Saturday 21 February 2015



On March 8th we welcome a national figure, well-known to some Radio 4 listeners, a hero for others who have watched him go from pop star to pulpit, and - if one national paper is to be believed - 'the atheist's favourite vicar'. Some will have read Richard Coles' recent memoir which tells his very human story of surviving sex, drugs and rock'n'roll before going on to a 'classic Protestant conversion' (as he calls it) in the unlikely setting of a solemn high mass (so anything but Protestant) at St Alban's, Holborn. 

One reviewer compares his 'astonishingly honest' autobiography to Francis Spufford's Unapologetic - another startling but moving book about an adult and very contemporary engagement with faith and one which Wychwood Circle discussed just over a year ago.  You should, the reviewer suggested, hesitate to give either book to your elderly church-going aunt even if she is a fan of Saturday Live

The Reverend Richard Coles was on a panel at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival of Science alongside Robin Ince, the Bishop of Swindon and Timandra Harkness. When asked to explain their faith, the Bishop based his - rather dull - answer on the key elements of the Christian creed while Richard talked intriguingly about the 'topsy-turvy gospel', where 
The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. If you want to have anything worth having, you've got to give it all away. And you've got to die to live. 
He also complained that most people haven't given much thought to any sort of faith since they were eight years old and so no wonder they have rejected their childish view of religion - an experience which may be common to many of us. 

It is hard to gauge how many of his 70,000 Twitter followers will beat a path to Milton Village Hall on March 8th; maybe most of them are more interested in the activities of his four dachshunds or his updates on life at Finedon Vicarage. Those of us who are there may well find that, scandalous past or gentle banter aside, Richard Coles gives us something to think about in terms of how we live our lives and what on earth we base them on. 

Saturday 7 February 2015



Marcus Borg died last month and will be missed, not least by those who had only recently begun to discover just how much he did for a modern understanding of what it is to be a Christian.  We recently read some quite dense theological chapters in his measured debate with his fellow biblical scholar N T Wright:  this was not a book for the casual reader!  But Borg can be very accessible.  Only a few years ago he wrote Speaking Christian (2011) which is almost a phrase-book, if not a dictionary, for those of us in 2015 who don’t live and think within church structures or traditions but might still want to know what Christians are on about.  

The words we use are vital, and none so much as the word God! Giles Fraser, priest and Guardian columnist, tweeted memorably this week:  I do not believe in the God that Stephen Fry does not believe in.  Marcus Borg, in Speaking Christian, takes aim at two phenomena which can do untold damage to an intelligent teenager’s understanding of ‘what Christians believe’. One is the relatively recent literalisation of language, ‘affecting Christians and non-Christians alike’. The second is what he calls ‘the heaven-and-hell framework’. 

Doing away with unhelpful language

Language is of course crucial in any philosophical debate and few of us would sensibly try to understand the thought of another culture or tradition, let alone another era, without first making sure we knew what language they were speaking and how they used it and understood key words in the context of their own community.  In order to communicate that community’s thoughts to a modern audience with a very different cultural background, we might feel the need to use very different language.  

What Borg calls the ‘heaven-and-hell framework’ has been and continues to be seen, he says, as
the core of Christianity for millions, within and outside the church.  It is the framework within which many understand Christian language.
The heaven and hell framework has four central elements: the afterlife, sin and forgiveness, Jesus’s dying for our sins, and believing. They are all there in my childhood memory and present in the minds of many Christians. What is already in our minds shapes what we experience, including how we hear words.
Of course, as he emphasizes in his first chapter, this framework, while ‘narrowing and distorting the meaning of much of Christian language’, has also ‘worked and still works for millions’.  

Which is fine, but Borg’s concern, shared by some of us at Wychwood Circle, is that Christian language used in this way has also become a problem for many.  It may obscure the truth, the richness, the contemporary relevance of Christianity, it may indeed be ‘an obstacle, an intellectual stumbling-block’.  Borg therefore proceeds to take, chapter by chapter, a whole range of typically Christian words, from ‘salvation’ to ‘heaven’ and the language of Bible and creeds, and to teach us to read and to hear such language ‘without preconceived understandings getting in the way’. 

Communicating an adult faith

Richard Coles told an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival that, if they last thought about religion or faith when they were about 8 years old (as is so often the case), the chances are that, when they think about it now, they are thinking in childish terms because that is all they remember or ever knew. No wonder so many reject faith if what they are rejecting is a version of Christianity formulated for children. And how good a job do the churches do now, or the priests and theologians in the public sphere, in communicating the depth and relevance of a modern faith?

The next Wychwood Circle live event will be at the Village Hall on the main road through Milton under Wychwood on March 8th at 7pm.  The Reverend Richard Coles, broadcaster and former pop singer, will speak about "CHRISTIANITY FOR GROWN-UPS".