Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Palaces and Paupers
by Paul Walker

We recently moved house. Going from a large clergy dwelling to a small house was difficult for a family of five. What follows is a reflection of an experience in England. I realise many readers come from elsewhere in the world, but I suspect there are parallels.

The Church of England puts its clergy in large houses, so when a person leaves its employ they are forced to downsize. This Church has to some extent held on to medieval structures - and its properties show this.

Some bishops still live in palaces and the clergy often occupy houses bigger than average. I�ve heard it argued that this is good because it allows for a necessary study and a spare bedroom. But I suspect the truth is that the Church still likes to think of itself as an important institution - as it was in the past in Britain, where is still "established", that is, part of the State's official mechanisms.

The Church nevertheless argues that it wants to work among the poor and serve the less fortunate. I wonder just how useful large and imposing houses are if the Church is trying to work among people for whom an extra bedroom is a luxury beyond their wildest dreams. It seems to me that the Church is interested in nothing of the sort.

This becomes clear if I consider its actions rather than its words. In England the Church's resources seem to be put to work mainly among wealthier people. For example, the highly successful and popular Alpha Course began in a congregation in the most salubrious part of London. And it is in communities such as this that it has found its natural home.

Likewise there has been a push to establish more Church schools, which attract wealthier parents. They are prepared to jump through hoops to get their children into these schools. I was Chairperson of the Board of Governors of just such a school and also Vicar of the Church which met in the school. Many people with little interest in Christianity were prepared to put themselves through years of my sermons to keep their children in the school.

The Churches also argues that, unlike other agencies, it is prepared to have its clergy living in the poorest areas. Certainly some are prepared to do so. Yet the reality is not quite as the Church would proclaim. I live in the relatively poor town of Stockton-on-Tees in England. There, all the clergy in the Church of England except one live in the more pleasant suburbs, even if they work in the poorer parts.

This is all a far cry from Jesus of Nazareth. He worked in one small area of Palestine. He doesn�t seem to have preached at all in the larger towns where the wealthy, the naturally religious, or the influential lived. Rather, he appears to have remained as poor as those among whom he worked. He also criticised the system which made them poor.

At first his followers appear to have lived as he did - as itinerant preachers and healers, sharing what little they had in their own homes. However, with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the Church began to see itself as an important element of control within the state. A thousand years later it was the most powerful organisation in the West.

Now, in the 21st century, the large houses, the palaces, and the bishops who take their statutory places in England's House of Lords all demonstrate to me that any pretence at getting back to Jesus' way of life is just that - a pretence. The huge wealth and influence of the world-wide Church seem to make the episcopal title of "servant of the servants of God" ring somewhat hollow.

The Church was founded among the powerless. Yet over the millennia it has gradually and deliberately gained social power and influence.

It seems to me that the shedding of such power may well be harder that the gaining of it.

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