Offended by the Lord’s Prayer? You should be!

There has been a minor media storm over the decision of certain cinema chains to withdraw a Church of England advertisement featuring the Lord’s Prayer.

Perhaps they were hoping to avoid controversy by avoiding religion. In reality, of course, religion is unavoidable and they have generated far more controversy than would have been the case if they had gone ahead with the advert.

The decision to refuse the advert is pretty ridiculous, but I’m sorry to see that many of its defenders have responded by insisting that the advert is not offensive. There are two issues that are being overlooked.

Firstly, there is an assumption that adverts generally are not offensive. Personally, I am offended by about ninety percent of adverts. Many of them promote values I don’t believe in, encourage consumerism, champion narrow gender stereotypes and tell me that my life will be better if I buy a load of wasteful junk. I’ve seen army recruitment adverts in cinemas, romanticising war and promoting an organisation rooted in violence and hierarchy.

If you do not share my values, these things may not offend you, but I’m sure some other adverts will. Almost anything that promotes a product or an idea will offend somebody. But I do not have a right not to be offended, and nor do you.

Secondly, the Lord’s Prayer is supposed to be offensive – at least to those who benefit from the status quo. One of its most important lines is, “Your kingdom come”. A prayer that the Kingdom of God will come is implicitly a prayer that the kingdoms and powers of this world will come to an end.

Theologians from Augustine onwards have made tortuous arguments for the idea that Christians can support both the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms they live in. But the Kingdom of God has inherently different values to the idols of money and military might that dominate our world. No-one can serve two masters.

Let’s have a look at the actual content of the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is attributed in the New Testament to Jesus himself, although it’s likely that only parts of it were said by him and other parts were added by others.

It’s opening words are:

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

This may sound fairly innocuous, but in Jesus’ time, the word “father” implied authority over others. Not only was a father seen as in some sense the “owner” of his wife and children, but the Roman Emperor was described as father of the empire. According to the New Testament, Jesus encouraged his followers to “call no-one ‘father’ on earth”. Titles that involve authority belong only to God. This was subversive of both family structures and the emperor.

The prayer continues:

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our food for the day. Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.”

God’s kingdom is an alternative to the kingdoms, nation-states and other powers that we live under. Jesus prayed that God’s will would be done. What does this mean in practice? The next line prays for us to be fed. If God’s will is done, everyone will have enough to eat. Jesus chose this as his first illustration of a world which follows the will of God.

This is followed by a prayer for the cancellation of debts. In some translations, the word is rendered “sins” or “trespasses”. It can refer both to literal financial debts, metaphorical debts and the guilt that comes with sin. It is pretty shocking to call for the cancellation of any or all of these things, and certainly contrary to the values that dominate our world, which insists that debts must be paid.

The prayer goes on:

“Save us form the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”

Speaking in a setting in which his followers expected persecution, Jesus prayed that God would save them from the trials and evils that they were likely to expect. He finished with a reminder that the power and glory lies in God’s hands, not anyone else’s (such as the rulers and persecutors of this world).

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for the overthrow of all existing social conditions. Of course some people should find it offensive.


My new book, The Upside-Down Bible: What Jesus really said about money, sex and violence, is published this week by Darton, Longman and Todd.

Cameron’s “Christian country”

Since David Cameron spoke about Britain being a “Christian country” two weeks ago, there’s been a lot of controversy around the issue. I’ve written an article about it for the New Internationalist, which you can view here. I suggest that a society that favours the rich and punishes the poor is far away from biblical visions of equality and justice.

Oh, come on, all ye faithful

My article on the appalling theology of many Christmas carols appeared in the December issue of Reform, a Christian magazine published by the United Reformed Church. I’ve copied the article below. Please click here for more details of Reform magazine.

December is the only month of the year in which you can hear the same songs in supermarkets that you’re singing in church. It’s an odd feeling, as if God and Mammon have reached a temporary truce for the duration of the season.

There are plenty of secular songs playing in shops too. You’ve almost certainly heard the one about an omniscient tyrant who punishes people for crying (Santa Claus is Coming to Town). When I was very young, Santa Claus and God became slightly confused in my mind. Both seemed to be powerful beings handing out rewards and punishments.

Sadly, many people think that Christians really believe in this simplistic, abusive idea of God. Christmas, when people who rarely enter a church often pay their annual visit, could be a time to challenge this perception. Unfortunately, we seem to respond to their arrival by singing some of the most badly written, incomprehensible and theological dubious songs ever produced.

I am not saying all Christmas carols are bad. There are some good ones, but I would be happy to see most of them never sung in church again.

Some are so badly written that I’m amazed anyone wants to sing them. Presumably We Three Kings of Orient Are is supposed to mean “We are three kings of Orient”. I realise that grammatical flexibility is needed to make words rhyme, but this doesn’t justify moving the verb to the end of the sentence in a way that never happens in English unless you’re Yoda (I annoyed by this syntax am).

In the Bleak Midwinter imposes a north European landscape on Palestine, before saying a shepherd would respond to the nativity by choosing to “bring a lamb”. What would a newborn baby do with a lamb?. Even this isn’t as baffling as The Holly and the Ivy, which draws extremely tenuous connections between plants and the birth of Jesus.

I’m not condemning writers for their imperfections. I have at least as many as they do. But why are Christians so keen to sing such songs so often? What message are we giving out? Take the old favourite Once in Royal David’s City:

“And through all his wondrous childhood
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms he lay..”

Would he? Mary may not have thought him very obedient after he hung around in the Temple debating theology while his parents frantically searched for him. But it gets worse:

“Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as he”.

It seems the claims about Jesus’ childhood are only a prelude to telling children to conform.

There are much better carols that can be brought down by the context in which they’re sung. How can we sing enthusiastically about Bethlehem without recognising the oppression taking place there today? I’m happy to sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, but let’s acknowledge that we’re singing about a real place. Ironically, the lyrics say little about Bethlehem and it has much deeper theology than most carols, asking Christ to “be born in us today” and “cast out our sin”.

That leaves Away In A Manger, a song so full of bad theology that it’s difficult to know where to start. Christian theology proclaims a fully human, as well as fully divine, messiah. Yet this human baby apparently doesn’t cry. Even that isn’t as bad as “I love thee, Lord Jesus; look down from the sky”.

Jesus is not in the sky! Jesus is here, in our midst, wherever two or three are gathered in his name. He is calling us to him today, not waiting for us on a cloud. Yet, with more people in church than we’re likely to see for another year, we decide to reinforce the misconception that Christians worship a God “up there” and are unconcerned with people’s lives down here.

We have something exciting to proclaim at Christmas. Let’s sing of a baby born amidst scandal to an unknown girl in an obscure corner of a brutal empire. Let’s tell of how that baby frightened rulers, challenged the powerful and set out to change the world with a gang of confused fishermen and prostitutes. How he lived so freely and faithfully that he was killed by a vicious government with the collusion of religious leaders. And how he has risen from the dead to meet us, heal us, free us and save us.

A song by John Bell and Graham Maule reminds us that “A saviour without safety, a tradesman without tools, has come to tip the balance with fishermen and fools”.

Happy Christmas.

All baptisms are royal baptisms

When I complained on Twitter last week about the excessive amount of media coverage given to George Windsor’s baptism, somebody replied with the understandable opinion that it was a welcome change to see Christian sacraments featuring in the news.

I can see his point, although as the week went I on I became convinced that the coverage was bad rather than good news for Christianity. The reporting reinforced prominent misconceptions about baptism, including the idea that it is about conforming to tradition rather than making a radical statement.

The media told us that George was baptised in a “private” ceremony. My idea of “private” does not involve an event that is pictured on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers, but I suppose it’s literally true in that the ceremony was not open to everyone. George was surrounded by people as wealthy and privileged as he will one day be. Media comment focused on the details of the clothes he was wearing and his godparents’ ancestral backgrounds.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of Justin Welby’s prayers, nor of the worship through which the baby was welcomed into the Christian church (although George himself is too young to have much say in the matter). He was splashed with water from the River Jordan, where John the Baptist immersed Jesus two thousand years ago.

That was a rather different event, when people voluntarily walked into a river to repent of their sins and to ask God’s forgiveness. Following Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples continued to practise baptism in water, while also experiencing baptism in the Holy Spirit, a more internal matter of cleansing and rebirth.

It is not known whether the early Christians baptised children as well as adults (the question is the subject of a never-ending debate amongst historians and theologians). What is clear is that baptism was a dangerous business. Being baptised helped to mark people out as Christians at a time when they were marginalised at best and executed at worst.

Christianity gradually became less radical, accepting dominant norms of slavery and gender roles. Then in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sucked the power out of this once subversive movement by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and thereby domesticating it. As church leaders were given positions of power and privilege, they found themselves defending ideas they had previously been against (think of Liberal Democrat ministers in the UK government and you’ll get the idea).

With the beginning of Christendom, the church and state became allies, offering support and sanction to each other. All parents were expected to have their children baptised. Baptism, far from being a sign of rejecting the powers of this world, became a symbol of acceptance.

Among the groups who reacted against this were the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Emphasising that following Jesus is a matter of personal choice, they baptised each other as adult believers. In many countries by this time, refusing to hand over your child for infant baptism was a criminal offence punishable by death. Anabaptists were martyred in their thousands.

Some Anabaptists survived by fleeing to North America and a few continued to live in Europe. Their influence on other radical Christian movements, such as Quakerism and some strands of the Baptists, is debated but should not be underestimated. Quakers and the Salvation Army developed a different, but equally radical, interpretation of baptism, rejecting the use of water and focused on inward, spiritual baptism alone. The early twentieth century saw the birth of the Pentecostal movement, which emphasises baptism in the spirit as well as in water for adult believers.

To be fair, many supporters of infant baptism see it as a case of welcoming a child into a community rather than simply going through the expected procedure. They also believe they are preparing a child to make a decision for themselves at a later date, despite applying the water in infancy. I am not persuaded by their arguments, but their approach is very different to the popular conception of “christening” as something that is about celebrating birth rather than about joining the church.

It is this misconception that was reinforced by George Windsor’s baptism last week. George is starting out on a life in which – despite enormous wealth – he will be required at every stage to do exactly what is expected of him. Baptism for him looks likely to be the first step on a journey of commitment to the powers of privilege and earthly power.

In baptism, said the apostle Paul, we die and rise with Christ. We dedicate ourselves, in all our fallible humanity, to Jesus Christ. All baptisms are royal baptisms, because they mark out the participants as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Loyalty to that subversive kingdom means rejection of the kingdoms of this world.

Baptism is not about conformity. As early Christians, Anabaptists and Quakers knew to their cost, baptism is an act of rebellion – and it leads to trouble.


The above article appeared as my latest column for the website of the Ekklesia thinktank. Please see

Justice and revolution at Greenbelt

I’m already enjoying the Greenbelt festival in Cheltenham, which began yesterday afternoon. If you’re not familiar with, it’s a Christian festival with an emphasis on social and political engagement as well as spirituallity, worship, music and arts. I go every year and, while I’m aware that Greenbelt is not without its faults, I still love it.

I’m honoured to say that I’ve been asked to speak this year. If you’re here and would like to know the details, they’re as follows:

Saturday, 3.30pm, Centaur: Joining a light-hearted Battle of the Visions debate with Jim Wallis and Sara Kewly Hyde. We’ll be discussing what our influence would be if we ran the country (an unlikely possibility but I live in I hope!). I’ll be arguing for “justice”, Jim for “faith” and Sara for “arts”.

Sunday, 3.30pm, Jenin: I’ll be talking about my new book, Digital Revolutions: Activism in the internet age, and answering questions

Sunday, 5.30pm, G-Books: Signing copies of my books and happily talking about them to anyone who would like to ask more.

See you there!

Beware of prime ministers quoting the Bible

Beware of politicians quoting random Bible verses at Christmas. Earlier this week, on Christmas Eve, David Cameron said:

“The Gospel of John tells us that [Jesus] was life, and that his life was the light of all mankind, and that he came with grace, truth and love… Indeed, God’s word reminds us that Jesus was the Prince of Peace. With that in mind, I would like to pay particular tribute to our brave servicemen and women who are overseas helping bring safety and security to all of us at home.”

The Prime Minister’s words remind me less of the Bible and more of George Orwell’s 1984, in which the government declares that “war is peace”.

When the word “peace” appears in the Bible, it means much more than an absence of violence.

In English translations of the Bible, the word “peace” is usually a translation of “shalom” (Hebrew) or “eirene” (Greek). “Shalom” refers to far more than a lack of violence. It is about justice, healing, wholeness and the restoration of right relationships at personal, social and political levels. The meaning of “eirene” is contested, but when Jesus speaks of leaving “peace” with his followers, he is clearly talking about something more than the fact that they are not killing each other (a practice that didn’t develop amongst Jesus’ followers until a few centuries later).

There have been occasions on which UK troops have been used to contain or limit violence, although this in itself requires coercion and the threat of violence. Whether or not this is justified, it is certainly nothing to do with “peace” in the biblical sense.

However, recent use of troops by UK governments has gone way beyond this. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have been acts of aggression that have done nothing to make the British people safer and have added to death and suffering in other parts of the world. The young men and women sent to their deaths by Cameron and Blair have been sacrificed in the name of values and powers that Jesus firmly rejected.

The notion that violence is the best, or ultimate, answer is contrary to Jesus’ active nonviolence. John’s Gospel, the book that Cameron quoted, records that Jesus’ last instruction to his disciples before his death was “put away your sword”. 

Equal marriage: We need campaigns, not court cases

I’m disappointed to see that a same-sex couple in Essex say that they plan to sue the government over the ban on same-sex weddings taking place within the Church of England.

My position may surprise some people, given my enthusiastic support for marriage equality. However, the government’s proposals for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage have not even passed the Commons yet, let alone the Lords. I suggest we should concentrate on trying to change the proposals before they reach the statute book. Suing the government at this stage implies that the bill has already become law.

I strongly believe that same-sex couples should have the same rights as mixed-sex couples. I also believe that no-one should be obliged to participate in or host an act of worship in which they do not believe. Therefore, I do not want to see any faith group forced to carry out same-sex marriages against their will.

The government’s proposals go further than this. They give the Church of England a special status and make it harder for pro-equality Anglicans to achieve change within their own denomination. Rather than have a system in which churches can “opt in”, I would rather they were able to “opt out”.

Certain anti-equality groups have been claiming for a long time that churches will be forced to host same-sex marriages against their will. For a long time, I have been asking them to name any group that believes this. They have been unable to do so. They have claimed that campaigners are planning legal actions – but not named any. It is significant that this action has been brought not by a campaign group but by an individual couple (who, incidentally, are wealthy enough to embark on legal action).

While I do not think the couple have chosen the right course, I can understand their anger. Also, I think it is vital to recognise that they are not demanding that a church should be forced to host a same-sex wedding against its will. They want to be married by a pro-equality priest in the church in which their children were baptised. They are practising Anglicans.

I want to see the Church of England treated the same in law as other religious groups. This is difficult when several Anglican leaders want the privileges of establishment (e.g. bishops in the Lords) without the obligations (e.g. conforming to equality laws). Disestablishment would make this whole issue a lot easier. However, even with establishment remaining, it should be possible for the law to allow each faith group, including the CofE, to make its own decision. I wish the CofE would allow individual congregations and clergy the freedom to follow their consciences. If they won’t, I recognise their right not to host marriages on an equal basis, however abhorrent I find this position.

The government’s proposals, by giving special status to the Church of England, are discriminatory. Their bill might be passed as it is; it might be improved by amendments; it might not pass at all. There are several good reasons to challenge the government’s proposals. But let’s do that on the streets, in the media and in Parliament. Let’s not imply we’ve lost already by going straight to the courts. 

Christians must speak out against anti-gay bus adverts

Once again, groups that attempt to “cure” people of same-sex attraction have made the headlines. The Core Issues Trust (whose only “core issue” is an obsession with opposing same-sex relationships) and Anglican Mainstream (who are not at all mainstream) have co-sponsored bus adverts for London, promoting the idea of being “ex-gay”.

The Mayor of London has now banned the adverts. In the ensuing controversy, the two groups will get at least as much publicity as the adverts themselves would have generated. But they won’t have to pay for them.

Conversion therapy” for gay and bisexual people used to be a very marginal idea in Britain. When I (to my shame) supported a homophobic position, in the mid-late 1990s, most socially conservative Christians either refused to accept that homosexual orientation existed, or (in the case of the slightly more humane ones) insisted that gay people should be “celibate”.

But in the last few years, we have seen a sharp increase in support for “ex-gay” and “therapy” ideas deriving from the US. To understand the reasons for this, we need to look at the social and religious context.

Christianity – or at least certain traditional forms of it – have in recent decades moved from centre-stage in an increasingly multifaith society. This has been a welcome relief for Christians who want to move on from Christianity’s collusion with wealth and power. But it has been frightening for some more socially conservative Christians.

This is not surprising. What is worrying is that many of them have latched on to sexuality as the issue to fight over. They claim to be protecting “Christian values”, “biblical values” or “family values”. But they are usually defending their own privileges.

Extreme groups such as Anglican Mainstream and Christian Concern have become obsessed with sexuality. Their narrow focus and extreme rhetoric have alienated more moderate conservatives. There are people who still have a problem with same-sex relationships but who are open to dialogue with those who disagree and who think that Christians should also be concerned with issues such as poverty, peace and climate change. While I want to challenge these people’s views, I would not confuse them with people who sponsor anti-gay bus adverts.

Unfortunately, whenever a story of this sort breaks, much of the media cover it in terms of “Christians v. gays”, as if the two groups were mutually exclusive. The Core Issues Trust and Anglican Mainstream cannot claim to represent Christians generally – or even evangelical Christians generally. No Christian group can do that.

But these sort of stories perpetuate the impression that all, or nearly all, Christians are homophobic. Last year, when I went on a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia, I received emails from people who had genuinely never heard of a non-homophobic Christian before (let alone a gay or bisexual one).

The media cannot take all the blame for this. Homophobia is on the march, and pro-equality Christians must be prepared to speak up as loudly as Anglican Mainstream and the Core Issues Trust.

Let us never confuse the radical inclusivity of Christ with the legalism of the homophobes or the shallow surface equality offered by secular liberalism. Let us have love for our opponents. Let us be open to learning and developing our views. Let us not be afraid to take a stand for love and justice. Otherwise, the only news that the world will hear from Christians is a message from people who want to “cure” them of falling in love with the wrong person.

The Occupy movement and the challenge to take sides

Christians, like others, have been challenged to take sides by the Occupy movement’s resistance to economic injustice. I wrote an article about this for Reform (a monthly Christian magazine) following the eviction of Occupy London Stock Exchange, during which I was dragged by police from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral as I prayed. The article is now available online, on the Ekklesia website. Please click here to see it.

Polyamory and the Holy Spirit

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” insisted the apostle Paul (Galatians 5,1). It’s not a message that Christians have always been keen to hear. We’ve rushed to impose rules, set up structures, fit people into categories. Too often we’ve turned the good news of freedom into bad news of legalism.

How do we make ethical decisions as Christians? The New Testament does not, on the whole, encourage us to obey rules. While it is positive about the value of the Hebrew law, it makes clear that Christ has fulfilled the law and that we have been given God’s Holy Spirit to move in our hearts and guide us.

If you are guided by the Spirit you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature,” wrote Paul to the Galatians (5,16 NEB). In John Henson’s translation, this verse declares that if the Spirit’s in charge “you don’t need rules”.

Such freedom has been too great for Christians to bear – either as individuals or as a community. Throughout Christian history, there have been people who have looked back at these verses and spoken of what they mean for human dignity and equality. The Digger leader Gerard Winstanley was one. He wrote in 1649 that “the same spirit that made the globe dwells in man” to be “his teacher and ruler within himself”.

This sounds impossible. Is God really inviting us to live freely, guided by the Holy Spirit? It sounds like a licence for chaos and selfishness.

Of course, it can very easily be used in this way. Anyone can claim that the Holy Spirit has led them to do something which is simply what they want to do anyway. But let’s not forget that rules can work the same way. Rules often benefit those who came up with them, and this has been as true in the Church as elsewhere.

Seeking the Spirit’s guidance is a challenging, time-consuming, exhausting, sometimes painful process. The Spirit may guide someone in a particular way quite suddenly. But more often than not it takes considerable effort to get used to the Spirit’s voice. Or so I believe – for I am still not used to that voice. My communications with God are often painful and frustrating, as well as liberating and comforting. Sometimes I feel my effort gets no result. But all too often, I have not really made the effort. I suspect I will be more likely to find guidance in a particular moment of need if I build up my prayerful, careful awaiting for the Spirit’s voice. I need to put in a lot more time and effort.

This is the paradox. For me, freedom from rules becomes possible – or at least more likely – when I develop the discipline of listening for the Holy Spirit.

This will mean different things for different people – otherwise it would just be a new set of rules! But the Bible gives us plenty of clues about what we can expect from decisions made under the guidance of the Holy Spirit – whether or not we use that sort of language.

In contrasting the Spirit with the law, Paul wrote that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. He adds, “There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5,22-23).

The law of the Spirit is the law of love. It stands in contrast both to living by rules and to the culture of “anything goes”.

I’ve been reflecting on this lately as I’ve been discussing Christian attitudes towards polyamory.

The word “polyamory” describes honest and faithful relationships involving more than two people. This may be a group of, say, three or four people who are committed to each other in a sexually exclusive way in the same way as a monogamous couple. Or it may involve honestly and openly having more than one partner, approaching all relationships with sensitivity and love to ensure that all involved are fulfilled and not harmed.

Of course, polyamory can be abused. So can marriage. Of course, people get hurt. This also happens in monogamous relationships. But can polyamorous relationships be rooted in the law of love as much as monogamous ones?

I don’t see why not. Polyamory is very different to adultery. In adultery, the love that is shown to one person is undermined by the harm and deceit demonstrated towards another.

Jesus upheld the value of marriage. But he challenged common attitudes in his society, insisting that a man should not divorce his wife on a whim. Remember, this was in a culture in which only a man could initiate a divorce, throwing his wife into social disgrace and often poverty.

Marriage in our society is very different to marriage as it existed in Jesus’ time. For example, in terms of the age of the participants and the economic considerations involved.

How do we apply Jesus’ same values of love, respect and equality in our own context? Of course, we can – and should – uphold monogamous marriages that display those values. But let us also pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we seek to apply those values just as firmly in other sorts of relationships.

We shall know the reality of those relationships by the fruits they produce. I have seen several polyamorous relationships that produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. I thank God for them