Passing on the Faith?


It is a privilege to regularly post on the website of Dunsborough Anglican Church. I have just posted there today on passing on the faith. I’ve based some of the article on the ideas of Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave on communities of practice and situated peripheral learning, as I think they have a lot to offer our understandings of faith formation.

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

Christians need more than tolerance


The Government intends to make no changes to the exemptions for religious organisations in employing people. Today the Australian Christian Lobby’s Jim Wallace boasted that the Prime Minister told him that she will not change these exemptions. Hardly something to boast about: the idea that the churches have a right to discriminate is arrogant and disappointing.

Secular views on tolerance may seem closer to a genuine Christian position. Jeff Sparrow assumes that the exemption is essentially against homosexuals in religious schools and hospitals. This commentator notes, “What message does this legislative loophole send, other than that discrimination against gays and lesbians doesn’t matter as much as other forms of bigotry? It’s a statement that homophobia is still OK; that gays and lesbians can still be bullied and harassed, in a way that wouldn’t be tolerated in respect of anyone else.” (Jeff Sparrow, “Religious Freedom Beats Your Rights at Work”, http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/4467310.html?WT.svl=theDrum, 16 January 2013.)

Many Christians have more sympathy for this than for Mr Wallace’s position. But for Christians it is essentially an empty position; a position which is nothing more than opposition to the ACL and groups like it.

I believe that churches should aspire to a higher standard than the community’s. Jesus included the unacceptable, the unclean and the immoral: the women who had had five relationships, the Roman centurion (and his ambiguously described ‘lad’), tax collectors and prostitutes. We should actively embrace many more people than a typical corporation.  Mr Wallace believes some people should be excluded. I cannot defend that view. But Mr Sparrow’s view that no-one should be excluded comes nowhere near the Gospel paradigm that everyone should be included.

St Francis embraces the leper

That there should be no discrimination is a secular standard, the best we can agree on in a diverse society. But the Church seeking to include every last person requires much more moral effort, and indeed, demands that we be receptive to much more of God’s grace.

We Christians should welcome any move to remove the exemptions for religious organisations. The church should be pleased in this case to submit to secular virtue.

Whether or not the law changes, Christian employers should choose to act according to higher standards and be as inclusive as possible. Of course, the specifics of each employment decision do not simply flow automatically from the principle of maximum inclusion; Christian employers must still wrestle with CVs and references to match the best person for each job. But I believe maximum inclusion is closer to the Gospel, and will be seen in our complex society as closer to the Gospel. We Christians are not merely tolerant, as the Government claims to be; we follow the Lord who is “loving unto every man and woman”. (Psalm 145:9)

Francis – program notes


Program notes for the play Francis, presented by the Midnite Youth Theatre Company, November 21, 22, 23 and 24, by Julian Mitchell and directed by Drew Stocker tssf.

By Ted Witham tssf

Poster for the play “Francis”

Saint Francis of Assisi became a leader by giving power away. Francis Bernadone was born in 1181 or 1182 and grew up in a wealthy merchant’s house. As a teenager, he became a leader of wild parties through the streets of Assisi. He was known as ‘The King of the Revels’, and used his money to attract friends.

Like all young men in Assisi, Francis chose to join in the little wars the town fought – for the Emperor (against the Pope) and against the neighbouring hill-town of Perugia. After one battle Francis was taken prisoner in a dark prison in Perugia. Having a wealthy father meant that he was held for ransom.  It took a year to negotiate a price for his release. He began to realise that even with money he couldn’t have what he wanted when he wanted.

After his release he bought a knighthood to fight in the crusades. Instead of a glorious tour in Palestine, Francis returned home sick. In a vision God showed him that he didn’t want him to be a knight, so he gave away his lavish armour.

Everywhere around him, Francis could see people fighting: fighting to keep their possessions and power. Assisi had always been a barter economy, but now, as Francis grew to manhood, it was becoming a greedy money economy. Instead of giving each other life’s necessities, the people of Assisi began to amass cash. The division between the privileged and the poor grew rapidly.

Francis saw a solution to this greed. All people should treat each other as members of their family. Instead of grabbing resources for themselves, they should share with their brothers and sisters what they had. Francis started a community of those who would follow this way. He dreamed of a new world where people gave everything away to each other, so all would be equally rich.

Francis struggled for the rest of his life to find the best way to be the leader of this community. His idea of a leader was someone who did not have power over others. Like Jesus, Francis wanted to be the leader in serving others, a servant leader, a leader in giving power away. The concept was – and is – difficult to put into practice, but the communities Francis founded continue to try to make it work.

Sing a new song to the Lord


Hymns – traditional hymns – have sculpted my theological and spiritual landscape. I’m happy to worship with Dan Schutte (“Holy Darkness‘), Graham McKendrick (‘Beauty for Brokenness’), George Bullock (‘The Power of Your Love‘), and all the other contemporary praise-singers, but they have not dripped steadily, obsessively and repetitively into my heart over 60 and more years as hymns have done.

There was a time in my life when I knew the number of every hymn in Hymns Ancient & Modern Revised. If I saw the number 372 on a bus or number plate, I would immediately think ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only Wise’, and often involuntarily blurt it out – to the amusement of friends.

Many hymns have been with me since childhood. I remember beefing out ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ (A&MR 165) at Tambellup Primary School Anzac Day services, and singing – very slowly, with my Mum on the harmonium, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ (A&MR 160) in the little church of St Mary in Tambellup.

But there are other hymns that I remember by the person who introduced me to them: Irvin Phillips, organist extraordinaire at St Matthew’s, Armadale, thought my repertoire was incomplete without the tune ’Lucius’ and the lovely words of community that accompany it: ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord, // who joins us by his grace, // and bids us, each to each restored, // together seek his face.’ (TiS 442(i)).

David Overington, my mentor in the Franciscan Third Order, was surprised I did not know the tune ‘Blaenwern’. Together in Song suggests that we should sing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ to ‘Blaenwern’,(TiS 590) and, David was right, it adds a depth to that old crusade song that you don’t find with the usual tunes. David also recommended singing ‘Once to every man and nation // comes the moment to decide’ to this tune; and it certainly gives the words a drive towards decision that the curly Welsh tune ‘Ton y Botel’ lacks.

Michael Pennington, Rector of Applecross when I was his curate, introduced me to Samuel Stanley’s great hymn of re-dedication: ‘O thou who camest from above // the pure celestial fire to impart…’ Michael chose it for the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, now 15 years ago. It deeply touched my own determination to continue as a priest, offering my life as a sacrifice and knowing that service brings its own reward. ‘Still let me guard the holy fire,// and still stir up the gift in me, // ready for all thy perfect will.’ (TiS 527)

I probably will never know the depth of spirituality that hymns have given me. I will continue to explore new worship music, and I will try to give new life, by giving new words, to old tunes. But it is the old hymns I credit with sustaining my faith through difficulties (‘Great is your faithfulness,’ – TiS 154) and joys (‘Hail thee festival day’, or ‘Christians, lift up your hearts’ in TiS – 423).

May the Lord grant me the joy of continuing to sing hymns; I do hope that they will be one of the options for praise in the eternal worship of the saints.

Emerging Butterfly?


Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, Paraclete Press 2006. E-Book 2012

Reviewed by

Ted Witham

The key idea of How (Not) to Speak of God is that many Christians in the “Emergent Church” movement embrace paradox. The first few chapters unpack the implicit idea in the title: that the moment we speak of God, we deny who God is. All attempts to define or describe the Christian God are doomed.

This is, of course, not a new idea, but it is unusual for evangelical Christians to push the point as hard as Rollins does. Essentially, Christians are atheists, because our God is beyond human category. At best, we can glimpse God in icons which often appear to point away from the reality of God, but which express metaphors that are self-consciously metaphors and not definitions.

Christians are defined not so much by what they believe as by how they believe; and this dynamic faith will manifest in works of mercy and restorative justice in the real world.

The second part of this encouraging book is a series of liturgies designed by the house church in the Menagerie Bar, the pub that Rollins calls his spiritual home. The themes range from Judas to Corpus Christi to Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani. The description of each liturgy is preceded by a reflection introducing the theme. The liturgies emphasise imagination and emotion and are described in practical detail, so that readers could use them as they are, or adapt them for their own setting.

If this is the coming, emerging church, then I would not mind belonging.

Enough Law and Order


Politicians, particularly conservative politicians, are constantly talking up the need for more police and more prison places, and generally being tougher on crime. They are being dishonest and they know it. These campaigns are based on cultivating fear, and have nothing to do with the real situation.

The Hon. Christine Wheeler QC is a former judge of the Supreme Court of Western Australia who is trying to promote constructive public debate about crime. In a recent article, she lists these facts:

former Justice Christine Wheeler

The facts
• Most people think the crime rate is higher than it is, especially for violent offences, and overestimate the likelihood of becoming victims themselves;
• Crime is believed to be increasing, when it is on the whole decreasing;
• Rates of imprisonment in WA are very high, by world and Australian standards, and going up;
• Imprisonment costs the community a lot of money;
• Imprisonment generally does not prevent crime, and may tend to increase it;
• There are effective ways to prevent crime, and to treat many criminals, and people generally would like to see more expenditure in these directions; and
• When ordinary people, including victims of crime, are given all the facts of an offence (as opposed to a brief media report) they generally think the sentence imposed by the court is either about right, or a bit harsh. That is, current sentencing is far from “soft”.

Uniview, The University of Western Australia, Summer 2011-12, page 38

The impression that the media gives is that 50% of crimes involve violence: only about 7% do. This means that people overestimate their risk of being victims of crime. Women and the elderly are the least likely to be victims of crime, but their worry about their vulnerability is affecting their quality of life.

Imprisoning people actually increases the crime rate. When someone goes to prison, they meet other prisoners, they lose their relationships and their jobs. People who have nothing to lose are not deterred by the threat of imprisonment, so they re-offend, causing greater crowding in the prisons. The management of over-crowded prisons creates difficulties that are totally unnecessary. It seems that the more over-crowded the prison, the higher the per prisoner cost to the taxpayer. Currently according to Ms Justice Wheeler the annual cost for each prisoner is about $100,000. “In broad terms,” she writes, “for every extra year an offender is imprisoned, there is one less teacher or nurse or police officer the state is able to employ.”

Mental ill-health and drug and alcohol consumption are major issues in violent crime. There are too few treatment options for offenders coming before the courts. Investment in mental health would reduce crime, as would any measures aimed at reducing alcohol consumption.

Media reporting on crime is designed to heighten our awareness of crime, because the nature of the media is to focus on the drama. In addition, police rounds journalists report stories of three or four crimes in succession and this adds to the false impression of the quantity of crime.

Of course sympathy for victims of crime and outrage at violence are appropriate responses to individual crimes; but the next time you hear a politician claim that Western Australia has a law and order problem, call them and tell them they are lying.