3 Minute Theologian

Words about God and Life for the Attention Deficit Generation

Category: ABC (page 1 of 2)

What a priest needs to do to be a Christian

(according to +ABC, in an interview with Vatican Radio)


You famously said that your successor “Needs the constitution of an ox and the hide of a rhinoceros.” What positive, practical advice would you like to give to the man who’ll be shortly stepping into your shoes?


Visit lots of schools and parishes. Make sure that you’re there constantly, faithfully, regularly, with people who are doing what matters. One of the great illusions you can have in a job like this is that what you do in the office is what really matters.

God deliver us from an illusion like that; what really matters, of course, is lives evolving in faithful discipleship at the grass roots. So go and see that happening, go and encourage it, go and learn from it; go and be vitalised by it.

I’ve enormously appreciated the time I’ve spent, especially in schools, because being with young people who are questioning about their faith and their life is always invigorating.

For all the difficulties that beset many parishes, I can’t think of any parish I’ve visited, in 20 years as a bishop, that hasn’t in some way made me go away feeling “It’s all worthwhile.”


Dr Rowan Williams and “The Now Show”

It comes to something when the affairs of the Anglican Communion become the stuff of light satirical comedy; it is even stranger when the satirical comedy is pointedly favourable towards the Archbishop of Canterbury.

UK listeners might have heard “The Now Show” on BBC Radio 4 last weekend. If so, then you will have been delighted by Mitch Benn’s song in support of Dr Rowan Williams (“who knows which bits of the bible are no longer true”). If you haven’t discovered the “Listen Again” facility on the BBC’s website, then this is for you:


Lord knows there are many of us who wish the song were true!

Wittgenstein to Williams (or Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon)

Do you know the drinking game “Six degrees of Kevin Bacon“? Sam Norton and Mike Higton have just invented its theological/philosophical equivalent: Wittgenstein to Williams in two steps.

First, this is what Sam Norton would like to be read at his funeral:

I should like to say that … the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life. How do I know that two people mean the same when each says he believes in God? And just the same goes for belief in the Trinity. A theology which insists on the use of certain particular words and phrases, and outlaws others, does not make anything clearer… It gesticulates with words, as one might say, because it wants to say something and does not know how to say it. Practice gives the words their sense.1

(Good on you Sam! No “Death is nothing at all” for you. I bet you don’t even want Crimmond and Abide with me to be sung)

Then Mike Higton wrote this about Rowan Williams:

He assumes that ‘freedom of religion’ isn’t just a case of freedom of opinion, or freedom of speech, or freedom of association – not because religions deserve some extra aura of special ‘respect’, but because none of those freedoms quite captures what religions actually are. To be free to practice a religion is to be free to be involved in a complex, social, ongoing context – a ‘tradition’ or ‘community’ to use some shorthand – that deeply forms ones identity. If freedom of religion is to mean anything at all, it must mean freedom to be formed by such a community, and freedom to participate as a citizen in public life as one who has been formed by such a community.

Simple: W to W in two steps. In other words, (for any broadsheet journalists out there who don’t understand the big words), religious is as religious does.

Hats off to Sam and Mike.

  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright and Heikki Nyman, trans. Peter Winch, English translation with the amended second edition (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1980), 85e. []

Two narratives about Rowan Williams

Again, Mike Higton has nailed it exactly in his excellent commentary on ‘Shariagate’ (and I’m so disappointed it hasn’t been called that by the tabloids and broadsheets). This is how Higton concludes, with two potential narratives for any journalist still uncertain how to report the story:

The first is the story that the Archbishop is a head-in-the-clouds academic, with no real grounding in the real world – and that this lecture is the latest in a series of blunders that could only be made by someone almost terminally naive. Accompany this by pictures that emphasise his eyebrows, and you have the makings of a convincing article. If you’re careful, you can make it sound like he’s been stuck in some academic cloister all his life, and has only emerged blinking into public in the last five minutes. You’ll have to brush over the fact that he’s exercised rather a lot of pastoral ministry, responding to quite an impressive range of quite-real-enough-thank-you circumstances1, and you’ll also do best not to mention how long he’s spent handling eye-watering arguments across the Anglican Communion that involve some of the most fractious and wilful antagonists you could hope to find – but just use the words ‘ivory tower’ a couple of times and your job will be done.

The second, rather similar, is the story that the Archbishop naively assumes the world to be stocked with ‘people of good will’ who will be reasonable if we speak to them nicely – and that he’s rather charmingly surprised when people turn out to be quite as wilfully unpleasant and selfish as they normally are. You’ll have to hide the fact that few contemporary theologians have as dark a view as he does of human beings’ ability destructively to deceive themselves – but people are always prepared to swallow a ‘genial vicar’ stereotype, so you should get away with it.

Go read the whole thing, and applaud.

  1. I love that phrase! []

“heavy disagreement”

‘The prevailing attitude…was one of heavy disagreement with a number of things which the [speaker] had not said’. (Ronald Knox)

After forty eight hours in which people have been outraged by what the Archbishop said, what they thought the Archbishop said, what they thought the Archbishop didn’t say, what they thought the Archbishop ought to have said, and any other random prejudices that could be whipped up by a devious press (they know who they are), it is a relief to have the Archbishop’s own observations on what he said and its context.

Delivered as the presidential address at the opening of General Synod, a video link to the first, ‘sharia’ part of the address is here. The full text of the speech is here, including the ‘sharia section’, but also, perhaps more importantly, touching on the suffering of Christians in Zimbabwe.

Incidentally perhaps some of the more zealous critics of Dr Williams will be mollified by his conclusion to the ‘sharia section’:

If we can attempt to speak for the liberties and consciences of others in this country as well as our own, we shall I believe be doing something we as a Church are called to do in Christ’s name, witnessing to his Lordship and not compromising it.

God’s strength to him, I say.

Rowan Williams and Sharia: A Guide for the Perplexed

Mike Higton, of Exeter University, has really done a magnificent job of producing a summary of the Archbishop’s now notorious speech: actually, three summaries; brief, longer and detailed. I mentioned it as an update to my own gloss below, but this really is a masterful analysis of what the Archbishop said (and occasionally, what he didn’t say).

It really does do what it says on the tin. Thank you, Mike.

In case the Orwell didn’t ring any bells…

… then how about this for a description of the last 48 hours:

An archbishop once gave an oration
On religion and law in our nation;
When we heard what he said
We all stoned him down dead,
To protect our great civilisation.

From the completely spot-on Ben Myers. (Thank you, Ben, for writing something that is both funny and acute).

The difference between score and performance

I’ve often thought that the difference between reading the text of one of Dr William’s speeches, and hearing him delivering it, is like the difference between reading a music score and hearing the Berlin Philharmonic playing the piece: only the very gifted can “hear” the music from the score, but even the most flannel-eared can understand the beauty of the performance.

So it is all to the good that BBC Parliament are streaming a video recording of the delivery of the notorious speech. You can watch it here.  (Thanks to Matt Wardman of the Wardman Wire for the link). One poignant moment in the lecture as delivered is the aside about the acoustics of the hall: if people aren’t able to hear the Archbishop’s speech, that’s not a problem, as so many people already know what he’s going to say, anyway.

Orwell got there first…

Big BrotherIt was nearly eleven hundred, and in the records department, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate….

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started.

As usual, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Enemy of the People, had flashed on to the screen. There were hisses here and there among the audience. Goldstein was the renegade and backslider who once, long ago (how long ago nobody quite remembered), had been one of the leading figures of the Party, almost on a level with Big Brother himself, and then had engaged in counter-revolutionary activities, had been condemned to death and had mysteriously escaped and disappeared.

The programmes of the Two Minutes Hate varied from day to day, but there was none in which Goldstein was not the principal figure. He was the primal traitor, the earliest defiler of the Party’s purity. All subsequent crimes against the Party, all treacheries, acts of sabotage, heresies, deviations, sprang directly out of his teaching. Somewhere or other he was still alive and hatching his conspiracies: perhaps somewhere beyond the sea, under the protection of his foreign paymasters, perhaps even – so it was occasionally rumoured – in some hiding-place in Oceania itself.

George Orwell, 1984, (1949)

To what will I compare this generation?

BBC News Front Page 2008-02-08 2030

‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

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