Student essay – The Bible and the politics of assisted dying

Today’s student essay invites us to reflect on the sensitive topic of assisted dying. It was written by Andrew Cardy, a recent graduate of the University of Auckland, as part of his course work for our popular General Education course, The Bible in Popular Culture (THEOREL 101G). Andrew has just completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours, and a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English and History. He is currently researching Pedagogical Games at the University of Auckland, and looks to complete his Masters qualification in the near future. As well as being a very hardworking student, Andrew is also a youth worker, a vestry member, and a synod representative of St. Andrew’s Epsom, here in Auckland.

Andrew’s essay considers the political debates around assisted dying, particularly the use of the Bible as a ‘cultural prop’ within these debates. I hope you enjoy.

assisted-dying

The Bible and Assisted Dying Bills

by Andrew Cardy

The Bible has been a popular point of reference in political discourse since its inception over 2,000 years ago. Within popular culture’s dialogue today the Bible serves as an authoritative, and at times instructive, tool that is widely appropriated by both the secular and religious alike. The current political rhetoric regarding euthanasia (henceforth referred to as ‘assisted death’) is indicative of this. Utilising this case study as a springboard, this essay will discuss the Bible’s use as a ‘cultural prop’ in contemporary politics today. After unpacking this term, focus will turn to the two key points of contention in the assisted dying debate, concluding with a brief summary of New Zealand’s current political rhetoric on the issue. The interest of this investigation is not in valuing one side of the debate over the other, but rather in assessing their various uses of the Bible in the creation of their claims.

Nations with a strong bond between Church and State often offer political discourse riddled with both implicit and explicit references to the Bible. The perception of the politician responsible is the primary concern, rather than the literal meaning of the text. The Bible is cited in order to prop up the individual’s public persona (Crossley 2014, 42). In this way the Bible is used as a ‘Cultural Prop’, defined by Yale Professor Joel Baden as a means of affirming certain personal religious values within a political context (2014). The Bible’s iconic form as a means of moral and ethical instruction informs such a use, as prospective voters or viewers are more likely to be persuaded by its insertion into political rhetoric. The recent political debates around assisted death have led to examples of this type of use as evidenced in the USA and UK especially, where explicit reference to the Bible was present in a majority of submissions made on legislature (Rae 2016, 264). However, engagement with the text is often irresponsible, as Reverend Jonathan Clatworthy noted on the Carter v. Canada case, “consistency lay in political affiliation rather than theological argument: theologians could adapt biblical text… to reach the desired conclusions” (2015, 137).

Certainly the most pronounced, and perhaps the most fundamental, point of contention is around the ‘sanctity of life’ idea, the belief that all life is sacred. For those opposing the introduction of assisted death the most unshakeable assertion of all comes from commandment, “Thou shall not murder” (Exod. 20.13). The political precedent for this was most strongly advocated by Pope John Paul II in 1980 when he said, “no one can make an attempt on the life of a person without opposing God’s love, [constituting a] violation of the divine law [and] an attack on humanity.” A cultural and religious figure of extraordinary influence, the Pope’s message has the power to shift public opinion, as was the case in 1980. Since this momentous statement, the impetus has shifted onto the right to take away life as being reserved only for God, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away” (Job 1.21). Excerpts like that of Job 1:21 are present in the submission made by the Catholic Bishops of Alberta who wrote, “killing is not a medicine” (Smith et al 2016). These interpretations by the Pope and Bishops are derived from what Hauer and Young coined as the ‘historical world’, the world behind the text, which accounts for circumstances that existed at the time of the Bible’s inception.

Those who are in favour of the newly proposed legisature legalising assisted death have disputed this use of the Bible as being out of touch, as Professor Ron Hamel wrote, “euthanasia is not new… what seems new is the cultural context in which the question arises” (Hamel 1991, 15). Those such as Reverend Clatworthy contend that these passages were meant for an audience familiar with gladiators and high mortality rates, rather than the context of overpopulation that persists today (2015, 136). The assertion of this view is that modern science and medicine has allowed human life to be extended beyond the expectancy of the Bible’s “seventy years, or perhaps eighty” (Ps. 90.10). Lord George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, notably spoke in favour of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill in the UK. Carey reasons that “statements that… life is ‘sacred’ and ‘thou shalt not kill’… are too broad to be relevant,” instead he describes these principles as “the backcloth to the debate” (Carey 2015, 114). Lord Carey and his colleagues are herein applying the rhetoric of the Bible through the lens of the “contemporary world,” the world in front of the text itself. Interpretations of this kind place greater emphasis on the context of culture today, as the ability to extend life differentiates from God “forming man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2.7). In their use of scripture, those such as Lord Carey employ a dynamic equivalence translation, rather than the formal equivalence used by Pope John Paul II. In this way they use the thoughts of the passages rather than the actual words themselves in creating their argument to better suit a contemporary world context.

Alongside the debate around ‘sacredness of life’, another main point of contention is the question around the biblical themes of compassion and protection for the vulnerable. Those who have opposed the recent assisted dying bills rely on inferences from the Bible, such as that of the commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mk 12.31). Compassion in this instance is interpreted as referring to the continuing caring for one another as a primary concern. The recently proposed ‘End of Life Choice Bill’ in New Zealand prompted such a response from the Catholic Bishop caucus: “Legalising euthanasia would place the lives of the vulnerable at risk… the mark of a good society is its ability and willingness to care for those who are most vulnerable” (2013). Compassion here is given from a care perspective, like that of the Hippocratic Oath, which advocates the continued assistance to people even if they are in dire circumstances. This use of the Bible is termed by Robert Myles as the “Cultural Bible” which “refers to the use of the Bible beyond its typical confines of institutional religion” (2016, 138; c.f. Crossley 2014). The assertions made seek to underpin debate in a shared identity and shared responsibility, creating what Professor Paul Badham referred to as a “caring community” (Badham 2015, 198).

Lord Falconer and Lord Carey disputed these claims in the recent debates in the UK, instead asserting that it is more compassionate to give someone decency in death. The foundation for this line of debate does not often come directly from scripture, but rather from developments in science and technology. The research used states that not all pain can be stopped, in which cases sedation into a vegetative state is inevitable. Dr. Atul Gawande wrote, “we cannot be endlessly trying to simply preserve life. If is to have a purpose,” as many see sedation to be an unfit methodology (Webb 2014). The leading politicians for these assisted death proposals believe that assisted death is in fact a more compassionate and caring path. Leader of the ACT Party David Seymour said in his initial address to parliament, “there needs to be a more compassionate option in New Zealand”, as similarly Lord Falconer opened his legislate with, “For a person facing this prospect… the choice is cruel.” Here the sense of a “cultural bible” acquires fresh meaning, as the inferences of biblical scripture are appropriated in paraphrased translations. This appropriation of the Bible has some resonance with what Myles referred to as the “Radical Bible” in its advocacy of change and support in relief of the suffering (2016, 132; c.f. Crossley 2014). Though there is very little in terms of direct reference to the text, the Bible’s interpreted themes of care and justice offer the foundation for this scientifically supported understanding.

The contemporary context in New Zealand is ripe with instances of these implicit references to the Bible. As Myles wrote, “political discourse in New Zealand is, for the most part, decidedly secular” for politicians avoid explicit reference in fear of “alienating a large proportion of the population” (2016, 138). Instead the rhetoric of politicians such as David Seymour focuses on directing debate away from discussion of scripture, and instead into ideals like that of choice. In Seymour’s line of argument the Catholic backgrounds of politicians like Bill English and Simon O’Connor act as roadblocks for the vehicle of change (Moir 2016). In this discourse around the right to choice, Seymour is implicitly referencing the “Liberal Bible,” in his affirmation of individualism and democracy (Myles 2016, 140). Liberal lines of argument spring up in all his public rhetoric, as he positions himself as a “representative in a democracy to support the will of my people” (Grant 2015). This use of the Bible had success in Canada, where by focusing on the polling numbers of the voters instead of “attempting to balance competing values” the bill would irrevocably be put through (Rae 2015, 260). The moral concept of a shared community are put aside in using the Liberal Bible, as individualism is instead at the forefront, giving people the full autonomy of choice in pursuing their own individual beliefs. New Zealand offers a complementary demographic, consisting of myriad cultures held together by capitalist ideals of individuality, presenting Seymour a plausible ground from which to propose his legislation.

On Friday 14th October, David Seymour debated his proposed legislation at St. Luke’s Church, a progressive Presbyterian Church in Remuera, Auckland. In the discussions that follow this over the months to come, one should expect to see various uses of the Bible, both implicit and explicit, in addressing the sanctity of life and compassion for the vulnerable. As witnessed from other contemporary debates overseas, each of these arguments will likely be founded in scripture in one way or another. While the focus and emphasis of the two sides differ, in using the world inside or outside the text, or adhering to traditions of the Cultural, Radical or Liberal Bible, the political incentive will remain consistent – that is to use the Bible like a “cultural prop” in order to “buttress politicians’ existing agendas,” which, as Yvonne Sherword remarks, “has little to do with the text” (2012, 2; c.f. Myles 2016, 140). This use of the Bible will persist in contemporary politics as long as a voting demographic upholds it as a source for moral and ethical guidance. So for the foreseeable future, and the assisted dying debates to come, pay close attention to the rhetoric used, and realise your own religious and cultural background as well as that of the speakers in divining your own belief.

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Getty Images

Bibliography

Baden, Joel. “What use is the Bible?” The Nantucket Project. Nantucket, Massachusetts. March 28, 2014.

Badham, Paul. “Assisted dying: an international overview.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 197 – 208.

Carey, George. “Re-assessing assisted dying: a personal statement.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 105 – 132.
Clatworthy, Jonathan. “The dilemmas we face today: assisted dying, life, death, technology and law.” Modern Believing 2, no. 56, 2015. pp. 134 – 144.

Crossley, James. Harnessing chaos: The Bible in English political discourse since 1968. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Grant, Nick. “Seymour begins his fight for End of Life Choice Bill.” Radio Broadcast. Produced by My NBR Radio. New Zealand, October 14, 2015.

Hamel, Ronald. Choosing Death: active euthanasia, religion, and the public debate. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.

inthehouseNZ. “04.05.2016 – General Debate – Part 4.” Video Recording. Produced by Tandern Studios. Wellington, New Zealand: May 4, 2016.

Moir, Jo. “Euthanasia debate: what’s different about David Seymour’s bill?” Stuff. 28 January, 2016.
http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/euthanasia-debate/76021897/Euthanasia-debate-Whats-different-about-David-Seymours-bill

Myles, Robert. “Winston Peters ‘put his hand to the plow’: The Bible in New Zealand political discourse.” Journal of the Bible and its reception 3, no. 1, 2016, pp. 135-153.

“NZ Catholic Bishops message.” The Nathaniel Centre. 27 September, 2013.http://www.nathaniel.org.nz/euthanasia/23-campaigns/euthanasia/modal-windows/262-summary

Rae, Nicola. “New Zealanders’ Attitudes toward Physician-Assisted Dying.” Journal of Palliative Medicine 18, no. 2, 2015. Pp. 259 – 265

Richard Smith, et al. “Statement of the Catholic Bishops of Albertia on Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.” February 11, 2016.

“Sacred congregation for the doctrine of the faith: Declaration on euthanasia.” The Vatican. May 5th, 1980.http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_19800505_euthanasia_en.html

Seymour, David. “Why I’ve prepared this Bill.” Life Choice. http://www.lifechoice.org.nz/

Sherwood, Yvonne. Biblical Blasphemy: Trial of the sacred for a secular age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012.

Supreme Court of Canada. “Carter vs. Canada” Attorney General. SCC 5, 2015.

Webb, Justin. “Reith lecturer and rock-star doctor Atul Gawande on life, death and how to cure the NHS.” radiotimes.com, 25 November 2014. http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2014-11-25/reith-lecturer-and-rock-star-doctor-atul-gawande-on-life-death-and-how-to-cure-the-nhs.

Advent – something a bit different

As some regular visitors to our blog will know, it’s been our practice over recent years to have an advent calendar of biblical art throughout the month of December. This year, as we are all off travelling in December, a daily post seemed impractical. So instead, we will take the opportunity to share some of our TheoRel student work with you throughout the month, betwixt and between our globe-trotting adventures.

To get us off to a good start, let me offer you this short play, ‘Jonathan and Absalom’, penned by Prior McRae as part of his assignment work for a course I taught this semester on I and II Samuel. Prior has just finished his BA at the University of Auckland, majoring in English and Latin. As well as being a stellar student, he is also a massively talented actor and writer, and hopes to continue dedicating his time to these pursuits in the future. In fact, he directed and starred in ‘Jonathan and Absalom’ at last week’s ‘You) Hear Me?‘ art and theatre event held in Auckland.

The play choreographs an encounter between two vital characters in I and II Samuel – Jonathan and Absalom – who actually never get to meet in the biblical text. What unfolds is a fascinating insight into their emotions and inner worlds, highlighting in particular the complexities of their relationship with David – Absalom’s father and Jonathan’s beloved. So read on, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Jonathan and Absalom

By Prior Tadhg McRae

We open on a dry, rocky plateau high in the mountains of Israel. Jonathan is sitting under an olive tree. After a while Absalom walks in looking confused. He sees Jonathan.

JONATHAN: (Looking up and smiling.) Hello.

ABSALOM: (Warily.) Hi. Who are you?

JONATHAN: No one important. You’re his son aren’t you?

ABSALOM: No. (Pause.) Yes. Maybe. A bit. So? Why?

JONATHAN: (Smiles.) No reason. You just look like him.

ABSALOM: No I don’t.

JONATHAN: Fair enough, I’m sure you know him better than me.

ABSALOM: You know my father?

JONATHAN: Once. We were very close.

ABSALOM: I’ve never seen you before.

JONATHAN: It was a long time ago.

ABSALOM: What are you doing here?

JONATHAN: The same thing as you.

ABSALOM: What do you mean? Where are we? What is this place?

JONATHAN: Do you really not know?

ABSALOM: I –

Absalom looks around.

JONATHAN: It’s OK. You’ll get used to it.

ABSALOM: Have you been here for a long time?

Pause.

JONATHAN: Yes.

ABSALOM: How did you get here?

JONATHAN: The same way as you.

ABSALOM: I don’t remember.

JONATHAN: (Gently.) Don’t worry. It will come back to you.

ABSALOM: (Suddenly suspicious.) How do you know him?

JONATHAN: We were young men together. He knew my father. My father – he cared a lot about David.

ABSALOM: Him and all the other sheep.

JONATHAN: He was different then.

ABSALOM: (Snorts.) Yeah, I’m sure.

JONATHAN: Don’t judge him too harshly. It isn’t easy being a King.

ABSALOM: I don’t think it would be that fucking hard.

JONATHAN: And I’m sure your dad would have loved to have seen you try.

ABSALOM: Like shit. He was too concerned with his own guilt to even notice. Everything I wanted I had to carve out of the world with my own hands.

JONATHAN: And you did it well.

ABSALOM: Not well enough, apparently. I was good, but I could have been brilliant. All it would have taken was his support.

JONATHAN: David was never very good at giving himself to others.

ABSALOM: Not the people he should have anyway.

JONATHAN: That’s not entirely his fault, though. People always wanted more from him than he could provide.

ABSALOM: Even you?

JONATHAN: I – (He stops) I don’t know. I could never figure out exactly how he saw me.

ABSALOM: I don’t think he sees other people at all.

JONATHAN: I don’t think he even sees himself.

ABSALOM: Not such a great attribute for a King.

JONATHAN: There are worse.

ABSALOM: Like what?

JONATHAN: Not being able to make decisions.

ABSALOM: I’m not sure he was so great at that either.

JONATHAN: You never met Saul.

ABSALOM: That was the guy who had it in for him wasn’t it? He couldn’t accept David was going to be a better King.

JONATHAN: Can anyone accept their own replacement? And Saul didn’t hate David. He loved him.

ABSALOM: Surprise surprise. So why did he try to kill him?

JONATHAN: To want to kill someone you’ve got to feel very strongly about them don’t you?

ABSALOM: I don’t know.

JONATHAN: I think you do.

ABSALOM: I never killed anyone out of love.

JONATHAN: Are you sure?

ABSALOM: I loved Tamar. I hated Amnon.

JONATHAN: Still, what if the person you loved and the person you hated were the same? What would you do then?

ABSALOM: That doesn’t even make sense.

JONATHAN: I don’t think sense was ever really Saul’s strong point.

ABSALOM: Did you know him well?

JONATHAN: In a manner of speaking.

ABSALOM: What was up with him?

JONATHAN: God. Being King. Being young, ignorant and innocent. Being weak. Being sensitive. I don’t know. He was a victim of his circumstances. He did some terrible things, but he wasn’t a terrible person.

ABSALOM: I don’t know. Is that possible? Was he really a good person?

JONATHAN: He may not have ended up that way, but there was nothing wrong with him when he started.

ABSALOM: When was that?

JONATHAN: You may not believe this, but he started in much the same way as your father.

ABSALOM: What, an arrogant little prick with a slingshot and a God complex?

JONATHAN: Well maybe not. But he was just a kid, like David, with no delusions of grandeur (Absalom snorts) no delusions of grandeur. Just a farm boy from a village who wasn’t asking anything more from the world than that it wouldn’t ask anything of him.

ABSALOM: That’s never a safe thing to ask.

JONATHAN: No it isn’t. But Saul was never very good at knowing the right thing to ask. He was a man plagued by a need for answers he never received.

ABSALOM: That sounds awful.

JONATHAN: It was. But so was he, in many ways. Although I don’t blame him for it.

ABSALOM: Do you blame anyone? I mean, sorry, but you seem pretty much like you just excuse everyone.

JONATHAN: I never excuse anyone. But I do try to be honest. There are reasons for everything.

ABSALOM: That’s easy to say.

JONATHAN: No it isn’t.

ABSALOM: How can you say people do things for a reason. Saul was a terrible King. He killed people just because they scared him.

JONATHAN: It’s never a good idea to scare a King. People are liable to do anything when they’re scared.

ABSALOM: Not me. I never killed anyone without a reason.

JONATHAN: Yes, well, forgive me but you weren’t around for very long were you?

ABSALOM: That’s not my fault.

JONATHAN: It never is.

ABSALOM: David killed me. I scared him. He scared Saul and now Saul’s dead and he’s King. I scared him and now I’m dead and he’s still King and I’m dead. I’m dead and I’ll never be King. Oh god.

Absalom starts to panic. Jonathan gets up and puts his hands on his shoulders.

JONATHAN: You didn’t scare David. And David didn’t kill you. Joab killed you. Joab was the one who was afraid.

ABSALOM: It doesn’t matter.

JONATHAN: It does.

ABSALOM: David let me die.

JONATHAN: David was proud of you. David wanted you to live. He wanted you to overthrow him.

ABSALOM: So why am I here!

JONATHAN: Because darkness lurks in unseen corners. We can’t always predict where it is or where it will come from or when. There are things we can’t provide for. Sometimes things just happen. It’s not your fault. And it’s not David’s.

ABSALOM: Why are you defending him?

JONATHAN: I’m not. I’m just saying that people aren’t magic. There are only so many mistakes we can stop ourselves making.

ABSALOM: He was a shitty King. And a shitty father.

JONATHAN: He was a good friend.

ABSALOM: I bet he abandoned you too.

JONATHAN: No, he didn’t. He never abandoned me. He just couldn’t help me in the end.

ABSALOM: Why not?

JONATHAN: He just had to be somewhere else.

ABSALOM: Why?

JONATHAN: It doesn’t matter.

ABSALOM: It does.

JONATHAN: Why do you care so much?

ABSALOM: Why do you think?

JONATHAN: What happened to me wasn’t David’s fault.

ABSALOM: I think I’d like to make my own mind up about that.

JONATHAN: I died in a battle. So did a lot of other people.

ABSALOM: And every one of them has a story to tell. Right now I want to know yours.

JONATHAN: Well, there was a war. Essentially. I mean, people don’t call it that but that’s what it was. And it isn’t over. I don’t think it will ever end. But at this point there was a battle. A final battle. The King died. Saul died. He killed himself.

ABSALOM: Why?

JONATHAN: What else could he have done? He had failed. His life was over. His army had lost, his Kingdom had collapsed, and his sons were dead.

ABSALOM: I’m not asking about Saul, I’m asking about you. How did you die.

JONATHAN: I –

Pause.

JONATHAN: It was just a stab wound. I was run through by a sword. I was a soldier. I was fighting, I lost. I died.

ABSALOM: And David was nowhere in sight.

JONATHAN: Yeah, well, he couldn’t be.

ABSALOM: Who are you?

JONATHAN: Jonathan.

ABSALOM: And who’s that? How do you know David so well?

JONATHAN: I grew up with him, I told you.

ABSALOM: That doesn’t make sense. David grew up as a weird harp playing soldier on the inside of Saul’s household.

JONATHAN: Yes, well, that’s where I was.

ABSALOM: What?

JONATHAN: I was inside that household. I was next to Saul. I am the son of a King just as you are.

ABSALOM: You’re Saul’s son?

JONATHAN: Yes.

ABSALOM: And you and David grew up side by side, right next to the King.

JONATHAN: It may have looked as if I was beside him, but everyone knew I was beneath him. All of us were. Even Saul. That whole Kingdom was just waiting in his shadow.

ABSALOM: You sound so dramatic.

JONATHAN: It was dramatic. It was devastating. He destroyed my father. But only because my father was too weak to handle him. That’s the thing about David. He causes people to destroy themselves.

ABSALOM: That’s why Saul killed himself.

JONATHAN: He killed himself because he had come to the end of the road. But he had destroyed himself far before that.

ABSALOM: I’m sick of this. Tell me why we’re here.

JONATHAN: We died.

ABSALOM: So does everyone. I don’t see anyone else behind that fucking olive tree.

JONATHAN: Why are you so certain that I have all the answers?

ABSALOM: Oh, well, I’m sorry, maybe it’s BECAUSE YOU ACT LIKE YOU HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS.

JONATHAN: I have social anxiety. I’m just trying to stay calm.

ABSALOM: Well maybe it’s time you freaked out a little! I freak out all the time.

JONATHAN: And look where it’s got you! On a little mountain top with me for all eternity. Congratulations.

ABSALOM: You’re one to talk! You just sit here moping about David without ever getting to the fucking point.

JONATHAN: And just what would that be, exactly, Mr I’m So Mature Suddenly.

ABSALOM: That you’re in love with David!

JONATHAN: EVERYONE’S IN LOVE WITH DAVID. We COVERED this!

ABSALOM: Not like you.

JONATHAN: All right! So I was in love with David. I fell in love with the man who took the throne, the Kingdom and the love of my father out of my hands. I gave up everything to protect and serve a man who, when it finally counted, wasn’t there. A man who was off by himself, off saving himself, off being David the Annointed One, while I died. I died. I died and he was doing something else.

ABSALOM: He was doing something else while I was hanging from a tree by my hair and his right hand man pushed sticks into my heart.

JONATHAN: Why are we here?

ABSALOM: Did David love you back?

JONATHAN: I’ve thought about it for a very long time, and I still don’t know –

ABSALOM: – what love is?

JONATHAN: I know what love is. I’m not sure he does.

ABSALOM: For what it’s worth, I think he probably did.

JONATHAN: Thanks. But there’s no way you could possibly know that.

ABSALOM: I know. But I just feel like it’s true. I can’t explain it.

JONATHAN: Well I know he loved you.

ABSALOM: It doesn’t mean very much. What good is love if you never show it to the people you love?

JONATHAN: Once I might have disagreed with you but now I don’t know. It hasn’t done me much good at all.

They fall silent. Absalom goes to the edge of the plateau and looks out. There is a sheer drop for miles but the view is beautiful. Jonathan walks over and stands next to him.

ABSALOM: I feel restless. (Pause.) Is there anything to do here?

JONATHAN: Not really.

ABSALOM: Don’t you get bored?

JONATHAN: (Shrugs.) Yeah.

ABSALOM: Jesus. Have you ever thought about escaping?

JONATHAN: Actually I have.

ABSALOM: And?

JONATHAN: It’s funny that you straight away leaped to ‘escaping’ rather than just ‘leaving’.

ABSALOM: I – hmm. I don’t know why.

JONATHAN: Well, I felt the same way when I first arrived here. I wasn’t sure why but I just felt certain I wasn’t allowed to walk away. I did try it, obviously, but it never worked.

ABSALOM: What happened?

JONATHAN: No matter what direction I walked in I always ended up coming back here.

ABSALOM: That can’t be right.

JONATHAN: It’s true.

ABSALOM: You must be able to get out.

JONATHAN: Oh right, I’m sorry, I must have just been trying it wrong for the last 20 years.

ABSALOM: You’ve been here 20 years?

JONATHAN: Yes. Well – I – I don’t know. It’s different here. I don’t feel like I’ve actually aged at all.

ABSALOM: You look the same age as me.

JONATHAN: I do not.

ABSALOM: You do.

JONATHAN: I look much more mature than you.

ABSALOM: Oh really? So mature you can’t figure out how to walk in a straight line?

JONATHAN: It’s not as easy as it sounds.

ABSALOM: Fine. I’ll try it myself. At least one of us will be able to get out of here.

JONATHAN: Go ahead.

ABSALOM: I will.

JONATHAN: Do it.

ABSALOM: I’m doing it.

Absalom walks determinedly away, stops, changes direction and walks out of sight. Jonathan watches him leave. After a while he goes and sits under the tree again. He puts his head in his hands.

After a few minutes Absalom appears again, still marching confidently. He stops as he realises he has come back to the clearing again. Jonathan looks up.

ABSALOM: I don’t understand.

JONATHAN: I told you.

ABSALOM: This doesn’t make sense.

JONATHAN: Tell it to someone else.

ABSALOM: (Starting to get upset.) THERE ISN’T ANYONE ELSE. It’s just me and you!

JONATHAN: AND UNTIL YOU ARRIVED IT WAS JUST ME. I was alone. I’ve always been alone. I –

Jonathan stops, choked.

JONATHAN: No one ever stays. I’m the only one who was always there. Saul was never there. He didn’t know how to be. David was always flitting around everywhere. He didn’t care. I was there. I was always there. I tried to hold everything together I tried to be there. To be where I was needed. But no one was there for me. I don’t know how it all went wrong. I did everything I could. I don’t – I can’t – why am I here? I don’t think I deserved what happened to me.

Jonathan starts to cry. Absalom stands, shocked.

JONATHAN: Why couldn’t David just love me? Why couldn’t he just be there for me? What was so fucking wrong with me? OH GOD I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

Jonathan stands in the centre of the plateau and tilts his head to the sky.

JONATHAN: TALK TO ME YOU CUNT! What – am I still too unimportant? Saul and David yes – sure – why not? But Jonathan? Oh no, no, I don’t need to talk to him. He doesn’t matter, there’s nothing special about him! Well maybe I need someone to talk to! Maybe I need you to help me? I don’t understand! I don’t understand! What did I do wrong? Why didn’t the people I needed to help me extend their hands? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? COME ON GOD TALK TO ME COME ON! YOU’VE PUT ME HERE, YOU’VE LEFT ME HERE, 2O FUCKING YEARS I’VE SAT HERE LIKE A PATIENT FUCKING PUPPET NOW I WANT ANSWERS. I WANT TO KNOW. What happened to me? What happened to Saul? Why did you choose David over us? What was so special about him? Why were his crimes forgivable but not ours? I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense. I can forgive anyone anything, but I can’t forgive you for this.

Jonathan slumps to the ground. He rests his head on his arms. Absalom stares at him, stricken. The sky has clouded over. There is a crash of thunder overhead. Absalom stares at the sky. Jonathan doesn’t move. There is a moment of utter stillness.

Absalom opens his mouth to speak before but he can say anything rain starts to fall. Jonathan lifts his head. They both stand there getting soaked. Jonathan starts to laugh.

JONATHAN: He always does this.

Still laughing, he gets to his feet. Absalom stares at him, clearly unsure of what is happening.

JONATHAN: Don’t worry, I get it now. He thinks this is an answer. He thinks all we need is a ‘sign’, but really he just doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t have any answers. Ha. God, we’re all such fools. Scrabbling around for his approval, thinking we’re all part of some higher plan. He’s just a confused, aging old dupe in the sky. He doesn’t understand life any better than us. (To the heavens) It’s not enough old man! I don’t believe in your stories. Nothing happens for a reason. There is no plan. And there is nothing keeping me here.

Jonathan walks over to the olive tree and places his palm on it gently, in goodbye.

ABSALOM: Are you…What are you doing?

JONATHAN: I’m leaving.

ABSALOM: How?

JONATHAN: Absalom, I have been sitting here for 20 years because I believed there was a reason for me to be here. When God turned his back on my father we all thought there must be a higher meaning. Some cosmic explanation that we just couldn’t see. When he anointed David and stuck by him through worse than…through anything, we thought there must just be something God could see that we couldn’t. But there wasn’t. Life is just like that. It doesn’t make sense, it isn’t fair, it just is. God can’t make it make sense. God doesn’t control things, he can’t even fix them.

Jonathan looks past the olive tree, the opposite side of the mountain from where Absalom came in. He makes a step towards it.

ABSALOM: (In a strangled voice) Wait!

Jonathan turns to him.

ABSALOM: (Controlling himself) Wait – don’t leave me here. Not yet.

JONATHAN: You can come with me.

ABSALOM: No, I can’t. We came here alone, we have to leave alone. But anyway, I can’t leave yet. I’m not ready. I’m not like you. I’ve never believed in God. The only thing I’ve ever believed in is the world I see before me and my own ability to take what I need from it. I can’t just follow you out.

JONATHAN: No, you’re right.

ABSALOM: I need to know why I’m here.

JONATHAN: That’s why you’re here.

ABSALOM: There must be another reason.

JONATHAN: There isn’t.

ABSALOM: I have to know that for myself. I can wait.

JONATHAN: I understand. I just hope you don’t have to wait as long as I did.

ABSALOM: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think many people do.

Jonathan laughs. He walks over and they hug. As they have been talking, the rain has petered out. Now it stops.

JONATHAN: Goodbye then.

ABSALOM: I hope you find what you’re looking for.

JONATHAN: I already have.

He turns to go, then stops.

JONATHAN: David is just a man, Absalom.

ABSALOM: What? I know.

JONATHAN: Just a man. He does not hold the key to our souls. Our fates are our own, they aren’t plot-points in ‘The David Story’. We are people just the same as him, with our own stories and our own minds. He is an incredible person, but that’s all he is. Don’t give him more power than he is capable of wielding. He didn’t break you, and he isn’t capable of fixing you. Don’t give him your soul. If you do you might never get it back.

Absalom stares at him, his face inscrutable.

JONATHAN: Goodbye Absalom. I’m so grateful we got to meet at last.

Jonathan lifts a hand in farewell, which Absalom returns and this time he doesn’t stop as he walks assuredly away past the Olive tree and out of sight.

Absalom stares after him for a while. Then he goes to the edge of the plateau and sits down. There is silence. Eventually he speaks.

ABSALOM: I’m sorry Tamar. (He stops. There is a long pause. He wrestles with something deeply emotional.) I’m sorry I never really helped you. (Pause). I didn’t kill Amnon for you. But it wasn’t for the reasons everyone said it was, I promise. I killed him because I couldn’t live with the fact that I had failed to protect the ones I loved. I thought if I could avenge you I could save you. But I had already lost you. I couldn’t accept it. And that…That is a real failing. (He stops and sighs.) I’m sorry Amnon. I’m not sorry I killed you, I’m just sorry I did it for the wrong reasons.

Long silence.

I’m sorry David. I’m sorry I blamed you. And I’m sorry I cared so much about what you thought. You weren’t a perfect father, in many ways you weren’t even a good father. But you didn’t kill me. I’m not like you. I don’t take the subtle route. If I believe in something I do it, even if it isn’t the safest or the cleverest way to do it. I won’t hide in the shadows. I won’t compromise just because things might end badly. I refused to live safely – why was it so hard for me to accept that I didn’t live for very long? At least I lived honestly. At least I lived vibrantly. Jonathan was different again, but he lived honestly too. We may be the ones who ended up here in death, but you, David, you’ve been trapped here your entire life. Or somewhere very similar. You couldn’t ever see past yourself. And now you’re alone. You’re alone even though you’ve had people throwing themselves at you your entire life. You will die soon, and I don’t know whether you will even notice. And I don’t know where you’ll go then but it won’t be like this. There won’t be any way out of that place. Oh god. Why couldn’t you use the power you had to help yourself? Why did you let yourself get so closed off? Oh well. (He sighs again and rubs his face). It doesn’t matter now. I’m done thinking about you. I can’t help you. I lived my life how I wanted to and I have nothing to regret. Thank you Jonathan. You’re a far more powerful man than my father. But I think you know that now. Maybe I’ll see you again someday.

Absalom wipes his eyes and laughs. He stands up and steps to the very edge of the cliff. The sky is clear again now, and is just starting to turn gold from the setting sun. Absalom stares into the sunset and opens his arms wide. It appears as if he is about to jump but at the last moment he stops and crouches down. He grips the edge of the cliff in both hands and swings himself over the side. Then, confidently, he starts to climb down.

The End.

two-men-dancing

Let Us Rage

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This powerful response to recent events has been written by Auckland TheoRel student Harriet Winn. It was originally published on her own blog, Floating Thoughts. Please read, and rage.

“Do not go gently into that good night, friends. Rage, rage.”

For many of us, women especially, it feels like we are entering a void where nothing but despair dwells.

The election result seems to have shattered any notion of universally held values which privilege goodness and kindness. It feels hopeless. It feels bleak.

I don’t need to reiterate what this result represents – we already know, some of us far too well. It represents a manifestation of fierce hatred. Hatred for women, Muslims, gay people, trans people, Latino people, black people, people with disabilities… the list goes on. In my heart I never truly believed that a campaign built on such ferociously violent rhetoric would succeed. I genuinely (naively) thought that human empathy would overcome hostility, and light would overcome darkness.

I’ve spent today in a slump. Completely and utterly consumed by this overwhelming sense of darkness. Terrified of the immense suffering that is being felt by people of minorities in particular. Terrified that bigots everywhere have been validated in their malice. Terrified of the social regression this symbolises.

I keep seeing quotes pop up which read, ‘Don’t mourn – organise.’Bullshit. Let me mourn. Let us mourn. Our grief is valid and our tears fall for a reason. The pain is still raw. Mourning is part of the process; it is healthy and it is natural. Nothing productive will come from burying our hurt.

But as we mourn, I urge us to rage too. Rage for the lives of our Muslim, gay, trans, black, Latino, disabled sisters and brothers. And turn that rage into action. Let us not descend back into the comfort of normalcy. This is not normal. In the election of Trump, hatred has prevailed and my deepest fear is that that very hatred becomes normalised. Normalcy leads to complacency and right now, complacency is the most dangerous prospect there is.

Let us look for ways to tangibly challenge this vitriol of hatred that Trump so doggedly spouts.

Joining your local Thursdays In Black group is a good place to start. Grassroots movements that hold those in positions of power accountable are urgently needed, now more than ever. By its very existence Thursdays In Black challenges the poisonous endorsement of rape culture by the president-elect. I urge you to start wearing black on Thursdays – join a worldwide movement in taking a visceral and symbolic stand against sexual violence. Let’s make it loud and clear to Trump and his supporters that we refuse to allow the dehumanisation of women and we refuse to let vic­tims of sexual assault be silenced.

So let’s not delegitimise each other’s grief at this awful, awful situation. Let’s be kind to ourselves – and to others.

And let us rage.

If you would like to learn more about Thursdays In Black, follow this link http://www.thursdaysinblack.org.nz/

Public Lecture recording

As you saw in our previous blog post, Professor David Tombs from the University of Otago delivered a public lecture recently here at Auckland TheoRel on the subject of ‘Acknowledging Jesus as Victim of Sexual Abuse’. The lecture considered the crisis of sexual violence in contemporary culture, focusing particularly on the theological implications of Jesus’ own suffering of sexual abuse during his crucifixion.

David was kind enough to let us record the lecture and share this recording for those unable to attend. To listen to this audio recording, follow this link. There is a Q&A session at the end of the lecture which lasts around 25 minutes. You may not be able to hear the audience’s questions, but David’s responses will allow you to work out what questions were being asked!

David Tombs

Public lecture: Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse

Auckland TheoRel are pleased to announce a forthcoming public lecture by Professor David Tombs from the University of Otago. Everyone is welcome. Please advertise widely! (Link for pdf of poster is below)

David Tombs

David Tombs Public lecture poster

Pulse

Early on the morning of Sunday June 12th, Omar Mateen opened fire on partygoers at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando Florida, killing 49 people and injuring over 50 others. This is the worst mass shooting in US history and the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Deliberately targeting the LGBTI+ community, this was, according to Barack Obama,  ‘an act of terror and an act of hate’. And, while some media outlets (and world leaders) have been chary about identifying the homophobic roots of this attack, Guardian journalist Owen Jones is so very right to insist that it was also an act of terror steeped in homophobic fear and hatred.

In the days following the massacre at Pulse, as victims are named and families, friends and communities mourn their loss, questions inevitably arise about why this horrific event took place – what impelled Omar Mateen to commit this atrocity against the LGBTI+ community? The need to know why is fundamental to our human responses to trauma, in the hope that if we know, we can stop it happening again. And, while we don’t know – we may never know – why Mateen killed and hurt people who were simply celebrating the wonderful queerness of life, we do know that this is a world where the compulsion to homophobic violence is woven into the warp and woof of our everyday experiences. This is a world where the queer community feels the need to seek sanctuary in spaces like Pulse because they feel safe there from intolerance and violence. This is a world where same-sex couples are afraid to hold hands walking down the street in case they are hurt by words, fists or worse. This is a world where legislators are more concerned about who is having a pee where than it is about the fact that murder rates of transgender people have hit a historic high. This is a world where I could face imprisonment or even execution in over 70 countries for loving another woman. This is a world where #BlackLives don’t matter and where #BlackQueerLives matter even less. This is a world where religious communities marginalise and ostracise the LGBTI+ community in the name of their god. This is a world where wedding cake makers who refuse to bake cakes for same-sex weddings can spew out their bigotry and ignorance under the guise of religious liberty.  And this is a world where churches spend years debating whether or not to acknowledge the full humanity and dignity of LGBTI+ people, all the while preaching a gospel of the God of Love. This is a homophobic world, and whatever drove Mateen to perpetrate his act of homophobic terror on Sunday morning, he perpetrated it in this world and was part of this world. And for that, the world has to hold itself to account.

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Jessica Kourkouris/Getty Images

Grace and gracelessness

I’ve edited this to reflect the version that was subsequently published on the ABC Religion and Ethics Website in Australia. Nick, 15 July 2016.

The term “Evangelical” is notoriously hard to define. Grace features somewhere in most definitions; graciousness is occasionally in shorter supply.

In a poorly-timed opinion piece, Michael Bird wonders when “social progressives” will realise that they can’t simultaneously support LGBTI rights and oppose Islamophobia. Some Muslims have appalling views on homosexuality, ergo, Muslims must by rights suffer when social progressives come after Christians and other religious communities (as he thinks they surely will).

More precisely: if progressive political parties like the Australian Greens try to bring religious groups into the purview of anti-discrimination laws, Muslims will suffer, and social progressives’ heads – unable to bear the “paradox” – will simply explode.

I’m not sure the Social Progressive Cabal would let me join their bid for global domination, but I am a fully signed-up liberal democrat. So, I suspect, is Michael Bird. And while debates about the place of religion in pluralist liberal democracies will always be complicated, I’d like to suggest that it’s not quite as hard to walk and chew gum as Bird appears to think.

To live in a liberal democracy requires an act of sympathetic imagination – particularly from those who belong to majorities, and even more particularly from those who belong to powerful ones. For example, middle-class men of European descent (like me) need to imagine how we’d see things if, by accident of fate, we found ourselves in a minority – particularly in a small and powerless one. What respect and dignity would we want the majority to accord us, our way of seeing the world and our way of doing things? What could the majority reasonably expect of us in return?

It’s not my intention here to suggest that there’s something inherently virtuous about being in the minority. A temptation into which minority groups sometimes fall is to glory in victimhood and indulge in fantasies of revenge (or even its realisation). This kind of ressentiment runs deep in Christianity’s DNA, but there’s plenty to go around elsewhere. It clearly underwrites the stories that a certain kind of Islamism tells about itself as well. It’s even common among majorities who feel as though they’re losing their grip on power. That may be why we find a striking incidence of this pathology among men of European descent at the moment.

Likewise, it’s worth acknowledging that sympathetic imagination can only ever be approximate. Different groups identify and prioritise their values differently. To imagine yourself into the place of another group will always require a kind of translation, and translation, as Michael Bird knows, never works perfectly.

On the other hand, translation gets us most of the way most of the time. Fortunately, it’s helped by the fact that few of us belong straightforwardly to one group or another. So I’m not just a middle class man of European descent. I’m also a gay man, and a (lacklustre) Catholic. My experience in the latter two minorities gives me some inkling of what it might feel like to be a Muslim in the present climate. I’m also lucky enough to have good Muslim workmates and associates with whom I can talk about this, however tentatively (though I don’t want them ever to feel as though they have to justify their place in the universe, any more than I want to feel I have to justify mine).

I can’t claim anything more than a superficial understanding of Islam, but I do understand very well what it’s like to have ignorant majorities windily opine about what “people like me” think and do. This is why I viscerally detest both Islamophobia and homophobia.

It’s also, incidentally, why I would strenuously oppose most (though not all) attempts to restrict religious freedoms – especially as religious belief becomes a minority avocation in New Zealand, and maybe soon Australia. If that “not all” seems a slippery out, I’d ask Bird whether he thinks religious freedom should be entirely unfettered. Should Evangelical husbands of a certain ilk have the right to physically “discipline” their wives, as surely once they did, and still occasionally do? Should migrants from northeastern Africa have the right to mutilate their daughters’ genitals? If, as I’d guess, his answer is no, then this is not a debate between “social progressives” and “religious” people, but between citizens of a liberal democracy.

But if the rights and freedoms of liberal democracy seems too dull and cramped a framework in which to continue this discussion, then I’d suggest that generosity and graciousness of spirit would get us a lot further than unlovely attempts to divide and conquer.

Bible, Critical Theory and Reception: Glasgow, September 2016

Announcing a fabulous seminar taking place later this year in the wonderful city of Glasgow. The Bible, Critical Theory and Reception seminar is northern hemisphere sibling to the Australasia-based Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal (of which Auckland TheoRel’s Caroline Blyth and Robert Myles are current editors). For our friends in the North, this seminar is not to be missed. More details below from James Crossley’s Harnessing Chaos

Bible, Critical Theory and Reception: Glasgow, September 2016

The sixth annual seminar will be dedicated to some of the latest developments in biblical studies. Building on the success of the Bible and Critical Theory seminar and journal in the southern hemis…

Source: Bible, Critical Theory and Reception: Glasgow, September 2016

Two upcoming lectures

Just a quick post about a couple of in the next fortnight. You’re warmly invited to both.

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Detail from: Dr King preaching at Old St Paul’s before James I (1603-25) 1616 (oil on panel) by John Gipkyn (fl.1594-1629) Society of Antiquaries of London, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library Nationality / copyright status: British / out of copyright

Paul’s Cross and the Culture of Persuasion in Early Modern England

Torrance Kirby, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Director of the Centre for Research on Religion, Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montréal, Canada

Located at the epicentre of the City of London, the outdoor pulpit of Paul’s Cross was a key site in the expansion of a popular early-modern ‘culture of persuasion’. Paul’s Cross contributed significantly to the transformation of England’s political and religious identity and to the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ of discourse.

5.30pm, Monday 29th February, lecture theatre 206-220, Arts 1, 14a Symonds Street

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Patrick He, Haidan Christian Church, Beijing, https://flic.kr/p/4gFZ3j

Christianity in Xi Jinping’s China

Professor Ryan Dunch, University of Alberta and Professor Richard Masden, UC San Diego

Acclaimed international scholars discuss the context and significance of Protestant and Catholic Christianity in contemporary China

6-7pm, 3rd March, Owen Glenn Building, Case Room 2 (260-057)

“Self-styled bishop”

A tweet from SecularNZ this morning reminded me about a phrase that irritated me in a New Zealand Herald article last week. In yet another story about the finances of Destiny Church, the article referred to its leader as “self styled bishop Brian Tamaki.”

Without entering into a discussion of Tamaki, his church or its finances, I wonder what the writer thought the difference was between a “bishop” and a “self-styled bishop.”

Like other men and women who get to be called “bishops,” Brian Tamaki had the title conferred on him by other leaders of his church in 2005. In this respect it makes no more sense to describe Pope Francis as a “self-styled pope.” Francis I may style himself “pope,” but like Bishop Tamaki, he also had the title officially conferred on him by other leaders of the Catholic church in 2013. Like “Bishop” Tamaki, “Pope” Francis shares his title with a number of contemporary  contenders.

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Webb, Murray, 1947-. Webb, Murray, 1947- :Destiny Church [Brian Tamaki] [ca 15 December 2004]. Ref: DX-001-962. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22779958
My guess is that the confusion comes from some expectation that “bishop” is an exclusively Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox term – that, somehow, unless you wear a purple shirt and/or a mitre, you don’t get to be called a bishop.

In fact, “bishop” comes to us from the New Testament via the Old English word biscop. Philippians 1:1 and 1 Timothy 3:1-7 refer to church leaders called episkopoi in Greek (Old English biscop is just a rendering of the piskop in the Greek episkopos).

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ROME, THE VATICAN-12 MARCH 2013 : The Cardinals are leaving the Pro Engleindo Mass, which is immediately prior to their entrance into the Sistene Chapel for the voting process that elects the new Pope. Cardinal O’Malley from Boston is the one with the white beard. Image by Jeffrey Bruno. Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Episkopos is notorious difficult to translate, and its origins are uncertain. It may come from the non-religious world of the early Christian era, referring to someone in charge of a building site or other group activity. In this context it’s sometimes translated as “overseer” or “superintendent.” It may come from the Septuagint (a Jewish-Greek translation of the Old Testament), where Ezekiel is called to be a “watchman” or episkopos for the people of Israel (Ezekiel 33:3). Here the office is something more like a prophet.

Of course “bishop” could have both origins. Unfortunately, though, the New Testament doesn’t tell us much about what an episkopos does, except that, according to 1 Timothy at least, he should be of irreproachable character and the “husband of only one wife.”

In the two centuries following the Reformation, most Protestant churches wanted to abandon the term “bishop” because they associated it with what they regarded as the corruption of the medieval church. But Protestants were aware that episkopos was in the Bible, and so they experimented with translating it in different ways. They also experimented with what the office meant in practice (beyond being irreproachable and the “husband of only one wife”).

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John Wesley ordaining Thomas Coke as a “General Superintendent” in 1784, a move that greatly scandalised Wesley’s fellow Anglicans. They believed that Wesley, as a priest, had no right to do this. Coke later called himself a “bishop.” Anglicans felt the same way about this title as the New Zealand Herald appears to feel about Bishop Tamaki. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bishop_(Methodism)#/media/File:The_Ordination_of_Bishop_Asbury.jpg

So, for example, John Knox’s Church of Scotland experimented with an office known as the “superintendent,” before abandoning after a few decades. Some modern Methodist churches still have leaders called “superintendents.” Other Methodists opt for the older translation of “bishop.” A lot of Protestant churches who don’t use either term would still argue that their leaders and ministers met the job-description of “oversight” or “watching” implied in the Biblical Greek.

Which is all a long way of saying that there isn’t a standard blueprint for what a “bishop” is, does or wears. There’s also no regulating body, patent office or copyright agency that gets to decide who can and can’t use the title “bishop.”

More broadly speaking, in a secular, liberal democracy, all religions deserve equal treatment under the law. So if I want to call myself the Dalai Lama, Pope or Jedi Master, the law has no interest in this. Nor, I think, does the secular media – except, perhaps, as a matter of curiosity.

But if I were to use my church’s money in ways that looked legally questionable, then both law and media would have an interest, and both would entitled to call me to account.