Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Unspoken Assumption that Needs to be Spoken

The gay marriage debate is one of the most acrimonious and unpleasant things around at the moment. One of the more amusing (to those with a warped sense of humour) aspects of it is the number of times that secularists say that religious arguments should not be brought to the table or given any weight. My response to this is, "why? I know that your argument is an excellent dodge to get your point of view passed without real debate or discussion, but why?"

You see, the argument begins by assuming that religious arguments are always invalid, which is a wonderful enlightenment dodge to make sure you never have to examine them, but which should not be allowed to itself go without examination. The secularist assumes that secularism, as a philosophy, is true, and therefore everyone else has to follow his rules. In a postmodern, plural society, that assumption cannot be allowed to stand, because it at one stroke destroys all real plurality of views. This is, incidentally, why Modernist pluralism is sheer humbug, but that is another matter.* Rather, modern Britain consists of people from a huge variety of backgrounds, in various religions and cultures. So why is it that not one religious person is allowed to come to the table as a religious person? Is that not deciding the outcome before the debate? Is it not as absurd, if not more so (for after all, in the Middle Ages the population of England was overwhelmingly Catholic) a Medieval friar declaring that a Lollard must affirm the faith of the Catholic Church that the Eucharistic elements are transubstantiated before they debate the Mass?

We must affirm the fact of pluralism without falling prey to a philosophy of pluralism. The fact is that Evangelical Christians are a small minority in this country, and we cannot realistically expect our views to be accepted by all. But it is an equal fact that the secularists are also a small minority, yet they expect without question or debate to be able to impose their views on everyone else. We cannot allow the Secularist to treat his worldview as the default position - rather there is no default position, and each may and must speak from his or her own position. That way at least we get honesty, and hopefully also clarity!

* Modernist pluralism is humbug because really (though usually unconsciously) it says that only modernism is true, and that a plurality of faiths are allowed only really insofar as each is moving towards a full acceptance of modernism, or allows itself to be regarded as completely irrelevant. Certainly only Modernists are allowed a seat at the table.

Where do Ethics Come From?

It was one of my regrets in Seminary that I missed the first lecture on Christian Ethics, and was  therefore unable to use the joke that I had memorised for the occasion, namely, "What is a lawyer's definition of ethics? The county immediately to the north of London". While the absence of the joke was undoubtedly appreciated, the subject is one that is of great importance - what is the distinction between right and wrong, and how can we know it?

Local pastors are usually, like General Practitioners in medicine, expected to know a little about everything, which means we are rarely masters of any one topic - which is probably a good thing, as specialists in one field are often supremely (and dare I say all too often invincibly) ignorant of others. Now, there are many good works on Christian ethics out there, and one blog post cannot hope to cover the field in anything like a comprehensive way, which rather conveniently exempts me from trying to do so. Rather, I want to ramble on about a topic that is of great importance in the moral debates of our day; namely, the source of our ethics.

The great moral debate of our day, at least in public, is that of same-sex marriage. It is not a debate so much because there of a prevalence of doubt on the matter, but because of two vehemently opposed certainties. On the one hand there is the certainty of the orthodox Churches, that it is entirely wrong, and on the other hand the certainty of the liberal social elite that it is entirely right, even a fundamental human right.

In debate, it seems that the two sides are often talking past each other - quite often because they are; they are trying to appeal to the undecided middle, knowing that the other side is quite unwilling to be convinced. But even when the debate is between two persons, there is often a complete inability to understand the other's argument. Now, when I say "understand", I do not mean "agree with". There is another problem entirely, the idea that one cannot understand another's position without affirming it to be correct, but I digress. The fact is that the reason why the differing parties cannot agree is, as the wit once said about the two fishmongers arguing across the street, "Because they are arguing from different premises."

The problem, as I see it, is one of authority; what is the source of our morality? Generalising enormously, but necessarily, we can identify three different views on the matter: The first is the view we may call the Transcendent, that morality is determined by an authority outside of man. The other two views are Immanentist, that morality is determined by man. The first of these is what we may call the Societal, morality is determined by society. The second is the Individualist, that morality is a matter of personal choice and values. Again, over-generalising to an almost criminal extent we may describe the first as pre-Modernist, the second as Modernist, and the third as Postmodernist. Before the Enlightenment most people held that morality was Transcendent, that God determined what was right and wrong. The primary example of this would be the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, "God spoke all these words..." The Enlightenment led to the idea of morality as a social construct, rules mutually agreed upon by a society. The Postmodern philosophers and their disciples, however, criticised this as an act of power, the dead hand of the past imposing itself upon the people of the present, or the social elite imposing its will upon the powerless.

Where we are today in the West is in fact somewhere between the two different Immanentist views of morality, and this is where the conflict lies. Despite the oft-repeated saw that "you cannot legislate morality", many of our laws are attempts to do just that, and they always have been. Most people do not object to efforts to legislate their own morality, just efforts to legislate moral ideas and ideologies they do not agree with. Now, if there is one area of morality that the semi-postmodern society regards as entirely beyond not only the reach of law but also of criticism, it is sexual morality. The problem is that marriage is precisely the state declaring that certain forms of sexual conduct are more favoured than others - which is why marriage has a particular form. The language of "Marriage Equality" has been adopted by some campaigners for same-sex marriage, quite ridiculously, given that they will vehemently deny that they wish polygamy and polyandry to be legal. If sexual morality is truly merely personal, then the state should have no concern in the matter at all apart from protecting the vulnerable from abuse. Marriage, in a consistently Postmodern view of sexual morality, should not be a concern of the state at all.

On the other hand the Christian argues from entirely different premises; that we do not get to decide what is right and good and what is, on the other hand, bad, but that we are the creatures of God, who has made us and who has made us in his own image. God's laws are not purely arbitrary, like the law that says you cannot exceed 70 mph on the motorway, they are the expression of God's character and of our nature. If I may put it reverently, God could not have given ten different commandments upon Mount Sinai. God stands above all of us, though he is also not far from any of us. He gets to decide what is right and good, we do not, no, not even if we are seated together in a place of worship and are elected representatives of the Christian people. The Church can neither condemn what God has approved, nor can it approve what God has condemned.

That is the state of the question. I would further argue that only from a Transcendent understanding of morality can we consistently critique others and ourselves (though not in that order). While the philosophers of the Enlightenment supposed that they were building their "rational moralities" on universal principles, we see far more clearly now that they were unconsciously reading Christian presuppositions into their analysis, and the idea of morality as decided by the society all too easily becomes morality decreed by an educated intellectual elite, which descends into nightmare in the Cambodia of Pol Pot. What is more, it cannot be consistently maintained, for a merely societal morality cannot critique a different society without assuming an unwarranted attitude of moral superiority. A purely personal understanding of morality is simply unworkable, as we all, however much we isolate ourselves, must live in society, and life together is impossible without a shared moral code, however rudimentary. But that is not my point here; rather that point is that until we realise that we are proceeding from radically different ideas about how we derive our morality, we shall never really be able to talk to those with whom we disagree.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Old and Eccentric Churches: 3. Broughton, Staffordshire

The phrase "old and eccentric" might have been invented for the Church of St. Peter, Broughton, Staffordshire. After the Reformation, English Church-building styles did not change overnight, so that writers have spoken of a "Gothic Survival" well into the 17th century. St. Peter's is a great example of that survival, built in 1630-34, it could have been constructed a century earlier. The reason for its odd shape is that this is not a Parish Church at all; it is rather a country house chapel intended to serve nearby Broughton Hall, and the servants and tenants of the Broughton family.

 This family Church was spared the ravages of the Civil War, and has developed since then. Owing to the old English custom of younger sons of landowners becoming clergymen, a number of incumbents have also been of the Broughton family. The size of the chancel suggests that the original builder was sympathetic to the ideas of Archbishop Laud. The interior, with its 18th century box pews, two-decker pulpit and various family monuments, is a gem. It is not normally open, but there is a number that you can call to summon a very knowledgeable and helpful Church Warden.
 Being a family Church, it has many family monuments. This one is to Lt. Col. Spencer Broughton, a well-travelled soldier who died at sea in 1702 - hence the warship at the bottom of the tablet. Most of the tablet describes his adventures in the service of the crown.
The font, at the back of the Church, is extremely odd - for one thing, it is so positioned as to be impossible for the majority of the congregation to see it, as it is placed in one of the piers of the tower arch. For another, it is clearly a re-purposed something else - namely a pre-Reformation holy water stoup. Tradition says that it came from a demolished monastic Church. It is quite convenient for small private baptisms, of course, which is what it was meant for!
As you can see, the font is completely invisible from the nave. And no, it is not an optical illusion, the tower arch is significantly out of true. This is one of the last Gothic Churches built in England in the 17th century, but the architect (if there was one) was not as proficient as his Medieval predecessors. Or maybe he was just cheap.
The stained glass of the east window is constructed out of bits of other windows re-used in a patchwork quilt effect. It is supposed to show the patron saints of England, Scotland and Wales, but the man who put it together had never heard of St. David, and so confused him with King David - as seen here. David's legs, head, body and crown are from at least three different stained glass figures, not all to the same scale, thus he looks comically deformed.
Finally, the pulpit and reading-desk are the focal point of the 18th-century furnishings of this 17th century private chapel that has since become a tiny Parish Church.
And so farewell to this eccentric little church, the chapel of the Broughtons of Broughton Hall.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Old and Eccentric Churches: 2. St. John's, Ashbourne

The Church of St. John, on the Buxton Road in Ashbourne, is a very different building from St. Mary, Mappleton, and yet the two are in some ways very similar. Most notably, they are Anglican buildings that are intended to be "Protestant", auditory spaces for the preaching of sermons rather than "Catholic" spaces for the drama of the Mass. While Mappleton was a new Church on an old site, built because of the decay of the old building, St. John's was built as the result of a disagreement in the Parish Church of All Saints in the 1860s. The Vicar, it would seem, was influenced by the ideas on theology and worship coming from Oxford and Cambridge, while one of the the leading local industrialists, Francis Wright, led a Protestant party. Eventually Wright and his friends left the Parish Church, but not the Church of England. They built a grand propriety chapel - a private church not connected to the Parish system - and paid for a minister for themselves

The chapel was of course St. John's. There is nothing terribly unusual in a wealthy man of the period building his own Church - it was done by people of all shades of Anglican theology, and there are also Nonconformist and Roman Catholic places of worship that deserve the title. These buildings, being largely the result of one man's piety, are sometimes very personal in their architecture, and can be theological statements in stone or brick. One example of the theology of St. John's architecture is the tymapnum over the west door, which is also the main entrance. It bears the words of Jesus from Matthew 18:20, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." This is the Protestant (and even Nonconformist!) idea of the "gathered Church" rather than the Parish model, the Church as the company of God's elect, the "little flock" in the midst of the world

There is however nothing little about St. John's. This is Protestantism on the grand scale, a great auditory space like Spurgeon's Tabernacle in London, taking advantage of modern technology - and not coincidentally Francis Wright's own ironworks - to create a huge open worship area.  Narrow columns of cast iron create the minimum interruption, and if the communion table is (as in our picture) occasionally obscured, the pulpit is not.

This is deliberate: The pulpit is the most important item in St. John's, where the Gospel is to be preached from. It would have originally also had a reading-desk beside it from which the service would have been read. By the 1870s the age of the three-decker pulpit was well and truly past, but still the simple woodwork of the pulpit looks back to an earlier age. Though the form of the building is Romanesque externally, even to the apse (which provides a conveniently shallow chancel), the interior is pure Victorian Protestantism. 
Looking west, the effect is even more pronounced. It could be a Nonconformist chapel, and the vicar at All Saints' who provoked the secession would no doubt have pronounced it as good as one. A Nonconformist chapel would, of course, have provided a deeper gallery than the one at St. John's, which seems to have been intended for singers and musicians, but that is all. The singing gallery was also a Protestant statement - the Anglo-Catholics had their robed choirs in stalls in the chancel or Choir of the Church.
The pews of St. John's are said to seat over 600. Tall windows with clear glass flood the wide preaching-Church with light in contrast to the "dim religious light" filtered through stained glass.
Cast-iron windows are another reminder that the man who paid for this was the owner of an ironworks. The style of tracery is one to be found in many Nonconformist places of worship - not coincidentally including Ashbourne's Wesleyan chapel! This is Victorian Anglican Protestant militancy in stone and iron - and a wonderful building it is too.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Old and Eccentric Churches: 1. St. Mary, Mappleton

The 18th Century has given us some of the most eccentric English Parish Churches. Before Sir Christopher Wren, the tendency of English Church architects was to continue in the Gothic style, though there were notable exceptions. Wren attempted to build Anglican Churches that were "properly Protestant", as we might say. He had his imitators and his followers, and until the rise of the Gothic Revival, these produced a number of neoclassical Church buildings.

One of the most fascinating of the post-Wren English Church architects is James Gibbs, who was a pupil of Wren. By far his most well-known Church is St. Martin-in-The-Fields, London. Probably his most obscure Church is the one that we are going to consider - St. Mary's, Mappleton, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire, probably built at some time between 1710 and 1750.

Not much is known about what Gibbs had to work with at Mappleton, though it is known that there had been a previous building on the site since at least the reign of Edward. What this building was like is quite unknown, but the outline of Gibbs' Church is a very traditional English Church, a rectangular nave/chancel and a square tower. Does it reflect the form of the Medieval building? While his London Churches all include a steeple incorporated within the structure of the Church, at Mappleton the tower is a separate structural component, though it is still the location of the front door.

The tower is topped by a dome crowned with a lantern, and the windows are typical round-headed windows that would have originally been filled with clear glass. The whole thing is very reminiscent of Wren's smaller London Churches, though it is smaller than any of them. Of course, the first question that suggests itself to the visitor on finding this rather accomplished little building in the middle of no-where is, "What on earth was James Gibbs doing in Mappleton?" The answer seems to be that he was approached to design St. Mary's while in Derby, working on the rebuilding of All Saints' (now Derby Cathedral).

Internally very little of the original furnishings survive; pulpit and pews have been replaced long ago, the former by one discarded from Ashbourne Parish Church. The roof, which would originally have had a plaster ceiling (note the brackets that would have supported the ceiling beams) has been exposed, thus raising the height of the ceiling. Still, the effect is, like Wren's Churches, auditory - this is a Church primarily meant for hearing preaching rather than for the Medieval drama of the Mass. The pulpit, meant for a much larger building, is therefore actually appropriately dominant, though Gibbs would have provided a three-decker in approved Georgian style.

The organ, which intrudes so markedly into the oblong building, is of course also a later addition. The gallery would have housed the rustic choir and their equally rustic accompaniment, the exact nature of which would have been largely dependent on the varying musical talents of the villagers. A vestry has been created by the construction of a wooden box under the galley on the south side.

The font, which not original, is of a size appropriate to the building. Quite probably the Georgian rector (who was always the Vicar of Ashbourne as well) would have conduced his baptisms using a silver bowl on the communion table. A later Victorian rector is responsible for this miniature font with its incongruent Gothic detailing and Minton tile floor. Since 1974 Mappleton has been part of the United Benefice of Ashbourne. It is still a well-loved and used village Church, open at all reasonable times and very much worth a visit, if only to see a "Wrenaissance" village Church.

In Many Bookshops with Pastor Charmley: The Branch, Dewsbury

Christian bookshops, like all bookshops, come in many shapes and sizes. There are some that are large chain stores, corporate, sleek, predictable, and others are small, independent and quirky. As you have guessed, I like the quirky ones, large or small, whether independent, like the Christian Bookshop in Ossett, or not, like the magnificently eccentric Barbican Books in York, with its staircases many and rooms many. The Branch Christian Bookshop, Dewsbury (17 Halifax Road, Dewsbury WF13 2JH), certainly falls into the quirky category. Look at our illustration - surely it is a small book, you think. You would be wrong; like Doctor Who's TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside. You enter to find yourself in an Aladdin's Cave of second hand Christian books, all reasonably priced, and a staircase invites you "further up and further in" to where the new books are. It all makes sense when you realise that you have, quite unbeknownst to you if approaching from out of town (as I did), actually stumbled across the old Gospel Temperance Hall (now Dewsbury Gospel Church), a splendid 1930s building illustrated here. A good selection, comfy sofas to sit on while checking books you are interested in purchasing, friendly and helpful staff, this is a great place to go to - though make sure that, if possible, you combine your visit with one to the Christian Bookshop at Ossett, nearby. The best thing about these shops is that they actually sell books, even dog-eared, battered books over a century old. Highly recommended.