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Permission To Struggle With God In Prayer

Today, I attended for the first time a Leaders’ Forum at Waverley Abbey House, home of CWR. These days (free, gratis and otherwise at no cost) had been recommended by a new ministerial friend here. The theme was The Leader’s Vital Breath – Prayer. I thought I would share one insight that came in this afternoon’s session led by Philip Greenslade.

Giving us an extended treatment of Psalm 73, he contrasted Islamic treatment of the Abraham story with the Jewish and Christian approaches. Referring to the incident where Abraham bargains with God for the salvation of the righteous in Sodom, he noted that the Qu’ran deletes the bargaining and Abraham is basically told to shut up. In other words, it’s pure Islam: ‘submission’ (which is what the word ‘Islam’ means). On the contrary, both the Jewish and Christian approaches allow for honest struggle with God in prayer (hence Psalm 73). Quoting Abraham Heschel, who said that for the Jewish prophets, ‘Thy will be done’ involved effectively praying ‘Thy will be changed’, he said that any proper understanding of ‘Thy will be done’ has to include Gethsemane.

Does not all true prayer involve struggle, he asked? If prayer is only submission (and some Christian traditions are guilty of this, too), then is it true prayer? Good question.

I think we are learning this lesson of being able to be honest with God in prayer more and more in today’s church, but it was good to have such a thought-provoking underlining of it.

Removing The Cross In Coronation Street

Last week we discussed the church that removed a graphic crucifix in Horsham. This week, a similar issue has hit British television. The Daily Mail, Times and Daily Telegraph all report the case of a wedding scene in soapland, where the television crew wanted to remove a cross from a church where they were filming said wedding. On learning that the cross was fixed, they obscured it with candles and flowers.

Why did they do it? It certainly wasn’t for realism. Dry ice wafted through the scene – so just like any church service, then. According to church sources, they said they didn’t want to cause offence.

I didn’t see the show. Not only do I see very little TV, I’m allergic to soaps. I’ve been catching up on the issue after two church members told me about it.

In fairness, the television company has since apologised for the error and conducted an investigation. They believe there has been a misunderstanding over their intentions and motives. I wonder how the story would have been reported if the church had protested directly to Granada first and not gone public until after this investigation.

However, my main interest here is this: it’s curious to see the language used by the church leaders in protesting, and what it might imply. I’m particularly interested in the language of ‘offence’. In the Daily Mail report linked above, Stephen Regan of the Diocese of Chester is reported as saying,

The cross is universally accepted as a symbol of Christianity, and should offend no one.

Er, hold on? The first part of his sentence is correct, but from the beginning of faith in Jesus the cross has been an offence. If the cross has been reduced to symbol in the sense of a corporate logo, then I suppose it wouldn’t offend, but that isn’t what we’re about.

Similarly, James Milnes, the rector of the parish, quoted in the Telegraph story linked above, rightly says that Granada Television had 

emptied the church of the very thing that makes it a church

in that the Cross is what makes us the community of God. Absolutely. I once wanted to design a church letterhead as not showing a line drawing of the building, but people around the Cross.

However, what is strange is the extended quotation from his church magazine:

How can people think it offensive to see a cross in a church, in the same way as you would normally see the Koran in a mosque or the Torah in a synagogue? That is the emblem of this faith.

This has a resonance around the country. It plays into who we are as a nation because I do not think we have a clear idea as English people. We do not really know where we are going.

There is constant attrition to our way of life. You can’t say this or you can’t say that for fear of offending. Who can we possibly be offending?

If ’emblem’ has become ‘logo’, then again one can understand the shock at the sense of offence. But the Cross itself is offensive to many who do not know the power of the Gospel. Muslims would see the death of a ‘prophet’ such as Jesus as being demeaning to the dignity of God. To traditional Jews, one thinks of Paul quoting Deuteronomy in Galatians, ‘Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.’ To the Greeks of Paul’s day, it was foolishness, and it remains that to many people today.

To Christians, it is the glory of God’s love and grace. And that is what I understand the Revd Milnes and Mr Regan defending. However, they cannot expect it to lack offence. Here’s just a thought: do they take things this way because they have an ‘Established Church’ mentality? I’m just guessing, and may be doing them a disservice. If I am, I will apologise. However, Milnes clearly links the issue to the confused current destiny of being English, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark, even if I am wrong.

Yet as the Christian Church in the UK seeks a mission rôle as a minority group in society, I can’t help thinking that more helpful models of church are needed. I’ve spoken and written before, as others of a missional theological mindset have, of ‘exile’ as a helpful biblical model. From the perspective of church history, I find myself heading more in Anabaptist directions all the time. I don’t pretend that’s easy, in fact it risks being painful, but I do think the changed and changing society in which we live means we need to look for some different paradigms on which to model our witness.

In typing this, I am mindful of an interview in the February 2009 issue of Christianity Magazine, with Ann Widdecombe MP (the interview will probably not be online for another month). For anyone reading this who doesn’t know British politics, Miss Widdecombe is a Conservative Member of Parliament who famously left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in opposition to women’s ordination. In the interview, she is asked about the current vexed issue of the establishment of the Church of England. She replies:

I would die in a ditch for the establishment of the Church of England. The last people I would expect to find in the ditch beside me are the hierarchy of the Church of England. If we didn’t have an established Church, the last fig leaf in our claim to be a Christian country would have gone.

But there’s the problem. Claiming the UK is a Christian nation is a fig leaf. Widdecombe would doubtless wish to protect establishment (even though she went over to Rome) for political reasons of constitution, and certainly some of the reasons advocated by politicians for disestablishment are weak and unChristian. But right now establishment is not protecting the rights of Christians in the courts when religious freedoms are trumped by other freedoms, so that some Christians cannot exercise their consciences and keep certain jobs. In that atmosphere, it’s hardly realistic to expect that people won’t find the Cross offensive.

In saying all this, I may of course be putting too much weight on the use of the words ‘offend’ and ‘offending’ as used by Stephen Regan and James Milnes. Perhaps what Mr Regan really means is ‘surprised’. However, Revd Milnes uses his language in a context of objecting to ‘political correctness’, and so I am a little more sure that he really does mean to be concerned about the problem of offence. Certainly, the risk of offending people provided it is with the substance of the Gospel rather than just by being aggressive Christians (step forward Stephen Green of Christian Voice, who inevitably responded to requests for a quote) is a risk we must take today. If we do not, we shall not be faithful to the Gospel.

Interestingly, the Telegraph has this week carried the story of an Asian Christian minister in Scotland who claims he was sacked from an Asian community radio station for supporting Christianity and criticising a Muslim’s understanding of the Christian faith. The station disputes his account, and asked for questions to be put in writing. However, the Telegraph received no response to its fourteen points. If the case has been accurately portrayed in the newspaper (and I don’t think the station’s failure to respond looks good), then sadly this is the climate in which more and more British Christians live. Mr Milnes and his parishioners may have had a rude awakening into it, even if it was a misunderstanding and Granada Television meant no offence. This is not to seek persecution or develop some unhelpful persecution complex, which some Christians play on, but it is, I think, to be more realistic.

Over to you.