Friday 28 November 2014



The great thing about religious people is that they believe in something. Which isn't to say that the community-minded people in Oxfordshire who run the foodbanks and campaign against the iniquities of (so-called) welfare reform either are or are not religious, nor that they don't believe in what they do. There's a lively new county councillor in Witney who believes in working for the people she represents and as a result, as she told me, she finds herself attending far too many meetings in churches given that she thinks of herself as an atheist. I told her that what she has in common with the church people is that, like them, she believes in something (or if you prefer, doing good things) and shouldn't feel uncomfortable. At Wychwood Circle we meet to discuss what we believe and what we believe in, and one thing we all believe in is dialogue. 

Monawar Hussain certainly believes in something and as a result founded the Oxford Foundation which exists to deepen understanding between people of different faiths and cultures with a particular focus on young people. 
He also bothered to come all the way to Milton under Wychwood to address our discussion group and was rewarded with an audience of 30 who barely squeezed into the library. We felt privileged to be the first to set eyes on a new print-run of an Open Letter to the leader and 'the fighters and followers of the self-declared 'Islamic State' (also known as IS, ISIS and ISIL), a box-full of which he brought with him. Monawar was one of 126 Islamic scholars and others around the world who signed it. 

The Open Letter, dated 19th September 2014, begins with an Executive Summary with a list of 24 points, including the following (my selection): 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to issue fatwas without all the necessary learning requirements. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to ignore the reality of contemporary times when deriving legal rulings. 
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill the innocent.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to kill emissaries, ambassadors, and diplomats: hence it is forbidden to kill journalists and aid workers.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to deny women their rights.
  • It is forbidden in Islam to torture people. 

Imam Monawar Hussain practises what he preaches, with an array of projects and interfaith educational programmes such as OMPEP, and on Sunday (Nov 30th) the Oxford Foundation is promoting United for Peace - Oxford's Communities United against Extremism, a multi-faith service at Oxford Spires Academy. Of OMPEP, Rabbi Julia Neuberger has commented:
"Imam Monawar Hussain's toolkit for schools is enlightening, encouraging, informative, and easy to use. What I love about it particularly is that it is designed both to impart information and to improve understanding and relationships, and, as far as I can see, it succeeds in doing just that."
We could say the same of Monawar who both educated us in the basics - and the variety - of Muslim beliefs and inspired us with his warmth and example. It may be said that he also reminded us of the origins of some of the Middle East's turmoil and sense of powerlessness in the face of Western colonialism and 'civilisation'. 

On December 7th we switch our attention to another Middle Eastern rebel of a very different kind in the shape of Jesus of Nazareth. He too didn't think much of occupying powers or for that matter the native religious leaders of his day. But he seems to have had a revolutionary, but peaceful, way of dealing with them.  Just how much we can really know about him - and whether he is or was, or even claimed to be, God - is amply discussed in our study-text for the day, The Meaning of Jesus - Two Visions (see earlier posts).

Sunday 23 November 2014


Thank God for diversity? 

We have the honour in Oxfordshire this year of hosting the Westminster Faith Debates on “The Future of the Church of England”. On Thursday at the University Church in Oxford the 4th of 5 debates took place on the theme of Diversity.  Much was said by a fairly diverse panel and some brave and thoughtful contributions emerged from the floor.  One such was the hope expressed that newly-empowered women priests (and bishops) should find it hard not to be sympathetic to the demands by gay people for equality within the church.  Another came a good two-thirds of the way through the debate when someone stood up and implied that we might have been skirting the real issue, which is that “we have a problem with the Bible”.

Of course some people don’t have a problem with the Bible – in fact it serves them rather well: just look at the size of their congregations, pointed out the representative of Anglican Mainstream, alluding to the throngs of students at St Aldate’s and St Ebbe’s in Oxford.  But a more striking comment came from someone from US (formerly USPG, a missionary society) who said that if we take the Bible seriously then we must realise that it contains so many theologies that the Church cannot but be diverse.  (He might have added that, with the Bible self-evidently a library of 60 or even 90 books of all shapes and sizes and voices and styles,  it’s tempting to say that, if this is 'the word of God', one might wish he would make up his mind…)

Symon Hill, associate director of the Ekklesia think tank, wrote in a commentary on a gospel passage about Pharisees and teachers of the law who were asking for a sign:
God wants us to think for ourselves. This is scary.  I have been to plenty of churches that are not comfortable with it, and do their best to ensure that their congregations are all taught the ‘right’ interpretation of the Bible.  In contrast, Jesus told parables but rarely explained them. It seems that he wanted his listeners to think through the meanings, whether individually or in discussion with others.”
We shall be doing exactly that on December 7th at Wychwood Library as we respond in our different ways to “The Meaning of Jesus –Two Visions” by Marcus Borg (a leading liberal) and Tom Wright (a leading conservative), both important and respected scholars, well versed in the ‘Historical Jesus’ debate.  As the publishers take care to point out on the cover, both have written books which show their commitment to explaining their faith:  Borg wrote The Heart of Christianity and Wright Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense.  As usual at Wychwood Circle we will do our best to make sense of what we believe – and indeed of what others believe.

We meet at 7pm on Sunday December 7th at Wychwood Library in the High Street, Milton under Wychwood, OX7 6LD, ending not later than 9pm.  We will focus on Parts 1 (How do we know about Jesus?) and 5 (Was Jesus God?).  The book is available in different editions, including second-hand.  Originally published in 1999, it came out as HarperCollins paperback in 2007. 

Friday 14 November 2014



This is the title of our December book by Marcus J. Borg (author of The Heart of Christianity) and N.T. Wright (author of Simply Christian). The cover of the book describes it thus: 
The leading liberal and conservative Jesus scholars present the heart of the Historical Jesus debate.
There are eight sections to the book and in each the two authors are given a chapter each to present their fascinatingly contrasting visions. Thus Part I sets out the very basics of historical theology and asks How do we know about Jesus? with chapter 1 by Marcus Borg (Seeing Jesus: Sources, Lenses, and Method) and chapter 2 by Tom Wright (Knowing Jesus: Faith and History). 

It's unlikely that we will be able to do the book justice in one week's discussion and so for this first meeting on December 7th we will focus on those first two chapters and then go on to see how the two authors interpret the subject of Part V: Was Jesus God? There is a clue to their differing approaches in the title of their respective chapters:  Borg (ch 9) calls his Jesus and God, Wright (ch 10) sets out his stall in The Divinity of Jesus

Maybe in the month of December and a time of celebration (in theory) of the nativity we should have opted for Part VI The Birth of Jesus, but there will be many more occasions to tackle other topics in the book, not least Part IV which gets quotation marks for its title - presumably to keep everyone happy: "God raised Jesus from the dead".  More anon, I imagine. 

One review described the book as a "thorough and accessible scholarly exchange" and another as "a refreshingly respectful exchange". No doubt our discussion at Wychwood Library will be, as always, respectful if not particularly scholarly! 

Was Jesus God? The discussion at Wychwood Library on December 7th, from 7pm to 9pm (latest), will be based on the book by Marcus Borg and N T Wright The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, published by HarperOne (1999), focussing on Parts 1 and 5. As always, anyone is welcome to attend and contribute their own views and comments on the book. 

Friday 7 November 2014


Monawar Hussain changed the title of his talk to us on November 16th and gave his own response to the events of the Middle East: in his own words, 'a mainstream Islamic response to modern day terrorism'.  He was a signatory to the Open Letter to IS and as such had much to tell us. 

This commentary on the letter might also be of interest for those who want to know more. For more on Monawar's Oxford Foundation and their splendid interfaith work visit their website.