Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book quiz

BookshopYou’re in a Victorian bookshop (or if you’re not, just pretend you are). Browsing for something to read on your next stagecoach journey, you come across The Duty and Obligation of the Christian Minister by Rev. Frederick de Veil Williams. It sounds a little on the massively dull side.

What else have we got to choose from? Hamel the Obeah Man, a novel with a title like a bad anagram, by Cynric R Williams, who has the same problem.

An autobiography by Roundell Palmer, 1st Earl of Selborne. Never heard of him.

A book of verse by the Australian poet Fidelia Hill. Read it.

History of Civilization by Gilbert Farquhar Mathison MP. A bit hefty.

The Religious, Benevolent and Charitable Institutions Founded by the British in Calcutta, by Charles Lushington. Hmm.

The White Rat, a book of short stories by Mary Anne Broome. It turns out to be for children.

A travel book by Gilbert Farquhar Mathison, called Narrative of a Visit to Brazil, Chile, Peru, and the Sandwich Islands. Mmm, sandwich. You leave without buying anything and pop into the chop house across the street.

What do all these books have in common, apart from the fact that you just failed to buy any of them?

The answer is that they were all written by slave owners who claimed compensation when slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1833. Their names all feature in Legacies of British Slave-ownership a database published online today by University College London.

Slavery is such an obvious and intolerable evil in Britain today, that it seems alien and impossible. How could a country build its economy on the ownership of kidnapped people? And the individuals who owned slaves – how could they?

And yet this browse round the bookshop suggests that the people involved were not monsters or even unusually bad people. They were poets and travellers, novelists and clergy, children’s writers and charity workers.

Slavery was tolerated by people who had the chance to reject it, because it was normal. It was part of ordinary life. It was woven into the fabric. It was just the way things were.

It makes you wonder what people looking at us a century or two from now will say, pointing at us in incomprehension. My guess: They were the first generation who knew they were destroying the earth, and the last who could have stopped it.

How could they?

We’re all doomed! Discuss.

Church in 40 According to a particularly twittish bumper sticker, “The answer is Jesus, what’s the question?” It makes me want to answer “Who ate all the pies?” Or “What do you get if you mix bleach and vinegar?”

Not the least problem with this pronouncement – after its being generally annoying and easily refuted – is that it misrepresents Jesus so much. As Conrad Gempf points out in his book Jesus Asked, Jesus seemed much more interested in asking questions than answering them: out of 67 conversations in Mark’s gospel, he asks questions in 50.

Often his only answer to a question is another question. “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” they say. He says: “Whose face is on the coin?”

Jesus is not the answer, he’s the question.

Questions require work. They make you take some responsibility for what you believe. They exercise the mind. They make you chew things over for yourself rather than just swallow what someone else has chewed for you.

Or do they?

That’s the idea behind the new feature we introduced in the March issue of Reform. It’s called A Good Question. Every month we ask one question, ideally a good one, and get four different responses.

It’s an opportunity for us, as readers, not just to hear someone’s take on an issue, but to walk around it and look at it from various sides, and take part in a debate.

Perhaps the first question “What will the church be like in 40 years?” wasn’t the best choice for my first issue as editor, on reflection. It’s certainly an interesting one, but it’s also rather bleak. That’s one thing all four agreed on. Some extrapolated from statistics, some told stories, some offered challenges, but none said the future’s bright.

It might have been nice to start with something more cheerful. Never mind. Next month’s question will be rather more positive, I suspect.

Agnostic church


We have a great piece in this month’s Reform by Simon Jenkins, reviewing London’s new Atheist Church, and reflecting on the experience of being at the opening service. And in the Guardian, Andrew Brown has written a lovely blog on agnostic church - though that’s in the sense of what the experience of a Christian service is like for an unbeliever, rather than proposing a schism from the Atheist Church.

If more conversation between Christians and atheists and the rest was like this, we might get somewhere.

So much of it sounds like: “This is what I believe. This is what I believe you believe. This is the difference, and this is why you are wrong and I’m right. Do you see now? Well you’re still wrong then.”

If instead we talked about what it feels like to see the world as we do, about our experience of being a believer/unbeliever, how it works and how it doesn’t work, then I suspect we’d find people were a lot more interested in what we had to say. We might even learn something.

Come in

Oh, hello.

Well, thank you for dropping by. I’m delighted by your enthusiasm, but to be honest you’ve caught me before I’ve had time to write my first post. Well, this is it I suppose, it’s just that it was going to be something massively thoughtful, informative, challenging and entertaining, and instead it’s this, because you’re here a bit sooner than I expected. To be honest I had to get out of the shower to let you in.

In the fullness of time, this blog will be an invaluable source of, you know, really good stuff, I should think. But for now I hope some genial waffle will do.

So, welcome. Do come in. I’ll be back down, fully dressed, and with some incisive comments on important issues, when the other guests arrive. Help yourself to nibbles.