Nov 232015

Yesterday one of our church members drew my attention to some articles in the press about what Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was reported to have said in an interview on Songs of Praise on Sunday evening. And from the perspective of someone with a deep faith in God the reported comments were concerning:

The BBC has an article  with the headline:

Welby - Paris

Paris attacks caused archbishop to ‘doubt’ presence of God

In the article itself this is clarified that the Archbishop was asking God where He was in what had happened.

The article also has him saying that:

the killings had put a “chink in his armour”

But the video extract in the report itself shows this wasn’t something the Archbishop said but a question he was asked and to which he responded in a deeply personal and reflective way. Arguably the Archbishop’s mistake is answering “yes” to the question before the question was fully asked!

This is picked up in other reports such as in the Independent and the Daily Mail.

Listening to the actual interview (10 minutes in) reveals a much deeper insight into what the Archbishop was saying as he clearly and openly struggles with coming to terms with the tragedy in Paris.

He says:

Some people watching this program will be asking the question “Where is God, where is He in all this?” He’s alongside with that deep involvement in the suffering and pain of the world that took Him to the cross.welby - cross

Here he is recognising the reality of what many people will be asking and answering in a caring and deeply pastoral way as he acknowledges that God places himself in the midst of anguish and loss in so many different ways.

He was asked:

Do you ever doubt?

and says:

Oh, gosh, yes

The follow-up question was:

Does something like this happening ever put a chink in your armour?

He answers “yes” before the question is finished – about at “put a chink” and then goes on to reflect more fully:

Saturday morning  I was out and, as I was walking, I was praying and saying “God, why, where, why is this happening, where are you in all this?” And then engaging and talking to God. Yes, I doubt.”

The next question was:

What answers did He give you?

to which he responded:

“He said in the middle of it” and also an answer from the Psalms, Psalm 56, “He stores up our tears in a bottle”. None of our sufferings are lost.

Hi goes on to speak about the power of religion and how it can be used as a tool by the wicked to twist people into doing what they want them to do.

Here we have someone really feeling for those who had suffered so much and seeking to explain how much God cares for and suffers with them. Someone who is prepared to recognise the questions it raises and to seek to respond to them honestly. Someone who was prepared to share something of his own internal journey to get to a place where he could speak positively about God’s presence in the midst of pain and suffering.

He isn’t doubting the overall presence of God – rather, he speaks about engaging with God and conversing with Him as he seeks to understand where God was, specifically, in the Paris tragedy.

It is interesting that he refers to the Psalms when speaking about his doubts as they are full of people who cry out to God and ask Him what He is doing and why He isn’t acting. So he is drawing on a rich tradition of lament as people engage openly with God while (mainly) retaining complete confidence that God is there.

I think the Archbishop’s words are important but I think they have been mis-represented by some of the reports. Slightly ironic that he refers to Psalm 56 which also has:

All day long they twist my words; all their schemes are for my ruin. (Psalm 56:5)

Yes, it was possible to read things into what he was saying but its worth listening to the interview itself and hearing exactly what he did say.

And let’s pray for our leaders – both religious and government – as they seek to respond to these awful events in appropriate and compassionate ways.


Jul 042014

chimps gestures

Earlier this morning I was listening to a report on the radio about the work some scientists have done in translating the communications gestures used by chimpanzees – see here for more details. It was an interesting study and provides insight into how this class of great apes communicate using a rudimentary sign language.

What I found interesting, and concerning, were the comments made by the reporter and radio host who were discussing the report. They made some statements which don’t seem to be backed up by the science in the report regarding the evolutionary relationship between chimps and humans.

They talked about how this study increases our understanding of how human language developed and talked about apes being ancestors of humans. The idea being that because humans are descended from chimps (or at least share common ancestors), understanding how chimps communicate will help us understand how our own languages developed.

The report on the BBC website was more balanced. One scientist commented that this study demonstrates that meaningful communication is not unique to humans and that

chimps are more closely related to us than they are to the rest of the great apes

Another, however, talked about the results as being “a little disappointing” and stated:

So, it seems the gulf remains

There is the sense that even though this work is being done to fill some gaps in our understanding of how human language evolved it hasn’t delivered all that was hoped for. But there was none of this nuanced understanding in how it was discussed on the radio.

I accept that the media have a difficult job in these areas as they are trying to communicate fairly complicated ideas in just a few minutes to a, generally, non-technical audience and they need to operate within the scientific consensus regarding evolution. But, from a quick look at recent discussions there are questions which the scientific community are grappling with regarding this putative direct link between the great apes and humans.

A report in the Los Angeles Times in April last year speaks of evidence which could help solve the “evolutionary ‘missing link'” but it acknowledges that not all scientists share the view expressed in the report.

A report in the Guardian in October last year speaks about the discovery of a skull throwing thefossil skull “story of human evolution into disarray” forcing scientists to:

rethink the story of early human evolution

A report in Scientific American in January this year speaks about a “missing genetic srgap2link in human evolution” and focuses on genetic material which is believed to play an important role in the brain. It is a fascinating report but one of the things that struck me is the level of honest uncertainty which is expressed by scientists with phrases such as “I think”, “My feeling” and “Much about the duplication process – and its implications – remain a mystery”. They are exploring and studying but recognise that there are still many questions.


A report in New Scientist in April this year raises the possibility that one of our “closest long-term relatives may never have existed” due to some confusion over some fossil remains.

A report in the Daily Mail science section (from less than a month ago) talks about finding a “missing link in human evolution” and claims that it is:

causing scientists to reconsider the path of human evolution

It is right and proper as part of the scientific process that scientists, in many different fields, should explore and study and critique to try and develop a deeper understanding. But it is important to recognise, as these reports – along with many others – show, that there are questions about the evolutionary theory regarding humans which haven’t been comprehensively answered and currently divide the scientific community.

While the debate continues to rage there, and media correspondents try to present snippets to their audiences, it is good to be reminded that we need to be prepared to dig a little deeper to try and understand what we don’t yet know and to not just accept blanket statements as fact.




Apr 042014

newsLast week, Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph commenting on climate change and the issues it causes 

He was writing as Chairman of Christian Aid and called for action to be taken to “stop subsidizing the degradation of the planet.”

The evening before the article was to be published I was watching a late night news show which included a “review of tomorrow’s papers” where this article was discussed. I was interested when the show’s host asked his two guests (fellow journalists) whether it was appropriate for the church to be commenting on this sort of issue. (Technically, he nearly asked – he was interrupted before he could complete the question!)

In this post I’m not particularly trying to answer the question as posed but rather to reflect on the fact that it was asked in the first place.

In a country which prides itself on free speech why is it appropriate for someone in the media to question the right of anyone to comment on any issue they are interested in? And in this particular case, another media organisation was publishing the article so they clearly thought it was appropriate.

And why does someone in the media think that two other journalists are in a position to adjudicate on whether it was right for Rowan Williams to be commenting? And it seemed to be less about him as an individual but as a representative of the church.

And it’s not just this occasion – we frequently hear people in the media questioning the right of “the church” to speak out on particular issues.

In an earlier post I wrote about the importance of the church speaking out regarding issues in our world. It is part of our responsibility in seeking to bring to fruition the prayer of Jesus about God’s kingdom coming to earth as it already is in heaven. So I believe it is right and proper for the church to engage in these sorts of questions, just as it is important for us to be properly informed before we do so.

But this has got me thinking about the role and impact of the media. Having an independent media with the mandate of investigating, reporting and commenting on what is going on is of fundamental importance in a free society and something which is to be cherished and defended.

But when, and if, that media appoints itself as judge and jury on what other people and organisations are able to say then, I believe, there is real cause for concern.