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Setting Jesus Free

This is the title of a new book by John Churcher, chair of PCN Britain.  Here is a review received from Rev Jairo Majia, a retired Episcopal Priest living in California.

The book Setting Jesus Free, by the Rev. John Churcher, is an extraordinary book. When I first contacted the author regarding the book, he wrote to me “you may have read much of the book previously as it is really an adaptation of my sermons.” Not exactly; the book - besides its fundamental subject - is full of anecdotes, personal and others, and historical references, which often get lost in sermons.

I don’t know how many books about Jesus and his doctrine I have read, but this one certainly is at the top, and has the best explanation I have read of the real meaning of the message of Jesus. Setting Jesus Free helped me to better understand Jesus, his message and his mission.

In a conversational tone with the reader, the author offers a concrete and pragmatic insight in the ‘Way of Jesus’; his convincing comments reflect on all areas of life: from the individual and the family, to international politics. Reading this book was not just learning but enjoyable; it is a book full of new insights and interest.

Due to the frankness of the author you understand the goal of the author from the first pages:

I can fully understand why many ministers leave the Christian Church, even having become Christian agnostics or even atheists as they find that the well of traditional theology is drying up in this post-Enlightenment, post-evangelical, post-Christian and perhaps post-atheist society that so much of the ‘first world’ and ‘new world’ seem to be living in (page 6).

We are at the crossroads. Either we continue down this dry, dusty and increasingly barren road into the desert from which there is no return, or we find the substance of the New Reformation (page 6).

The Empty Tomb, whatever that was, is not just something from the past but it is to be lived and experienced today and every day… the important thing is that “The Lord is here! His Spirit is with us!” (page 16)

Like it or not, we are either at the forefront of a new reformation of the Christian Church, or we are in the midst of its death throes” (page 139).

As the Christian Church faces an uncertain future I am convinced that we who are members of it need to think afresh about how to live; the death of creeds and doctrines; the impact of history remembered, history interpreted and history developed into theology… whatever ‘God’ is deserves better than that (page 181).

The first chapter, “The Beginning,” is about the “miraculous” conception and birth of Jesus; it is an extensive exposition of all the events related in the gospels, with clarifying details and considerations. I used it for my meditation during Advent, and read it twice. Then, the author goes through all Jesus’ parables with wise comments and applications; the parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector is particularly good. He, the author, finds meaning in the most insignificant actions or brief words of Jesus. He proves that the gospels were written as Midrash, and that as Midrash must be interpreted; and shows clearly how each gospel writer is amplifying the preceding writer with parallel remembrances from the Hebrew Bible.

When the author comes to the details of the resurrection of Jesus as related in the gospels, he makes clear the point that the four different reports cannot all be true because they contradict each other. As he says, this is the best proof against those affirming the inerrancy of the Bible. He concludes that, regardless of what resurrection means, Jesus is still alive; and, because of that, the gospel was propagated so rapidly and extensively. This was the miracle of Jesus alive, of those who love one another. He shows how a world inspired by the ‘Way of Jesus’ would make the difference!

There is an extensive and useful bibliography; although, I missed several authors, in particular Hans Kung, one of the greatest pioneers of the reform of the Church.

This is a splendid book that I recommend.

Jairo Mejia
Retired Episcopal Priest

What Spong had to say

Bishop John Shelby Spong recently completed a speaking tour of the UK organised by PCN Britain.  His subject was the title of his latest book, Eternal Life.  Here is a selection of quotes from his talks selected by PCN’s Admin Assistant, Andy Vivian

Spong took a Darwinian approach to his subject.  The evolution of a self-conscious mind brought with it the fear of death and of our vulnerability.  This shaped the way religion developed:

“Human beings are chronically anxious people…  The human image of God is created by man’s anxiety.”

“Flattery of God and reverse flattery (denigrating ourselves) for the purpose of manipulating God is what we’ve done in worship.”

Denigrating ourselves, says Spong, makes us more likely to oppress others – Jews, coloureds, women, homosexuals have all been targeted by Christianity.

He is particularly scornful of the image of God which lies behind this.

“God becomes a child abuser and punishes his own son and as a result you and I become a guilt laden people.  Guilt is the currency that keeps the church going… Guilt based gratitude never produces wholeness”.

Spong denies being an atheist:

“I am not saying that God does not exist”

So what does Spong believe about God?  His vision is mystical, using non-human allegories:

“The Ground of Life coming into our consciousness”.

“Maybe God is the experience in all things… the life that flows through the universe…

“Maybe God is that quality of love that calls us to go beyond our survival mentality, freeing us to love wastefully”. 

And what does Spong believe about Jesus:

“In Jesus we see a freedom from fear about people who are different, a freedom from the survival mentality…  Jesus loved beyond the boundaries of self-survival.”

“God - the source of love, the source of life – becomes a new way of seeing Jesus: as portraying a human so whole and full that all of God could be expressed through him.”

This leads Spong to a new vision of humanity:

“We are not fallen sinners, we are incomplete human beings”

“You don’t need to be born again, you need to grow up.”

“The Holy Spirit didn’t make us religious, it made us human.”

“If we see God as the source of love, the source of life, then we have a new way of seeing Jesus – as portraying a human so whole and full that all of God could be expressed through him.”

Returning to the theme of evolution, Spong says that Jesus shows us what humanity can achieve:

“Unity with God – to let God live in us and through us.”

“Our mission is not to convert people but to transform people; to be all that they can be, to love wastefully and to live fully.”

“You can be part of who God is and he becomes part of what you are… You come into being”

 

November Update from PCN Chair, John Churcher

PCN has welcomed many new members in the last few weeks.  Many have discovered PCN through publicity for our recent Jack Spong speaking tour.  Here John Churcher, the PCN chair, reflects on the tour and also offers a way of supporting the cause of women bishops.

My initial reflections on Jack Spong’s tour are that we have had another feast! Jack continues to be an excellent communicator and a beacon of hope for many of us in the progressive movement. From the Chair I wish to publicly thank all who were involved in organising the tour and the ‘on the ground’ local venue organisers: but especially thanks to Jill Sandham and Hugh Dawes for all their work that has made this tour both possible and successful. There will be more comments and photographs in the coming weeks on both the website and also in the next Newsletter.

There are continuing teething problems with the Group Convenors’ pages on the website – apologies for this but we are doing everything possible to overcome the access problems as quickly as we can. As for the website Forum – it is being used but it could play a far greater role in communication and discussion for members and friends of PCN-Britain. It is not difficult to use and I encourage you to get involved and to share ideas and explorations of progressive Christianity.

The PCN secretary, Jill Sandham, has alerted us to an online petition concerning women bishops. As some of you may be aware, a letter to all women clergy has been sent out by the National Association of Diocesan Advisers in Women’s Ministry (read contents in the women clergy section of the petition website below), which is gathering a large number of signatures.  Many Church of England lay people and male clergy have expressed a wish to have a similar letter that they could sign up to and these are available using the appropriate links below.  Please sign up and share them with your own networks and as many people as you can.
For women clergy at       http://www.gopetition.co.uk/online/31823.html
For men clergy at           http://www.gopetition.co.uk/online/31836.html
For the laity at             http://www.gopetition.co.uk/online/31837.html
Having begun this short occasional news update with Jack Spong I will finish it with one of the outcomes of his tour: many additional people have become members of PCN-Britain! It is obvious that the more paid up members we have then the more we will be able to do to resource the membership and to be an increasingly effective progressive Christianity voice and presence in Britain. Thank you to you all for your continued support and involvement in the work – in my opinion the progressive voice is more important and necessary now than it has ever been.          John Churcher

In Celebration of Fred Kaan

Anthea Kaan spoke about her late husband to those gathered for the Bishop Spong Day Conference organised by PCN-Britain on October 24th 2009.  With a few minor changes, this is the text of that address.

“I am grateful for this opportunity on behalf of myself, Fred’s three children, Martin, Peter and Alison and my two daughters Rachel and Joanna and the rest of the family to thank all the loving wonderful friends around the world who have supported myself and Fred, including our lovely Dutch Alzheimer’s nurse Ons Epskamp and the caring, sensitive staff from Yanwath Care Home through these last difficult months. I can only say Alzheimer’s is the cruellest of diseases to destroy memory and personality. The real Fred died some time ago. Others can speak better than I can about Fred, his work, his hymn writing, his passionate belief in working to make peace.

But I can speak about Fred as a passionate husband, a loving father and grandfather, a man who loved travel, a man with a great concern for using simple good language and not abstruse, meaningless, religious, old–fashioned words and a man with a good sense of humour. Also a man who could always relate well to children and as increasingly the Alzheimer’s took over his thought processes a man who made a point of engaging with children when we were sitting on a plane, or a bus, or a train and during endless hospital visits would stoop and bend down and share a smile with a small child we might pass in a corridor.

During the Nazi Occupation of Holland the Scouts were banned, but after the war they started up again. One evening The Scoutmaster came in with his Baden Powell hat and asked all the scouts to pull out a name because scouts in England wanted to be pen-friends. Fred pulled out the name of Peter Hayward who received his first letter on Christmas Day 1946. He invited Fred to come and stay with him and his family and Fred discovered the Congregational Church, liked their democracy and after reading theology in the Netherlands came to read theology at Western College in Bristol.

Speaking of his passion for language he said he had to write simple English when he felt the need to write a hymn to illustrate a sermon, because he couldn’t find anything appropriate in the hymn-book and his understanding of the English language and its colloquialisms was still slightly limited when he first came to England. Vivian Buddle – a colleague of his when he was training at Western College in Bristol told me he came into the common room one day to find Fred poring over a book of English phrases saying he couldn’t anywhere find the meaning of ‘Blow you Jack’ whereupon Vivian told him it meant to ‘get stuffed’.

Before retiring to the Lake District we were living in Birmingham. Fred had already retired before me and I knew I was about to retire from the inner-city practice, where I was working and knew we could not possibly afford to keep our Birmingham home and the Lake District bungalow we had inherited from my parents. I was secretly longing to go to the Lakes, but had already discovered that having been born in the Netherlands Fred did not have a good head for heights and probably would want to stay in Birmingham. One day he said to me ‘Why don’t we retire to the Lake District whereupon I said ‘But you are doing it for my sake which isn’t fair. Fred then said ‘You enjoy climbing mountains. What makes you think I can’t enjoy looking at mountains’! And so we came and Fred loved it here and said it was one of the best decisions he had ever made.

I would sometimes on a lovely day go out and have a climb on my own. When I got back Fred would always ask me how I had got on. I often choose to go to a quieter mountain and would say on returning ‘I haven’t seen a soul all day’ to which Fred would ask me ‘What does a soul look like?’

I don’t know what a soul looks like either. Fred always felt that life was in the here and now and I do not believe in life after death, but all I can say is that whatever soul means I hope a bit of Fred’s soul can live on in you, as it does in me, remaining a precious part of me.

In Fred’s words:

Pray that at the end of living
of philosphies and creeds,
God will find his people busy
Planting trees and sewing seeds.

It has been good to share this day in London with you all and to hear Jack again. Fred felt so at one with all that PCN stands for and aspires to.”
Anthea Kaan
24.10.09

Fred Kaan, hymn writer and PCN adviser, dies

PCN mourns the loss of a much respected adviser

It is with great sadness that PCN marks the passing of a longstanding and much valued member of the Network.  Fred Kaan was probably best known as the writer of some of the finest contemporary progressive hymnody in English; something he began when he just couldn’t find the hymns he needed in the existing books. Social justice is central to them, and to his understanding of the gospel. Born in Holland, his adolescence coincided with the Nazi occupation of that country, and internationalism was another theme close to his heart. In a varied career he worked in Geneva as General Secretary for the Alliance of Reformed Churches, in Plymouth and in Swindon. In the 1990s he was Secretary of the Churches’ Human Rights Forum.  He was a very early member of PCN Britain and served us as one of three honorary advisers.  His wife Anthea spoke elequently about her husband at the recent Jack Spong day conference at St James’s Piccadilly, and gave us the photograph below, taken by Mark Howard.  (click download button)

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