Monday 18 September 2017


No more than a cosmic accident?

The National Centre for Social Research (NCSR) recently published the latest British Social Attitudes survey reporting that 53 per cent of us have no religion, and that the young are the least religious of all. As Angela Tilby says in her column in the Church Times:
As religious literacy has waned, young people have simply absorbed the anti-religious narrative of our time. ... The script that human life is no more than a cosmic accident, and that we acquire meaning only by choosing to be who and what we wish to be, is now deeply embedded in our culture. 

Speaking truth to power? 

Leaving aside exactly what constitutes 'religion', let alone what the variety of people questioned took it to mean, there is little doubt that this is now the prevailing mood. And along with the decline of truthfulness in public discourse (our Foreign Secretary arguing with the UK's Statistics Authority as I write) there is a question over what now typically guides our thinking on matters of moral standards, such as, for example, compassion towards our neighbour, the poor, and refugees. If we do not trust our leaders in public life, from our MP to our vicar and from international experts to our own academics, where will our principles (if we have any) take us? Consumerism? Mindless destruction of our planet? My family, my community against the rest? America/Britain/me first?

People like us

On a (possibly) more light-hearted note, the popular philosopher Julian Baggini (author of A Short History of Truth) comments in an article today on the huge support for a Tweet by a disgruntled London commuter. Along with others on the Kings Cross Victoria line the commuter bemoans the loss of his painfully acquired advantage on the Underground over 'tourists and provincials' now that London Transport has painted green lines on platforms to show where the train will stop. Baggini concludes, maybe with resonance for broader aspects of our national life: 
Traditional British fairness is not about treating everyone equally. It's about giving subtle, informal advantage to insiders and locals. The outraged commuters may not realise it, but they are following the ethics of both old-boys networks and "Britain first" nationalists.  Both see preferential treatment for "people like us" as more just than treating any Tomasz, Dag or Ali the same. 

Challenging the anti-religious narrative

Back on the subject of religion and our culture's unthinking attitude to it, Angela Tilby calls for more 'thoughtful, culturally literate' Christians to 'come out' and contribute to changing the narrative, from academics and scientists to media people and celebrities. She misses a contemporary C S Lewis.  Well, in the Wychwoods we are fortunate in having a number of inspiring speakers to make us think twice: Richard Coles came to Milton's village hall as did Angela Tilby herself as well as, just a year ago, biologist Andrew Briggs and artist Roger Wagner. 

On Sunday we look forward to a talk by Professor Keith Ward on religion and rationality - a task for which he is more than qualified with his background in both philosophy and theology. Angela Tilby is worth quoting again in order to set the scene which Keith Ward will no doubt tackle incisively: 
In reality, the anti-religious script is less intellectually secure than it seems. It has been shown again and again that it is not really scientific: it distorts history, neglects philosophy, takes no account of religious experience, and is not obviously superior to faith in terms of rationality.  While its rhetoric is strident, and even bullying, it steadfastly ignores the ultimate questions of existence. 

Keith Ward is our guest at Milton under Wychwood village hall on Sunday, 24th September at 7pm. Open to all.  Retiring collection. 

Wednesday 13 September 2017


This article, announcing the coming season, first appeared on the CHASE benefice website 

In the 1630s a group of intellectuals known as the Great Tew Circle met a short distance away from the Wychwoods to champion the use of reason in the religious polemics of the time.  At Wychwood Circle we could say we are focused on exploring the use of religion as well as reason in the political, moral and technological upheaval of our own time.

What can we know?
The clash, or otherwise, of faith and reason has taxed thinkers from the days of the Roman Stoic Epictetus (“I am a rational creature; so I must sing hymns to God”) through the spread of Christianity and other faiths and the so-called Enlightenment to the present day.  Is Religion Irrational? Foremost amongst contemporary theologians and philosophers is Professor Keith Ward who on 24th September will be at Milton under Wychwood’s Village Hall to help many of us to face this theme head-on. He is a prolific author and if you can’t make it, you will find a whole range of topics on his website, from science and the cosmos to morality and the non-literal interpretation of Jesus’ teachings.
In January 2018 we will be further challenged by Oxford philosopher Tom Simpson (formerly an officer in the Royal Marine Commandos and now resident in Chipping Norton) on the issue of trust, and not so much what we can believe, as who we can believe. His topic will be ‘Can We Still Trust Experts?’ – never so relevant as in our post-referendum and Trumpian world of post-truth and ‘alternative facts’.

How then shall we live?
For those who are willing to put in the preparation, our 2017-18 season will include three discussions taking the recent book How Then Shall We Live? as our theme.  The author, Sam Wells, is both Vicar of St Martin in the Fields and Visiting Professor of Christian Ethics at Kings College London – and a contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC.  The book, readily available in paperback, usefully divides up into three sections: Engaging the World (October discussion), Being Human (February), and Facing Mortality (May). Please email for more information.  

And are robots people too?
So some have asked, as they stop to think about the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and humanoid robots who might not only make and then drive our cars but offer home care and even medical advice in the near future.  What impact will these developments have on our identity and self-understanding? In December we will watch a recorded lecture by Professor John Wyatt and discuss the massive ethical and other implications of AI.

Only connect
Other upcoming events, as usual open to everyone and anyone, whatever their standpoint, will give us an opportunity to look at poetry under the heading of ‘Only Connect – turning to poetry’ (November 12th) and an evening at the Village Hall where local (and international) Yoga teacher Ruth White will help us to consider How To Turn Adversity into Advantage (March 11th).  Most of our meetings take place in Wychwood Library, warmly welcomed by librarian Ruth Gillingham, on the second Sunday of the month: but check for occasional changes of date or venue.