Standing Down as a Councillor

I generally don’t blog about my role as a Councillor (or indeed much about my day to day life) but I felt this was worth sharing.

I put this up on FB a couple of days ago:

As it’s now been in the papers I feel it is safe to announce it here too: I am not standing for re-election when my term on the council ends in May. I don’t know what I am doing when my LPC finishes this summer. However, the odds are it will take me away from London. Therefore, Jean Villa will be flying the flag for the Lib Dems in Holywell instead.

It’ll be quite a change for me. By the end of my term it will have been 5 years, 11 months and 9 days since I was first elected back. I was just coming to the end of the first year of my undergrad history degree. So I’ve been a councillor for most of my adult life.

A large part of me is glad. I’m looking forward to having time for hobbies again. And I’m glad Jean will be our candidate. He’s been an impressively proactive campaigner and OULD president.

However, I am more keen on the local political fight than I have been in a long time. Labour’s increasing majority has made them complacent and arrogant. Conversely, the Greens ever further distance from power has lead them to begun more recklessly populist. So there is a clear need for a strong liberal voice in Oxford. I am disappointed that I won’t be part of it much longer.

This elicited quite a number of lovely responses from friends and colleagues. Perhaps my favourite was from a former officer at the Students’ Union:

Well done Mark, it was fantastic working with you and you were a boon to Holywell and student representation in Oxford.

I am hoping in the near future to do a series of posts looking at issues I’ve gained an insight into from my time on the council.

5 Pieces of conventional wisdom that Pentecostalism challenges

Dramatic social change will always force us to re-evaluate our ideas. We round off our look at Pentecostalism by seeing what assumptions it may force us to discard.

1. We live in a Post-Christian age

The explosive growth of Pentecostalism has helped to push the number of Christians in the world to a record level. It has also spread Christianity to parts of the world where it has not previously been strong. For example, much of the faith’s expansion into China has been propelled by underground house churches that often have a Charismatic bent.

As well as increasing the number of Christians, Pentecostalism has also had a reinvigorating effect. It has turned many whose Christianity was becoming increasingly nominal back into active church members.

In this way Pentecostalism has given Christianity as a whole renewed relevance.

2. Latin America is Catholic

There have been Protestants in South America since the nineteenth century. However, they’ve always been a tiny minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic population.

While Catholicism is still very clearly the largest religion in this part of the world, Pentecostalism is eroding its dominance. If current trends continue then some states particularly in Central America could soon have protestant pluralities. For example, around 40% of Guatemalans are now Protestants.

3. Protestantism is a stolid, cerebral movement of White Europeans and North Americans

Traditional protestant denominations of both liberal and conservative varieties have become rather bookish outfits. Sola scriptura (by scripture alone) often feels like it’s moved from a piece of theology to a worship style and organising principle.

Tens of millions of poor Africans and Latin Americans emphasising the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit and the possibility of a personal relationship with God has – to say the least – given Protestantism quite a jolt.

4. A movement centred around a literal belief in miracles will not be modernising force

Pentecostalism with its Glossolalia, ritual healing and the like can often seem like a weird throwback. In many senses, that’s how it understands itself: as a return to the spirituality of the early church.

However, the eminent religious sociologist Peter Berger has suggested it is a modernising force. He believes that it encourages economic development by teaching that ‘God does not want you to be poor.’ This translates into a mixture of mutual support and self-help that produces something close to the ‘Protestant Work Ethic.’ To quote Berger: “Max Weber is alive and he’s living in Guatemala!”

5. There will be an alignment between Christianity and US foreign policy

In 1956, the US adopted as its official motto “In God We Trust.” At this point, America was locked in confrontation with the avowedly atheistic Soviet Union. The new motto was supposed to symbolise the support that America and Christianity drew from each other. This has a long history before and after. Reinhold Neibuhr observed that Americans have always cast themselves in the role of the “chosen people.” And we can still see something of this fusion in George W. Bush’s foreign policy.

However, for Pentecostals mainly living in the Global South, Americans can look more like Romans than Israelites. In a panel discussion for the Pew Forum, Professor Paul Freston observes that – outside of the US – even Pentecostal churches that can normally be relied on to take politically conservative positions came out against the Iraq war.

The Minion movie – what we know so far


If you read this blog even occasionally you will probably know about my adoration for the Minions from Despicable Me. So I’m excited that they are going to get a film of their own.

It’s due to be released in Summer 2015. Pierre Coffin returns as director. Sandra Bullock and John Hamm star as Scarlet and Herb Overkill.

The plot sounds promisingly bonkers:

Minions are yellow henchmen, who have existed since the beginning of time, evolving from yellow single-celled organisms into beings who have only one purpose: to serve the history’s [sic] most ambitious villains. After their ineptitude destroys all their masters, including T. Rex and Dracula, they decide to isolate themselves from the world and start a new life in Antarctica. Sometime in the 1960’s, the lack of a master drives them into depression, so Kevin the Minion and two other volunteers set out to find a new one. They arrive at a villain convention, where they compete for the right to be henchmen for Scarlet Overkill, a stylish and ambitious villain determined to dominate the world and become the first female super-villain.

Source: Despicable Me Wiki

Meet Britain’s next religious bogeyman

Muslims seem to have replaced Jews as the focus of popular prejudice.  Could African Christians be the next group to inherit this unfortunate mantle?

Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi were jailed for life for murdering a teenage boy they believed to be a witch

Magalie Bamu and Eric Bikubi were jailed for life for murdering a teenage boy they believed to be a witch

I blogged earlier this week about the explosive growth of worldwide Pentecostalism and Charismatic Christianity. This is a trend that’s been felt most strongly in the Global South. However it’s having an impact in the UK too:

Since 2005, there has been a 50% increase in the numbers of people attending Pentecostal Churches in London — a phenomenon explained by a large influx of immigrants from Africa during that period……..The new study carried out for the evangelical group The London City Mission by the Brierley Consultancy showed that 230,000 people attended Pentecostal services last year compared to 198,300 at Catholic Masses.……Overall, though, because of the Pentecostal growth, church-going in London rose by 16 per cent between 2005 and 2012 to 720,000. This means that nearly 10% of Londoners attend a church each week, compared with 5.6% nationally. Pentecostal churches now make up 30% of the total number of churches in London — more than 1450 of them. The only other denomination with more than 1,000 churches in the capital is the Church of England.

One of the questions this poses is whether such a rapid expansion might create a backlash?  I’m not aware of it doing so far. However, I fear that Pentecostal churches might be vulnerable to demonisation for the following reasons:

  • They draw their members primarily from an easily identifiable minority. Do all the black people in London freak you out? Want to express that concern without appearing racist? Why not start raising ‘legitimate concerns’ about their religion instead?
  • There’s a clear issue for demonisation to focus on. It seems there is a problem within some African Churches with children being accused of witchcraft or being possessed by demons. The attempts to ‘exorcise’ these problems can sometimes amount to serious child abuse. That’s clearly the behaviour of minority, which the majority of African Pentecostals find abhorrent. But the same could be said of Muslims and terrorism, and that’s not stopped them becoming the target of religious hatred.
  • That issue involves children. I recently posted about the moral panic in the 80s/90s about Satanic Ritual Child Abuse. What that suggests – along with a host of other incidents – is that child abuse is a subject our society struggles to deal with rationally.
  • Pentecostal services make for good TV. They quite often include florid language, shouting and of course speaking in tongues. In fact, to an outsider they may look like mass hysteria. Therefore, if you want to illustrate a piece of TV in a way that makes them look sinister that’s easy to do.
  • The British African community will shortly face the second generation problem. Large scale migration to Britain from Africa began later than migration from South Asia and the Caribbean. Therefore, have yet to fully face the ‘second generation problem.’ In this leader article, The Economist warns that ethnic tensions are often greatest not when a community first arrives but a generation later. Whereas new arrivals tend to keep their heads down, their children are often more assertive and that can lead to conflict. Given that migration from Africa took off around 2000 that’s an issue that will be confronting the British African community very shortly.

That said such a situation is not inevitable. This is a community that does well in terms of education and employment which should help.  There are also things that could be done to reduce the risks of African Christians becoming the target of prejudice. Action to reduce the instances of religiously motivated child abuse is needed not only to protect the children involved but also to prevent the law abiding majority within the community being tarnished by it. And media reporting of the issue must be careful to avoid giving the impression that it’s more than a minority who engage in such practices.

llenwi â’r Ysbryd Glân: The Welsh roots of Pentecostalism

The Revival's leader Evan Roberts

The Revival’s leader Evan Roberts

In the early twentieth century southern Wales experienced a religious revival that still shapes Pentecostalism and Wales.

It is probably folly to try and locate a single place where Pentecostalism began. The modern movement represents the convergence of a number of grouping that sprung up independently around the world. Nonetheless, if one were forced to choose such a point then Wales would be a strong contender.

Histories of Pentecostalism traditionally start with the Azuza Street Revival in Los Angles in 1906. However, this was predated, influenced and partially inspired by the Welsh Revival of 1904-5.

According to an Introduction to Pentecostalism by Allan Heaton Anderson:

The Welsh Revival (1904-5) was centred mainly among the Welsh-speaking mining community, where there were at least 32,000 converts throughout Wales, some putting this figure as 100,000. During this revival, the Pentecostal presence and power of the Holy Spirit was emphasised, and meetings were hours long, spontaneous, seemingly chaotic and emotional, with ‘singing in the Spirit’ (using ancient Welsh chants), simultaneous and loud prayer, revelatory visions and prophecy, all emphasising the immediacy of God in the services and in personal experience. Revival leader Evan Roberts (1878-1951) taught a personal experience of Holy Spirit baptism to precede any revival. The revival was declared to be the end-time Pentecost of Acts 2, the ‘latter rain’ promised by biblical prophets which would result in a worldwide revival. Charistmatic Baptist pastor in Los Angles Joseph Smale visited the Welsh Revival, and Frank Bartleman corresponded with Evan Roberts, asking for prayer for a similar revival in Los Angles. These and other contacts encouraged people to expect a revival there. Several early British Pentecostal leaders, including George Jeffreys, an early evangelist in the British Assemblies of God, and Daniel Williams, founder of the Apolistic Church, were converted in the Welsh Revival. The first leader of Pentecostalism in Britain, Anglican vicar Alexander Boddy, visited it. Although Evan Roberts, influenced by his mentor Jesse Penn-Lewis, later discouraged the use of tongues and ecstatic manifestations, and although Pentecostalism’s emphases were found in the radical and less common manifestations of the Welsh Revival, early Pentecostal leaders drew inspiration from the revival and saw their movement as the continuation of it. Interestingly, both movements made use of ancient cultural forms to express their experiences and liturgy, the Welsh Revival encouraging a resurgence of the Welsh language, particularly in the singing of hymns and chants.

The bleakness, absurdity and camaraderie of depression

The video below is a very un-Ted Talk like Ted Talk. It doesn’t offer a simple gee whiz solution to a problem. Rather it’s an often sobering look at the nuisances of a brutal problem: depression. The writer Andrew Solomon gives a wonderfully evocative presentation on depression. It’s longer than the average Ted talk but well worth your time.

P.S. Solomon’s book Far from the Tree is well worth a read

In defence of speaking in tongues

Our look at Pentecostalism would not be complete without examining one of its most distinctive features: speaking in tongues


Writing in the New York Times, the anthropologist T. M. Luhrmann offers a defence of the practice based on her experiences studying it in Accra, Ghana:

What dawned on me in Accra is that speaking in tongues might actually be a more effective way to pray than speaking in ordinary language — if by prayer one means the mental technique of detaching from the everyday world, and from everyday thought, to experience God.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of Christian prayer practice, beyond rote recitation. “Apophatic” prayer, which looks a lot like meditation and mindfulness, asks one to still the mind and disengage from thought. The classic example is the 14th century “Cloud of Unknowing,” a monastic text whose anonymous author advised: “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him who I cannot know.”

In “kataphatic” prayer, one fills one’s imagination with thoughts from Scripture. The classic example is the 16th-century spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who called worshipers to see “with the eye of the imagination the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, considering how long it is and how wide, and whether it is level or goes through valleys and over hills.” American evangelicals seeking daydreamlike encounters with God are praying in this tradition.

The apophatic method is probably more effective in shifting attention from the everyday, but harder to achieve. That seems to be what the fifth-century monk Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite meant when he described kataphatic prayer as a steppingstone for those who could not pray in other ways. Many of us know people who have tried to meditate and failed, defeated by thoughts that refused to stay put — what skilled practitioners call “monkey mind.” In an experiment, I assigned participants for one month to meditation, to imagination-rich prayer or to lectures on the gospels. Many who meditated didn’t like it; those who did reported deep spiritual experiences, like the expert meditators studied by the neurologist James H. Austin (“Zen and the Brain”) and other scientists.

As a technique, tongues capture the attention but focus it on something meaningless (but understood by the speaker to be divine). So it is like meditation — but without the monkey mind. And the practice changes people. They report that as their prayer continues, they feel increasingly more involved. They feel lighter, freer and better. The scientific data suggest that tongue speakers enter a different mental state. The neuroscientist Andrew B. Newberg and his colleagues took M.R.I. scans of tongue speakers singing worship songs, and then speaking in tongues. When they did the latter, they experienced less blood flow to the frontal cerebral cortex. That is, their brain behaved as if they were less in a normal decision-making state — consistent with the claim that praying in tongues is not under conscious control..

Speaking in tongues still carries a stigmatizing whiff. In his book “Thinking in Tongues,” the philosopher James K. A. Smith describes the “strange brew of academic alarm and snobbery” that flickered across a colleague’s face when he admitted to being a Pentecostal (and, therefore, praying in tongues). It seems time to move on from such prejudice.

You will not believe quite how big the world’s largest church is

As part of our look at Pentecostalism, we examine how South Korean Pentecostals took the Yoido Full Gospel Church from a shed to the centre of life in their country. And along the way built up a congregation of almost a million.

Yesterday on Matter of Facts, we looked at the extraordinary rise of the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Today we look at one of the most striking features of their rise: the tendency to create individual churches that are absolutely massive.

As the Economist reported back in 2007:

MENTION a “megachurch” and most people think of a gleaming building in the American suburbs. In fact, many of the biggest churches are outside the United States. In Guatemala, Pentecostals have built what may be the largest building in Central America: Mega Frater (Big Brother) packs a 12,000-seater church, a vast baptism pool and a heliport. One church in Lagos can supposedly bring 2m people out onto the streets. But five of the world’s ten biggest megachurches are in just one country: South Korea.

The largest of them all, Yoido Full Gospel Church, sits opposite the national assembly in Seoul, an astute piece of political positioning. It looks somewhat unprepossessing—a brownish blob surrounded by office buildings—but Yoido boasts 830,000 members, a number it says is rising by 3,000 a month. One in 20 people in greater Seoul is a member.

Each of the seven Sunday services at Yoido is a logistical challenge: apart from the 12,000 people in the main sanctuary, another 20,000 follow the service on television in overflow chapels scattered around neighbouring buildings. Some 38,000 children go to Sunday school during the day. As one service begins and the next ends, around 60,000 comers and goers are ushered by white-jacketed traffic directors. If you want to attend one of the two services starring the church’s founder, David Cho, you need to be an hour early or you won’t get in.

Not that you will lack entertainment whilst you wait. The massed choir (one of 12) is already belting out hymns, backed by a large orchestra (one of three). The audience sings along, with huge television screens supplying the words, karaoke style. Pictures of the service are beamed to hundreds of satellite churches around the world and to Prayer Mountain, a gruelling religious camp close to the border with the North. Translation is offered in English, Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, Indonesian, Malay and Arabic.

By the standards of American preachers, Mr Cho is a relatively unflashy figure. With his glasses, tie and tidy red cassock, he looks like one of the more bureaucratic kinds of Asian politician. His tone is logical and unrelenting. His theme today is “Deliver us from the Evil One”.

Sin and Satan are omnipresent, he argues, but if you ignore their enticements, “your grave is already empty.” As he cites scripture, the passages appear on the big television screens. Mr Cho urges the liberation of North Korea and quotes Edward Gibbon. He then invites people to touch the part of their body that most needs healing. There are shouts of success. After he sits down, a young opera singer performs while the money is collected—by the sackful in gold and scarlet bags—and piled up in front of the pulpit.

The megachurches of Korea are not an exclusively Pentecostal phenomenon. Nonetheless, Prof. Kim Sung-Gun of Seowon University points out that nine out of fifteen of the largest mega-churches in the country – including Yoido Full Gospel Church – are charismatic or Pentecostal. Prof. Kim suggests that Pentecostalism is a creed well suited to South Korea. Its emphasis on the reality of spirits in the world taps into a tradition of shamanism that persists in Korean society. And teaching the prosperity gospel makes it well suited to a country that experienced some of the fastest economic modernisation the world has ever seen.

Unsurprisingly, the accumulation of so much power and wealth in a single church has not been without problems. Mr Chohas been hit by corruption scandals and thrown his weight around politically:

Yoido Church’s founder is rarely out of the news in South Korea. In March he sparked a storm of criticism by claiming the earthquake and tsunami in Japan was “God’s warning” to a country that follows “idol worship, atheism, and materialism”.

He is also too political for some. When President Lee’s government drew up plans to legislate for Islamic sukuk bonds in South Korea, Mr Cho argued that this would aid “terrorists”, and that the president was forgetting the vital role the Protestant lobby had in electing him. Following concerted efforts by Mr Cho and other South Korean church leaders, the government blinked first, and the plan was dropped.

The Yoido church highlights the paradox of contemporary Pentecostalism. It is a movement that arose among the disposed and whose rise was powered by tiny congregations meeting in houses or shop front churches. Now across much of the world it has become a force to be reckoned with. How the religion of the spirit copes with such material success will shape not only its own future but also that of Christianity as a whole.


P.S. You can read the Church’s English language website here

We may not hear much about Pentecostalism but there are tonnes of Pentecostals

There are an estimated 279 million Pentecostal Christians around the globe. That means that if we took the combined flocks of Anglicanism, Sikhism, Judaism, Lutheranism and Methodism, they would still be outnumbered by Pentecostals. Pentecostals now amount to a tenth of all the Christians in the world and four percent of the world’s population.  

Catholics are still by far the largest group of Christians in the world. However, it is likely that Pentecostals have now overtaken Orthodox Christians to become the second largest branch Christianity. They are also by some distance the largest protestant denomination.

Christian denominations by number-page-001

These huge numbers are doubly remarkable. Firstly, because they developed remarkably quickly. Pentecostalism dates from the early twentieth century making it one of the newest branches of Christianity. As recently as 1970, there were just 15 million Pentecostals.

Secondly, the figures I have been quoting only relate to the members of specifically Pentecostal churches or denominations.  It therefore, excludes Charismatic Christians who hold to Pentecostal type beliefs and practice Pentecostal style worship in non-Pentecostal denominations.  If we took them and traditional Pentecostals together their numbers soar above half a billion, or a quarter of all Christians in the world. If as a hypothetical exercise we treated them as a faith in their own right, then they would replace Buddhism as the world’s fourth largest religion.

Looking at the religious news pages of the BBC, Guardian and Telegraph, I can’t see any stories that are obviously about Pentecostalism. However I can see stories about Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Judaism and Shia Islam even though these movements are all significantly smaller than Pentecostalism. So to reiterate a point I’ve been making this week: Pentecostalism is a movement worthy of our attention. If for no other reason than its sheer size.


Keynesians for austerity

The massively overdue return of economic recovery now means Keynesian approaches to economics should lead to support for deficit reduction

Since 2008, news about the UK economy has ranged from the modestly encouraging to the truly terrifying via the generally depressing. So yesterday’s staggering drop in unemployment – alongside  the IMF upgrading its growth forecast for the UK – feels quite a novelty.

It should also have large ramifications for the debate on economic policy. Ever since the crash, there has been a sharp divide over the merits of deficit spending has been fiercely debated. Keynesians including Ed Balls advocated government borrowing. This would create demand at a time it was lacking. Proponents of austerity such as George Osborne retorted that this extra borrowing would not actually serve as a stimulus. The extra debt governments were taking on would raise doubts about their creditworthiness. It would also mean individuals and companies would anticipate future tax rises to help pay for that debt. This would lead them to hold onto cash to pay these prospective new taxes. For as long as the economy faltered both of these arguments were prima facia plausible.

However, recovery changes this.  Following yesterday’s news, unemployment now stands at 7.1%. That’s just above the 7% level at the Bank of England stops promising not to raise interest rates. The argument for deficit spending as a way to stimulate the economy pre-supposes that interest rates are as low as they will go. Otherwise, the Bank of England can make up a shortfall in demand by cutting rates without the need for the government to use fiscal policy. In fact, if governments create demand themselves the Bank is likely to feel the need to offset that extra demand when it sets interest rates. Otherwise it may worry that demand from the government will have an inflationary impact.

We think of Keynes as an advocate of an active fiscal policy because he wrote his most famous work during the Great Depression. Under different circumstances, he took a different view. Most notably in How to Pay for War, he warned against using deficit spending to fund Britain’s involvement in WWII less this cause inflation. We can also find plenty of examples of Keynes disciples opposing deficits at the wrong moment. For example, Paul Krugman was scathing about the Bush administration plunging the US treasury into the red. So there will be nothing incongruous if Osborne and Balls go from sharply differing to fundamentally similar views on reducing the deficit.