Papal issues

pope-benedict-will-visit-britain-next-monthThe visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain next month was always liable to cause controversy, not least because of his alleged personal involvement in the handling of so many cases of child abuse. Many Irish Catholics are less than totally enthusiastic about attending any of the papal events in Britain, and it seems that British Catholics are not contributing to the funds needed for the event.

The Tablet also reports that thousands of tickets for major events during Pope Benedict’s visit are being returned to organisers because dioceses have not found enough people to take up their allocation. At least seven dioceses have each sent back hundreds of tickets, known as “pilgrim invitations”, for the Hyde Park prayer vigil and Beatification Mass of Cardinal Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham.

The decision not to accept the resignations of two Irish auxiliary bishops implicated in the Murphy Report on child sex abuse in Dublin is, at the very least, confusing to non-Catholics. Bishop Eamonn Walsh and Bishop Raymond Field tendered their resignations as auxiliary bishops of Dublin eight months ago, some weeks after Dr Diarmuid Martin, the Archbishop of Dublin, made it clear that he no longer had confidence in them. The Pope’s decision to decline their resignations must be incomprehensible to the survivors of abuse, especially if the church hopes to be seen as serious about making significant changes to its way of conducting its affairs in the aftermath of the report.

Many of these issues have raised concerns about the direction of the Catholic Church is travelling under Pope Benedict. These are explored in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor. The author argues that any liberalising trends of recent decades have been reversed, and that Josef Ratzinger has been a leader in these moves. This article raises the question of whether Vatican II has actually made any difference to the Roman Catholic Church. The whole article is here and is quoted in full below the fold. Continue reading “Papal issues”

Wisdom from Luther

My friend and former colleague, Carl Trueman has begun a series of blogposts on the reformation 21 blog on what Luther understood a theologian to be. In good style, Carl names his original sources and draws out some very useful practical lessons.

Most pastors and preachers are reluctant to take on the label of “theologian” (even though that is what they are for their flock). What is described here can be applied with equal force to all of us who “labour in the Word” and who seek to share the results of our labours with our people week by week.

Here is the text of the first blogpost, with the promise of more to come.

I want to start a short series of posts today on Martin Luther’s understanding of what makes a theologian.  The sources for reflection are primarily two: a passage from his Table Talk (no. 3425; not as far as I know available in the standard English translations) and the preface to the first edition of his German works (1539; available in vol. 34 of the Philadelphia edition of Luther’s works in translation).

The preface contains just three things that mark out a theologian: prayer; meditation; and agonizing struggle.    The Tabletalk lists six: the grace of the Spirit; agonizing struggle; experience; opportunity; careful and constant reading; and a practical knowledge of the academic disciplines.  As the shorter is, by and large, subsumed under the longer, I will use the six headings for the next six posts.

As a prologue, however, I want to draw attention to the fact that Luther does not talk about what constitutes theology but about what makes a theologian.  This is somewhat characteristic of his approach: many people have noted the importance of his “theology of the cross,” which he articulated most dramatically at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518; but the text of the disputation theses do not speak of a theology of the cross; rather they speak of a theologian of the cross.  Theology, for Luther, is the words spoken by human beings in response to the words God has first spoken to them; thus, theology is a personal action; and therefore, there can be no discussion of theology without first discussing the agent, the one who speaks theologically.  Theology is an abstraction unless it is understood as the action of the theologian.

This is an odd idea in a world where the separation of church and academy is now a given.  Theology, like mathematics or biology or literary theory, represents just another object to be studied.  It has become a technical exercise, divorced from the character and identity of the practitioner, a matter simply of learning the techniques or the rules of the game.  In this context, theologians like to think of themselves often as nice people, as socially acceptable, as aspiring to places at the cultural table, as being accepted by others.

But this was not so for Luther: the theologian was one who had been seized by the Word, gripped by the address of God, whose very identity was determined by the this prior address of God which then compelled and shaped any response he might care to give. This process was agonizing, existential, redefining at the most fundamental level the person’s own self-understanding as the huge gulf that exists between Creator and creature in all of its terrifying glory comes home to the theologian and drives him again and again out of himself and to the cross where hangs the Incarnate God.  A theologian — a true theologian — was one who, through agonizing struggle was driven again and again by the Spirit to wrestle with the text of scripture so as to discern its meaning, and then communicate that meaning in the power of the Spirit to others.  As I hope to demonstrate in future posts, nobody who casually bandies around theological ideas, or who talks comfortably about doubt and temptation, is worthy of the title “true theologian” as Luther understood it.

Car park charges

img_0352There was a howl of protest a couple of weeks ago when Belfast International Airport decided to charge motorists £1 for the privilege of dropping off or picking up at the kerb outside the terminal. Taxi drivers who serve the airport were particularly annoyed since the new charge would cost them £70 or £80 a week.

Clergymen and other regular visitors may now wish to begin their own campaign in view of car parking charges at our major hospitals. My pastoral work requires regular visits to our local Craigavon Area Hospital where car parking charges have been introduced in recent months. I am having to learn not to leave home on pastoral work without sufficient cash to cover the hospital car park. 50p is normally adequate for my calls at Craigavon.

This past week I have had two members of my congregation seriously ill in two Belfast hospitals, and have been visiting them. A visit to the Royal Victoria Hospital costs me £1.20 and one to the Belfast City Hospital costs £1. Altogether I have paid out more than £5 in car parking charges at hospitals this past week.

In one sense, it’s not a lot of money, and undoubtedly the car park owners and the health trusts can justify the charge. In a climate of major spending cuts, it’s more than likely that these kind of charges will continue to rise. But I’m annoyed that I have spent as much in parking my car at hospitals this week as would feed a hungry person in Africa for a month.

So do I have an alternative? I suppose I could walk or ride my bike to Craigavon Hospital. But to ride a bike to the Belfast hospitals or to use public transport just isn’t realistic. Or I suppose I could simply count my blessings and thank the Lord that I have a car, fuel, am able to drive, and most importantly, can walk back to my car and drive home again from the hospital. Many of those I visit would love to be able to do that.

On the green, grassy slopes of the Boyne

img_0377We had a good day out recently at Oldbridge House on the site of the Battle of the Boyne. It was a lovely afternoon and we were able to take in the tour of the house and the audio-visual presentation which recounted the details of the biggest battle in Irish history.

The Battle of the Boyne was fought on 1st July, 1690 between two rival claimants of the English, Scottish and Irish thrones – the Catholic King James and the Protestant King William, who had deposed James in 1688. The battle, won by William, was a turning point in James’ unsuccessful attempt to regain the crown and ultimately helped ensure the continuation of Protestant supremacy in Ireland.

img_0386The visit to Oldbridge house was highly informative, and I learned facts about the battle that I hadn’t known. William had 36,000 men and James had 25,000 – the largest number of troops ever deployed on an Irish battlefield. English, Scottish, Dutch, Danes and Huguenots made up William’s army (Williamites), while Jame’s men (Jacobites) were mainly Irish Catholics, reinforced by 6,500 French troops sent by King Louis XIV. At stake were not only the British throne, but also French dominance in Europe and religious power in Ireland. The presentation in Oldbridge House helpfully places the Battle of the Boyne in its European context, making it clear that it was much more than a sectarian spat.

William’s camp was on the north side of the river. James’s was on the south side with the two armies facing each other.  William’s battle plan was to trap the Jacobite army in a pincer movement.  He sent 10,000 men towards Slane which drew the bulk of the Jacobities upstream in response.  With 1,300 Jacobites posted in Drogheda, only 6,000 were left at Oldbridge to confront 26,000 Williamites. All the fighting took place on the south side of the river as the vastly outnumbered Jacobite defended their position against the advancing Williamites.  William himself crossed at Drybridge with 3,500 mounted troops. Approximately 1,500 soldiers were killed at the Boyne.

bob_largerightcolimageWe were able to walk some around some of the 500 acres the grounds and we enjoyed the impressive display of horsemanship that was provided in the area in front of the big house. We learned about the importance of the calvary in battle and how horses could be best employed in breaching a line of infantrymen. A lot has been done in recent months to make this site a very interesting place to visit.

The big downside of the trip was the very poor signage provided from the main Belfast to Dublin motorway that runs less than a mile from the site. Maybe someone in the Office of Public Works will address this oversight fairly soon. With a bit of guesswork on the roads around the site and directions from some of the locals, we eventually got to our destination. The opening of the new section of motorway around Newry made the journey from mid-Ulster remarkably quick. The next time we visit we will know exactly where to go, and, weather permitting, we will look forward to a picnic on the green, grassy slopes overlooking the Boyne and Oldbridge House.