The Rights of Parents

imgresIn recent months, the First Minister has opened up the debate on the future of education in Northern Ireland by stating a clear intention to bring the current segregated situation to an end. He made his wishes clear in a speech in October, and in his speech at the DUP conference he reiterated his desire to bring the “them and us” division in our society to an end. Other senior members of the DUP team have spoken about ending the “educational apartheid” that currently exists. This will, and ought to, stimulate a good debate on the nature and fundamental principles of education.

All kinds of questions arise: What kind of system of education does the First Minister envisage? Will it be a religiously “neutral” system where all religion and spirituality will be excised and everything will be unashamedly secular? Will it be spiritually sanitised to remove all Christian values from the curriculum?  Or will there be an attempt to work creatively towards an agreed Christian ethos for all our schools that garners the support of believing people from all traditions?

At the heart of that debate will be the issue of the rights of parents to determine how their children will be educated. Catholic parents have consistently argued that they have a basic human right to educate their children according to their beliefs and convictions. They have fought hard, and have put in place a system of education that has delivered benefits for its pupils. Protestant parents should also be ready to argue for the same rights.

One Reformed theologian who gives good expression to that right is Nicholas Wolterstorff, Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale Divinity School. Wolterstorff correctly places the issue of rights in the context of moral responsibilities, since moral rights are never free-floating entities. They come as correlatives of our responsibilities. Since parents have the primary responsibility for determining the character of their child’s education, they also have the primary moral right to do so.

The argument runs like this. Children come into the world as the result of the physical union of their parents, and as the product of their physical substance. “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” is how the ancient biblical writer described it. The result of this relationship is natural affection, in fact, the deepest of all natural affections, so wonderful and mysterious that there is no adequate scientific explanation. It is the delight and joy of parents to love and provide for their children, and they have a right and a responsibility to do so. Prominent within that love and nurture of their child is the desire to see their child mature into a person who acts responsibly and who finds joy and fulfilment in his or her life. That right and responsibility of parents therefore inevitably involves education.

imgres-1Wolterstorff says that if we were all agreed on what constitutes responsible action and what is necessary for joy and fulfilment in life, then there would be no debate about the character and nature of education. But one of the most fundamental features of our situation is that we do not agree on those things. We have differences on what constitutes responsible action and on what is required if we are to live full and happy lives. Many of us believe that life cannot be enjoyed, and that we cannot function as fully mature human beings, unless we understand that our “chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever”. Without that spiritual dimension, we fail to live as fully as we ought. That is why it is the right and responsibility of parents to determine the character of their child’s education. As a parent, my rights and responsibilities extend into the classroom and do not stop at the classroom door. Any system of education that fails to provide for my child’s spiritual needs, as well as his intellectual and physical needs, is inadequate.

Politicians and others will argue that while parents have rights and responsibilities, theirs is not a primary or exclusive right. It will be claimed that, given the sad and tragic history of our community, the welfare of the wider community must take precedence over the rights and wishes of parents. Wolterstorff notes that totalitarian regimes have always claimed that when left to their own devices, parents will often give a character to their child’s education that is injurious to the wider society. To prevent that from happening, those who are responsible for the welfare of the state or community, namely the officers of the state, must have primary responsibility for determining the character of education within that state. Whatever may be said in praise of the beauty and goodness of parents’ love, it is argued that that love must be sacrificed on the altar of a higher good.

There is indeed the good of the wider society and community that must be acknowledged, and we in Northern Ireland must recognise the particular challenges that we face as we try to move forward. But whatever plan or programme we adopt, we must see the exercise of parental love and affection as an indispensable ingredient within it. To preserve that love and affection, we must preserve the primary right of parents to determine the character of their child’s education.

As an orthodox Christian parent who desires that my children mature into responsible adults who find joy and fulfilment in their lives, I cannot jettison my Christian principles and fail to see them reflected in the character of my children’s education. I love them too much to allow that to happen. If I were not to educate my children to become responsible agents who enjoy life, which is the Christian vision, I would be failing at a most fundamental point of my parental rights and responsibilities. A successful educational system requires the full support of the parents of the children it seeks to serve, and it must reflect the basic commitments which those parents hold.

If we are to move towards the shared future that the First Minister desires, and for which we all long, then he is right to pinpoint education as an important element in its development. But if the educational model that emerges denies parents their rights and responsibilities to determine the character of that education, and especially the Christian character of that education, then our hope for a new future will never be realised. A totally secularised educational system will not get us to our goal.

What could get us there, given the right conversations and context, and the commitment of parents, is a new system of education which is unambiguously Christian but which stretches across the ancient divisions and is thoroughly inclusive. That would be a goal worth striving for.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Educating for Life (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2002) Chapter 12, Human Rights in Education

Church of Scotland developments

Those who have followed the debate on homosexuals in leadership within the Church of Scotland will be interested, and perhaps moved, by this account by my friend, Carl Trueman. In spite of an apparent discussion and debate, it seems that we were correct in our assessment that the direction taken at last year’s General Assembly in Edinburgh is being followed through, with serious and sad personal implications for conservative ministers and members of the Church of Scotland.

The inaccessibility of the KJV

king-james-bible-trust-logoI had the privilege of being at Westminster Abbey this week to attend a service celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Along with Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, there were over 2,000 people assembled in a service which was the culmination of a year of events to mark this anniversary. The Queen herself had highlighted this anniversary in her Christmas message last year. In our own congregation we have been acknowledging this anniversary in our preaching series, Route 66, in which we have been preaching from each of the 66 books in the Bible.

The preacher at the service was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, not always the most lucid and easily understood when it comes to preaching. In his sermon he said that he believes that Christians should resist the temptation to make the King James Version of the Bible more accessible. Instead we should celebrate the determination of its translators to find words that express “the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it.”

The temptation is always there for the modern translator to look for strategies that make the text more accessible. When that temptation comes, it doesn’t hurt to turn for a moment – for some long moments indeed – to this extraordinary text, with its continuing capacity to surprise us into seriousness, to acquaint us again with the weight of glory – and we hope and pray, to send us back to the unending work of letting ourselves be changed so that we can bear just a little more of the light of the new world, full of grace and truth.”

The main reason why many churches have turned to more modern translations of the Bible for use in public worship is precisely the reason which Dr Williams says we should celebrate.  Many believe that the language of the 1611 translation makes divine truth inaccessible to modern readers and hearers. The “inaccessibility” of the King James Bible, far from being an obstacle, is in fact one of its virtues, claims Dr Williams. Since “there never is an ideal or final translation ” of a text, we should not think that the KJV is the final word. But there is a weightiness and seriousness about the King James Version of the Bible that we should not lose.

In terms of our dress and our language in worship, we have become much more informal. That is not a bad thing. The increased informality of church life reflects key aspects of Christian truth, namely, that we are loved, and accepted by God as we are, because of Christ, and that we ought to reach out in love and grace to those who worship with us. Barriers and walls on both the vertical and horizontal dimensions have been removed by Christ. But most Christians will concede that there is something missing when we become too relaxed in the presence of God. Perhaps the continued use of the KJV in public worship would help us to appreciate the greatness and the majesty of the One who speaks to us from his Word when we assemble for worship, that it would “surprise us into seriousness”, as Dr Williams says. And there are aspects of God’s being and love that we will never grasp, and which the “inaccessibility” of the KJV helps us to appreciate.

But if the language of the Bible translation we use results in us understanding little of what we read or hear in worship, then nothing is gained. Paul himself commends intelligibility in worship. He says,”I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19).  The translators of the King James Bible themselves said in their words to the Reader, “Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel.” The work of Bible translation is a window-opening, shell-breaking task that enables us to access sweet and precious spiritual truths.

We recognise that the King James Bible is probably the most beautiful and elegant English translation that will ever be produced. It has contributed so much to the English language. Lord Melvyn Bragg has described it as “the DNA of the English language”. Many of our contemporary English expressions were first coined by the translators of the King James Bible: “the powers that be”, “the apple of his eye”, “signs of the times”, “a law unto themselves”, “from strength to strength”, and “the writing on the wall”. Modern translations lack the elegance of the 1611 version because modern scholars are often more like scientists than artists.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with the King James Bible. Firstly, in the 400 years since 1611, thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have been uncovered which are older and more accurate than those which were available to the translators of the King James Bible. Modern translations give us a more accurate understanding of the original words of Scripture. Secondly, the English of the 17th century is a very different language from that which we speak today. Both vocabulary and grammar have changed significantly. For many people, reading the King James Bible is like reading a foreign language.

That does not mean that we should embrace every new translation of the Bible that comes on the market. The danger of some modern Bible translations is that flawed human agendas can impose themselves and distort the truth of God’s Word. Recent controversies have highlighted the issues that arise when translators attempt to make the Bible gender-neutral or when they try to create a version which is acceptable to Muslims.

I was struck by the words of the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, in his introduction of the service which accurately summarised the reason for our celebration:

Four hundred years ago this year, the King James Version of the Bible was published, the result of the commitment and foresight of King James I and the scholarly work of six companies of learned divines. Two of the companies met in each of Oxford, Cambridge and here at Westminster. It is fitting that we gather here to give thanks to almighty God for their work.

We celebrate the impact of the work on our understanding of the great story the Bible tells of God’s persistent and generous love for his creation and for his people. We acknowledge with gratitude the work’s lasting influence on our national language and culture and on the faith, language and culture wherever the English language has reached throughout the world. We give thanks for the contribution of so many to this year of celebration.

Above all, we pray that we and all people may continue to be uplifted and transformed by the great story the Bible tells, and may grow daily in our knowledge and love of almighty God who unites us now as we join together to offer him fitting worship.

As the service in the Abbey came to an end, it occurred to me that just over 30 years after the company of scholars at Westminster had completed their work on the translation of the Bible, another group of divines met in the same Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster and completed the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. As they reflected on Holy Scripture, they affirmed that while not everything in the Bible is accessible and clear, the important matters with regard to salvation are transparent.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due sense of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Pussy cat, pussy cat…

images-1I have an invitation to a special service at Westminster Abbey next week which I’m looking forward to very much. I’ll write a report when I get back.


16 November 2011 at Noon

Her Majesty The Queen accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales will attend a service of celebration, in association with the King James Bible Trust, to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at Westminster Abbey on 16 November at 12 noon.

The place of the King James Bible in our culture and the continuing significance of the Word will be celebrated in the service.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams will give the Address. A new composition by one of the winners of the King James Bible Trust Composition Awards, Out of the South Cometh the Whirlwind by American composer, Zachary Wadsworth will be performed by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, conducted by James O’Donnell.

Following the service the Abbey’s bells will be rung to a peal of Stedman Caters comprising 5,400 changes.

Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster 1601-1605, was Director of the first Westminster Company responsible for translating part of the Old Testament. It is believed that the translators met in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey, a room also used by subsequent translators.

The service is part of a series of Abbey events marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

Like a mighty tortoise

galapagos-tortoise_532_600x450Many of us remember the parody of the famous hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight
Christ our rightful master, stands against the foe
Onward into battle, we seem afraid to go.

Like a mighty tortoise, moves the Church of God
Brothers, we’re treading, where we’ve often trod
We are much divided, many bodies we
Having different doctrines, but not much charity.

The “like a mighty tortoise” phrase came to mind recently as I listened to my friend, Brian Givans, describe the amazing and innovative work of Christians Against Poverty. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a national debt counselling charity with a network of 160 centres based in local churches. Brian heads up the ministry in my former congregation, Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, as it seeks to bring direct practical help to people who are struggling with debt. The testimonies of those who have benefitted from this ministry are inspiring.

But in describing the expansion of CAP’s ministry, Brian pointed out how that mainstream churches are slow in taking up the challenge, but that newer, emerging churches, are responding quickly and effectively to this pressing, and increasingly relevant, pastoral need. It seems that older, larger churches move at a much slower rate than the more recent arrivals on the ecclesiastical landscape.

seminary-book-194x3001This observation was confirmed by the author of  a recent publication. “What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary” is by an experienced pastor of large American church, James Emery White. It is an a-theological reflection on the challenges of pastoral ministry, which, in spite of its lack of theological reflection on the doctrine of the church, offers some useful and practical advice on coping with many of the issues that occur regularly in the rough and tumble of congregational life. White points out that many of the issues which preoccupy those involved in theological education are just not relevant when it comes to leadership in a local church.

Among those issues is the ability of the church to respond quickly to changing circumstances. When it comes to church government, how the church is led, the roles and responsibilities of its leaders, and general church polity, White says that it is important that we have a structure that allows gifted leaders the space and the opportunity to lead the church. The way churches are structured either releases the gift of leadership or stymies it. And churches rise or fall on leadership.

White points out how that people attending a conference or seminar on church life often identify an action that would radically improve their church’s health or effectiveness. But it is never implemented, not because their church doesn’t have the money or the volunteers or the facilities, but because they don’t have the freedom. If they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be blocked or hindered because that authority is not trained or inclined to make such decisions. In other words, decision-making is so radically democratised or shared that it can take so much time to act that you lose the window of opportunity. A more flexible and nimble-footed church or parachurch organisation can act more quickly and seize the initiative.

White says that most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure, any of which can kill good leadership: committees, policies, and majority rule. As someone committed to a presbyterian form of church government where committees, policies and majority rule are key components, White’s analysis, if correct, is depressing. The reality is that presbyterian structures can result in movement and change, but in many cases it only happens at a glacial pace. Without forfeiting the key features of a form of church government which “is founded on and agreeable to the Word of God”, is there any way that established churches can act more quickly and respond more effectively to their changing situations?

White describes how that his congregation were forced to leave the high school they were meeting in with just ninety days’ notice. White took a personal lead in a new building project and, amazingly, within ninety days a new building was built. There were no committees and no votes, he says, just truly gifted leaders leading as the Holy Spirit enabled their gift. And all because their church structure allowed it. It’s not a scenario that is likely to be repeated in any church in our denomination, and I imagine no one committed to a presbyterian form of church government would consider it desirable or wise to have to move at such a speedy pace. There are distinct advantages to a church structure that has an inclusive form of decision-making. But sometimes that degenerates into a desire for unanimity on every issue, which means that the decision-making body only moves at the pace of its slowest members.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is in decline, and in many places congregations are finding it hard to change. In some congregations there is an in-built conservatism which often reacts negatively to new initiatives, and the result is that in attempting to respond to the needs of their community they are out-paced and out-flanked by newer churches and fellowships. Clearly, it is important to have godly leaders who have a vision and a heart for the expansion of the kingdom of Christ. But it is also important that those leaders are not trapped in a church structure which stifles their gifts of leadership. That is why we must not only seek to develop the leadership gifts of people in our congregations, but we must organise our meetings and our decision-making processes in a way that allows opportunities for witness and service to be grasped.

My prayer is that the authentic words of the hymn may not simply be an aspiration but may become a reality in our churches: “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God….one in hope and calling, one in charity.”