What are they now saying about...

© Revd Rex A E Hunt
The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought
December 2005


I wish to pay my respects to the Ngunnawal People
and particularly to those who have cared for this part of the land
from time immemorial.


My Study Leave during October/November 2005 was very interesting, most times stimulating, sometimes frustrating, and with a surprise or two.

As I begin my Report to you all let me be quite up front: I wish to sincerely thank the Management Team and members of The Centre for Progressive Religious Thought, and the Church Council of St James (along with the Presbytery Kilby Fund and the Synod Board of Education Commission for Specified Ministries Scholarship Fund), for both encouraging and assisting me to take this four week study program in the USA, Canada and the United Kingdom.

At this early point I also want to draw your attention to the change in the title of this presentation.  Originally I suggested the working title: ‘What are they now saying about Jesus’.  But very quickly I discovered such a title would be too limited as a result of my experiences.  My encounters were much wider.  Hence my revised title.

So who did I meet and what did I hear and discover during these four weeks...?  I don’t want this to turn into a travelogue complete with 352 coloured slides (there are none!) so let me share some of what I reckon were the highlights of my time away.

The primary purpose of my Study Leave was to attend the 20th anniversary Gathering of Scholars Meeting of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, California - two hours bus drive north of San Francisco - in a popular wine growing area.  The Westar Institute web site states:
“The Fellows... are scholars with advanced degrees in biblical studies, religion or related fields.  Since the beginning, more than two hundred Fellows have participated in the Jesus Seminar and other Westar projects, including the Paul Seminar, Canon Seminar and the recently begun Acts Seminar.  At various stages of the projects, different Fellows have been involved in the research and deliberations”.

A secondary purpose, perhaps just as important, was to make contact with and hopefully then network with, other progressive ministers and scholars and congregations.  While the surprises included a conversation with Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Centre, the death of Rosa Parks, and time spent at Down House - the home of Charles Darwin, in Downe Village, Kent.

Perhaps I should also say, just for good measure, I read three books while away:
Karl Peter’s Dancing with the sacred. Evolution, ecology, and God;
Gordon Kaufman’s In the beginning... creativity, and a forthcoming book by Hal Taussig titled Grassroots progressive christianity.

Nearly finished a fourth - Burton Mack’s The lost gospel. The book of Q and Christian origins, and completely rewrote a paper I initially delivered in Brisbane, called The landscape is: Shaping contemporary Australian ‘Sunday morning’ experiences.


Westar Institute Gathering of Scholars
Around 190 people - Fellows, Associates, and friends - from five countries, attended the four day Gathering of the Westar Institute.  I was one of seven Australians to attend - the other six came from Melbourne.  And there was one New Zealander - Fellow Jim Veitch - whom we ‘adopted’ as an honorary Australian, (or did he adopt us as honorary New Zealanders)!

Founded in 1985 by the biblical scholar Robert Funk, this year’s Gathering was to have been an evaluation on the road well travelled over those 20 years.  But in early September, just six weeks before the Gathering, Robert Funk died.  So this added to both the feel and the content of the Gathering, as you might expect.

A little about the Westar Institute by way of introduction.

Currently there are several ‘seminars’ in progress. The most well known and to date, the most controversial, is the Jesus Seminar.  But there are also others: Acts Seminar, Canon/Early Church Seminar, Paul Seminar and Leaders Seminar.

In his presentation to this year’s Gathering, Fellow Brandon Scott and member of the Jesus Seminar, said Funk’s dominate goal in establishing Westar Institute and proposing a Jesus Seminar, part of the ‘Renewed Quest for the historical Jesus’, was to make available:
“a desperately needed program of religious literacy. In (Funk’s) judgment, the general public was dangerously religiously illiterate.... For a 150 years scholars had been working away developing an historical understanding of the Bible. But this tradition of scholarship was almost unknown among the general public. To name biblical illiteracy as dangerous was certainly a prophetic move on Funk’s part” (Scott 2005).

Funk himself says of the ‘Renewed Quest’ that is was an attempt to distinguish the aims of Jesus from the aims of the followers by:
(i) focussing on the vision of Jesus as formulated in his words and deeds rather than on the expressions of faith in him formulated by the early communities, and
(ii) look for words and deeds that represent his outlook rather than that of the evangelists (Funk 2001).

When the Jesus Seminar met for the first time, Scott recalls:
“we were not starting with a blank slate. The strength of the Jesus Seminar was that it was a group of scholars, representing a variety of (interests and) methodological perspectives.  In my mind the following groups turned out to be critical:
• Parables: Robert W Funk, John Dominic Crossan, Bernard Brandon Scott
• Apocalyptic: Gene Boring, Adela Collins, John Collins
• Q: James M Robinson, John Kloppenborg, Steven Patterson
• Gospel of Thomas: Harold Attridge, Patterson, Ron Cameron, Karen King, Robinson
• Social World: Burton Mack, Veron Robbins” (Scott 2005).

Each Gathering of the Westar Institute is divided into two. A time for the Associates Forum with various general presentations.  Then a time when the Fellows (male and female) arrive and make their presentations to their peers, and where the Associates ‘overhear’ (and sometimes share in) the discussions.  During the Fellows Gathering, each paper is voted on by all those present - Fellows and Associates.

Five general presentations were made in the Associates Forum, while a further nine made up the agenda for the meeting of Fellows.  Of those nine:
• four papers were from the Leaders Seminar, three on ‘Preaching’ and one on ‘Why biblical scholarship and theology need science’;
• two papers were from the Paul Seminar - on Philippians and ii Corinthians;
• two from the Acts Seminar, and
• one, Brandon Scott’s paper, from the Jesus Seminar.

While my personal interest is with both the Jesus and Leaders seminars, especially with what difference does all this scholarship make to the way we do ‘church’, for this Report/presentation I want to briefly... very briefly, mention just two Fellows papers:
Brandon Scott’s Retrospect and prospect for the Jesus Seminar, and
Joe Tyson’s Implications for a late date for Acts.

Brandon Scott: ‘Retrospect and prospect for the Jesus Seminar’
Brandon (BB) Scott
is the Darbeth Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Phillips Graduate Seminary at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Scott’s paper was the only paper to be presented by a representative of the Jesus Seminar. So it was important to hear his thoughts, because it appears, most of the Jesus Seminar work has now wound down.  Major reports have been published: The five gospels and The deeds of Jesus.  Funk had published his lifelong work, Honest to Jesus. And a Scholars edition/translation of the gospels has been published.

1. What now for the Jesus Seminar.
Scott’s suggestion: The Jesus Seminar needs to develop a History of Early Christianity and Christian Writings, employing the methods and techniques developed in the Jesus Seminar - collaboration, voting, and colour coding.

2. How to shape the project.
Well, it shouldn’t be an introduction to the New Testament.  The Canon constricts the context for understanding the rise of early Christianity (or more correctly, early christianities).  Many introductions to the New Testament today follow the canonical order of the books, which inhibits, almost making impossible, an historical understanding of the New Testament.  Instead, this project should trace out the plurality and diversity of emerging christianities.

So this project should seek to integrate these early christianities back into the culture and issues of the day, and restore as far as possible the voices of early followers of Jesus.

The broad context for this project to be from Alexander to Constantine. These two emperors define the poles in which the early christianities take root.  The narrow focus would be on the emergence of Christianity from Jesus to Irenaeus.  Irenaeus is a necessary step to Constantine.  And finally there should be an emphasis on the division between pre-70 and post-70. 

The destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem marks a real watershed.  It drives a wedge between the followers of Jesus and Judaism and both groups begin a long process towards consolidation.  After the Temple’s destruction, Judaism and Christianity become separate realities with their differing but entangled destinies.  Before the Temple’s destruction it is hard to differentiate Judaism and Christianity and there may be no separate entity that can be designated Christianity.

Scott says:
“When did Christianity become Christianity might well be the first problem we tackle... If we use the term Christianity in an unexamined way, it assumes that the development of Christianity as a separate religion was inevitable and there from the beginning.  But even a cursory reading of Paul indicates that is not the case.  Paul clearly views himself as a Jew and views the gentiles as the wild olive branch grafted onto the true branch Israel... (Scott 2005).

3. How to get started.
As part of this new project Scott argued there was need to revise The Complete Gospels in which:
• Q is presented in a reconstructed form, including its layers;
• a translation of the Pauline Letters from a pre-70 perspective is a must (current translations of Paul make it impossible to understand him because they represent a post-70, Augustinian point of view);
• need to complete Acts.

As the project is developed members need to keep in mind what a reader needs to know to understand the emergence of early Christianity.

“(So) we might begin by drawing up a list for discussion and voting on “The Five Myths about the Development of Christianity” or to put it more positively, “Five Things You Need to Know to Understand How Early Christianity Developed” (Scott 2005).

4. Tentative outline of project.
From Alexander to Constantine
Second Temple Judaism to the Mishnah
The destruction of the Temple
When does christianity become Christianity?
Paths through early christianity
Before the destruction of the Temple
The Q-gospel and Paul
After the destruction of the Temple
Mark: The Apocalyptic Tradition
Matthew and John: Relation to Judaism
The Pastorals, Acts of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation: Relation to the Roman Empire
The traditions of early christianities
The various Pauls of early christianities
Thomas Christianity
Johannine Christianity
Important Topics
How the Gospels came to be
From Sayings Gospels to Narrative Gospels
Gender roles in early christianity
Female apostles?
Church leadership
Rise of the Apostolic Tradition
How did the Twelve become the Twelve Apostles.

Brandon Scott has accepted an invitation from CPRT to visit Australia in 2007.  So too has Fellow Joe Bessler-Northcutt.

Joe Tyson: ‘Implications for a late date for Acts’
Joseph B Tyson is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

1. Tyson’s thesis.
Tyson’s paper contains a radical thesis:
(i) Acts should be dated in the second century - more specifically in about 120 CE (rather than the late 80s or early to mid 90s), and
(ii) Acts is an anti-Marcionite text. In particular, the characterisation of Paul, a difficult problem for critical scholarship, can now be understood as motivated by the need to provide a portrait of him that answers the challenges of Marcion.

A sample of the major points that have a bearing on the date of Acts are:
• external references to Acts are relatively late;
• failure to include a specific mention of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE does not mean that Acts was written before these events took place;
• failure to mention the outcome of Paul’s trials and his ultimate fate does not require us to believe it was written before these events took place;
• the use of the writings of Josephus by the author of Acts shows that Acts could not have been written before 94/95 CE. the date at which Josephus completed his Antiquities, and
• recent scholarship has shown that the author of Acts was acquainted with and made use of several of Paul’s letters.  Since it is generally agreed the letters were collected at about the end of the first century, the date of the Acts of the Apostles cannot be placed before c.100 CE.

Tyson says:
“These considerations tend to locate the composition of Acts after 100 CE but before 150 CE, the time of Justin Martyr, who probably was the first to make reference to it.  Within this time frame, it is the challenge of Marcion and Marcionite Christianity that... provides the most meaningful context for the composition of Acts” (Tyson 2005).

2. The Marcionite heresy.
Briefly, Marcion, a wealthy ship owner, went to Rome in the early 2nd century where he clashed with the leaders of Roman christianity.  Marcion objected to the inclusion of the Hebrew scriptures within Christianity, arguing they reveal only a god of anger, jealousy and war, while the god of Christianity was forgiving, generous and kind.

Marcion’s ‘reforms’ or ‘heresy’ consisted of:
• the collection of a group of Christian writings to be used instead of the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures (consisting of a revised form of Luke’s gospel and 10 of Paul’s letters);
• a claim that Paul was the only true apostle, while Peter and the Jerusalem leaders were ‘false apostles’, and
• a denial that Jesus was the Christ of Jewish expectation.

That is, Marcion’s ‘heresy’ was to attempt to create a new Christian canon, which prompted the christianities of the day “to take up the question of canon in a conscious way for the first time”although “no single canon, in fact, has ever been accepted as final by the whole church” (Hoover 1992)

Tyson argues in his paper:
“In my judgment, Luke wrote Acts as, in part, a response to the challenge of Marcion and Marcionite Christianity.  If this is the case, Luke’s major problem was not with Paul but with Peter and the Jerusalem leaders.  He needed to show that Marcion was wrong in his estimation of these men and that they were real apostles, appointed by Jesus himself, fully prepared and fully credentialed.  Luke’s task was not to argue for Paul as apostle, but to show that he was not the only apostle.  To fulfill this task he ‘rehabilitated’ the twelve as the authorized bearers of tradition, and he showed that Paul was in every respect in line with them and at some points sub-servient to them...”  (Tyson 2005).

Now let me make it very clear: I am not a student of Paul’s writings.  Neither do I pretend to have understood Tyson’s paper completely.  However, what I can understand, I am excited about, because I reckon it helps us take another step along the way of understanding the many different Pauls we find in the New Testament - the ‘Paul’ Paul, the ‘Acts’ Paul, the ‘anti-Paul’ Paul, and so on.  And anything that does that should be supported.

Any full-blown report or colour-coded Paul Epistles from the Westar Institute/Paul Seminar is still some time away, although the Seminar expects to debut some new Scholars Version translations of selected Pauline letters at the March 2006 Gathering in Miami.  But when the final work with all its associated papers is made public, I reckon it will be as controversial as the reports from the Jesus Seminar.

May I also make a suggestion.  If you are interested in or inspired by the work of the Westar Institute and all its seminars, then you could do no better than become an Associate - I think it will cost you US$45.00 a year to join, and receive the journal The Fourth 4.  Articles are always interesting, and often include the scripts from major presentations as well as touching on issues of concern and debate - such as a forthcoming article (in 2006) by Patricia Williams on ‘intelligent design’, for example.

Living the Questions
Living the Questions is a new study resource which, among other things, is a progressive answer to both Alpha and 40 Days of purpose.  Some of you know about it and have already participated in some of its study sessions.  I also have a couple of demo discs which can be borrowed.

Shaping the project are two United Methodist Church ministers from Phoenix, AZ: David Felton and Jeff Procter-Murphy.  I had the privilege of spending four days with Jeff Procter-Murphy where we talked over future plans for LtQ including getting at least one Australian voice and face in a future collection; compared notes on life as a ‘progressive’ minister; and whether or not we could arrange a short-term ‘exchange of pulpits’ in 2008.

Jeff has been a pastor at Asbury since 1993.  The congregation is a Reconciling (inclusive) congregation which means it stands in opposition to the official United Methodist position on issues relating to homosexual people in the church.

A theological discussion group called ‘Voices that Challenge’ is an ongoing lecture series of distinguished theologians, activists and biblical scholars, similar to CPRT.  And it is from this resource that the Living the Questions program grew.

In addition to the initial LtQ 12 study program where they introduce various topics and progressive theologians such as Marcus Borg, Jack Spong, John Cobb jr, Dom Crossan and Nancy Ammerman, LtQ have just released a 2-pack DVD series by Dom Crossan on Paul.  The two DVDs are called:

• Victory and peace or Justice and peace?
Four hours of DVD content which explores the juxtaposition of Roman imperial theology and the kingdom of God;

• Paul: An appealing or appalling apostle?
50-minute DVD address (i) understanding Paul, (ii) the three different Pauls, (iii) Paul’s character and theology, and (iv) gender balance and imbalance in the New Testament.

And other scholars we can expect to meet in a LtQ production in the very near future, are Hans Kung and Walter Brueggemann.

While there has been some criticism of the standard of production of the DVD clips - and I indicated they needed to continually watch that - I also attempted to reassure them that the communication philosophy of sharing ‘real discussion’ rather than the polished and glitzy presentations of the fundamentalists (Protestant and Catholic) and tele-evangelists, was a more authentic and acceptable style.  I have been asked to write a short paper on that for them.

Grassroots progressive Christianity
Hal Taussig is a Fellow of Westar Institute, Visiting Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary, New York, and co-pastor at Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, Philadelphia, PN.

I have been impressed with Hal Taussig’s work ever since I read his book Jesus before God. The prayer life of the historical Jesus.  He was also a great influence on me when I prepared my Many meals presentation here at CPRT last year.  So I was keen to spend some quality time with him.  And I did.  And I also worshipped with the Chestnut Hill United Methodist congregation that weekend.

I also learned he had been accused of heresy a few years back for work he and his spouse/partner Susan Cole had done on ‘Sophia’.

Chestnut Hill congregation was very small, aged and dying when Hal Taussig arrived there 15 years ago.  With positive leadership and a progressive theology it is now a thriving, ‘young’, ethnically mixed, inclusive (officially a Reconciling) congregation, pushing boundaries.  Fifteen years ago they also established The Center for the Celebration of Creation, whose current director, Joy Bergey, is a dynamic woman with a passion for connecting earth and spirit.

An interfaith coalition, the Center
“serves to educate congregations about environmental issues, involve them in the political process, and provide guidance on concrete steps for restoring God’s creation” (CCC web site).

Over the years they have also produced Canticle for Creation - a bulletin insert for congregations to use during worship.  I did not know about the Center before I arrived at Chestnut Hill, so this was a bonus.

It was Taussig’s study of ‘grassroots progressive christianity’ that interested me.  In that soon to be published yearlong study, Taussig says the research team found
“some astonishingly new developments with promise for a very different future... This research project has dared go below the surface of reactionary Christianity struggling to hold onto the past or fading denominations unsure of what they represent. Underneath this veneer... is a nationwide impulse well underway that is already practicing a new kind of Christianity” (Taussig Forthcoming).

While he suggests these new voices do not make up the majority of Christians - although there are literally thousands of these new ‘progressive’ communities -
“they are refreshingly confident about a new lease on Christian expression that is strikingly different than both the fundamentalism or the flailing denominations often featured in the... press” (Taussig Forthcoming).

Taussig goes on the describe what characteristics would be found in a congregation describing itself as ‘progressive’:
• open minded and open-hearted;
• know they are no better that Jews/Muslims;
• interested in spirituality and justice
• affirms intellectual analysis and emotional expression;
• strong advocacy of women, gays and lesbians, environment, and resistance to dominant materialist paradigm;
• creative and arts-infused participatory worship, including non-Christian rituals;
• more frequent celebration of Holy Communion.

These ‘progressive’ communities exist within all denominations.  They are not the result of the action of religious bureaucracies, nor a product of some popular/charismatic national preacher. Rather
“In their similarity they come from an unorganised but broad-ranging kind of Christian response to felt needs for vital spirituality, intellectual integrity, new ways of expressing gender, an alternative to Christian sense of superiority, and a desire to act more justly in relationship to the marginalized”  (Taussig Forthcoming).

Taussig’s study introduces 1000 such ‘progressive’ faith communities/congregations, but in discussion he said it could number 10,000.  It is an important piece of research. 

Which pressed some buttons for me:  could I get a couple of Australian retired ministers to get a team of folk together to do a similar survey here in Australia?  Such a survey would be very helpful right now in Australia.  And is much needed.  I admit to having one or two people in mind who might drive such a project.  I hope to keep you all informed on future developments!

Networking with other progressives
Boston, MA
• The Centre for Progressive Christianity, USA

Revd Dr James Adams

Jim Adams is a retired Episcopal priest and the founder (and retiring director) of The Centre for Progressive Christianity.  We had lunch together in Cambridge next door to the campus of Harvard University, and talked about our common vision and at times different praxis.

During our conversation Jim questioned me on the use of ‘progressive’.  I told him I had been using the term since the late 1960s when, with three other then Presbyterian ministers, we commenced an informal journal called Catalyst: A journal of progressive religious thought.  He was amazed!  The journal remained in publication until the end of 1974 when we left Ballarat.

Since returning from Study Leave I have had an eMail conversation with Jim’s successor - Fred Plumer - a conversation which was facilitated by Westar Institute Fellow, Paul Alan Laughlin.  I look forward to those continuing, especially now that Fred is likely to be in Adelaide in March/April 2007.

Toronto, Canada
• The Centre for Progressive Christianity, Canada

Revd Gretta Vosper
Gretta Vosper is a United Church of Canada minister in Toronto and founder of The Centre for Progressive Christianity, Canada.  Shortly after launching TCPC in Canada complaints were made against her by conservative/evangelical members of the church, but her Presbytery dismissed them.

A dynamic, intelligent young woman, Gretta is keen to establish links with both CPRT in Australia as well as exchange views and resources.  Indeed we have already commenced that exchange - me forwarding to her material on Christmas, and she forwarding material on Easter.

The Centre for Progressive Christianity, Canada is part of a growing network in various countries, which now includes USA, New Zealand, Canada, Gt. Britain and a group in Adelaide, SA.  CPRT is not a member of that network, but we are seeking to be in relationship with them, and other similar groups, through The Alliance for Progressive Religion.

Manchester, UK
• Luther King College of Theology and Ministry

Revd Dr Andrew Pratt
Andrew Pratt is an ordained British Methodist minister, Lecturer in Contextual Theology at Luther King College, Manchester, and a hymn-writer of some note.  We initially met via eMails when he discovered my web site and noted I had used one of his hymns in a liturgy.  Since then we have kept in touch, with me receiving several more contemporary hymns which we have sung at St James.

He has been described as one of the church’s foremost contemporary hymn-writers. “In his work... he encapsulates the core of life with the essence of what we should be about in our lives - whether within or without the church... (He) brings us into the 21st century, which is where we need to be for the starting-point of our living and worshipping... (His) hymns will speak to many people across the age-ranges who have forsaken the church because they consider it has no relevance to their lives” (Duncan 2002).

Andrew Pratt’s most recent published collection is called Whatever name or creed.  But he is always writing.  Listen to some verses of some new hymns not yet published but given to me as I left Manchester:

"The sound of history humming"
The sound of history humming,
the origins of time,
as galaxies are clustered,
as light and matter rhyme:
philosophers imagine
while science gathers facts,
we reach for understanding,
yet what we know contracts.

We delve beyond the present
through interstellar gas;
we fathom, seek to measure,
a sub-atomic mass.
The God that we conceive of,
a thief within the night:
we cannot gauge this treasure,
beyond the scale of light.

"God given energy, flaring and fiery"
God given energy, flaring and fiery,
stella collisions of fury and pace;
shafts of the light from the cosmic conception
searing to earth from infinity's space.

Stars from eternity, driven by forces
formed at the birthing of matter and time;
mystical sinews restraining the planets,
elegant science and God's hidden rhyme.

Let me stay with this hymn stuff a bit longer because hymns and hymn singing can be contentious.  Because we end up believing what we sing.

Hymns are religious artefacts created to allow us to speak of our experience of the sacred.  A hymn is not written to be sung once but rather a hundred times (Bell 2000).  To become part of the familiar, often-used tradition of a living religion.  But that is also reason why it is very important to sing new hymns and appropriate ones at that, because those same hymns weren't written to be sung for a hundred years!  A living religious faith is dynamic rather than static - a concept expressed very aptly in the title of the Unitarian Universalist Association hymn book: Singing the living tradition

Our perceptions and experience of the sacred, change.  And so too should what we say and sing.  But I admit, it is with what is sung rather than what is taught, that is likely to determine whether progressive religious thought will be allowed to move beyond the margins of regular church life.

Near the end of our conversation I mentioned to Andrew Pratt the difference living in the southern hemisphere has on some of the major lectionary events, such as Easter and Christmas.  He was surprised and interested.  And after sharing with him a southern hemisphere poem or two, it wasn’t long before he had his pencil out and writing down some thoughts and images... which I hope might shape a progressive ‘down under’ Easter hymn we could sing in 2006, with honesty.

Surprises along the way

1. Rabbi Arthur Waskow
While dining with Hal Taussig and Susan Cole our conversation moved to liturgy and preaching.  On one occasion I mentioned I often visited the web site of an American Rabbi, Arthur Waskow, only to learn he lived in Philadelphia - just down the road - and was well know to both Susan and Hal.

Phone numbers were exchanged and I met with him the next day.

Arthur Waskow is the founder and director of The Shalom Centre in Philadelphia.  The Centre seeks to bring Jewish and other spiritual thought and practice to bear on such issues as peace, pursuing justice, healing the earth, and celebrating community. 

In 1996 Waskow was named by the United Nations a Wisdom Keeper among 40 religious and intellectual leaders who met in connection with the Habitat II conference in Istanbul.  And in 2001, he was presented with the Abraham Joshua Heschel Award by the Jewish Peace Fellowship.  A big man with a full flowing white beard, we had coffee and talked about politics, spirituality and international affairs.

On my arrival back in Canberra I logged on to his web site again only to read:
“During the last two days (after our coffee together), I have been on trial with Cindy Sheehan (whose son was killed in Iraq) and 39 others, the first batch tried on charges of ‘demonstrating without a permit’ at the White House in September... (before our coffee together).

Waskow went on to explain:
“We were petitioning the President to meet with us to explain ‘what noble purpose’ had led the Cheney-Bush Administration to bring about the death of Casey Sheehan and (then) almost 1900 other Americans...

“The White House refused even to accept our petitions and refused to meet with us.  We left them on the ground at the White House.  Many of us stayed in the White House area to become ‘living petitions,’ since the paper ones had been ignored both in process and of course in substance” (Waskow 2005).

At no time did the Park Police - “which often allows just such events without a permit (especially when those present are applauding the President’s policies)” - issue any command for the group to leave nor did they give any indication they had decided “that this time, the place had become a Forbidden Zone, like the ill-famed one in Beijing” (Waskow 2005).

The group was found guilty, sentenced to a $50 fine and $25 charges. “We will probably appeal” (Waskow 2005) Waskow said.

At the same time this was being processed other events were happening.

• President George Bush’s first nomination as Judge to the Supreme Court, friend and personal lawyer Harriet Miers - a conservative politically and religiously... “she goes to church and believes the Bible” - was under close scrutiny.  She later pulled out of the selection process due to pressure from the Religious Right because she was seen as not conservative enough. 

So up comes second nomination, Judge Alito, equally conservative politically and religiously.  He too was striking fear into the hearts of some, especially women, as he had indicated in the past he would, at the first opportunity, seek to reverse the test case on abortion (Roe v Wade) and the right of women to choose.  As he has tried to overturn pro-worker, pro-environment, and pro-minority legislation.

• In the meantime, Robert Greenwald, producer of the film “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on journalism”, was releasing his latest US$1.8 million film: “Wal-Mart: The high cost of low price” in around 3,000 churches.  The film highlights Wal-Mart’s employment record, almost non-existent health benefits for workers, and poor environmental record.

And then around the same time as all this a third important event happened... the death of Rosa Parks.

2. Rosa Parks
Rosa Parks, an African-American seamstress from Montgomery ALB. 50 years ago, on Thursday 1 December 1955 (some sources say 5 December), refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus.    When the driver told her “I’m going to have you arrested,” she replied, “You may do that.”  She was arrested and sent to trial.

Her courageous act triggered a 381-day black boycott of the bus system and ignited the modern civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.  I viewed TV coverage and noted some of the newspaper comments:

“The memory of her defiance and dignity in the face of discrimination will live on as an inspiration for all who battle injustice...
“Around the world, her story has inspired others fighting oppression.  When a single Chinese student faced off with a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989, Nelson Mandela called is ‘a Rosa Parks moment’...

“Her indelible mark on history comes from the kind of courage that enables a person to dedicate a lifetime of days to working - against the odds with little pay or glory - for what she knows is right..."

Rosa Parks lay in State in the Rotunda in Washington - the first woman and the second African-American to be awarded that honour.  And her seven-hour funeral service was broadcast live on television all over America.

3. Charles Darwin’s ‘Down House’
When my London host Revd Roger Wiig suggested I might like to visit Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, I jumped at the chance.

An impressive, stately 18th century home, with some 19th century additions, Darwin’s ‘old Study’ was the most powerful room in the house for me.  For it was in the ‘old Study’ that he wrote most of his books.

Charles Darwin, well know for his most famous major work On the origin of species, lived at Down House, in comparative seclusion with his wife Emma and family, for 40 years.

Coming from a wealthy family, Darwin appears not to have been a good student.  Out of frustration - ‘you care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching...’ - his father, Robert, sent him to Edinburgh to study medicine.  But Charles soon lost interest “partly because of the barbarity of nineteenth-century surgery long before the days of anaesthetics” and partly because his “main interest was still natural history” (Wilson 1998).  So after 18 months, Darwin left Edinburgh and went to Christ’s College, Cambridge where “his father determined that he should... study to become a clergyman” (Wilson 1998).  He graduated in 1831 - in geology!

Skipping over nearly 30 years, including his journeying on board HMS Beagle, the first edition of Darwin’s famous book, On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life was published on 24 November 1859.  It is still acclaimed as one of the great classics of scientific literature.

Before the book was released the publisher, John Murray, had received 1500 orders and immediately requested Darwin to prepared a second edition.
“The most notable amendment to the first edition was in the final passage, where Darwin felt obliged to insert the reference to ‘the Creator’, to lessen the offence to his Christian readers” (Wilson 1998:42).

Subsequent editions followed until 1872 when the sixth and final edition was published.

Darwin’s book quickly became the topic on conversation in scientific and church circles.  Following one particular presentation of his thesis at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which became known as ‘The great Oxford debate’, the Bishop of Oxford, nicknamed ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, was invited to make a response.
“Addressing a crowded meeting, the bishop paused during his monologue, turned to (Thomas H) Huxley and asked whether it was on his grandfather’s or his grandmother’ side that he was descended from an ape.  Huxley was ready with a reply... that he would prefer a miserable ape to a man who employs his great faculties and influence for the purpose of ridicule” (Wilson 1998:44).

As an aside, it is interesting to note that Darwin never used the word ‘evolution’ in the Origins - that term was first used in another of his books, in The Descent of man, first published in 1871.

While the impact of Darwin’s thesis was felt in most parts of the world, there are still a substantial number of ‘Creationists’ who reject Darwin’s theories.  Indeed, just after I left London, the outgoing president of the Royal Society, Sydney born Lord May (an Oxford professor of zoology) in his valedictory speech to the Society, said an upsurge in fundamentalism was
“seriously threatening the role of science in shaping the modern world... All ideas should be open to questioning, and the merit of ideas should be assessed on the strength of evidence that supports them and not on the credentials or affiliations of the individuals proposing them.  It is not a recipe for a comfortable life, but it is demonstrably a powerful engine for understanding how the world actually works and for applying this understanding” (May 2005).

Charles Darwin died in April 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Some concluding reflections
There is a growing number of progressive scholars and congregations in various parts of the world.  But as far as congregations are concerned, it is a grassroots movement which can tend to leave its members and ministers feeling they are the only ones on such a journey.  Hal Taussig’s forthcoming book could be helpful in putting an end to that feeling.  As has my Study Leave done so for me.

What caught me unawares though, was that those whom I reckoned were leading this movement were gracious enough to include me in that role as well!  I am now a member of the Westar Leaders Seminar.  That is a very generous gift.

The mission of the Westar Leaders Seminar is to explore ministry, religious rituals and religious education in the light of the scholarship of what we now know about the historical Jesus and the whole of Christian tradition.

I was surprised at the number of people who were genuinely interested in what I was doing - both at the Centre and with liturgy - and wanted to hear more and to keep in contact.  And surprised also that several of my overseas colleagues already knew of, and visited regularly, my personal web site of liturgies, sermons and articles.

Over the years I have learned that the primary role of a minister is to help keep people faithful.  But it is often lonely and always dangerous as there are some who want to cling to the past - theology, hymns, doing church - and who will use whatever tactic they can to preserve their position of power or influence.  That at least has been my experience in every parish or congregation I have ministered in, in greater to lesser degrees.

So what continues to ignite the fire in my belly?  It is the scholarly work being carried out by the Westar Institute - scholars and associates - in its various ‘seminars’.  And guided by that scholarship, moving beyond just restating classical religious belief in modern-day language, to actually rethinking religious belief (Veitch 1990) and practise - worship, preaching, prayer, and community - in the language and thought forms of the 21st century.

In short, it is offering the invitation to ‘think theologically’ different now than in the past.  That is being faithful to the teachings of the sage we call Jesus.  That is being faithful to the journey first chartered by him.

Asbury United Methodist Church web site.
Bell, J.  2000.  The singing thing. A case for congregational song. Gt. Britain: Glasgow. Wild Goose Publications.
Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church, The Center for the Celebration of Creation web site.
Duncan, G. 2002.  “Introduction” in A. Pratt. Whatever name or creed. Hymns and songs. Gt. Britain: London. Stainer & Bell.
Funk, R. W. 2001.  “Milestone in the quest for the historical Jesus” in The Fourth 4, 4. (Photocopy).
Hoover, R. W.  1992. “How the canon was formed” in Fourth 4, 5. (Photocopy).
May, Lord.  2005. “Fundamentalists ‘threaten scientific progress”. A speech to the Royal Society, London, November 2005. (From The Guardian, Ian Sample, science correspondent, 30 November). Photocopy.
Scott, B. B.  2005. “Retrospect and prospect for the Jesus Seminar”.   A paper presented to the Westar Institute Fall  2005 Seminar. In private circulation.
Taussig, H.  2005. Grassroots progressive christianity: What it is and where to find it. (Forthcoming). CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Tyson, J. B. 2005. “Implications of a late date for Acts”. A paper presented to the Westar Institute Fall 2005 Seminar. In private circulation.
Veitch, J. (ed)  1990.  Faith in an age of turmoil. Papers in honour of Lloyd Geering. Oriental University Press.
Waskow, A.  2005. “Sheehan, Waskow, others convicted in unusual trial for White House protest”. The Shalom Centre web site.
Wilson, Louise.  (ed) 1998. Charles Darwin at Down House. Gt. Britain. English Heritage.