vain ceremonies, mumblings, cringings and kneelings of the Anglo-Catholics, while the Anglo-Catholics would dismiss the evangelicals as boorish puritans who wouldn’t know what to do with a thurible if it hit them in the face. But they can both be condescending to the women and hate on the gays, so that gives them something in common.

Hope is a state of mind

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” Vaclav Havel (‘The Politics of Hope’, in Disturbing the Peace, 1986).


There is a Day (and it’s coming yet, for a’ that)

I don’t care that the video is a bit glib in places.

And I don’t care that the song is at the sappy end of the soft-rock-pop-worship spectrum.

And I certainly don’t care, right now, about the fact that I interpret 1 Thessalonians 4 quite differently from the way that these folks might.

That’s all by-the-by.

They had me hooked with the picture frame thing. That’s exactly how it seems to me: it’s like we get these little glimpses, through the Spirit, of a different reality hope, wellness, joy, light, freedom, and love. These glimpses show how the world should be and was always meant to be, behind the hopelessness and darkness that otherwise surrounds us.

And that reality is breaking through. It’s in the cracks. It shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not extinguished it. So I still believe that there is a day – and (to switch from Paul to Burns) ‘it’s coming yet, for all that.’

Foodbanks, Justice and Charity

The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life.” (The Constitution of Ireland, Art. 45)




Justice and charity are both necessary. Both contribute, hand in hand, to ‘tikkun olem’ (the repairing of the world) and to ‘shalom’ (the establishment of righteous peace). Charity meets immediate needs; justice rectifies a broken legal-political order. Charity helps the world as it is; justices changes the world into what it should be. As it was illustrated to me as a child, charity is helping people out of the river, whereas justice is putting fences along the banks so they do not fall in – or, sometimes, stopping people from doing the pushing.

I think that we are all called, in our different ways, to do both acts of justice and charity. Not many of us can rightfully say, “oh, I only care about charity, so I’ll donate to the local foodbank, but not be politically active”, or, on the other hand, “I only care about justice, so I’ll write books and get involved in campaigns, but not do anything about immediate needs.”

But that’s not to say we should all be doing the same things. There are a myriad of problems to be solved, needs to be met, and injustices to be rectified, and we cannot all carry the weight of the world: we just need to find the corner to which we are called and lift that bit. The issues that move me most are in the areas of poverty and inequality, as well as democracy and human rights. My wife, as well as being a much more consistent pacifist, has a stronger calling to help people with special needs, lonely old folks, and animals. One of the issues in our household on which we are still seeking further clarity is whether a portion of our monthly giving should go to an animal welfare charity, or whether all of it should be spent on relieving human needs.

All of which brings me to the subject of foodbanks. As what was once a humane and democratic ‘cradle to grave’ welfare system has reverted to Victorian punitive parsimony, foodbanks have been steadily on the rise. Not only those ‘sanctioned’ for minor infractions of a harsh and inscrutable benefits system are queuing up at their doors, but also the ‘working poor’; as the bedroom tax kicks in, and the prices of privatised utilities rise, ever more people find themselves living in the sort of real, absolute, hopeless poverty that has no place – no place – in a civilised and free nation.

Those who meet these needs are the glue that holds society together. They not only give out tins of cheap (and probably not very nutritious, but that’s a whole other story) soup and beans, but also, in many cases, provide a bit of chat and a friendly face. This opportunity to treat people not as hopeless causes, or as soulless numbers to be processed, but as beloved human beings, with an irrepressible spark of divinity in each one, can go some way to removing the stigma and indignity that adds unnecessary insult to the injury of poverty.

Yet, for all this, foodbanks should not exist. A decent living, without having to beg or depend on charity, ought to be guaranteed to all citizens, not as a favour, but as a right that stems from their membership of the res publica. When democracy, and not plutocracy, controls how economic decisions are made, there will be sufficient for everyone’s needs.




Most of my work to date on this subject has focused on the question of how these covenantal commitments to a country where (in the words of a good old song) ‘all the sons of Adam find breid, barely-bree an paintit rooms’ can be expressed on a constitutional level, as the foundational law of our new state. This is a subject I discuss, in general terms of constitution principle, here and here.

However, I am increasingly keen to take the conversation further into the specifics of policy, at the sub-constitutional level, in order to explore how in practical terms the resurgent evil giants of want (poverty), disease (health inequality), squalor (poor housing), ignorance (lack of education), and idleness (unemployment) can be driven decisively from our land.

I’m particularly interested in opening a discussion on the idea of a basic citizens’ income that would keep everyone – unconditionally – above the poverty line.


PS. This is the file that inspired this post. It has very good points in it and is well worth a read: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/FaithInFoodbanks-Signs-of-the-times.pdf

Redrawing the lines

Richard Dawkins has accused moderate, ‘nice’ religious folks of aiding and abetting fundamentalism by giving an acceptable outward face to religious modes of thought that are, as he sees it, necessarily irrational and obscure.

Aside from the fact that Dawkins does not seem to understand religion (because he fails to distinguish between fact-claims and wisdom-claims, or between poetry and prose, or between dogma and practice), I struggle with this argument. There is more than a grain of truth in it. When I look at what is going on in the middle east, with the rise of IS and the bombing in Gaza, I wonder how on earth any sane, rational, caring person could have anything to do with religion of any sort. All too often, religion seems to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

But then, on the other hand, I see the real and obvious good done by people who are motivated by their faith. On the other side of Islamic power-crazy fundamentalists shooting and looting their way through Iraq, stand non-violent Christian Peacemaker Teams working silently and unobtrusively amongst people in Iraqi Kurdistan, trying to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Despite all those who have a religion of domination, violence, power, ignorance and hatred, there are others with a religion of love, compassion, care and healing.

It is simplistic and overly reductionist to say that religion as a whole, from its most benign to its most dangerous manifestations, is wholly good or bad. Like politics or art, it is a mixed bag. The real line is not between religion and non-religion, or even between Christianity and Islam, but between fundamentalism  and non-fundamentalism. Non-fundamentalists, whether religious or not, have a common cause against fundamentalists. Rationality and love are allies against the curse of fundamentalism.

Taking the Plunge: A Belated Baptism




I’ve written previously about what communion means to me, but until now I have not mentioned the other great ordinance of the church: baptism. I’ve been meaning to, right enough, but I just haven’t found the right opportunity to put ‘finger to keyboard’.

Today is as good a day as any to finally get around to it, because today marks the third anniversary of my baptism. Yes, that’s me in the photo, getting my feet wet for Jesus.

Three years ago I willingly stood up in front of a packed church and participated in what Monty Python would call ‘a bizarre aquatic ritual’, saying a very soggy ‘I do’ to following Jesus.

I had been putting it off for a long time. The norm, I think, is to be baptised shortly after beginning one’s Christian life, not thirteen years later. I should have done this as a starry-eyed eighteen year old babe-in-Christ, with my UCCF-approved ‘Student Church’ booklet in one hand and Nicky Gumble’s videos seared into my brain, at the rich and shiny evangismatic church I was attending in Edinburgh at the time. But no. I didn’t do it. Several folks I knew did, but I wasn’t ready to take the plunge.

It seemed like such a big commitment. If I was going to go through with it I had to be pretty sure about it. I had to know that through all the ups and downs of life there was something sufficiently solid and real at the core. I was afraid of what my friends might think. I was really afraid of what my parents might think (I think they thought I’d been suckered into a cult and that I would grow out of it; they might not have been too far wrong).

So I put it off and put it off, until it almost seemed pointless going through with it. As the years passed, I  wasn’t too sure about the very  idea of being baptised – to insist on an evangelical approach to baptism seemed incongruent with the rest of my Unitarian-Universalist theology, and I needed to resolve that. What does baptism mean, if one embraces the unity of God and the universality of salvation? Is it better to do as the Friends do, and eschew baptism altogether?

But at the easter service in 2010 I got what I like to call a ‘holy spirit punch on the nose’ (this seems to happen, from time to time) and I knew that I couldn’t put it off much longer. It look from Easter to the following July to arrange it, but arrange it I did.

I acknowledged Jesus as lord and saviour and committed myself, with the help of God, to following his Way and teachings. I entered into the symbolism of ‘the tomb and the womb’, going under water to symbolise the washing away of the old and coming up again to symbolise the new and risen life.

Ever since then, whenever I have a shower, I take a moment to close my eyes and put my whole head under the water; I silently remember my baptism, the promises I took, and the assurances of Jesus and the apostles, and go out into the world clinging a little more strongly to hope.

I’d give myself a score of about 2/10 on actually living up to my own ideals, but that’s not the point. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to prove it. We are just invited to live it as best we can, growing and learning and sharing all the way.

Come on in. The water is lovely.

Charismatic Evangelical Unitarian Universalism

While very friendly, it was the whitest, berkenstock-wearing, CoExIsT bumper sticker-toting, upper middle class liberal college town group of people I’ve ever seen concentrated in one place.” <– Some random person on the internet, on their experience of Unitarian Universalism.

“It’s not enough to wear sandals. You have to wear them with lemon yellow socks, preferably hand-knitted out of organic free range tofu by a lesbian women’s co-operative in Nicaragua.” <– Some other random person on the internet, who has truly been there.

I recognise that all too often we live up to our stereotypes. Sometimes, we even pride ourselves in living up to our stereotypes – perhaps because, as a small, obscure group with a funny name, we need something to hang our hats on.

But I’m worried by the way that we Unitarian Universalists seem to have become a caricature of ourselves. It is almost as if our non-creedal liberalism and legendary obsession with coffee have become ends in themselves, the only source of identity we can cling to in our religion of form without substance.

To me, that’s not the point of it at all. Our non-creedal liberalism comes, at least historically, from a profound experience of the spirit of the living God which we believed leds us into all truth; we are open-minded because we believed the God was still speaking – that revelation was progressive, not closed, and that we still had more to learn and discover. This meant that truth cannot be shut up in one book, one institution, or one path. It did not mean, however, that ‘there is no truth’, or that ‘it’s all just relative’, in a way that excuses us from thinking and exercising discretion. ‘Test all things; hold fast to that which is good’ is the way to do it; not ‘dabble in all things, and say they are all as good as each other’.

At best, Unitarians should approach theological questions not just with an open mind, but also with a rigorous, empirical – even sceptical – attitude of testing and proving. Hippy-dippy-new-age-tree-hugging is all well and good, but if we lose that element of rational criticism – God speaking through reason, conscience and experience – then we lose our ability to discern, and Unitarian becomes an excuse for all sorts of superstitions.

Also, the Unitarian approach has traditionally centred on the person, life, message and teaching of Jesus – not as a divine god-man, but as a great prophet, radical reformer, master and teacher of the Way. As such Unitarianism has traditionally been a christian movement of the left-wing radical reformation – and not what it is becoming, which a post-christian syncretic religion for people who believe in magic stones, tarot, fung-shui, reiki, and the consumerist bits of Buddhism.

Such a religion of feel-good personal satisfaction cannot change us or the world. Our needs are greater and deeper than that. Our calling in and through Jesus is so much more powerful. If I’m saddened and frustrated by Unitarianism today, it is because it seems to have lost is spirit and its fire. My theology across a broad range of issues is, through the application of reason, in accordance with classical Unitarian and Universalist positions, but I see them through the lens of a spirit-filled born-again experience which I can neither fully understand nor simply deny.

Sometimes I feel like I am the only ‘charismatic evangelical Unitarian Universalist’ in the world. Ok, not exactly ‘rolling on the floor’ charismatic – but definitely having had encounters with what in the christian tradition is called the Holy Spirit. And not ‘1-2-3, say after me’ evangelical, either – but definitely thinking that Jesus’ message is good news which deserves to be lived and shared.

The bottom line is that, for me, being a Unitarian Universalist isn’t a hobby. It’s not about tea and cake. It’s about the radical idea that ‘God is One and He loves everyone’. All the standard UU disclaimers about God apply, of course: I know what the word apophatic means and I’m not afraid to use the word ‘panentheist’ in a sentence. But at the root of it all is an encounter with the grace of God, as shown through the way, truth and life of Jesus, that is life-changing and world-changing . This encounter makes  a call that demands a response. Jesus said, ‘Come, follow me’. I might be Unitarian in christology and Universalist in soteriology, and my favourite theologians might include such heretical rogues as Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, but my response to that call was Yes.

I have a vision of what an active, living, serving Unitarian Universalist church could be. A place where people can live out that Yes in worship, silence, work, service, love, laughter, prayer and tears. A place where people can support one another in applying that Yes to their lives, their family, their community and their world, with honesty and integrity, without having to swallow their brains, toe the party line, believe impossible things, be beastly to the gays, or check their critical faculties at the door. A place, perhaps, where (in our own open-minded, non-literalistic, over-intellectualised way) we can be the people of God sharing the love of God to build the kingdom of God. Most of all, I imagine it as place were we preach ‘good news to the poor’ through our deeds – transforming lives from the ground up, and bringing hope, joy, life and a future to people who are currently in the darkness of poverty.

Is this even possible?