Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
"Could I with ink the oceans fill
and were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill
and every man a scribe by trade;
To write my love of you my God
would drain the oceans dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
though stretched from sky to sky."
(From the book "When Iron Gates Yield", found on a cell wall in a Communist China gaol).
I don't remember much poetry but the above is something I have remembered since I first read it many years ago. The reason for keeping it in my mind is, I suppose, because it puts into words, in a simple way how I feel about God. Oh that I had such talent as that writer! If I had, then this book would be a masterpiece. I haven't and it isn't.
Jesus told his followers that there were two great commandments more important than any others. The first was to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and the second was to love your neighbour as you love yourself. Many of my friends and acquaintances strive in some way to adhere to the latter by saying they are socialists and therefore believe in bettering the lot of humankind. Whether they love their political opponents or even members of their own party is always a matter of conjecture. However, not many of them would ever consider adhering to the first great commandment.
In my case I would find it difficult to do one without doing the other. In a secular country to talk of a love of God often brings ridicule and suspicion of one’s mental stability from those who have no idea what such feelings are about. The initiative to put pen to paper and to begin to write about this love was prompted in 1992 when the secularization of the UK finally got to me, when it became obvious that not many people knew what the hell I was talking about and when 'A Brief History of Time' had topped the best sellers list for ages. All of a sudden it seemed to me that God had become irrelevant and unknown to a heck of a lot of people.
So there was I with a portmanteau full of love for God, which I really should be distributing. Now, since street evangelism is not my scene and a Donald Soper I will never be, I had to find a means of communicating to those who wanted to listen - if anybody. Therefore, I began to write this text, not that I was competing with 'A Brief History of Time', simply trying to say to this secular world "There is another side to the argument - at least read this before writing off God completely." I suppose I was saying it subconsciously to friends and colleagues in the Labour movement, since the histories of the Trade Unions, and the Labour Party are littered with pioneers with Christian convictions and I didn't want them to forget their contributions or the driving force behind their actions.
In "A Brief History of Time", the author Stephen Hawking talked about knowing "the mind of God", when physicists like himself can find a unifying theory to explain the universe. In the middle of 1992, when his book was selling well and the news headlines were full of "big bang" creation discoveries, it seemed to me that many people were left wondering what to believe in, if anything at all. In the meantime another best-selling writer, the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, Reader in Zoology at New College, Oxford, said that there is no God to believe in and there are not many biologists who find evidence of God's hand in nature. Then in the middle of 1994 the media was full of the dismissal of the Rev. Anthony Freeman for his publishing a book about the nonexistence of God. He was merely elucidating the "Sea of Faith" doctrine as pronounced by Don Cupitt of Emmanuel College, Cambridge and he received a lot of support in the letters columns of the press, especially from fellow Anglican clergymen.
In an age of tremendous scientific research and discoveries, the arguments would all seem to be pointing in one direction away from God and any reason to have faith in Him. I want to point in the other direction, doing it, not as some doubter of the new discoveries, not as a fundamentalist or a creationist but as someone who was trained as an engineer to think problems through to logical solutions and as someone with a Master's Degree, who was taught never to accept statements at face value but to get to the truth.
However, I hope this book is about more than just adding my voice to those, especially scientists, who admit that the Christian religion and science can and do coexist (as John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, said to Richard Dawkins in a debate in 1993, science "explores the relationship between phenomena", whilst religion "is about the reality which underlines all phenomenon".) There is no need in the modern world for the two to be in conflict. That could be done in a few paragraphs, so it seemed opportune to add a bit more (well, give a politician an inch and he's bound to go on at length, no matter what the topic).
I want to show what motivates me in my life and my political work. The first three chapters try to show why I believe in God. The ones that follow show the importance of that belief, what it can achieve and how God works through ordinary people. Chapters nine and ten touch on moral issues that put me at odds with a lot of fundamental Christians, but I want to show other readers that being a Christian does not necessarily mean being part of the right wing forces that dominate the headlines on such sensitive issues. The Christian right, as epitomised by the Deep South Baptist Bible Thumpers, don't have a hotline to God as they may portray. Chapter eleven reiterates the difficulties of being a Christian in a secular society and in the final chapter I try to show more explicitly what a Christian Socialist is.
I realise that the way the chapters are written means there is often a lack of continuity between them. Even so, the common thread that runs through the book is about the two great commandments that Jesus gave. The lack of continuity does, however, make it ideal for just dipping into like the Reader’s Digest that is kept in the waiting rooms or in the lavatory.
Therefore, the object of this book is to set out what my thoughts and feelings are with regard to my beliefs, what shaped them and how I've been influenced by experiences and by people I've met and known. Above all it’s about these people. It should also show how my Christian faith and my politics are inseparable, my politics being steeped in the Labour Party and socialism and I remain convinced today that the Labour Party got more from Methodism than it ever did from Marxism. This isn't meant to be a turn off for those who don't vote Labour - just an honest statement.
In calling this book 'Onward Christian Socialist' I was advised that such a title would immediately halve the potential readership. But since I refer on several occasions to God's army and my motivation it seemed opportune for this recruit to go onward, not only as a Christian soldier but one with political conviction, even if that does limit its distribution. I hope that I have managed to put all of this in simple, and sometimes amusing words and that it can explain why this particular socialist politician believes in God through Jesus.
I'm convinced that not enough Christians actually talk about their faith - including me - as part of everyday conversation. I suppose this is an attempt to make up for my own shortcomings in this area. Hence the reason why I've covered a variety of topics. It could have been done simply as Terry Wynn, citizen of Leigh, Lancashire. I suppose as Terry Wynn, Member of the European Parliament, it's meant to have more clout, even if that also opens up the possibilities of ridicule by the press and colleagues. The status, however, is immaterial. What does matter is that there is a message which I think is worth talking about which others may want to hear. The only problem may be, if a variety of publishers are right, that there are not that many people who do want to hear it. Dawkins and Hawking have a readership, one easily sellable, and of course make more money for the publishers - not so with yours truly.
When I was looking for a publisher, I was repeatedly told that the contents are good, but the market for Christian literature is somewhat limited. "Your writing style is popular, clear and accessible, and there are many issues of interest which you explore", but no one is interested unless you are famous, that was the sum of what was being said. If I were Tony Benn or Edwina Currie, then it would be published, but as “Terry Who?” then there is no chance.
Another piece of advice was that I should determine who the book was for and target it at them. Should that be practising Christians, politicians, intellectuals who have read Hawking & Dawkins, or what? Whilst it may be pointing to God it in no way attempts to be an intellectual thesis to combat the views of Richard Dawkins.
Put simply, it is targeted at everyday people who are left wondering what to believe in, it's for those who wonder what faith can do to individuals and to try to show faith and politics are interlinked. It is aimed at those who may have doubts about their own faith, those who haven't experienced faith, and those who wonder what makes Christians tick, or at least what makes someone like me tick. It's trying to say to those who want to hear, that it's not all bad news when it comes to God, and it's not some high-powered theologian who is saying it. I suppose for any European readers it is also describing that rare phenomenon, a Christian Socialist, which for many in Europe is a contradiction in terms.
Now that may seem to be a blunderbuss approach to a widespread target audience, rather than a sniper's telescope which I'm sure the advice was indicating: even so I live in the hope that one or two targets will still be hit. Because it's not aimed at any one group, I like to think that it's more of a chat with anybody who cares to come along to talk about a variety of subjects connected with faith. Quite a bit of the content is cobbled together from sermons I've given over the years but it’s not meant to be a sermon preached at anyone. It's meant to be a dialogue between the reader and the writer, with the latter at times trying to anticipate the former's questions.
I have assumed those who will read this will come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Not everyone will be accustomed to "religious" language or some of the Biblical stories referred to, or even the Biblical characters. Therefore, I have given background information where I think it's necessary.
Even those who are used to such language may wonder at some of my references to Methodism. That's because I am a Methodist local preacher. I worship generally in Methodist churches and I owe a lot to the Methodists I know and have known. In fact, one colleague said I used far too much mention of Methodism. You can judge for yourself.
In the European Parliament, once a month in Strasbourg, there meets an ecumenical gathering to discuss a biblical text over breakfast. It includes Greek Orthodox members, German Lutherans, Italian Catholics, Evangelical Baptists, etc. Apart from illustrating to me that the common identity of "Europe" is its Christian heritage, this European variety of denominations has helped me to understand them. I hope they have the patience to understand me, and the reasons I often refer to Methodism.
Because I wear a cross in my lapel, I am often asked in Parliament by non-Brits if I am a priest and it's not always easy trying to describe what a local preacher is. Once, while waiting to board a plane in Brussels Airport, the girl who takes the boarding cards noticed my cross. As people were handing her the cards, she would wish them all well such as "Have a nice flight, Mr. Smith,” “Have a good journey, Mr. Brown". When she took my boarding card she said "Have a good journey, Father."
So with an eye on the uninitiated, it's worth trying to define what is meant by some of the terminology before anyone gets into the beef of the book. I know that some of my church friends will say why have I put in the following. The simple fact is that in this secular age not everyone is familiar with the terminology of the Church and I have to hope that not just churchgoers will read this. In doing so they may learn something from it. For instance, the term "Christian", as in "I am a Christian"; this, for many lifetime churchgoers, is a strange term. I, as a child, and older generations just assumed that everyone in the UK was a Christian. In the forces you were RC, C. of E. or N.C. - nobody ever said "I'm a Christian". The term, from my experience, has become more widely used due to the influence of the evangelical movement. Personally, I don't think it a bad thing, in fact, it separates the wheat from the chaff, or the Christian from the non-Christian.
At one time, people simply said "I go to church" which for them was the acceptable way of saying, "I am a Christian". Even today most churchgoers will say the former rather than the latter. The simple truth is that many people do go to church yet don't really know what being a Christian is all about. The difference between the two is demonstrated later. But don't think that everyone who does their duty by attending a religious service every Sunday is an automatic disciple of Jesus. Many will often admit their uncertainty about their faith, express their doubts about God and spend years searching for that faith which they profess. Many can sympathise with the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, regarding the virgin birth and/or the Resurrection.
Simply going to Church on a regular basis doesn't give that stamp of approval for people to be able to say, "I am a Christian". In the same way, not everyone who votes Labour is a socialist; in fact, it’s probably easier defining the word "Christian" than it is the word "socialist", but more of that later.
Next the word "God". Virtually throughout the text God is referred to as masculine. I'm sure I will get into a good discussion with many of my friends about this but it's done for the sake of convenience. God our Father, could just as easily be God our Mother to me. I don't consider God to be male or female. God is God. I also don't consider Him or Her white skinned - after all Jesus wasn't; he was a dark-skinned Semite.
Now wouldn't all those who have deeply prejudiced views about the role and place of women, or about blacks, and at the same time profess a belief in God, have the shock of their lives (or deaths) if on getting to Heaven they discovered She was black.
God works in a mysterious way; He is a mystery and I don't want to be seen to be devaluing Him. It is not the objective of this book to try and define God, because He is a mystery that can never be solved, but I do want to get Him in context to my life. There's a West African creation myth that says in the beginning God was naked God, pure God and people were afraid to go near Him, so God hid Himself in the mantle of creation. He clothed Himself in forests in which they could hunt; in rivers in which they could fish; in soil that they could cultivate and then the myth ends, "People lost their fear of approaching God and God was as happy as a dog with fleas".
There is no fear in approaching and knowing God, whilst He is a God that human beings can have a personal relationship with. It's that personal relationship that I experience every day of my life, as many others do too. I recognise God as the creator of this wonderful, complex universe; of this beautiful planet on which we live and of each marvellous living thing upon it. And it is the Christian faith that has helped me to build up this personal relationship and this great love I have of God.
Which brings me to the person of Jesus.
Coventry Patmore, the Victorian poet once defined God as "a synthesis of infinity and boundary". A what? A synthesis of infinity and boundary! Thankfully Colin Morris helped to explain that when he wrote of the ocean being a good everyday example. Like this, the ocean is an almost limitless expanse of water, but it has a near shore and the water line shares the same nature as the sea's furthermost depths - but it's within reach. If God is a synthesis of mystery, through infinity and boundary, who or what stands upon the boundary?
Who or what shares the mysterious nature of God that was in reach? "Jesus!", said the early Church. They came to believe that in Jesus there was one who shared the mystery of the nature of God, but was within reach.
Now make no mistake about it. The appearance of Jesus on the scene of history does not dispose of the mystery of God. If anything it deepens it. But it's through Jesus and his teaching that I believe in God and try to follow his example, not very well I must admit, but the great thing about God is that He knows none of us is perfect.
Next - use of common, Christian church-based language and ceremony which after all leads to confusion for the uninitiated. An article I once read in a Sunday magazine satirized a church service like a Masonic rite; the ritual with a baby was "like Druids round a campfire warding off evil spirits". Of course, for some, a baptismal service is a beautiful thing. For the writer of the article it was a joke. That depends on how all of us interpret things.
In the European Parliament the interpreters have a hard job doing simultaneous interpretation and having to get the correct meaning and connotation to everything. Sometimes they get it wrong - like in the debate on artificial insemination. Someone in English had spoken on the ethics of keeping frozen semen, and the German interpretation came out as the ethics of "keeping very cold sailors". Or like the Frenchman who told everyone that he came from Normandy where they had a history of tenacity and the ability to get things done, therefore, he would be calling on all his ancestral qualities to help him finish the meeting. Embarrassingly for him the British fell about laughing as they heard, "I will be calling on Norman Wisdom to help me finish this meeting".
So be careful to get the correct interpretation of ecclesiastical parlance and don't imagine it's all mumbo-jumbo. Bear with it when you read in these pages phrases and terms you may not understand. I do my best to explain them. But if the phraseology does seem strange, then at least don't let it detract from the message that is trying to get out. It's a message of Christian experience, not just of Terry Wynn, but of the living saints that I have the privilege to know.
A little girl was once told that the people in the stained-glass windows of her church were saints. When she was asked "What are saints?" she replied, "People who the light shines through." How right she was. God's light shines through millions of unsung heroes, every one of them a saint. I hope the following pages give some insight as to why they are as they are and why someone like me strives to be like them. How they have influenced my faith and shaped my politics. How through them my Christianity and my socialism have become as one. Then the other side of the argument of God's existence will hopefully have been put.
The contents will not please everyone. Some will find it offensive, though I hope the majority will find it not only informative, but helpful.
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