Sunday, December 24, 2006

What Humphrys found out about God ...

... can be found here, in a Christmas special from the Daily Telegraph. My comments on the first part of the series of three interviews "In Search of God" can be found here. Unsurprisingly, he reports that few things he has done have resulted in a bigger postbag - from atheists, agnostics and theists.

He says in the article:
The last time [I set foot inside a church] was for my much-mourned colleague Nick Clarke [another well-known and loved Radio 4 journalist]. St Mary Abbots in Kensington, west London, was packed with the great and the good and, more importantly, with Nick's friends. The choir was superb and the eulogies perfectly judged. The problem was the vicar, Gillean Craig.

That may sound a little harsh. He is, I'm sure, a thoroughly godly man doing a good job of running his magnificent church. But in the opening moments of the service Father Craig (as he likes to be known) struck a horribly discordant note. Here's what he said: "Terrible though it is to us, God grants the same freedom to cancer cells that he grants even to the most noble and virtuous of us."
This was a pretty silly thing for the vicar to say - it was poor science, and poor theology. What I'd like to do, if I have the time, is to write a series of posts on the section of the Bible called Job, which is all about why bad things happen to good people. And no, there isn't a nice tidy answer, but it hopefully starts to unravel aspects of the issue.

Without going into that now, or going any further into Humphrys' article, it struck me that it was already clear that he was missing the point.

From a Christian perspective, the presence of the great and the good, the location, the choir are all irrelevant. The role of a vicar isn't "running his magnificent church" - by which Humphry's evidently means the building. And there is not much more reason to think that you will get coherent theology out of any vicar than you would out of the man on the Clapham Omnibus.

Humphrys spoke in his radio series to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, as I described before. Again, I assume that his expectation was doubtless that Williams would present an authoritative answer on behalf of Christianity. But his trust in the established authorities is misguided. Although it is doubtless surprising for people who continue to rely on the local parish church for a few helpful words when people are hatched, matched or dispatched, the fact is that with the impact of modernism and postmodernism on the Anglican seminaries, the diversity of "theology" within the Church of England is immense. I suspect that different sections of the Anglican communion have significant mistrust for each other - and those different sections are all represented within the Church of England. For example, I did three years of theology study by correspondence with this organisation. It is well-regarded by evangelical churches of many denominations in the UK, and has a close association with St. Helens Bishopsgate. The fact that I have done this study means nothing to my local anglican vicar, who is much more interested in Churches Together, an ecumenical organisation.

Now the Archbishop doesn't represent an "average", any more than my local vicar, the one at Nick Clarke's funeral, or anyone else within anglicanism represents a "typical" anglican position. So you can't really expect to learn anything meaningful from what they say. You may do. But you can't expect to. I can think of various people who Humphrys would have been better served talking to or listening to - not to get a "more muscular version" of Christianity, but just one that presented what I would understand to be a more intellectually and spiritually coherent one. John Blanchard. Don Carson. Philip Yancey. Sinclair Ferguson. Josh McDowell. Alvin Plantinga.

We also heard an account of a funeral this week. It was of a two year old girl we knew a little about (not the one I wrote about here - she continues to respond well to treatment, and is still in remission) who had been suffering from leukaemia with other complications. Somebody who attended described the funeral as intensely emotional - both sad and joyful. He said the person reading the Bible read as well as he had ever heard - and being involved in full-time Christian work, he has heard the Bible read on many, many occasions. The message was helpful, and again was as good from the speaker as he had ever heard.

The pain of losing the youngest child in a family is no less for evangelical Christians - especially when it has been such a long and wearing battle. But at this funeral there was more than resignation, resentment, and rejection of the idea of God.

We all got the chance to hear about the shooting in the Amish community in Pennsylvania. How many of us also followed the news for long enough to hear about the healing and restoration that followed, I wonder?

It is too simplistic to say that this sort of thing rules out the idea of God - because there are too many accounts of this sort of thing where the people involved would say that God is at work amongst them - even if they don't understand how or why.