CODEC’s MediaLit Conference 2017

Can Artificially Intelligent Machines go to heaven? Can you take Eucharist on the internet? Is Facebook a good thing for our churches? These questions and many other issues and themes which arise from the increasingly digital world which overlaps onto and into our lives have been explored at the CODEC MediaLit conference this June 12-16 2017.

It has been an interesting experience and I’ve entered into the experience by blogging and tweeting throughout. I’ve posted blogs on each session on Medium and I’ve gathered them all together in this post here. The Chronicles of the CODEC Conference.

View story at Medium.com

Some Thoughts on Writing 

There comes a time when a man realises that if he wishes to write, then he must in fact write. The proper way to do this is meaningless. There is no proper way so long as words keep on appearing on the screen. It’s fair enough to pause for a moment to correct a spelling or to use the naturally better word, but the aim should be to keep on typing and typing.

I wonder what would happen if we were to sit down together with this app open. Agree a time to start and start typing down our thoughts? I wonder what voice you would hear speaking in your head and which voice it would resonate with in my own. You see we do not hear the voice which says the words, but in reading discover a voice which seems to fit the words. I forget which writer it was but he helpfully observed that half of the book or the essay or the blog post, or even the words themselves, are written by the author. The other half, well the other half are written by the reader. One might start writing, for example, of a world which seems as real to us as the one in which we write. A brave world. A different world, with people and creatures guided by rules and principles which seem at once alien and familiar to our own. But the world which one starts writing, is not the world which the other creates. There may well be an overlap, a similarity to these dreams but it seems to me that no one can ever read the same book as another.

In a way that’s a rather a lonely idea.

There’s thousands of ‘great’ works which millions have read and thought about. Yet for each one the world that they experience, while commonly inspired, is unique. There would be those who should like to say that this is no different to the way that each of us subjectively engages with the so called ‘objective’ world around us. The issue here is that each secretly supposes that their own subjective experience gives them a solid insight into the objective which they seek. Yet which of us today would read an email written two or five years ago to another and suggest that they still see the world as they saw it before? Day by day we create new realities so fast that our pictures of the world have become rambling movies, only a little more coherent and consistent than this own piece of writing.

This piece has the semblance of sense because the eye moves from one word to the next and the mind processes what is current with a degree of priority over what was before, while even then reaching out to eat the words which are yet to come.

This is where we find the second myth of the shared experience of the writer and the reader. For the reader, there is material laid before them as a path through the countryside to a village. One may wander along through some trees here. Through some fields there. Yet there is ever that looming and growing view of the end. But for the writer, there is no such clear way. Only emptiness on the screen and maybe a few stray thoughts wrestling with one another in the mind, begging to escape through the fingers. Indeed for the writer, the way to the end is to cling to that intangible something which compels the writer to write in the first place. The irony being that in the end all they have are words and those words will, for them, create a new world the next time they read them.

The real grasps for that which is intangible and produces something only a shade less obscure; teasing the mind with the sense of productivity and satisfaction. Yet, as every and any writer could tell you, they could always have phrased it better. It could have better punctuation. Longer sentences. More succinct ways of expressing the concept. Maybe even an appealing attempt at alliteration, which somehow never quite hits the intended meter.

This is electrifying. There’s an interesting experience which just occurred with the writing of that very word. Momentarily I wrote that this was paralysing. Then I waited. My mind was blank. The only way to move forwards was to change the word from a stop to movement. It was electrifying. That alone shows the trouble with writing. It is all too easy to stop and all too hard to write. Having started, having marked one’s course by the compass, one must march forward. The fingers type the keys and the pen scratches across the page; thus the writer writes.

Allow this writer to lead you on a little further down the path because there is another mystery between the writer and the reader. Just as the reader can see where the material is going, so too he can read the material far faster than the writer can produce it. This is obvious!, you say. Yes it is. But it is seldom accounted for. Think back to those emails and messages that you have sent to your friends and family. Not just the mundane ‘How are you’s but think of the angry responses which have been firmly crafted (and hastily sent). The time which goes into the writing lends an importance to the words for the writer. This is because attention is currency – a concept that few understand.

There’s a a qualitative distinction between the value that a text has for the author and the value which it has for the recipient. A poem might well be the best example, because a poet has lived with the dream and imbibed the composition; most likely working through several drafts before approaching something which approximates to the  intention. The hours that it takes to compose a truly intelligent and beautiful poem is gargantuan compared to the time that most people take to read the 14 lines a couple of times.

Does that make writing the less valuable? Goodness me, no. Does it account for the hope of anticipation when someone else reads that which we have written, only to feel the empty drop in the guts when that acknowledge that it’s “alright“? It seems likely, at least in part. Sometimes the writer is guilty of pausing in time to write… that which should be denoted by some form of punctuation. As if the words on the page genuinely do infer the spirit of the intention that wrote it.

Alas, when the writer wishes to make plain that he has paused, or that he has at last (by his reckoning) reached the end, he must make it plain. And so, for this occasion, the fingers tap tapping away on the keys must falter and dwindle to a not quite satisfied but pleasantly content silence.

_____

Just for fun, I should point out that I have not returned to edit any of the phrasing or structure of this piece. I simply sat down and let my fingers type. I trust that your eyes have enjoyed the reading as much as I enjoyed the writing.

The ‘app’ referred to is CalmlyWriter.

Measurement Problems in Ancient Greece – IAS Fellows Public Lecture

Yesterday there was an IAS Fellows Public Lecture hosted at St John’s college, Durham. The Speaker was Dr Barbara Sattler of the University of St Andrews. Her theme was to peel back some of the concepts we now take for granted to show some of the elements which had to be constructed from scratch, as it were, to enable the development of the concepts of time and speed.

It was a relatively short lecture with time for a Q&A session at the end.

She started by pointing out that at the time of Aristotle there were conversations happening about scale but that before we get to these complex comparative concepts the ancient Greeks needed to develop the basic components.

To illustrate this idea of measurements pre-scale she pointed out that we would all instinctively understand her if she said she drove to Durham from Newcastle at 60mph. We can see this from our speedometers – which are much more impressive than we often recognise!

60 mph is speed.

This is made up of the components of distance and time placed in relationship to each other. Mile per hour. Here we divide, but there are other concepts where we multiply. The important thing is the relationship.

Dr Sattler then turned to  time and distance.

In Aristotle’s ‘Physics’ Time is a measure of motion and being moved. It wasn’t bound to the idea of distance.

She then described how they had no real way to compare ships with one another. To do this they needed to figure out how to put two magnitudes together in relation with each other. So Dr Sattler gave three scenarios which built on one another to build the complexity of speed.

As we are in Durham rather than Athens, and given the strength of the female amateur rowing team here in Durham, these scenarios were  a variety of boat races on the river Wear between various bridges in Durham.

The first ‘race’ was between two boats starting at the same time from one bridge and racing to the next bridge. The winner is clear, we can see who gets to the next bridge first (obviously that would be St John’s!).

The second ‘race’ covered the same stretch but this time with a staggered start. So the St. John’s boat starts and then 20 seconds later the St. Chad’s boat starts. Is it now as easy to say that when the St John’s boat reaches the end first, that they do so faster than St Chad’s? We can’t tell just from observation.

The third ‘race’ involves each boat covering a different part of the river, with different distances to travel. How can we tell who is faster?

We need both time and distance.

Boat A does 300m in 75 seconds.
Boat B does 100m in 40 seconds.

Which is faster?

Without knowing the measurements all we can say is:

Boat B takes less time.
Boat A covers more distance.

When we know the separate magnitudes we can put them in relation to discover the speed.
Boat A  goes at 4m per second.
Boat B goes at  2.5m per second.

So, Boat A is faster

These scenario’s show us that speed is complex.

Dr Sattler suggests that Aristotle has everything he needs to develop this but doesn’t do it.

She then steps back to look at time.

In Ancient Greece there was:

1. No unified calendar
2. No unified temporal framework

If we were to say that yesterday there was this lecture, and there was a film on in the cinema and that it was someone’s birthday we wouldn’t have a problem because we assume a shared calendar. Each of these things happened on February 16th 2017.  Even if there’s no causal relation they have a temporal relation by being able to be put in the same calendar.

The Greeks, though, had different calendars in different places and even when in one place there would often be more than one calendar. Athens, for example, is known to have had three calendars.

There was one for festivals based on the lunar cycle with 12 months.
There was a political one based on the solar cycle of ten months.
Then there was the agricultural, seasonal calendar based on the movements of the stars.

One of the results of this is that it is often quite hard to distinguish which year an event happened in. Events were not identified numerically but in relation to who ever was in power.

This works great for identifying events which have happened but makes the future intangible. You can’t identify the future when you don’t know who will be in charge.

To further complicate things, the calendars were not rigid systems but were used to serve the purposes of the people. This means that they would adjust them to serve their purposes. Occasionally they would repeat a month to help hold the calendars closer together in sync.

This lack of a unified calendar leads us to consider their lack of a unified temporal framework.

Relationship between past present and future are not Connected in the linear way that we understand them now. However the future and the past were related in a way in that they are both not the present.

Dr Sattler identified five different senses of ‘time language’

Duration
Sequence
Measurable time
Agency
Tense

Duration:
Chronos, a Greek word for time, was used to indicate a particular time.

Sequential:
The use of  words such as before and after. Interestingly these words often qualified objects and people rather than time per se.

Measurable time:
Concepts such as Day, Month, and Year. These concepts were only connected with the word chronos in the 5th Century BCE which gives chronos it’s more linear conception that we might be more familiar with.  There’s still a difference between the way that they conceived of these concepts. They were not just used as quantitative words but also with a qualitative dimension as well.

Agency:
There was the Greek word kairos which was used to signify the right or critical time for an event or action. Apparently this was especially important in the medical language used in the Hippocratic Corpus with regards to treatments and so on.

Tense:
The last aspect of time that Dr Sattler looked at was the concept of tenses. She described these as acting much more with the ‘arrow’ or directional nature of time. One of the interesting aspects which comes with the present tense is the idea of what I would refer to as ‘objective’ truths, or that which has been and will remain true – it is.

These different elements of the concept of time show that for the Ancient Greeks time was something which was experienced. More so than for us, their experience was anchored in the present moment and from that moment they would look back at the past and then look forward to the future. It sounds similar to our linear perspective of time where we tend to assume a sense of progression and trajectory from the past into the future but actually the idea of having a perspective rooted in the moment and looking from there, both forwards and backwards, is not a linear conception of time.

Dr Sattler concluded by observing that ‘the future’ was a relatively late concept to be developed in Ancient Greek thought.

There were then some interesting questions which followed.

She was asked about the Simultaneous in Greek thought.

She responded that Homer seems to have struggled with indicating concurrent events but to mistake this for an idea of bilocation would be to shift from the complex ideas involved thinking about time to the equally complex ideas surrounding the philosophical development of the concept of place.

There was a question about the relationship between the idea of telos or purpose and time.

She responded that Plato seems to be aware of it but laments that it wasn’t a part of the metaphysical frameworks which were passed down by the philosophers.

There was another question which picked up on the objective truths element and wondered if there were any examples she would offer.

In fairness to her the idea of universal truths tends to be a more moral question and so she left it at the acknowledgement that it’s hard to find a general consensus on what those truths might be.

Overall this was an interesting lecture. It would be easy to say that we didn’t learn anything “new” about time, however that would be to miss the point. The point is that we operate instinctively with complex and sophisticated concepts of time and speed, rarely acknowledging the significance of the conceptual work that was required to bring us to the point where we can nonchalantly book in a date for a wedding next summer in our calendars on our phones or adjust our speed to match the limits on different roads.

That’s a fun idea to think about next time you see your speedometer or check your calendar.

#FreeSpeech Under Attack?

A friend and I went took the opportunity to attend the Durham Castle Lecture about Free Speech on Wednesday. The speaker was political historian and free-speech advocate Professor Timothy Garton Ash from Oxford. It was an interesting presentation of two main halves; systems of speech in our interconnected world, and principles for speaking freely with ‘robust civility’.

He opened with two quick questions for the audience.

  1. Is there anyone who does not think free-speech is a good and important thing? (One person put their hand up).
  2. Does anyone not have a smartphone (magic box)? (One person didn’t).

This set the stage for him to explore just how interconnected the world is becoming. His image was that we are becoming a world of neighbours in a great city. These changes are both physical, with mass migration, and virtual, with the rise of the internet in developing countries as well as in the west.

This greats a ‘fantastic chance’ for speech and communication, but also risks ‘enormous danger’. This is a world where a fatwa from Tehran can result in attempted attacks in London and Paris, a world where a known prankster in South California releases a video called ‘The Innocence of Muslims’ which results in over 50 deaths in the resulting riots in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And so the question for Timothy Garton Ash is:

How do we maximise the chances of free speech and minimise the risks?

To answer this requires understanding the significance of the paradigm shift which has happened.

The Old Way of looking at free speech was to follow the rules of the nation states and their court systems. If you travelled you would be subject to different regulations on what you could and could not say – When in Rome, as it were.

But with the Internet, the New Way of looking at it is to realise that Rome is everywhere and what is said there doesn’t stay there; it spreads virtually and geographically.

Rather than just being controlled by the power of the state, he identifies four interpenetrating layers of a kind of matrix in which free speech occurs and is shaped by.

  1. There are the international treaties and organisations.
  2. The ‘Big Dogs’.
  3. The ‘Big Cats’.
  4. The ‘Mice’.

The international treaties would include things such as the Bill of Human Rights from the EU or ICANN, which manages and deals with a lot of the stuff that makes the internet ‘work’ such as the Domain Name System (DNS).

The Big Dogs are the nation states rules and regulations. The First Amendment in the USA is a good example; a government regulation which maintains free speech in a particular geographical location.

The Big Cats would be companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and so on. Their influence is huge. With an impossibly large to imagine number of regular monthly users (1.9 Billion) Facebook has become a dominant force in the world of social media. Below, the Blue is Facebook.

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Free Speech Debate Website

This means that for these 1.9 Billion users, much of their online speech is dictated by the Terms of Service provided by Facebook – which is enforced primarily by algorithms.

Internet Terms of Service for social media companies are often:

  • ‘non-transparent,
  • non-accountable, and
  • non-appealable’.

Timothy Garton Ash illustrated this point by referring to the story of the editor of Norwegian paper ‘Aftenposten’ who uploaded the iconic Vietnamese war photo of the naked girl fleeing only to have it removed as a violation of the Terms of Service. After a media outcry it was eventually restored. The question is, what about those users who don’t have the platform to appeal to preserve their free speech?

Lastly, there’s the Mice. And the Mice are us.

What can we do in the face of the megalithic entities and power structures?

“We can do a hell of a lot!”

Timothy Garton Ash pointed to the various successful anti-piracy campaigns such as Stop SOPA (led by individuals such as Aaron Swartz, who more than most has shown the impact that the individal can make when we communicate and organise effectively) to demonstrate his point. I would suggest that the success of the contemporary so-called ‘populist’ movements which have led to the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns also demonstrate the ability of the Mice to make their voices heard.

Given these four layers which influence free-speech, then to focus simply on the Law isn’t enough. There needs to be a more comprehensive approach.

This is where Timothy Garton Ash’s involvement in the Free Speech Debate project comes in.

Their intention is to have transcultural (not simply inter-cultural) discussions on the nature of speech in an attempt to find some basic norms which can help create the chance of free-speech while minimising the dangers. This involves speaking around the world. Last week it was India, next week it’ll be Turkey.

He says that there are two important questions:

  1. How free should speech be?
  2. How should free speech be?

The first is a question of ‘limits’ and ‘boundaries’ of content.
The second is a question of ‘attitude’ and ‘conduct’ of presentation.

These questions are concerned with what he calls ‘the gamble of freedom’, and the answer is ‘Robust Civility’. 

Robustness without manners can lead to violence, and manners without robustness can lead to not saying anything at all. The combination promotes a healthy respect for the other whilst enabling a genuine commitment to personal beliefs.

The Free Speech Debate presents 10 Principles to which, balanced out, they believe should help to facilitate free speech in accordance with a slightly modified version of Article 19 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.

Here ‘and able’ is the important distinction from Article 19, recognising the agency of the individual.

Timothy Garton Ash didn’t go through each of the ten principles so they’re listed below and I’d encourage you to go and have a look at them on the Free Speech Debate website.

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Having outlined the structures which influence free speech and presented some key principles for how that free speech should be defined and conducted, Timothy Garton Ash then turned to how free speech is under attack.

It is here that things got interesting.

To start with he compared his experience of speaking abroad in different places five years ago and said that it has become less free to speak almost everywhere other than Burma, which is perhaps having the opposite problem of too much free speech.

Then he turned his attention to the West, and described a recent rise in Anti-liberalism which, in his view, was to a greater or lesser extent a reaction against the financial crash of 2008. It was this reaction which has developed into the fragmentation of the media, the rise of ‘echo chambers’ and ‘fake news’. In essence, free speech is under attack from those who supported Trump, from those who supported Brexit and those who are currently supporting Le Pen (never minding that each of those three situations are distinct and that while there may be those who support all three, they are most definitely not synonymous movements). He stressed the need for a good and honest media as required for democracy. I’ll return to these points shortly.

These attacks can be described as three vetos.

  1. The Assassin’s Veto
  2. The Heckler’s Veto
  3. The “I’m offended” Veto

The first is essentially the threat of violence if someone says or does something. The natural example was that of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

The second is the simple disruption and drowning out of the other’s voice to prevent or disuade them from speaking.

The last is the idea that certain forms of speech shouldn’t be allowed because someone will be offended. This was encapsulated in the PREVENT agenda which was initially supposed to tackle radicalisation of students but has been used to ban or no-platform non-violent ‘extremists’. One such example was when Germaine Greer was banned from speaking at a university on feminism because of her views (which were not planned to be discussed) on transgender issues. Another would be that of not allowing Tommy Robinson to speak of his experiences in Luton.

Timothy Garton Ash affirmed the idea that safespaces and trigger warnings are helpful in limited contexts on a university campus, but stressed that you shouldn’t consider the entire campus to be a safespace. More than that he argued that people like Tommy Robinson should be allowed to speak to students because they would destroy him and take him apart in the Q&As.

He concluded by returning to classical liberal values as outlined at the start and then the floor was open for questions.

Whilst I had been sitting there listening to the presentation I found that there was lots of really helpful elements which he had presented. The four layers and the ten principles with the three vetos were all interesting concepts which seemed on the whole to work well – I still need to reflect further on the rest of the ten principles and see how far I would agree with them or not. However, what had struck me through out was that Timothy Garton Ash wasn’t shy about his own political views and opinions, particularly on topics such as Brexit and Trump. The way that he talked about “Fake news” and the Media made it clear that he would consider himself to be ‘on their side’ – something which he made clearer whilst responding to one of the earlier questions. As such I found myself sitting there wondering to what extent his free speech principles were wedded to his own political beliefs, or whether these two things were separate constructs which met naturally in him as he was the one speaking.

I did not for a moment begrudge him using his lecture to discuss his opinions in a public context, but the way that he presented his case about freedom of speech being under attack resulted in him characterising it as being under attack from ‘the right’. So I asked him this question:

I applaud your commitment to trans-cultural dialogue on these topics. I wonder, however, if there’s need for a trans-political dialogue as well? You’ve talked about echo chambers on the right, I wonder if you could talk about echo chambers on the left? For example I know many people were aghast when Brexit occurred because they hadn’t seen or known anyone who would have been in favour of it on Facebook etc.

He responded partially, as he was responding to a couple of questions in a row. His response was along the lines that of course there are echo chambers on the left and that the New York Times and the Guardian had found themselves to be out of touch with the white working classes and that this was something that needs to change.

It was nice to hear an acknowledgement that there are echo chambers at the various stages of the political/ideological spectrum however there was no comment on embarking in dialogue with those of other political perspectives to discuss principles for free speech.

I’ve written about echo chambers on twitter before and I consciously strive to be exposed to arguments and perspectives on all sides of different issues.

One conclusion which I have come to is that Timothy Garton Ash is right when he says that democracy requires a good media. However I suspect that he would view “fake news” as stories presented by ‘alternative’ media sites which are then ‘debunked’ by ‘Main Stream Media’. I would suggest that the reality is far more complex and that there have been multiple and repeated occasions where the ‘Mainstream Media’ makes assertions which are then demonstrated to be false. Journalistic Integrity should be a non-partisan value! That’s not a counter-claim saying, “No, the left are the ones who are attacking free speech”. I would suggest that free speech is not the property of either the left or the right. In the recent past it was the religious right which wanted to ban music and video games which were offensive and today it’s largely speaking those on the left who want to police what can and cannot be said. Give it a decade or so and I imagine the pendulum will swing once again. I also wonder where “the media” would fit in the layers. I doubt they would be Big Dogs or Cats, but they’re certainly not mice. 

My friend and I walked away from the Great Hall of Durham Castle, replete with its high ceilings and larger than life portraits on the walls, having been listening to an Oxford university professor speak to a room of largely white, well educated, generally politically liberal people and wondered whether, as good as it was, this was the living embodiment of academia in its ivory towers.

 

Initial Observations on the ‘Marriage and Same Sex Relationships after the Shared Conversations’ Report

Today there was a press conference where the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, presented a paper from the House of Bishops on Marriage and Same Sex Relations after the Shared Conversations, which will be discussed at the General Synod in February.

This is the latest chapter in the on going discussions within the Church of England surrounding a variety of questions of the place and value of lesbians and gays in the Church of England, and the degree to which same sex relationships are compatible (or not) with the teaching of the Church of England. Having written briefly on the Primates meeting this time last year I thought I’d identify a couple of interesting features while not intending to preempt the discussions which will happen at General Synod.

There’s two strands of context which I found helpful: the historical and the legal.

The Marriage and Same Sex Relations (M&SSR) report, locates itself as the intermediary conclusion of the ongoing process of the Church of England considering issues arising from same sex relationships since ‘well before’ Issues in Human Sexuality in 1991 (13). In 1999 there was Marriage: A Teaching Document, which worked on the basis that marriage was between one man and one woman. In 2013 there was The Pilling Report which recognised a range of views and proposed two years of, what became, ‘Shared Conversations’. These were facilitated conversations intended to ‘assist the careful listening that would support clear and open exchange of views and embody the principle of disagreeing Christianly, in a manner marked by Christian care for each other'(13). These concluded in July 2016, at which point the House of Bishops took responsibility for exploring ‘what should happen next'(14).

The Archbishops nominated ten bishops to form a Bishop’s Reflection Group on Sexuality (BRGS) to propose a process to put before the synod (15). There were meetings in September, November and December which all led to the formation of this course and these meetings involved prayer and mediation, both personally and corporately.

The other strand of context is the legal advice as to what the potential options of moving forward would be with regards to the changes which would have to be made to Canon Law. There were two issues which were dealt with (provided in Annex 1 of the report as a background resource): Services and Clergy Conduct.

As it stands, Clergy are only allowed to use services which have been approved (Authorised or Commended) and where there are no available services they may form their own so long as it does not depart from the doctrine of the Church of England. The effect of this is that in the light of the doctrine of Holy Matrimony ‘it would not be lawful for a minister to use a form of service which either explicitly or implicitly treated or recognised the civil marriage of two persons of the same sex as equivalent to holy matrimony’.

As such there are four possible responses:

  1. Remove the requirement to be faithful to the doctrine of the Church of England.
  2. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
  3. Make no changes but explain it would be okay for clergy to use forms of services which did not equate same sex relationships with holy matrimony.
  4. Make no changes and stick with the pastoral guidelines of 2014.

With regards to clergy conduct, presently there is the expectation that clergy will ‘be diligent to frame and fashion their life and that of their family according to the doctrine of Christ’. It’s understood that this would mean maintaining the doctrine of Holy Matrimony in their personal lives as well, which would mean one man and one woman. More than this, it’s pointed out in paragraph 46 that all clergy explicitly assent to the principle of this in their ordination vows. As such to enter a marriage with a person of the same sex is fashioning ones’ life into a way which is inconsistent with the doctrine of Christ.

From a legal perspective there are five possible responses:

  1. Change the rule so that being married to a person of the same sex doesn’t break the rule.
  2. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony so it no longer ‘affirms, according to Our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union… of one man with one woman’.
  3. Change the doctrine of Holy Matrimony to state that civil marriage to a person of the same sex is a different institution from Holy Matrimony and so entering into that institution does not amount to an act contrary to the doctrine of holy matrimony.
  4. Make no change but issue a teaching document which explains that the Church of England does not equate same sex civil marriages with holy matrimony, and that by entering one clergy would not be considered to be acting in a way contrary to the doctrine.
  5. Make no changes and stick with the pastoral guidelines of 2014.

I think that acknowledging any response (in any direction) to the Shared Conversations is bound to deal with these legal realities in order to make sure that the conversations weren’t merely ‘a smoke screen for dismissing those we disagree with’ (10) but actually have a real ecclesial response.

The general consensus, though not unanimous, of the bishops in writing the report was twofold (18):

  1. There was little support for changing the Church of England’s teaching on marriage;
  2. There was a strong sense that existing resources, guidance and tone needed to be revisited.

As such the intention is to:

  • interpret the existing law and guidance to permit maximum freedom within it, without changes to the law, or the doctrine of the Church (22).

Paragraph 23 goes on to summarise the four practical proposals that much of the rest of the report goes on to expand, namely:

  1. Establishing a fresh tone and culture of welcome and support for lesbian and gay people, and their families, and continuing to work towards mutual love and understanding on these issues across the Church.
  2. There should be a substantial new Teaching Document, replacing or expanding upon the 1999 Marriage Teaching Document. This should be comprehensive but accessible enough to be widely read and understood throughout the Church of England.
  3. There should be clear guidance for clergy about appropriate pastoral provision for same sex couples.
  4. There should be new guidance from the House of Bishops about the nature of questions put to ordinands and clergy about their lifestyle.

That last one is particularly interesting to me as an ordinand myself. I am aware of those who are under regular scrutiny of their moral integrity with living by the standards they have assented to in Issues in Human Sexuality (as all ordinands must in order to proceed with training) on the basis of their sexuality while others, who may well be morally deficient in other ways, escape that scrutiny on the basis of their presumed heterosexual orientation. As such the suggestions in paragraph 55 and 54 that questioning about sexual morality should form part of a wider examination of ordinands by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and bishop, and that this questioning should apply equally to homosexual and heterosexual people and take the same form, seems to me to be a sensible development of the discernment and accountability processes of the Church.

There was one phrase which leapt out at me while I was working my way through the report. Paragraph 31 says:

  • The national Shared Conversations have demonstrated the need for and value of careful, deep exploration of questions of human sexuality in dialogue with the reading of scripture.

I found the addition of the word ‘reading’ an interesting one, in that it implicitly acknowledges that the location of the discussions aren’t necessarily located within the text of scripture but within the different ‘ways’ that different Anglican traditions approach scripture. I can’t help but wonder whether it’s not going to be questions of morality which will prolong and hinder the Church in finding a unified position on sexuality, but rather the less asked and underlying questions of biblical methodology, hermeneutic practice and even epistemology.

This process is one which has placed a strain on the Church of England, and this comes through in paragraphs 59 and 65. Paragraph 65 stresses that ‘to maintain an unambiguous position on doctrine in this matter [holy matrimony is one man and one woman] while enabling a generous freedom for pastoral practice that does not directly and publicly undermine it is entirely consistent with our traditions and is a perfectly coherent approach to take’. As such, returning to paragraph 59, ‘We do not accept that those disagreements make some kind of major fracture in our Church inevitable at this point, nor that it is time to start planning for division.’

The report is well worth a read, and I imagine that many will be pleased and disappointed by various different elements of what the bishops have to say. However I think that, particularly bearing in mind the legal realities and options which are available to take as the next steps in this continuing process, in reality the bishops would have been hard-pressed to say anything substantially different than they have done. There’s a certain logic to the movements which have long since been set in motion and what will be far more interesting, from my perspective, will be the response and feedback of the General Synod as the Church of England continues to ‘walk together’ through this process, hopefully, wherever the Spirit leads them.

The Son of Man will come with Glory

This week I’ve been in a block teaching module called Preaching From the Synoptics. 

It’s been a great, if long and somewhat intense, couple of days looking at some of the background of Matthew, Mark and Luke’s Gospels with a particular eye on how this might influence the decisions which we have to make when we plan a sermon.

At the end of the first afternoon we did a workshop exercise together called ‘Ten to Two’.

The premise was simple.

We would have ten minutes to pick a point from Mark 13 (which we had just been discussing) and plan a two minute reflection on it. However it had to be in keeping with the rest of the chapter. That is, we couldn’t just pick the word ‘temple’ and talk about Churches etc.

This was more than just a creative writing exercise as we then each took it in turns to present our reflections to the group! It was truly fascinating to get a glimpse at the sheer variety of ways that people could engage with the passage and of the wealth of approaches and methods we might take. Some presentations were profound, others inspiring and some were even quite funny. Mine, well I’m not quite sure how I would categorise mine. Perhaps as a mix between the imagery of Mark 13 and the Lord of the Rings?

Let me know what you think in the comments below; either about my reflection or of anything which has stood out for you from mark 13 before.

The Son of Man will come with Glory 

There will be death,
and destruction…

A shadow of despair shall permeate the land.

The temple will fall. Families will breakdown and the sound of singing will become as a forgotten memory – belonging more properly to the legends of old.

“When will this happen?” They asked.

Jesus casts his eyes down at the still standing temple and replies almost wistfully…

Many will come claiming that they are the messiah…

They will walk in the darkness with strips of cloth bound across their eyes.

They will shout loudly, but their voices shall be muffled in the tepid air.

Yet more will come…

Ones with their own vain promises,
others with foolish desires and ambition.

But when the Son of Man comes…

When the Son of Man comes he shall come with great power and glory on the clouds. 

And the dawn shall break forth on a new day; shedding the shadows of Death, dispelling the fears of the hopeless. There will be such a light as has never been seen while the birds start to sing when the Son of Man returns to what is his.


 

Stephen Motyer has written a great book on the return of Christ which actually examines Mark 13 in detail. Read my review if you’re interested to know more. 

David and Psalm 23

This week, amongst a million other things, I’ve done a short exegesis paper on Psalm 23.

It’s always interesting to delve into the commentaries and to see what scholars have written about the scriptures, in particular those passages which we can often become dulled to simply through familiarity.

There’s a lot to talk about in Psalm 23! There’s discussions on the royal connotations that the shepherd metaphor had in the Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. There’s the structure: the two metaphors of God as Shepherd and God as Host, and the changing use of pronouns – it starts off referring to ‘the Lord’, and then addresses God directly as ‘You’ before reverting to ‘the Lord’ at the end. There’s plenty of talk about the significance that the psalmist basically does nothing for himself.

The Lord:

makes him lie down
leads him beside still waters
restores his soul
leads him in right paths
is with him
prepares a table
anoints his head
overfills his cup.

This leads scholars to call the psalm ‘a song of trust’ or ‘a song of confidence’; the psalmist’s hope is in the Lord, not in his own abilities.

This is especially true when looking at the valley of the shadow of death, or the deadly place, or the fatal darkness. Some scholars use this image to contrast the metaphor of the Lord as a shepherd with the “shepherd of death” in Psalm 49.

Fearing no evil can imply fearing the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom.

“You are with me” can hearken back to the promise God first makes to Abraham in Genesis, and which is repeated throughout scripture.

The darkest valley, the guidance of the Lord and the table can all be seen as links to the Exodus story and the Passover meal (and for Christians today, this can rightly take on Eucharistic connotations too).

Goodness and mercy shall follow me apparently translates literally as ‘pursue’, giving this a sense of the relentless intention of God to bless us and be in relation with us.

You get the idea. These are just a handful of examples of the discussions which were common throughout the commentaries I used.

However, there was one particular aspect of the Psalm which I found fascinating. When you open your bibles to Psalm 23  you’ll see that at the top of it it says ‘A Psalm of David’.

This is called a superscription. It’s basically a title but it doesn’t give the psalm a name but rather some information about it (though not all psalms have them). Some will say that they are a Psalm of Korah (a person), or that it’s a psalm of accents (to be sung on the way to the temple)  or that it’s to be played on particular instruments. What’s so interesting about it then? Well, in the commentaries I looked at (and I did not look at them all! Just about thirty or so) the scholars who mentioned it normally said something along the lines of ‘go back to the chapter I wrote about the types of psalms’. So I had a look and they would recap the discussion about the psalms of David. It seems that they may have been written by David, or they may have been collected by David, or they might have nothing to do with David and were called psalms of David in honour of David or even about David. In essence, we don’t have a clue what the connection is to David but they’re called ‘Psalms of David’ anyway.

Because of this ambiguity about their connection to David, the only way to ‘date’ the psalm to the life of David is when the psalms clearly refer to events which are written about in 1 Samuel, the main place where we read about the life of David. Psalms like 59, 56 and 142 are good examples of this. Psalm 23, though, is not considered to have any clear link to any events in his life. Whilst profound and clearly the testimony of an individual, there’s nothing distinctively ‘David’-like in the events in it. As such scholars seem to accept that we don’t know who wrote it, or when, or why.

Yet Psalm 23 is ‘A Psalm of David’.

Now… usually if you have an idea about a passage of scripture which no one else seems to have spotted* then you should reconsider and either realise that you’re stretching things a bit, or write a PhD thesis on it! But this is less of an exegetical point and more of a meditative one – so I feel safe in at the least suggesting it as a helpful way to reflect on Psalm 23.

A Psalm of David.

Well, regardless as to whether David wrote it or someone else wrote it for/about him, I think that it’s an apt description.

Psalm 23 is the Psalm of the God of David as a Shepherd. Which is interesting because David… was a shepherd.

1 Samuel 16, Samuel is looking for the next king of Israel and he meets Jesse, David’s Dad. In obedience to God, Samuel asks Jesse where his youngest son was. “He is keeping the sheep”.

That’s the first we hear of David. He’s a shepherd.

This is important in the following chapter when David kills Goliath the Philistine Giant.

Goliath was huge and had the best armour and weapons. He challenged the Israelite army to a one on one duel, and winner would take all.

“Today I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

1 Samuel 17:10-11

David visits his brothers in the army and asks:

“Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

1 Samuel 17:26

His brother rebukes him, but King Saul hears and asks to see David.

Now this is where things get interesting.

David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!”

1 Samuel 17:32-37 (emphasis added)

David then took his staff and some pebbles in his shepherd’s bag, went out, challenged Goliath and, after telling him that God will deliver him into his hands, killed him.

Here we find that David has total faith in God, and he expresses his faith using the language of his experience as a shepherd. Just as David protected sheep from lions and bears, God will protect David. The lion would take a lamb from the flock, Goliath would fight one person from the army of Israel. The lion would defy David, Goliath defied the living God; and neither would succeed in their ambitions.

If we consider the themes of David’s trust and reliance upon God in the face of adversity, if we consider his analogy of his actions as a shepherd protecting his flock to describe God and if we even consider that his victory was prepared for him by God in front of the philistine army then it seems that these themes overlap incredibly well with the themes we find in Psalm 23.

Reflecting on Psalm 23 while keeping David as shepherd and his understanding of God as Shepherd in mind doesn’t suddenly change the themes and content of Psalm 23. But I would suggest that it might enable us to delve into those themes and encouragements in a way which can give us a deeper appreciation for the beauty of the profound trust and hope found throughout.

And so I encourage you to read it through now, and I’d love to hear what occurs to you as you read it.

Psalm 23 – A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
For you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


*so far as I can tell, but there’s a lot of stuff which has been written on this Psalm – very possible someone else has had this idea first and I’m just unaware of it!