All posts by dhilborn

About dhilborn

I am Principal of St John's College, Nottingham, a theological college training Christians for mission and ministry in the Anglican and other traditions. I was previously Assistant Dean of St Mellitus College in London and Chelmsford, and before that Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance UK. I have published various books on a range of topics, often within the broader framework of evangelical theology and history. I am married to Mia, a hospital chaplain. We have two children.

The Jew Who Got the Blues: Bob Dylan and ‘Blind Willie McTell’

The Jew Who Got the Blues: Bob Dylan and ‘Blind Willie McTell’

David Hilborn

This text is from a talk originally delivered at the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity in 2007

In Nick Hornby’s novel How to Be Good, there’s a cute take on Bob Dylan. The narrator, Katie, is married to a jaded, middle-aged cultural snob called David. David loves nothing better than to slay sacred cows and assert rigid critical preferences. So in David’s view the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Kingsley Amis, Evelyn Waugh and – yes – William Shakespeare are ‘talentless’ or ‘overrated’. And the only people in world history who are any good are Graham Greene, Quentin Tarrantino, Tony Hancock and – you guessed it – Bob Dylan.

Well, by contrast I love the Stones, the Beatles and Shakespeare. But I am a bloke, I am middle-aged, I am called David, and I do often insist that Dylan is one of the few true geniuses in popular music. So maybe Hornby’s onto something.

Still, I like to think that it’s more relevant to my love of Dylan that I do theology for a living…

From the outset, Dylan’s work has displayed a rich biblical consciousness. Throughout his long career, he has taken the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as a key poetic and philosophical reference-point. Their colours and cadences, their textures and timbres, run right through his vast canon of song.

As he hit superstardom in the Sixties, this biblical strain in Dylan’s output was often eclipsed by his image as the poet of the counter-culture: the bard of youthful rebellion. Just as he attacked government and the military, so, it was widely assumed, he was anti-religion, too.

But the truth was more complicated than that.

For one thing, Bob Dylan is a Jew. For another, he’s a Jew who got the blues…

Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Minnesota, in 1941. At school he showed a strong aptitude for poetry. But he also studied Hebrew. In preparation for his Bar-Mitzvah in 1954, he took Bible lessons from an old Brooklyn rabbi. Later, poetry vied for his attention with early rock n’ roll and the films of James Dean. But his outlook was changed forever when an uncle gave him a batch of records by the legendary Louisiana blues singer, Lead Belly.

In Lead Belly the young Zimmerman heard the pain and yearning of the African American experience, reaching back to the slave ships and the cotton fields, and on into the terrible segregation that still blighted the US at the time. As he explored the blues further, he began to draw other associations. He realised that blues had been the foundation for jazz and rock n’ roll. But he saw, too, that it had itself developed from the ‘spirituals’ sung by slaves as they worked the fields of the Deep South.

And as a well-schooled Bible student, he must have noticed how often the motif of the Exodus and the Passover had suffused the music of the plantations: ‘Go Down Moses’; ‘Let My People Go’; ‘Pharaoh’s Army Got Drowned’. Indeed, once he started performing as ‘Bob Dylan’ in deference to his poet-hero Dylan Thomas, his own early repertoire would feature the Exodus-themed classic ‘Wade in the Water’.

From his debut LP in 1962 right through to his most recent albums, the blues have vitally underpinned Dylan’s work. Not only has he covered a number of blues standards straight: he has adapted, reworked and refreshed the blues, melding them with folk, rock, surrealism, satire and burlesque, to forge his own unique style. Yet he never forgets the blues singers who inspired him: not only Lead Belly but also Robert Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson and others. And it’s one of those other blues heroes who forms the focus for Dylan’s greatest single track since the Sixties – maybe even including the Sixties. The track dates from 1983. It’s called ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

Blind Willie McTell himself was from Georgia. Like several blues singers, he really was blind. But his voice was not rough and raw like many of his fellow Delta bluesmen. In fact, it was smooth and light, almost feminine. Yet on tracks like Statesboro Blues and Dyin’ Crapshooter Blues, he was a match for any. Dylan’s song expresses a profound affinity with a great bluesman. Yet as it does so, it bewails Dylan’s own inability to match McTell’s pathos and poise. As the refrain puts it: ‘I know no one can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell’.

The melody of the song is adapted from the old blues standard ‘St James Infirmary’. Dylan refers to this source in the last verse, when he sings, ‘I’m gazing out the window of the St James Hotel.’  St James Infirmary was a hospital in New Orleans, and the original song takes it as an ominous symbol of death and loss: ‘I’m goin’ down to St James Infirmary/See my baby there;/She’s stretched out on a long, white table,/She’s so sweet, so cold, so fair.’ Sad to say, that song came into its own again for New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

St James Infirmary was later converted into a hotel; and it’s there that we find Dylan as narrator, taking in the history of the South. And what a lot there is to take in…

Famously, Dylan’s biblical sensibility found its most explicit expression when he embraced evangelical Christian faith in 1979, and embarked on a series of unashamedly proselytising albums and tours over the next three years. At the time many of his more secular fans saw this as a gross betrayal, just as many folkies had cheered when he was branded ‘Judas’ for turning electric in 1965-6. Yet in retrospect, the whole ‘gospel’ period can be seen as a radical extension of that Scriptural mind-set which Dylan had always brought to his music.

By 1983, the evangelical fervour was less evident, but the biblical worldview was still very much there – not least in ‘Blind Willie McTell’.

In keeping with the gospel roots of the blues, the song starts with the Exodus and the Passover:

Seen the arrow on the doorpost

Saying, “This land is condemned…”

In Exodus 12 God instructs the Israelites to daub their doorposts with lamb’s blood so that the angel of death will ‘pass over’ their first-born in the slaughter to come. The mark to be made there is not an arrow, but Dylan’s arrow evokes time’s arrow – the line which points from birth to death, and so again recalls St James Infirmary, New Orleans and the birth of the Blues.

Israel might have escaped death in Egypt, but even in the Promised Land – even once settled in Jerusalem – she would find herself attacked and exiled time and again by this empire and that.

Just as Jerusalem was ‘condemned’ by various imperial invaders who enslaved and exiled the Jews, so the American South is ‘condemned’ by its exiling and enslaving of Africans. Likewise, just as many Jews were martyred for their faith, so many slaves died as ‘martyrs’ at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, based as it was in the ‘East Texas’ cited by Dylan.

Through all this, Dylan establishes a powerful link between his own family heritage as a Jew, and his adopted musical heritage in the blues. Both, he says, are grounded in suffering; and in both, this suffering produces great poetry – great psalms and laments. He knows all too well that he can only live the blues indirectly, vicariously, as white man born into an émigré Jewish family in a suburban mid-west town. He will never sing like Blind Willie McTell because he can’t ever have lived McTell’s life. Yet Dylan conveys the mood and history of the blues – the sights, sounds, touch, taste and smell of the South – so well that he matches the intensity of the greatest blues songs, despite his self-deprecation:

Well I heard the hoot owl singing

As they were taking down the tents…

See them big plantations burning

Hear the cracking of the whips

Smell that sweet magnolia blooming

See the ghosts of slavery ships…

I can hear them tribes a-moaning

Hear the undertaker’s bell

But nobody can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell.

As Michael Gray has noted, the cinematic frames and panoramas of Dylan’s vision here recall Gone with the Wind. You can all but smell the plantations burning, feel the whips cracking in the air, shudder at the undertaker’s bell. Meanwhile, the tents which were the Israelites’ home in the wilderness of Sinai link to the tents of the circuses and travelling shows in which black people lived with their own hangover of enslavement: as itinerant ‘gypsy maidens’ and feathered dancers, trussed up for the delectation of their white paymasters.

In the final verse of the song, these dark scenarios are traced back to their common root – back to the source of the deathliness they exude. Back, that is, to sin. In his magnificent study Dylan’s Visions of Sin Professor Christopher Ricks nails what so many secular liberal analyses have missed: that at heart, Dylan’s work is concerned with the most basic biblical themes of fall and redemption, judgement and salvation, eternal condemnation and eternal life. Those who prefer to cast Dylan as a paragon of existentialism or an icon of self-expression tend to get squeamish about this. But it looms massively in his work, and never more so than here:

Well, God is in his heaven

And we all want what’s his

But power and greed and corruptible seed

Seems to be all that there is

I’m gazing out the window

Of the St James Hotel

And I know no one can sing the blues

Like Blind Willie McTell.

Here, Dylan looks sideways at the famously naïve exclamation of Robert Browning’s poem Pippa Passes: ‘God is in his heaven / All’s right with the world!’ Browning’s outlook does become more wizened as the poem develops, but Dylan insists that even youthful optimism like this needs a reality check. And turning again to his Bible he finds it in 1 Peter 1:23, which speaks of the ‘corruptible seed’ of the sin which leads to death.

Clearly, this seed was rampant in slavery, and in the oppression of African Americans which was maintained in segregation, and which continues today in more subtle forms of racism. Yet since death comes to us all, rich and poor alike, and since ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’, this last verse pushes the horizon of the song beyond Israel and the Deep South, towards a thoroughly universal vista. The whole world is corrupted – not just obvious villains like Pharaoh and slave owners. As in the days of Babel, ‘we all want what’s God’s’: we all seek to grab what belongs to God alone, even as in our better nature we all seek to honour him through humble ‘godliness’.

Dylan recognises the dreadful ambiguity of all this – yet in the final reckoning, he doesn’t despair. ‘Power and greed and corruptible seed’ are pervasive, but they are not everything: they only seem to be ‘all that there is’. 1 Peter 1:23 is stark in its depiction of sin, yet the early Christians to whom it is written are reminded by Peter that they have been ‘born again…of incorruptible seed, by the Word of God, which lives and abides forever.’ In the midst of darkness, there is light; in the midst of death, life; from the agony of suffering, redemption; out of crucifixion, resurrection.

Dylan understands that authentic biblical faith has no room for cheap grace – for skirting round sacrifice to quick-fix bliss. Exodus and the Psalms taught him that as a boy; the blues reinforced it as a young man; and Christianity confirmed it as he entered mid-life. ‘Blind Willie McTell’ fuses these sources and distils this essential theme.

I guess you could call ‘Blind Willie McTell’ a postmodern Blues song, inasmuch as it’s a song about singing, or rather not being able to sing authentically – a meditation on the aching space between Dylan’s allusive, magpie song craft and the simpler, more ingenuous art of the Delta bluesmen, and of McTell in particular.

Yet unlike most postmodern art this song miraculously breaks the shackles of allusion to become utterly present to itself, because totally present to Dylan’s self. By its end, Dylan realises not only that he can’t sing like McTell, but that he shouldn’t even try.

But he can attempt to find his own true voice through the medium of the blues. For while the blues will forever belong to a particular race and ‘tribe’ of persecuted people, they are too evocative, too intensely human to be hoarded by their custodians. Rather, they are those custodians’ gift to the world. And Dylan, part of another persecuted race and tribe whose heritage became a gift to the nations, appreciates that he can at least graft himself into the blues, and produce his own variety, his own hybrid stock.

For the wonderful irony of this great track is that in lamenting his inability to capture the essence of the blues, Dylan delivers a stunning blues song all the same. Out of his struggle and sense of inadequacy flows something so empathetic, so fundamental to what it means to be alive, that we are transported from the depths to the heights, from the dark valley to the mountain-top.

This is Bob Dylan at his best, and there are few things better.

David Hilborn

On Switching to a Mac – Some Random Reflections

For the past three weeks I’ve gradually, painstakingly, sometimes exasperatedly converted from using a PC to using a Mac as my work computer. I know, I know – First World Problems and all that. Anyway, I started off gently, deploying my MacBook Pro purely for domestic tasks like listening to music, posting contributions to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, sorting out family photos etc. But then, before term began, I made the really Big Switch – adopting the Mac as my professional workhorse – and in an IT context reliant on a Windows server and overwhelmingly defined by PCs rather than Macs. Sure, a few colleagues have been devoted Mac users for a while, but brilliant though they all are, they tend to be part-timers and less dependent on continual access to the server, printers, etc. For me as Principal to cross over into the Jobs-Ive-Cook domain felt like laying down something of a marker, and I must admit that I was apprehensive. I had been happily using an i-Phone and an i-Pad for a number of years, but I didn’t generally write academic papers, sermons and reports on them; they were useful for keeping my Inbox under control, but my PC laptop bore the brunt of my emailing activity, stored the default archive of my files, and functioned as my main tool for online research.

So how has the conversion gone? Well, it certainly wasn’t an overnight phenomenon, but three weeks in I reckon I’m just about ready to echo the Apple fan’s slogan of choice and say that having switched to a Mac, I’ll (very probably) never go back. I’m enough of an aesthete to cherish the sleek, clean lines of the MacBook’s design as a key element of its appeal. The sound from the integral speakers is phenomenal. On screen, most of the programmes I use on the Mac beat their PC counterparts for look and feel – although it took me an inordinate amount of time to work out the right Display settings to view everything clearly on the external screen that is essential to avoid a permanently cricked neck. Given that our whole administrative set-up is based on the Office suite, and that I’ve been working with the PC version of Office myself for years, it’s been helpful to have MacOffice available to smooth the transition – I never could get on with Pages or Keynote on the i-Pad, and they’re no better on the MacBook as far as I’m concerned. Even so, I have to say that some key features of Office don’t translate from the PC to its Mac variant very well: attaching files to calendar entries is annoyingly complex and roundabout, for instance, as is saving emails as .eml or msg. files. PDF attachments have to be ‘exported’ for some reason rather than simply saved. Why? You can change the font size of email messages in Outlook on the Mac, but not, apparently, of email sub-folders or preview panes.

If I had been a ‘cradle’ Mac user like my two children, I’m sure every routine operation – every click and keystroke – would have seemed entirely natural. But as a convert it has often seemed like I have entered a foreign country with a very different language, culture and semiotic system, with all the initial disorientation that entails. Windows are cancelled, minimized or expanded from the top left rather than the top right. Yet Desktop icons are right-aligned rather than left-aligned. In the West we read from the left, so that seems weird. The lack of a delete key on the MacBook itself (though not on the external keyboard I use with it in the office) is just plain crackers. Remembering when to use the ‘cmd’ as opposed to the ‘alt’ and ‘ctrl’ keys can be tricky when the PC deploys only ‘ctrl’ and alt’. In coming to terms with all of this, my IT Manager, Martin, has been absolutely fantastic. He is a Windows/PC genius and has not had a lot of interaction with Macs, but he has been game for walking this ‘road less travelled’ from PC to Mac with me, using all his transferable professional skills to look ‘under the hood’ of this new vehicle while I try to steer it in a straight line.

In short, the familiar claim of Mac devotees that their chosen kit ‘just works’ might make good sense if you started with a Mac, have always stuck with a Mac, and have consistently looked upon PCs as alien beasts to be mocked as lumbering inferiors destined always to lag behind the Cupertino-defined curve, the Jobs-determined embodiment of computing cool. But if you are forcing yourself, as I am, to launch out from ‘PC World’ and relocate to ‘Planet Mac’, be warned: the journey might take a while and even after you land there might well be a good deal of acclimatization, settlement and adaptation to undergo before you are truly indigenized. But will it have been worth it? Three weeks into the process, I am pretty certain I can now say Yes – Yes, it will have been worth it.

Bearing Witness to the Resurrection

Sermon Preached at Saint Paul’s Lorrimore Square, Walworth, London. Easter Day, 27th March 2016

1 Corinthians 15:9-26
John 20: 1-18

2016-03-27 11.24.202016-03-27 11.24.53

The Risen Christ in Glory. Freda Skinner, 1960. Lime wood. St Paul’s, Lorrimore Square, London.

On a good day you could say that women are more equal now than ever before. In the past few decades we’ve had an Equal Pay Act, statutory maternity leave, a female prime minister. And maybe later this year there’ll be a woman as president of the United States – maybe. Also, of course, in our own Church of England we’ve seen first women priests, and more recently women Bishops. And you’re now blessed here at St Paul’s to have a woman as Priest-in-Charge. That wouldn’t have been possible 25 years ago…

But then, just when you think the whole equality thing is going pretty well, along comes a guy like Raymond Moore to remind you that there’s still a fair bit of old-fashioned sexism out there. Raymond Moore is the former director of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, who last week suggested that female tennis players should be paid less than men. Never mind that women in major tournaments have been paid equally for a number of years: Mr. Moore wanted to set the clock back, and shift women once again to the side-lines.

Well, Raymond Moore did actually resign for making those comments, but 2000 years ago – or even 60 years ago – his attitude would have passed for normal. Back in first century Palestine especially – when Jesus walked the earth – the place of women was very different from what it is in the West today. There was no prospect of their leading a country, or working on a par with men; no chance that they would be a priest in the temple or a Rabbi in the synagogue. In fact, the religious culture of the time meant that their testimony in a court of law was worth far less than a man’s – and a famous Rabbi’s daily prayer gave thanks to God that he was not born a woman. Women got less inheritance, less education, less opportunity all round back then.

So it’s pretty amazing – pretty staggering -that the first witness to the greatest event in human history -the resurrection of Jesus from the dead – should be a woman. As our Gospel reading from John 20 makes clear, it was Mary Magdalene who came earliest to the tomb of Jesus that first Easter morning; Mary Magdalene who first saw the stone rolled away; Mary Magdalene who ran and told Peter and John about it; Mary Magdalene who first laid eyes on the risen Jesus, and Mary Magdalene who then announced to the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord!” It really is quite astonishing.

This is the Mary Magdalene who’d had seven devils cast out of her (Luke 8:2). Not only was she a woman; she’d been a demoniac, too.Talk about a recipe for marginalisation in the ancient world. And yet Mary was chosen by God to be the prime witness to the start of a whole new future – a whole new world.

The resurrection is the greatest of all miracles, but it’s something of a miracle in itself that Mary should be chosen for this crucial role. At a time when society devalued her witness, God called her to bear witness first that Christ is risen – that he is risen indeed. Alleluia!

But now let’s fast forward a bit – to 1960…

By 1960, gender discrimination might not have been as great as it was in Jesus’ day, but it was still pretty rife. For instance, it was very unusual then for a woman to make a career in the field of sculpture; and even rarer still for a woman to become director of sculpture in an art school. Yet Freda Skinner was no ordinary woman. At the age of seven she began modelling in clay, and by the time she was 11 she knew that sculpture would be her life’s vocation. By 17 she’d gained a place at the Royal College of Art, where she studied under the famous male sculptors Henry Moore and Alan Durst. After the Second World War she stood out in a male-dominated art scene to be appointed Head of Sculpture at the Wimbledon School of Art. As well as being a great teacher, Freda flourished in her own sculpting – winning a number of prestigious commissions, including a war memorial in Battersea parish church and a Virgin and Child at St Elphege, Wallington. But as many of you know, perhaps her greatest commission was the magnificent lime wood carving towering above us here now: her ‘Risen Christ in Glory’, which she completed and installed in this chancel in 1960.

In their different ways, then, both Mary Magdalene and Freda Skinner bore witness to the resurrection. Both understood its massive, cosmic significance; its eternal power; its importance for anyone who’s ever wondered what God is like, what life means, and whether hope might lie beyond the grave.

In verse 2 of John 20 Mary dashes off to Peter and John, unable to contain her shock and mounting agitation that something awful – or maybe something awesome – has happened around that rolled-away stone. In verse 13 she weeps because she doesn’t know what it might all mean. Yet in verse 18, having met and eventually recognized her resurrected Lord, she proclaims the best of all the good news that Jesus brings. Death is defeated! Evil is conquered! Sin really is forgiven! And eternal life truly is available to those who trust and believe in Christ.

It would take a while for Mary to process all of this, but 30 years or so later St Paul would sum it up eloquently, in our Epistle for this morning from 1 Corinthians 15. Jesus’s resurrection that first Easter dawn was the foretaste of a new creation, the guarantee of salvation, the ground of our future hope of communion with God for ever. And then, 19 centuries after Mary and Paul, Freda Skinner brilliantly captured all of that excitement and wonder and promise and grace in this extraordinary carving – this extraordinary witness to the risen Jesus.

In verse 17 of our gospel reading, Jesus tells Mary, ‘“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’.”’ At this point, just after his resurrection, Jesus is between earth and heaven. Rising from the dead is staggering enough, but for Jesus it’s a step on the way back to his beloved Father, to a place of glory, to a rule and a reign or over the whole universe that means fear and hatred, discrimination and terror, evil and injustice, will never have the last word. A glorious Lordship which means that however dreadful, outrages like the one we saw in Brussels this week will not win the day, will not extinguish the light of life, and hope, and truth. Alleluia!

Freda Skinner’s great work here above us understands all this very well. It’s called ‘The Risen Christ in Glory’ because it recognizes that even in the dawn of his rising, Jesus was on his way back to the Father, and to the realm of the Father; that he was preparing for his ascension 40 days later; that he was, indeed, between earth and heaven – straddling the two, linking the two, and pointing to an eternity which John would go on to define as ‘a new heaven and new earth’.

So in the sculpture you’ll notice that Jesus is looking upwards, towards the place he will occupy at God’s right hand, from where he will direct the nations – readying himself to judge and to bless them at the end of the age. He’s wearing a crown to denote his authority as King of kings and Lord of lords. Yet even as he looks above and looks ahead to his glorious reign, there are reminders that he lived and died as a man on earth – as Jesus of Nazareth, fully human and fully embodied. Tempted in every way as we are, except for sin. Moved by suffering. Acquainted with grief. Wracked with pain in Gethsemane and on Calvary. Echoing the Psalmist’s cry on the point of death: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And notice that the crown is sharply pointed – a subtle reference back, perhaps, to the crown of thorns forced onto his head as he was mocked and humiliated prior to his execution. Notice, too, that the shadows of his nailed wrists and feet are still there on the cross behind him: reminders that he really did suffer, really did die. And see how while he’s focused on ‘things above’, he still has a clearly human body – a recognisable physical form. How he’s still ‘one of us’, still representing our humanity to God and God to our humanity. He’s not a ghost here; not a phantom. He remains Jesus, son of his mother Mary, while also glorified as Son of God.

Sure, the body Jesus has after his resurrection is transformed. Sure, this other Mary – Mary Magdalene – doesn’t recognise him at first because the divine Spirit that conceived him and that animates him has become so much more apparent, so much more overwhelming, since he’s conquered the tomb. But she does come to recognise him, and when she does it’s with the decidedly human name of Rabbouni – teacher.

So the risen Jesus still identifies with us here and now – still embodies God’s love for us as we are, today. Yet as he said to Mary, and as Freda Skinner’s sculpture testifies so powerfully, he’s also pointing us towards a greater future – a renewed and restored world in which death and mourning and crying will be no more – inviting us to a great banquet in which the last will be first and the first last. A banquet in which all – male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile – will truly be one in him if they put their faith and hope in him.

In a few moments we will look forward to that great banquet of love as we share in our Easter Day Holy Communion. But as we eat broken bread and drink wine outpoured, we will also remember his sacrifice for us in death, just as Freda Skinner’s ‘Risen Christ in Glory’ reminds us of his pierced hands and feet, even as he ascends to his Father and our Father, to rule in majesty forever.

And as we share in Communion, like Mary Magdalene, like Peter and John and Paul, and like Freda Skinner in her wonderful wood carving, we are also called to witness. To tell the good news that Jesus is risen for us, for others, and for the world.

So as you receive from this table, can I encourage you to pray. Pray for faith, both individually as a church, to make Jesus’ risen life real for this parish, and this community, in your words and in your deeds. To make the great message of our Gospel and Epistle, the message of this sculpture, your message: that Christ has died and Christ is risen; that Christ is reigning in glory and will come again in glory. And that because he is risen and reigning in glory there is hope for our hurting world. Alleluia!

David Hilborn

The Beatles and the Church









I’ve just spent a marvellously absorbing day in Liverpool, on a Beatles tour of post-doctoral erudition led by man called Ricky, whose forensic knowledge of the Fab Four makes my 40-year dedication to them look decidedly amateur. There was so much to ponder, but one thing hit home particularly, and that was the extent to which church featured in their early development. 

As an avid reader of books and articles on the Beatles I knew that Paul first met John at St Peter’s, Woolton church hall in July 1957, the same weekend that John’s skiffle band played outdoors at the same church’s annual fete. I knew that John had attended Sunday school, and that Eleanor Rigby was buried in the St Peter’s graveyard. I knew that Father McKenzie was based on Paul’s close observation of local clergy. I knew that George was the only Catholic in the band among three Protestants, and that this had prompted periodic banter between them, not least given the sectarian tensions in a port city that served as a key gateway to and from Ireland. I knew that Strawberry Field (singular) was an orphanage run by the Salvation Army. I knew vaguely that there was a church on the ’roundabout’ mentioned in Paul’s glorious ‘Penny Lane’, and that Paul had sung in the choir of that church. I knew in turn that this had lodged in his consciousness sufficiently to influence the hymn-like ‘Let It Be’. 

But it’s one thing to read about such ecclesiastical motifs in the Beatles’ biography and discography; quite another to see and experience them in person. To stand on the very church-owned spot where Paul made such a deep first impression on John with his knowledge of the chords to ‘Twenty Flight Rock’. To set foot on the same consecrated ground that John’s Quarrymen occupied when they performed for those Woolton parishioners almost 60 years ago. To see all four Beatles’ childhood homes, and inside John Lennon’s house on Menlove Avenue to read his actual Sunday school attendance card. To view the modest family grave containing Eleanor Rigby. To look across that roundabout from the Penny Lane barber’s shop to St Barnabas church, and wonder how Macca’s boy soprano voice might have sounded in its chancel. To take in George’s terraced house in Speake and the city’s imposing Catholic Cathedral, and to wonder what led him to turn from his Christian heritage towards Indian spiritualities – sitars, Hare Krishna et al. 

As the Fifties gave way to the Sixties the Beatles’ childhood links with church faded away. The rebellious spirit of rock n’ roll, the existentialist influences at Lennon’s and Stu Sutcliffe’s art school, the drugs and prostitution of Hamburg, the avant gardism of Astrid, Klaus and their other German friends – all appear to have played their part. As the Sixties wore on and their fame went stellar, they both reflected and defined the increasingly permissive spirit of the age – free love, anti-establishment philosophies, radical aesthetics and politics. Along the way, Lennon pronounced the Beatles to be bigger than Jesus while Harrison turned to avatars and gurus, and for a time persuaded the other three to follow the Maharishi. In the process McCartney and Starr’s church affiliations became ever more nominal. Indeed, while Lennon’s and Harrison’s abandonment of their childhood church formation might have been more explicit, it was McCartney’s image of Father McKenzie, ‘writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear’ which perhaps most poignantly evoked the dramatic loss of Christian influence in British society during this period – a period of disastrous decline in church attendances, not least among the young.

In more recent times, as various members of the Beatles’ circle have passed away and as some have been given Christian funerals, we have seen Paul and Ringo in church again – perhaps with more frequency than at any time since they were teenagers. But obviously the context is very specific – and, if anything, a reminder that for vast numbers of people since the Sixties, church has essentially become at best a cultural space in which to mark key rites of passage, rather than the more regular feature of life it was for the childhood John, Paul, George and Ringo, their families and their friends.

I adore the Beatles’ music, and I loved the Beatles Tour of Liverpool. But for all I sense the joy and liveliness of God’s Spirit in their songs, for all the resonances with the gospel in their message of peace and love, for all the prophetic insight of their later, more socially conscious material, it came home to me as I moved from Beatle home to Beatle home, from St Peter’s Woolton to St Barnabas, Penny Lane, from Strawberry Field to the Casbah, that they had not only exemplified the church’s startling loss of influence on Britain and Britain’s youth in particular, but that they had become for many representatives of an alternative worldview, an alternative ‘spirituality’ in which church was incidental, or even irrelevant. Ricky, indeed, began the Tour by describing it as a ‘pilgrimage’, and the guides in Lennon’s and McCartney’s houses respectively described them as ‘hallowed ground’. 

The challenge for the church today, of course, is to re-energise young people as dynamically and as profoundly as the Beatles did in the Sixties, while recognising that the cultural apparatus of late Christendom with which the Beatles themselves grew up is now far less detectable in Britain, or, indeed, much of the western world. For all his later flat denials of God, Lennon’s 1966 observation that the Beatles had become ‘bigger than Jesus’ was more a melancholy comment on the then-nascent cult of celebrity, and on growing consumerism and secularism, than an outright blasphemy. Viewed from today’s perspective, it in fact seems highly prescient.

I’m sure that the Beatles’ music will continue to enrapture young – and old – for centuries to come. It  – and they – are truly extraordinary. I will never stop listening to their wonderful songs, never stop marvelling at how they progressed from ‘Love Me Do’ to ‘A Day in the Life’ in five short years. But for all their genius they don’t have the words of eternal life, and they can’t redeem and renew our broken world. Can continued appreciation for the Beatles and their astonishing artistic legacy be accompanied by a reversal of the retreat from church and Christian faith that they both mirrored and embodied? I hope and believe it can. I pray that it will. But as I reflect on a great day out with the Beatles Tour, I know that it won’t be easy, and that it’s likely to take some time.

David Hilborn

19 March 2016

The Holy Land – Recollection, Hope and Reality

The Holy Land – Recollection, Hope and Reality

Earlier this week, quite unplanned, I found myself sitting opposite Jeremy Bowen on a train. Mindful of Bowen’s long and distinguished record as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent I was itching to engage him in conversation about the current round of hostilities in the Holy Land. However, he was busy with his phone and I had plenty of emails to answer, so I waited until we were nearing the end of the journey to strike up a conversation. He’d just collected a deserved honorary doctorate from Nottingham Trent University, and was enjoying a brief respite from covering the latest bloody clashes between Israel and Hamas. He will be back soon enough to report on a tragedy that seems interminable. As we spoke I recollected my own first-hand encounter with that tragedy, when I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority back in March 2005 as part of an ecumenical team that included my then colleague Don Horrocks, with whom I had worked closely over the previous eight years in the Theology and Public Affairs department of the Evangelical Alliance. I also recalled an unprecedented and highly challenging conference I had organised for EA two years before that, which brought together a broad spectrum of Christian organisations representing a diverse range of positions on modern Israel and its role in the purposes of God. In the last few days since that brief unscheduled conversation with Jeremy Bowen, I have gone back over my notes and papers from the 2005 trip and the conference which preceded it, and have been struck again by the fact that while the finer details have changed, the same basic, underlying issues persist.

If Christians are deeply divided on the Holy Land, Evangelical Christians are more divided than most. In nearly a decade at the Evangelical Alliance, I helped steer it through a number of controversies which seriously threatened its unity — from debates on homosexuality to the nature of hell, from the Toronto Blessing to prosperity teaching, from penal substitutionary atonement to identificational repentance. Yet of all the conferences and ‘summit meetings’ I organised to broach such vexed questions, the tensest and most volatile was that day meeting in June 2003 on how Christians should regard the state of Israel, and on how they should understand the condition of the Palestinian people in relation to it. The atmosphere was uneasy, fragile, disconcerting. Many polarised positions were simply reiterated, many deep-seated doctrinal divisions rehearsed. Yet it did at least manage to model an active and measured dialogue between parties who had long criticised each other in print but who had rarely, if ever, met under the same roof. I no longer work for the Alliance, but given more recent developments in the Middle East, it might be time for a follow-up conference along the same lines…

Far from entailing abstract theological concerns, the Israel-Palestinian problem comprises urgent, life-and-death realities: suicide bombings, house demolitions and rocket attacks. For years the Middle East has commanded considerable time, energy and resourcing from the administrations of the USA, Britain, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations and others. When I visited Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2005, international involvement in the so-called ‘Road Map to Peace’, and in the Israeli government’s ‘Disengagement Plan’ to withdraw Jewish settlers from Gaza, were underlining that what goes on there affects the whole world. The latest armed exchanges across the Israel/Gaza frontier only reinforce that point. They also amplify a message that has become ever louder and clearer since 9/11 and the second Iraq War – that religion and politics are inextricably, and often intractably, linked. As Jeremy Bowen stressed when we spoke, the notion that they can be disentangled is both peculiarly western and relatively new in terms of world history. As in most politico-religious disputes there are various shades of opinion, but Evangelicals basically split into two camps on the Holy Land: ‘Christian Zionism’ and ‘Supercessionism’.

In keeping with many Orthodox Jews, Christian Zionists maintain that God’s biblical covenants with elect Israel hold good today in respect of the ‘promised land’. The precise borders of this ‘Biblical Israel’ may be debatable, but Christian Zionists insist that it is the duty of believers to back the modern state of Israel in its control of the territory it gained at its inception in 1948 and in its subsequent conflicts with surrounding Arab states. In particular, they support retention of the key areas occupied by Israel in the pivotal 1967 war: East Jerusalem, ‘Judea-Samaria’ (more widely termed the ‘West Bank’), and the Gaza strip. Admittedly, while most Christian Zionists are Evangelical, not all Jewish Zionists are theologically motivated. Zionism began in the Nineteenth Century as a response to successive anti-Semitic pogroms dating from the early medieval period, and many of its founding figures promoted the idea of a ‘safe homeland’ on secular humanitarian grounds rather than from scriptural conviction. The most influential of these, Theodore Herzl, even contemplated a re-gathering of Jews in East Africa rather than the Middle East. However, when the state of Israel was founded in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, secular and religious Zionist aspirations had effectively converged on the area defined in 2 Chronicles 9:26 as ‘west of the Jordan’ and south ‘to the border with Egypt’. When this territorial vision was largely realised in 1967, the UN condemned Israel for its ‘land grab’, and for its eviction of those who had lived on that land for centuries—the Muslim and Christian peoples known collectively as Palestinians. Christian Zionists have joined conservative Jews in rejecting such criticism from the international community on the grounds that biblical prophecy cannot be trumped by secular resolutions.

By contrast, Supercessionists argue that the territorial manifestation of Israel has been superseded, or replaced, by the ‘new covenant’ predicted in Jeremiah 31:31-4, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. This covenant, they argue, is realised in the hearts of Jewish and Gentile Christians all over the world, and should no longer be associated with a particular race, land mass or temple. Indeed, on the basis of Hebrews 8:13, they maintain that it has rendered land-specific aspirations obsolete. Also known as ‘replacement theology’, this outlook holds that the Church has taken over the role of Old Testament Israel. Since this Church is a worldwide body, partisan support for the modern state of Israel qua Israel is deemed to be unjustified. Indeed, citing the human rights abuses levelled against Israel by the UN and others, Supercessionists typically accuse Christian Zionists of letting misguided eschatological commitments override basic moral precepts, such as are taught in the Sermon on the Mount—and, for that matter, in the Law and the Prophets. In fact, they stress that prophets like Micah saw Israel’s possession of land as subject to moral and spiritual criteria which she did not always meet, and whose neglect resulted her forfeiting that land (2:4-5). In response, Christian Zionists contend that Supercessionism has often gone hand-in-hand with anti-Semitism, that it unduly spiritualises God’s covenant promises, that God’s land-pledges to Israel are never in fact revoked, and that at various points in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 24, Romans 9-11) the Jews maintain a distinct role in God’s purposes.

On my trip to the Holy Land in 2005 the schedule was largely geared to inspecting Christian Aid-supported relief work among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but balance was provided by meetings with representatives of the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish People and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. We also had discussions with joint Israeli and Palestinian human rights organisations, and with members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Included on our itinerary were exposure to YMCA rehabilitation and educative programmes in Bethlehem for those disabled by the conflict, to the work of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society in Ramallah and the West Bank, to the refugee support programme of the Culture and Free Thought Association, and to the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees near the Egyptian border in Gaza. We were privileged to meet many Palestinian Christians, including the Christian bishops and Patriarch in Jerusalem, and a gathering of the committee of the Near East Council of Churches in Gaza City. While in Gaza, we also visited medical clinics and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

The entire 2005 visitation team, especially those who had not previously visited the Palestinian territories, were shocked by what we saw and heard. Even the never-ending stream of media reporting could not have prepared us for what we encountered. We unquestionably witnessed intense suffering on both sides. However, there was a discernible humanitarian disaster mounting in Gaza and the West Bank. With the Palestinian birth rate set to outstrip the population of Israel by 2030, it seemed impossible to see how the confinement of Palestinians within enclaves behind walls could ever pretend to offer Israel lasting peace or security. Few people on either side left us with any sense of optimism for the future. Rather, we encountered either entrenched antagonism or a general air of resignation to the ongoing conflict. Cynicism greeted mention of ‘road maps’ and so-called Israeli ‘disengagement’ – a cynicism which has since sadly been borne out by the rise of Hamas in Gaza and by Israeli retaliation against Hamas’s relentless, barrage of rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities. Our group returned home then with an overwhelming desire that core gospel ethics should not be obscured by entrenched political, racial, geographical or eschatological dogma; that desire remains, but its realisation seems even farther off now than it did then.

Most Israelis are supportive of the of the ‘security wall’ that was being built when I visited the region nine years ago, and that is now one of the starkest symbols of division between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours. Back in 2005 I and my companions had dinner with David Pileggi, an Italian American working with the Churches’ Ministry among the Jewish People. He had lived in Jerusalem most of his adult life, having studied at the Hebrew University there as the only Christian in a class of Jews. He explained that every day, his and his wife’s children travelled to school on a bus route which had been subject to suicide bombing. More than once, they had found themselves frantic with worry that the children had been killed. The security wall had reduced such attacks by two-thirds, they said. If we were in their shoes, would we not support its construction, for all the hostility it symbolised and provoked? Like many Israelis then and now, the Pileggis had thought deeply about their country’s situation, and were not afraid to criticise its harsher actions towards the Palestinians. But they also made the point that they were free to level such criticism, whereas many Muslims in surrounding Arab states were not similarly at liberty to protest against their leaders.

All the Palestinians we met in 2005 – Muslim and Christian alike – felt deeply oppressed. Though none we spoke to overtly justified suicide bombing, some suggested that it represented the desperation of a people for whom there seemed no other solution. A similar suggestion was made last week by the Liberal Democrat MP David Ward in relation to Hamas rockets. He was rightly condemned for his appalling remarks. Yet the contrast between prosperous, fertile, westernised Israel and the wretched poverty of Gaza and the West Bank was stark then, and is starker now. We met many Palestinian Christians who had not seen members of their families living elsewhere in the region for years. Bethlehem resembled a ghost town. Close to economic collapse following its virtual encirclement by the wall, visitors to it were either unable to travel or unwilling to face the traumas of getting through checkpoints. In response, Israel emphasised that necessary exclusion zones were being violated. It also warned that tunnels were being dug beneath the Israel-Gaza border to transport weaponry for attacks on Israeli positions and settlements. That warning, of course, was true, and the tunnels in question have been at the centre of the latest iteration of military conflict. However, back then we saw hundreds of Palestinian homes bulldozed or dynamited by the Israeli army, with many refugees living in the ruins for want of any alternative accommodation. There also seemed little excuse for the Israel’s razing of greenhouses on arable land, other than that they were visible from Jewish settlements, and that Israel wished deliberately to undermine Palestinian economic sustainability. True, it made good on its promise to withdraw from Gaza soon afterwards, but in doing so it was well aware that such economic sustainability would, if anything, recede further beyond the horizon.

Our visit to the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 2005 proved interesting, not least for its spokeswoman’s frank admission that Israel was acting as an occupying power, that human rights were being abused, and that massive injustice and potential humanitarian disaster were involved. However, all this was explained by the fact that Israel was in a state of war. Given this position, it seemed hard to accept her later assurance that the security wall was a ‘temporary measure’, especially when we had seen for ourselves just how massive and permanent it looked. Our scepticism then has, of course, been vindicated by the persistence and extension of the wall. Then again, the stunning design and sophistication of the Israeli government buildings brought home the extraordinary achievements of the Jewish people in developing a First World democracy so soon after 1948, not least in the face of such fierce hostility from neighbouring Muslim regimes. Indeed, the contrast between our visit there and our trip to the Palestinian Legislative Authority HQ in Ramallah was stark. Despite considerable international support and funding, the PLA was still struggling to establish itself as a credible governmental body. In its meagre parliamentary chamber, in its iconography, and in the minds of its officials, the figure of Yasser Arafat still loomed large. He was revered as the ‘Father of the Nation’, but as his own countrymen at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights later attested, he had left a legacy of corruption and factionalism which his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, would find it hard to dismantle. As we later drove through the streets of Gaza City, the varied uniforms of the eight or nine different security forces which Arafat had sponsored at his whim presented a vivid symbol of how far the PLA still had to go.
The demise of the PLA’s and Abbas’ power since, and the corresponding rise of Hamas, has proved this prognosis right.

One abiding memory we brought home with us in 2005 was the plaintive cry of Palestinian Christians everywhere throughout Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, that we should tell their Christian brothers and sisters in the West about their struggles and challenges. Without exception, they maintained that they and their fellow Palestinians were being deprived of their historic land, liberty and sustenance. Of course, their fellow believers in Messianic Jewish and Christian Zionist congregations in Israel and elsewhere firmly disagreed. No doubt we did not see the full picture. Having said this, beneath all the resentment, fear and despair, it was possible to detect a genuine desire for peace in those we met—an honest hope that Palestinians and Israelis might live harmoniously together. Indeed, as well realising that we needed to grapple in greater depth with the theological issues, we were left with a commitment to pray more earnestly for the ‘peace of Jerusalem’, and to explore more urgently what we could we do to help bring that peace nearer to reality. That commitment remains, but events since then have made peace seem yet more distant and more elusive.

As Jeremy Bowen and I got off our train, I asked him whether he had found it hard to step away from the Holy Land when it was once again so emphatically leading the news. Yes, he said, but the conflict was continuous, and would be there sure enough when he went back. As I bade him farewell, I resolved to go on praying, hoping and working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. But I was also reminded of the prophet Jeremiah’s sober critique of those who too readily cry “peace, peace” when peace is, in fact, far off.

David Hilborn

Liking ‘Rev’ as an Evangelical

My name is David, and I’m an evangelical who likes ‘Rev’.

I realise that puts me at odds with some of my fellow evangelicals, and to a degree I understand their concerns. Yet like my fellow evangelical and friend Steve Holmes I think ‘Rev’ needs first to be viewed within the frame of the Classic British sitcom – disparate, quirky folk apparently thrown together by circumstance and somewhat ‘trapped’ within a particular setting or institution. Think seaside hotel, prison, Home Guard, rag and bone business and here, of course, a struggling East End church. The final episode of the current series offered a profound portrait of vocation – of the way it can seem at once limiting and irresistible. But in that very sense it was skilfully dovetailed to its genre. The problem is, as evangelicals we can be too prone to read art denotatively, for its headline ‘message’, without regard to the genre in inhabits.

Denotatively, I wouldn’t choose to go to Adam Smallbone’s church if it existed. Indeed, if I were an Archdeacon I might recommend its closure, or replanting. But denotatively I wouldn’t want to stay in Fawlty Towers, rely on Mr Mainwairing’s Home Guard, or attend a gig done by Jack Dee’s hapless comedian in the underrated ‘Lead Balloon’, either. Yet through their mishaps, failures and desire to do better, we do kind of root for the deeply flawed, tragi-comic protagonists of these shows, and grow fond of the oddballs who surround them. This elevates such series from glorified gag-fests to something more dramatic – more epic even. Indeed, compared to any other religiously-themed sitcom I’ve seen, and interpreted within the semi-tragic parameters of sitcom at its best, ‘Rev’ deserves to be recognised as a classic.

But even as ‘Rev’ works with the conventions of great sitcom, it also manages to transcend them – not thanks to any headline message of ‘religious optimism’, but because it understands that true godly hope climbs a steep and narrow path, holds on in anguished prayer, and takes up a cross. Think Moses, David and Peter, and their struggles with God’s call. Think of how the church started behind a locked door, when frightened, beleaguered and angry disciples began to see that there was life beyond death – when they recognised the risen Christ in their midst.

This goes to Martin Luther’s distinction between theologia gloriae and theologia crucis. Not for nothing did the latest series of ‘Rev’ culminate in Easter. We had to go through the wrenching devastation of Adam’s personal Good Friday in Episode 5 to get to his resurrection experience in Episode 6. It would have been specious if there had been no Episode 5, if we had bypassed the cross and skipped straight to the resolution of Easter Day. Despite our avowed crucicentrism, it does seem at times as if we evangelicals have become somewhat squeamish about the darker side of faith and discipleship – about doubt, weakness, loss and lament. Obviously we cannot dwell on and revel in these things – there is good news to proclaim, a world to transform, and Christ is risen. Granted, this broader missional confidence is downplayed more than it might have been in ‘Rev’. Granted, when church planting was depicted in an earlier series, it was lampooned. As an evangelical I passionately want churches to grow, and obviously ‘church’ in this sense means far more than the sort of unsustainable building that Adam was scrabbling to keep open.

But Calvary mocks any attempt to confuse God’s mission with mere worldly success, and in walking out of his interview for a City management consultancy when catching sight of his condemned church through a high-rise window, Adam exemplified that powerfully. And let’s be clear: Adam didn’t go back to St Saviour’s to rescue a church building; he went back to celebrate God’s salvation with the frightened, beleaguered and angry crew God had given him to pastor, and significantly he celebrated the resurrection with them outside rather than inside the church, to reinforce that they were more important than the structure behind them. And tellingly, even when they did break back into the sanctuary, it was for a baptism – for a sacramental reminder that sin, death and burial are part of the Christian story as well as new life.

So there was a message in ‘Rev’. But it was a message best discerned not so much through the lens of Church Growth Theory as through the lens of a classic British sitcom genre which finds humour in our thwarted ambitions, vanity and pride, yet which nonetheless shows affection and even compassion for those caught up in such things. Applied as deftly as they were here to the life of a deeply flawed yet prayerful minister and his deeply flawed yet loveable congregation, those tragi-comic conventions unexpectedly facilitated the telling of a much richer, more authentic and more challenging story – the story of a God whose grace is so free and extravagant that it can heal even the most lost of vocations, and even the most hopeless of churches.

David Hilborn

Secularism and Religion

Speech to Nottingham Secular Society opposing the motion, ‘All religions should embrace secularism.’ (Motion proposed by Terry Sanderson, President, National Secular Society).


CAPE, 44 Pelham Street Nottingham NG1 2EW


Rev Dr David Hilborn, Principal, St John’s College, Nottingham


28th April, 2014, 7.30pm


Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:


I’d like to thank you for asking me to speak here tonight. I must confess, however, that when I, as an Evangelical Anglican theologian, was invited to debate here, at the Nottingham Secular Society, on the subject of secularism, the image that first came to my mind was Daniel in the Lions’ Den! Then again, that story turned out ok in the end, and like Daniel I believe in a miraculous God, so let’s see how we go as I try to persuade you to vote against the motion before us.


As some of you know, this debate was originally scheduled to have taken place last October, but had to be cancelled due to high winds making it impossible for Terry to travel up here to Nottingham. Well, as I’ve read the headlines this week I’m tempted to suggest that those winds were an Act of God – because what might have been a rather more abstract debate back in the autumn has been given real pertinence by David Cameron’s claim in the Church Times that Britain is a Christian country, by 50 leading secularists and atheists penning a letter of protest at his supposedly ‘divisive’ comments, and by subsequent interventions from Dominic Grieve, Iain Duncan Smith, Archbishop Justin Welby and his predecessor Rowan Williams.


Yet while it would be tempting to focus on that whole furore this evening, our motion is not specifically concerned with whether Britain is a Christian country, or whether, more particularly, the Church of England should be disestablished. Rather, it’s asking us to consider something much more broad-ranging – namely whether ‘all religions’ should embrace secularism’. So I hope it honours that motion if from time to time I illustrate my opposition to it with reference to the ‘Cameron Controversy’, but if I concentrate on the more essential and fundamental terms in which it’s been framed. And as I do this I want to stress that the wording of tonight’s motion immediately prompts some crucial questions…


First, what’s meant here by ‘religion’? Not surprisingly the NSS website uses the word ‘religion’ a lot, but a clear definition is pretty hard to come by there. On balance the NSS leans towards what might be called the metaphysical definition of religion – that which sees it defined by belief in a God or gods, and which John Haldane describes as seeking ‘solutions to the observed facts of moral and physical evil, limitation and vulnerability, particularly and especially death.’ Then again, there are hints elsewhere on the NSS site of the anthropological understanding of scholars like Clifford Geertz, who defines religion not so much in terms of theism as by cultural and ritual processes – or as he puts it, ‘symbols which act to establish powerful…moods and motivations in [people through] conceptions of a general order of existence.’ On these terms, it’s possible to cast non-theistic and even atheistic belief systems like Theravada Buddhism and Marxism as ‘religions’. 


Now this definitional ambiguity about ‘religion’ is significant not only in itself, but also because it goes to heart of what our motion actually means by ‘secularism’. To be blunt: while ‘secularism’ here might appear to describe a benign ‘level playing field’ in which the state fosters equality of belief-systems both religious and non-religious, when read in context it can be seen to imply a more militantly humanistic and even atheistic agenda – one which should be resisted not only by Anglican theologians like me, but by any religious believer who thinks that “doing God” must have a public as a well as a private dimension.


You see, if ‘religion’ is a tricky concept that needs defining, we should take even more care over ‘secularism’.  In the ‘Secular Charter’ published by the NSS itself, two distinct definitions of secularism can be discerned. First, as I’ve said, is the principle of equality of religions and beliefs before the law.  So far, so apparently good. But the second definition is more problematic. This is the definition of secularism as an active effort to separate the state from religious institutions and influences – to make the public square a religion-free, or more specifically a God-free, zone. Taken at face value, I have far fewer issues with the first version of ‘secularism’ than with the second. Indeed, if all that was meant by ‘secularism’ was equality and diversity of religion and belief, I’d probably not be opposing the motion this evening. In practice, however, secularism all too often extends from this first definition to the second – namely, the active attempt to exclude religion from public life and civic influence.


This second, more aggressive form of secularism goes beyond freedom of religion, and beyond even the constitutional distinction of religion from the state. Rather, it pursues an agenda which has shaped the National Secular Society since its inception in 1866, but which has been played down in more recent times, not least by Terry himself – perhaps because of the extraordinary resurgence of religion worldwide in the past few decades, and perhaps because of the growing diversity of religious expression here in multicultural Britain. The agenda in question is the agenda of politicized atheism – or as a still downloadable pamphlet from the NSS website by former President David Tribe describes it, ‘militant secular humanism’. Indeed, although the NSS more prominently proclaims that ‘secularism is not atheism’, that it ‘simply provides a framework for a democratic society’, and that it ‘does not seek to challenge the tenets of any particular religion’, I have to say that this is belied by the campaigning thrust of the NSS, which, remains effectively concentrated on excluding religion from civic life – whether in the form of religiously-based schools, government-backed faith-based welfare projects, or public service chaplaincies.


As I’m sure many of you know, the term ‘secularism’ derives from the Latin saeculum meaning ‘this age’ or ‘this world’ rather than the ‘age to come’, or heaven. And quite clearly there is a form of secularism which is philosophically wedded to scientific materialism and the denial of the supernatural – a strain which is thus ideologically committed to public atheism as over against public religion. The founder of the National Secular Society, Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91) certainly saw his atheism as closely bound up with his secularism, and devoted comparable amounts of time to advocating for each. Even today, the ‘new look’ NSS showcases a range of ‘Honorary Associates’ who are better known for their ideological advocacy of atheism than for their promotion of secularism as such: Richard Dawkins, Ricky Gervais, A.C. Grayling, Jonathan Meades, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullmann, Jonathan Miller, Joan Smith and Polly Toynbee, to name just a few. Tellingly, many of these very same names appeared as signatories to that Daily Telegraph letter decrying David Cameron’s assertion that Britain remains a Christian country. So again we come back to that fundamental question of definition: when the NSS asks religions to embrace secularism, as Terry and our motion are asking them to do this evening, what is actually meant by ‘secularism’? The dedicated, campaigning atheism of these ‘Honorary Associates’, or the apparently more neutral, pluralistic secularism that Terry himself seems to prefer? Our motion makes no distinction between the two, and because it doesn’t adherents of any socially responsible religious tradition should vote against it.


Our public life today is enriched by a diversity of religious communities. All have their part to play in our civic discourse; all have a stake in the body politic. Ostensibly, Terry might agree with this in principle. But in fact, denunciation of faith schools, hospital chaplains and faith-based welfare bespeak a more intolerant kind of secularism – one that would have religious citizens confine the religious aspect of their lives behind closed doors, to the privacy of their own homes, churches, temples, synagogues and mosques. This is the model of secularism that pertains in the French system of laicité, and I have to say that it’s a dishonest, disingenuous sort of secularism – one that claims a civic neutrality which is in fact anything but neutral – which is, indeed, a myth…


You see, to require religion to be ‘privatized’ in this way is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of religious traditions, the vast majority of which do not see themselves as personal hobbies or recreations, but as holistic systems dedicated to the common good. And here’s the thing: civic religion remains strikingly popular, so that to sweep it from public life in the name of ‘equality’ would, in fact be deeply undemocratic. Recent surveys have shown that 80% of the English population support church schools as promoting good behaviour and positive attitudes among young people.  1 million pupils attend Church of England schools specifically. 1600 CofE chaplains alone offer tangible support to people of all faiths and none in hospitals, prisons, schools, universities, colleges and the armed forces. And chaplaincies are hardly exclusive to the CofE: many other churches and faith groups contribute to them, and even, of late the British Humanist Association! And let’s not forget the numerous food banks, credit unions, hospices, care homes, youth clubs, homeless shelters, aid charities and housing trusts run by churches and other faith groups, some of which receive government money, even while others don’t. Our debate tonight may be much wider than the current ‘Cameron Debate’, but it’s worth noting that leaders of other faith groups, from Anil Bhanot of the Hindu Council through Farooq Murahd of the Muslim Council of Great Britain to Lord Indarjit Singh of the Network of Sikh Organisations have all endorsed the idea that Britain remains a Christian country, and in some cases, that the establishment of the Church of England benefits their own faith communities, and society in general.


Sure, fewer people consider themselves Christian now than a decade ago, but 59% is still a majority. Sure, fewer people attend church, but 1.7 million are in CofE services alone at least once per month on average, and 12 million visit cathedrals every year. Sure, historic Free Churches are in decline, but newer Pentecostal and Charismatic churches are growing, and making ever more impact on public life. This is hardly privatized religion, retreating into the shadows. Granted, 41% of folk may call themselves ‘non-religious’, but non-involvement in religion is hardly the same thing as committed secularism. Terry can confirm, but as far as I can work it out, the current membership of NSS is no more than 5000. Respectable enough, but hardly a mass movement poised to sweep religion out of civic life.


In any case, there’s no such thing as the ‘neutral’ or ‘naked’ public square.  All of us enter it with presuppositions and pre-commitments – secularists and atheists as much as religious folk. In a free society, all of us need to engage in public life with graciousness and respect for the other. It is arrogant of secularists to suggest that their ideology is better equipped to define and manage this diversity than the public theologies of various faith groups.


And even if it were possible to exclude religion from civic life, one might well ask whether secularism could deliver anything approaching the sort of moral infrastructure and social cohesion which have so long been provided by religious traditions. I do not mean to suggest by this that non-religious people can’t be moral. Of course they can. But for thousands of years, religious traditions have delivered practical public benefits to humanity which secular systems have often failed to acknowledge or emulate. Religions invest the basic processes of birth and death with dignity and significance. They generate sustainable communities, with shared principles and goals. They inform and enhance family life. They offer a hope beyond the grave, which spurs people to bequeath a positive legacy to their successors—a legacy which transcends mere reproduction. Thus in most religious understandings, the order of a universe made by a loving Creator is inextricably linked with the love, peace and justice of a positively ordered life in a decently ordered society.


And since our motion does not confine itself to Britain it’s worth saying that this applies internationally as much as in the UK. In the Sixties and Seventies social scientists routinely predicted the global eclipse of religion. The sociologist Peter Berger famously declared in 1967 that by the Twenty-first century religious believers would exist only in ‘small sects, huddled against a world-wide secular culture.’ Yet by the 1990s, Berger was forced to pronounce that declaration ‘absurd’. Indeed, as Professor Grace Davie confirms, Europe is now the exception, not the rule, where religious decline is concerned. In China, South Korea, Brazil and other economically advancing cultures, it’s going from strength to strength. Globally, religious affiliation is growing at a rate of 1.5% per annum. Every day sees 70,000 new Christians and 68,000 new Muslims.[1] The world in 2014 bears out what Friedrich Wilhelm Graf has called ‘the stubborn persistence of religions’. Or as the Economist journalists John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge sum it up, on the world stage, ‘God is Back’.


Against this background the renowned Catholic theologian Hans Küng has worked with several other faith leaders in recent years to define a ‘global ethic’ derived from insights common to the world’s major religions. Given its diverse provenance, it is in many ways a minimal ethic, and as an Evangelical Christian there is much I would want to add to it. But though it represents a fairly humble ‘lowest common denominator’, it still highlights the essential historic contribution of religion to the codes and values that shape our lives today. It has four key components. First, non-violence and respect for life, as embodied in the work and witness of figures like Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Second, a culture of solidarity which prioritises communal networks. Third, an emphasis on truth telling and tolerance in human relationships. And fourth, the common dignity of all human beings, derived from their status as children of God.


Again, secularists may claim that it’s possible to construct a similar sort of morality without recourse to the divine. But religion got there first, and as we’ve seen, it’s not going away. Indeed, godless moralities tend to be parasitic on religious ethics, while eschewing those qualities of ultimate purpose and eternal value which have made the great religions so robust, so durable, and such generous net contributors to our social wellbeing. Religion can inspire change for the better because its offers a vision of the whole of life—not only its physical and material aspects, but its moral and metaphysical dimensions, too. As a Christian, I find this vision fulfilled uniquely in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In Jesus I see rationality in action—wisdom with a human face. To me he satisfies men’s and women’s finest religious instincts, their highest ideals, their greatest ethical aims. Yet he does so not only as a paragon of humanity, but as the Son of the living God, as divine wisdom and divine love made flesh. And taking my cue from Jesus’ inextricable link between godly love and love of neighbour, I’m also happy to make common cause with non-Christian religions where our shared values point people beyond themselves—to a vibrant, democratic society enriched by its religious communities at both public and private levels. History shows that those who deny this kind of society by seeking to marginalise or privatise religion end up impoverishing public life rather than enriching it.  


Mr Chairman, if ‘secularism’ means equal rights for the beliefs and practices of religious and non-religious people, then I might count myself a secularist. But if it means the systematic exclusion of religion from public life on the false assumption that secular humanism, scientific materialism or atheism is more ‘neutral’ or ‘benign’, then I most certainly am not. Granted, religions have at times behaved immorally, and even tyrannically, when afforded civic power: that’s why Hans Küng’s project stresses that civic and global peace depend on peaceable rather than martial religion. But on this reading, secularists have abused power, too – and arguably, in modern times, the secularist record here is worse. Despite the subtitle of David Tribe’s pamphlet I’m sure there are ‘non-militant’ secularists. Terry seems to be one, and maybe many here tonight are, too. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that secularism in another guise drove the Jacobins, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. I’m not saying that all secularists want to eject religion forcibly from the public square, any more than I would expect a thinking secularist like Terry to imply that all religious believers are theocratic fundamentalists.  

What I am saying is that the contribution of religion to our common life has been immense. It remains as necessary for a healthy society as it ever was. Attempts to oust it from the public square have a disreputable past, and do not bear repeating. We need public religion today, as the vast mass of humanity has always needed it. We can argue the fine details of how secularism is defined in theory, but too often in practice secularism has shown itself as negative and hostile to religion, and particularly to public and civic religion. Mr Chairman for these reasons, and the others given here, I oppose the motion.