Archive for March, 2013

Our Good Friday Message

Posted: March 29, 2013 by J in Church

easter friday 1(Given after an extended story-telling performance of the Passion narrative, at an outdoor service this morning)

READING: Romans 5:6-11

If your life was a TV show, which show would it be? For some people life is a big episode of Survivor: a dog-eat-dog place, impersonal, heartless – where the strong ad the clever succeed. If you think that, you’ll probably try to grab as much as you can for yourself, before the others grab it first. You won’t worry too much if you trample on the other guy.

Other people live in an episode of Lost, the world is a scary and dangerous place, you have to protect themself, you keep your distance from others, the others are dangerous, you live behind closed doors.

Some people are living in an episode of Modern Family, or if you’re older, MASH: the world is crazy, messy and confusing, you’ve given up trying to make any sense of it. If you think that, you probably won’t have many big goals or ambitions –  you just hang on for the ride, try to enjoy it while it lasts, and see what happens. The way you see the world will drive the kind of life you live.

We have just seen Jesus suffer and die. What kind of story is he in? It’s a tragic story of betrayal, injustice, murder. But the apostle Paul looked Jesus’ death on the cross – we’ve just heard his words – and he comes up with a surprising word to describe it. That word is reconciliation.

It’s a great word, isn’t it. A beautiful word. Reconciliation. It comes with a story, a story that will challenge our thoughts about what our world is like. It’s a story that’s all too familiar to us: a family bustup. A father who raises his children, but things turn sour, the children push him away and go their own way, live their separate lives, forget they even have a father. Alienated.

Only in this story, the father is God, and the children are – us. The way the Bible tells our story, things have broken down between us and God. Sin and evil came in and turned things sour, turned us away from him. Now we live like orphans. Without God. No connection, no relationship. Lost in the world.

But Paul looks at Jesus dying, and he sees things change there. He looks at the cross and he sees – love. Paul writes:

“God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”

How does God feel towards us, since we pushed him away? Does he still want us? The answer is here: God comes down to us in the person of Jesus his son, and he takes all our sin, all our lostness, and all our brokenness onto himself, and he bears it all, he dies our death, he shares in our side of the story. There was a lot of alienation in those scenes we watched [the Passion story], wasn’t there. That was our alienation. Jesus went through that for us. Paul writes “Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good man someone might actually dare to die.”

I wonder if there’s anyone you’d die for. I can’t tell you how much I love my three children, I love them so much sometimes it hurts. I might die for them. But for anyone else?  “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

When you look at Jesus at the cross, his arms spread wide, what you’re looking at is the wide open arms of God, towards us his lost ones. When you see Jesus’ blood flowing down, you’re looking at the heart blood of God, bleeding for us. This is the story of the cross, you wouldn’t find it in a TV show. But Paul reckons this is the place to learn the truth about our world. At the heart of the universe is a Father who loves us and gives us his most precious son to die for us. At the centre of reality is a Saviour, Jesus, who holds out his hands to welcome us back. A saviour who has bled and died to bring us back. Back so we can know God and belong to him once again.

That’s the good news of Easter. The world is this sort of world. Not impersonal, not heartless, not hostile. At its heart, at the centre of things there is a father’s heart, which beats for us. A father who wants us back. Do you believe that? Because what you believe about the world is going to shape your whole life, and your family’s lives.

Reconciliation. Paul writes here to the early Christians, “it was when we were enemies, that we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son”. That’s what this cruel death was about. The cross will always be a mystery: but what we can say for sure is this: Jesus was making a way back for us. Back to live as God’s children once again. Everything that sin had done to push us apart, he took it, and he took it all down to the grave with him. Now we can have a fresh start with God. No reproach. No condemnation, no pointing the finger at our failings. Reconciled. God with us, us with him. Accepted. Loved. Through Jesus crucified.

Friends, that’s good news. And that’s Jesus’ invitation to you and me this Easter. A way back, a chance to come and live connected to the heart of the universe. A father’s heart.

You oughta watch this clip about RBS Hammond. Though it focusses on what he did rather than what he believed, this man was a staunch evangelical. With a heart. An inspiration to us a Canterbury and to many others.

Excited the new biography has just been launched. It looks great, can’t wait to get hold of it.

Does anyone want to send us a review copy…? 🙂

Here it is to watch.

We hear so much about the dangers of liberalism in the church, and the tendency of everyone and everything to slide in that direction. The remedy, we are often told, is to hold on to gospel truth tenaciously.

Now this is good advice, in general. But it can go bad. We have recently expressed our doubts about the liberal threat. But now it’s time to consider the threat on the other side: our evangelical tendency to slide into extreme positions.

It works like this. If you’re convinced that you and everyone else are likely to slide into liberalism, you tend to interpret any suggestion of change, any new idea, any different reading of a Scripture text, any alternative way of formulating a doctrine, as a threat. If there’s any movement, then it must mean that someone is on the slippery slope. Of course, The Grit, being dedicated to re-examining the faith and giving fresh readings, is highly suspect! 

There are two things you can do if you’re worried about this slide. The milder approach is simply to reject any sort of change in these areas. This is very common in our evangelical scene, where we tend to judge new ideas by comparing them to a position of ‘orthodoxy’ – generally represented by some favourite leader or historical era. “Is he teaching what they taught? No? Then he’s not holding to the truth.” This of course tends towards  a cognitive fossilisation in which it’s not safe to even ask questions, let alone have new ideas. Eventually no new thought is possible.

But for some that measure is not adequate to counter the drift. The more pro-active approach is to take an increasingly extreme position yourself, as a pre-emptive measure. It makes sense: the further you retreat into narrowness, the further you are from liberal looseness. It’s like in the surf: if the rip is pulling left, why not head right and be extra safe? When you feel scared about going soft, the hard-line guys start to look like a safe haven.

Is the doctrine of Scripture under threat? Christians have always believed Scripture is inspired and has authority. But you could tighten that up by going from ‘inspired’ to ‘infallible’, and if that’s not enough, then take the high ground of ‘inerrancy’. In the past that position was not considered necessary for orthodoxy, but in the end ‘inerrancy’ can become a litmus test for ‘who’s still with us.’

Liberals ‘humanise’ Scripture, saying it is the product of its culture, etc. They talk about myth and tend to deny historicity. But sometimes evangelicals talk about cultural background too, and employ ideas like ‘genre’. They allow for a human dimension in the way they read Scripture. But given the liberal onslaught, this can start to seem like an unwise dalliance with the enemy. Where will it all stop? Aren’t they playing into the arms of the liberals? In fact, aren’t these guys already on the slippery slope?

You might have viewed Scripture as a divine communication through a human medium. But if you’re feeling scared about liberalism, perhaps it would be safer to play down the human part. Emphasise divinity. If Scripture is simply the God-book, it will be safe from critical attacks. And the whole genre thing – it’s nice, but wouldn’t it be safer to read all Scripture as historical accounts? That would avoid so much confusion, and leave no room for talk about myth or fable.

Is the church going soft on women’s ordination? We can not only bar that, but to be extra sure, we’d better keep women out of leadership altogether. Better still, stop them speaking upfront in our gatherings. It’s the only way to be sure.

Is the doctrine of God’s sovereignty under threat? You might have been a three pointer Calvinist, but wouldn’t it strengthen your position to go to four or five? Or even five with double predestination? Surely the really strong leaders are the five point guys – they’re a long way from denying God’s sovereignty. They’re the ones to follow.

The doctrine of creation is under threat from the scientists. You’ve always held to creation ex-nihilo. The church has always held to that, while accepting a range of diverse readings of Genesis 1-3. But under attack, wouldn’t our position be strengthened by a more literal reading of Genesis 1, that reads it more like scientific history? To be safer still, you can assert that the ‘days’ are literal 24 hour time periods. No danger of compromising with evolution then.

This more aggressive approach to conservatism sets up buffer zones around our thought and practise, to ensure that we never get anywhere near the slippery slope of liberalism.

But of course, there’s no logical end to it. You can always get safer by getting narrower.

In effect, what we’re describing is a slippery slope of its own, the fear-driven tendency to slide into extreme views and narrow positions. You’re hoping to hold the line, but you end up going hard-line. I’ve seen it. You’ve seen it.

The point is, that although we hear so much warning about not sliding into liberal compromise, there are actually just as many dangers on the other side. Only we don’t talk about them. So we’re more likely to fall into them.

How can we avoid that slippery slope into extremism? I’ve thought long and hard about this, and here’s the best I can suggest:

Try to be less afraid. Trust Jesus. He will build his church.

The Liberal Threat

Posted: March 18, 2013 by J in Church
Tags: , ,

(This is an edited version of a post from way back)

Have you seen George Clooney’s film Good Night and Good Luck? It’s pretty cool. Complex, with constant layers of sound and action running simultaneously, Robert Altman-style (think Gosford Park). I get bored easily…

Anyway, it’s about the McCarthy era in the US, basically communist witch-hunts. Communism seems like the biggest threat facing mankind. McCarthy is destroying people’s lives by publically labelling them commies. The news guys at CBS decide to take him on. They discover that anyone who attacks McCarthy is likely themselves to be labelled communist. McCarthy sees his crusade as representing America. Hence to oppose him is to be un-American. What Murrow and company at CBS object to is the climate of fear this created, and the way it stopped people freely associating, expressing their views, etc.

Nowadays of course no one worries much about the communist threat. The West has moved on, we’re in a post-Communist-threat world.

I couldn’t help seeing parallels with the church scene I’m part of. We’re evangelicals. And we’ve spent the whole of the past century fighting against theological liberals, both elsewhere and also in our own ranks. There’s been a sense that anyone could at any time start going liberal, get infected so to speak, reject the authority of Scripture, and defect to the other side. The enemy is everywhere, the enemy could be any one of us. We live in a constant state of vigilance.

We’ve tended to identify doctrinal faithfulness with certain leaders, big men we could call them, so that loyalty to them was a sign of orthodoxy, and conversely any criticism a sign of suspicious doctrine. Of course the big men change over the generations, but we always have them, and we always rally around them. After all it’s a war you know.

The liberal threat shows different faces over the generations too. 80 years ago it was the doctrine of the virgin birth that was the litmus test of orthodoxy/heresy. Later it was the historicity of Scripture narratives (esp. the Gospels). More recently divergent views of justification and Pauline theology have been the threat. It’s always something. The threat’s always there.

When a leader is identified as having crossed over, things can get ugly. I’ve seen ministers labelled and cast out. Ostracised. Denigrated. They become the enemy within. I’ve been warned against going to work at certain churches, because my reputation would suffer. I’ve seen people rehabilitate their rep by linking up with ‘kosher’ churches. Seriously.

We’ve had these habits of mind for a long time, they’re deeply ingrained by now. We feel that maintaining evangelical orthodoxy is like walking a knife edge, you could slip at any time. Our natural tendency is to fall away from it, reject the authority of Scripture, and smash our faith in the deep ravines of liberalism. Only constant vigilance can keep our churches from this terrible fate. I grew up in this mind set.

Well, now I’m going to out myself. I’m afraid I’ve started to doubt. I’m just not sure any more about that knife-edge. I’m not sure about the whole threat. I know there’s heaps of liberal Christians out there. But I don’t feel so sure that liberal rejection of the Bible’s authority is the natural temptation of all people. I’ve been a Christian for a few decades now. I’ve known heaps of evangelicals in that time, and the huge majority of them have stayed pretty committed to a high view of Scripture. When I try to look into my own heart, I find many sins and temptations there. But the temptation to embrace  a Christianity that denigrates Scripture is just not one of them. I had heaps of mates at college,  none of them seemed inclined to lower the status of Scripture. They loved it. They revered it. They still do.

So here’s my thought. Could it be that the liberal threat which had come to seem like the natural state of things, could it be that it was just a phase? A long phase, granted, a whole century. But could it be that we’re now entering a post-liberal era? An era when Christians generally won’t be tempted so much in that particular direction? Could it be that that particular war is ending, and we can kind of… give up the hunt?

If I can speak again for myself and some of my closest Christian friends who are in ministry, I think for us the authority of Scripture is a sort of given. It’s just not an issue. Inspiration by the Holy Spirit, we get it. We believe it. We don’t worry about it. We kind of – I know this is going to sound bad, but it gets the point across – we kind of take it for granted. In the struggles and controversies of fighting the good fight, it simply isn’t where the action is.

In fact, a lot of the questions that liberals and evangelicals fought over, seem very dated to us. “Can miracles happen?” That just sounds so modernist and unsophisticated. We’re asking, “how does God’s action in the world leave us space for real agency as creatures in his image?” – and we’re wanting trinitarian answers.

“Is the new testament history?” For us the historicity of the Gospels is a given. We accept it. We don’t stress about it. We’re more interested in, why did the apostolic circle feel it necessary to tell the history four times over, borrowing so much from each other’s accounts? Was there something each of them felt hadn’t been said by the earlier Gospels? What were Luke and John and Matthew trying to say by telling the story the way they told it? Yup, we’re more interested in narrative issues and theology than in revisiting historicity. There are a few people out there who reject Christ because they can’t accept the historicity of the story. A couple of people I’ve met even remember the Da Vinci Code! But for every one of them, I reckon there’s a thousand who ignore Jesus because his people don’t seem to have a compelling and convincing vision for life to offer them. Historicity just isn’t where the battle is. The struggle is to articulate how the gospel speaks into the lives of ordinary people today.

Even more, I worry that the defensive mindset leaves us evangelicals vulnerable to being manipulated by power-hungry leaders. It’s the oldest trick in the book – get people scared about a threatening enemy, then they’ll rally round you for protection. They need you! You can do what you like with them then. Leaders like that have a vested interested in keeping the threat alive.

So there it is, I’ve come out of the closet. I don’t see that particular threat as very relevant any more. I might be seriously naive. I may be totally misguided. If I am, please let me know! But I seem to be living in a post-liberal Christian scene. So I’m calling it the way I see it. Good night and good luck.


Ok so here’s my issue: we want to have the kids in church. Why? Because they’re human. Usually. And so they belong together with the rest of the new humanity Jesus is gathering. We want them to feel like they belong to that, like part of the team. We’re done with the ‘divide and conquer’ approach to church, where each demographic has its own private personally tailored service to provide perfect customer satisfaction. We want to be all one in Jesus. We want to live ‘all one in Jesus’.

There are other reasons too. We only have one gathering for worship/preaching the gospel each week. If the kids go out, then adults have to go out to mind them. Then someone misses out. Probably the same someone every week. That’s bad. In the end the people teaching our kids will be the worst taught people in our church.

Also, how can I put this, we like kids. We feel better when they’re around. They bring a smile to our faces. It makes us feel more like a family when they’re there doing their crazy stuff and interrupting and needing to be channelled into suitable activities. And family is what we want to feel like.

Another reason is, we know that if we take them out now, we won’t be likely to get them back until they’re 35. They’ll be trained to need a ‘special’ youth service until then. And what are the chances of them coming back at 35???

So there it is – we want to have kids in church.

But the question is, how to do it? There’s a bunch of challenges. Essentially it’s about making sure they feel that they’re part of things while they’re there. It’s not enough to have them in the building. It’s also about making sure their parents feel comfortable about the kids. Here are some of the challenges.

‘Churchy’ parents seem to be programmed to expect the kids will go somewhere else during church. They come looking for this. “Oh, you’ve got a Sunday school, we might try your church”. If the kids are in the service, it feels to these parents as though they’ve gone to a lecture at uni and had to take their kids along. Embarrassing. A nuisance. Why was there no child-minding?

It takes a heap of effort to have a kids’ activity slot in the service that a) is good and b) relates to the rest of the service, to the sermon etc. It’s probably too much for your average preacher to manage this each week. So then he has to co-ordinate with someone else so they know the topic, and then they have to come up with something creative.

Next issue, which bits of the service do you expect the kids to take part in actively? The singing? – often the words are hard. Listening to the bible readings? Also can be hard, and boring when badly read. The prayers? ditto. The sermon??

Let’s talk about the sermon. Who do you aim it at? Not just content, I’m thinking tone also.  In my tradition we aim at the more educated people in the room, we give a very erudite sounding talk like at university, and everyone else has to scramble to keep up. That way no one feels talked down to!

You could aim it at the middle of the group, a few of the WASPy nerdy males will feel a bit patronised. Others will be happy – but it will still be largely over the heads of the kids.

Or you could try to speak in a way that the kids will get more of – and lots of your adults will feel a bit patronised.

During the sermon where are the kids, anyway? Are they all together somewhere off to the side or back? They’ll probably like that, but it’s a challenge to keep them from being noisy. And maybe a challenge to get the congregation to accept that there will be background noise. Or do they stay with parents? In these days of one-two child families, that probably means they’ll feel bored and isolated.

And what are they doing during that time? Colouring is often popular for primary age. That’s easy enough. But is more needed? And what about teenagers? Not easy to come up with good activities that relate to the sermon topic. Thirteen year old boys probably want something to do. If they’re not happy, their family won’t come. Gone are the days when Dad just dragged everyone along to church regardless.

So those are some of the challenges. Sounds hard doesn’t it. We’re having a go at it, and want to develop things further.

What I’m looking for is your thoughts and suggestions. Has anyone tried this? What have you done that worked? Please share!

The worst abuse case – followed up

Posted: March 7, 2013 by J in Church
Tags: , ,
Father Tom KnowlesThere were later developments in the Father Tom Knowles abuse case. Apparently his reinstatement occurred while the archbishop of Melbourne was away, and on his return the archbish took action. Apparently it took an archbishop to realise that a sexual predator was a less than ideal person to carry out pastoral responsibilities. That’s the story they’re telling anyhow.
In the meantime the parishioners were writing letters of complaint about Knowles coming back to work. Maybe it wasn’t that hard to spot the problem after all! Seems it was only the heads of Knowles order, the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, who couldn’t see it.
So a couple of weeks after his reinstatement Knowles is out again.
Who knows what might happen next time the archbish takes a holiday…

All of which makes me want to bang my head against something large, flat and hard.

Here’s the article from the Age newspaper:


THE Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne has removed a leading Australian priest who sexually preyed on a disabled and vulnerable woman.

In an embarrassing backflip, the Melbourne Archdiocese has removed Father Tom Knowles from one of the nation’s busiest churches just weeks after reinstating him.

Church documents obtained by Fairfax Media this week reveal that Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart has formally withdrawn Father Knowles ”faculties to engage in any public ministry within the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Melbourne”.

Read more:

The most worrying abuse story so far?

Posted: March 1, 2013 by J in Church
Tags: , , ,
Father Thomas Knowles giving a surmon at St Francis church in Melbourne.

Father Thomas Knowles. Photo: Angela Wylie

In any human organisation there will be sin, and even crime. When this occurs, it doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on the community where it took place. It just happens.

The challenge for organisations like churches is largely in how they respond when an incident does happen. It is here that they either exonerate themselves or get blood on their hands.

That’s why I’m so worried about the story below, from the Age newspaper. This seems to me more serious than any abuse story. Worse than any cover-up. On the face of it, it’s so outrageous, a reckless, destructive act on the church’s part. The word ‘brazen’ comes to mind. What’s going on? What does it mean?

I can think of two things it may mean. The slightly better scenario is that the Roman Catholic church is unwilling to do more than mild discipline for sexual predators among the clergy. Slap on the wrist stuff.

The worse explanation is that the RC church cannot afford to sack its sex offenders because there are too many of them. It knows that this is just the tip of a massive iceberg which would sink the church utterly, so it’s just avoiding the whole thing.

Both explanations are pretty scary. I sense bad times ahead. For all of us.

Here’s the article.


A LEADING Australian priest who sexually preyed on a disabled and vulnerable woman for 14 years has been allowed to return to preaching and running community groups at one of the nation’s busiest churches.

The recent decision by the Catholic Church to allow Father Tom Knowles to return to his full duties at St Francis’ Church in Melbourne’s CBD after around 16 months of ”administrative leave” has outraged his victim and victims’ groups.

Father Knowles’ reinstatement comes after the church apologised to Jennifer Herrick, paid her $100,000 in compensation and acknowledged ”the harm that can be caused to vulnerable people in such a case”.

Fairfax Media photographed Father Knowles preaching to parishioners last week at St Francis’, which hosts 10,000 parishioners a week. In his career, Father Knowles has been appointed as the head of an order and held other senior roles in NSW and Victoria.

Ms Herrick’s story highlights a rarely exposed facet of church abuse: vulnerable adult parishioners targeted by their priest for a sexual relationship.

Read more: