Saturday, 20 March 2010

Happy 120th Birthday, Servette

It may be difficult for some people to understand but it really isn’t possible to live without football to watch and a local team to support. All the so called Manchester United fans who live in London and Arsenal fans who live in Leeds, who only watch any football on tv, haven’t got it. I need football to hand to feel at home in a place!

So when I got an interview in 1995 for a post with the World Council of Churches, I checked out the football possibilities. Servette FC had a good history in the Swiss league and European competitions. So my visit to Geneva included my personal intention to visit their ground to get a feel for things. However, I found they had a home match so I went along. Yes, I thought, I’d be OK here. So the decision to accept the WCC job was easy!

In the 13 years I watched them (when the fixtures didn’t clash with Man City’s home matches) I was able to enjoy a league title win and a cup final. Lots of European matches too. Then came the curse of the new ground. The old characterful stadium was replaced by a new stadium in preparation for the 2008 European Football Championship hosted in Switzerland and Austria. At the same time the club fell into the hands of the incompetent, having goodwill but lacking resources, and finally a fraudster (later convicted). The club went bust. It was reformed and, for complicated reasons, was able to resume in the third level rather than lower down the pyramid. Servette quickly climbed back to the second level where it has become becalmed.

So thank you, Servette for giving me the kind of excitement and heartache that is the lot of the football fan. Thank you for giving me something I could share with people who weren’t ecumenicalists or part of the international community.

Happy Birthday, Servette! May the next years be more pleasure than pain.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

A mea culpa from the Pope?

Hans Kung has his own complex agenda with the Vatican. However, he is surely correct in calling for the Pope to admit his complicity in the scandal of paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church. “Protecting their priests seems to have counted more for the bishops than protecting children,” he said according to the agency reporting an interview published in Süddeutsche Zeitung today (17 March). “Decency requires that the primary party responsible for the concealment [of the cases], namely Joseph Ratzinger [the pope], makes his own mea culpa.” Those who have been concerned about abuse in the churches have been aware of the Vatican policy of gaining the silence of the abused and moving on the offender. Not only failing to address the incidents of abuse but setting up new possibilities. This behaviour is sadly not unique to the Roman Catholic church.

His call for a reconsideration of the celibacy of priests may be correct for all kinds of reasons. However, sexual abuse is far more complex than just sexually frustrated men working out their drives on children. It would be very dangerous for the church to reconsider celibacy on such a ground – particularly for children.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

'Christianity led me to the party’

‘God is not a Conservative, but Christianity led me to the party’ – not my testimony but that of Tim Montgomerie, founder of the unofficial but highly influential ConservativeHome website. It’s the headline for an interview in this week’s New Statesman (15 March 2010).

And how did Christianity lead him to the Tories? The answer was ‘because of what I believe about family and individual responsibility’. Not, apparently, the radical message of the gospels in the magnificat, the beatitudes or Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God. If anything about Christian faith could provide a basis for involvement in politics, I would have thought it should be that.

Many Christians do go on about the family. According to the gospels, though, Jesus himself had questions about the family because of its potential to get in the way of the priorities of the kingdom. It wasn’t that Jesus was against loving, committed relationship but just that he wanted to blow it out of the narrow confines even of extended family, let alone our nuclear families - to universalise it. Family values is too small a vision for Christian faith.

Individual responsibility – that’s not good even for a ‘me and God’ kind of faith. It smacks too much of ‘there’s no such thing as society, just individuals’. There is a communal or collective aspect to Christian faith. Churches recognise that, for example, in baptism and communion. We collectively, rather than a collection of individuals, are the body of Christ. There is a personal responsibility for our actions and relationships but that is not the same as individual responsibility.

How tragic for Tim Montgomerie and for those he influences that a faith once experienced as turning the world upside down should come to be reduced to family and individual responsibility.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

No-cost conscience

170 nonconformists went to prison in England in the early 1900s for refusing to pay their taxes. The issue was that the 1902 Education Act had integrated most denominational schools into the state system. As the majority of these schools were Anglican, the nonconformists objected to their taxes paying for a kind of religious education they found unacceptable.

Jump forward to 2010 and we have two issue where churches in England want their consciences (or prejudices) assuaged by the taxpayer. On the whole Christians have a good record in promoting legislation for people’s rights – see the story of the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s just that in reality churches don’t want it to apply to them – so the anguish about employment legislation on having to treat women or gay people fairly. The state has to bend the rules, apparently, to allow for the churches’ conscience in such matters. Nowhere in the discussion have I heard it recognised that there might be a price that the churches had to pay in maintaining their conscience, if they wish to do so.

Likewise there seems to be a feeling amongst many religious people that there is nothing wrong in the state funding their schools and religious education. Although it is wrong to call it religious education, more like specific faith nurture very often done by emphasising the quality of one faith against the deficiencies of others. You don’t, I think, build a tolerant society by using taxes to fund divisive education – a lesson still not yet learnt in Northern Ireland. The creeping religiousification of the state school system in England by taking schools out of local community ownership and into the hands of people with particular religious agendas, however benign some of these may be, is dangerous for the well being of society. If your conscience tells you that you want to nurture children and young people in faith or you want to bring new people into your fold, you are free to do it – but you should pay for it yourself.

Having a no-cost conscience is a strange thing to be thinking about in Lent.