When we lived and ministered in Jerusalem we met many wonderful Christians of many different denominations both living in the land and from many other nations. There is a rich Christian kaleidoscope in the Old City of Jerusalem, where we lived, and in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. It was a wonderful experience to go round to a different church every evening for two weeks for united prayers for peace, mainly with Palestinian and other Arab Christians.  It was moving to meet with the same people for a Unity Week service on the site of the Upper Room.

But there are real problems facing Middle East Christians. Almost half of Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the first Gulf War, most of them since the invasion in 2004. It is almost unbelievable that the Bush-Blair coalition was ignorant of the crucial role of religion in Iraq. Now, partly because of the highly publicised threats to burn the Koran on the part of the foolish American pastor, there is even more persecution of Christians.  Half of Lebanese Christians have left the country. Coptic Christians in Egypt now form less than 10% of the population. Jordan has a record of protecting Christians but they are only 6% of the population. Then, of course, Christianity is banned in Saudi Arabia.

In Israel many of the local Christians are Palestinian and so experience the pain and fears of the Palestinian people.  One piece of good news is the remarkable growth of Jewish Christians in Israel, who normally call themselves Messianic Believers.

Although there are many supporters of both Israeli and Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land – I am one of them – there are those who have polarised. Some, fired up by a legitimate concern for justice, fall into the injustice of being pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. Such people need to be careful of unconscious anti-Semitism. They harm the Christian cause in Israel.

Others are Christian Zionists, people who believe God hasn’t finished with the Jewish people and has brought them back to a safe homeland after the centuries of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Holocaust. I accept a moderate form of Christian Zionism myself, alongside a passionate concern for justice for the Palestinians and peace in the Holy Land.  However, some Christian Zionists are a pain. We ourselves suffered from some of them – expatriates – who made trouble because they wanted us to soft-pedal evangelism lest it upset the Israelis. Mind you, some of them were more concerned that they didn’t lose their visas than they were that Israelis should be won for Christ. I was well aware we were walking on egg shells, but there didn’t seem to me to be much point in being there if we weren’t doing sensitive evangelism, especially as I was General Director of a 200 year old evangelistic ministry in Israel.  There was also trouble because we stressed reconciliation (which, of course, is at the heart of Christianity). These folk – again expatriates – were afraid we’d become anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.

Perhaps, therefore, you can understand my negative reaction to a recent news story. Christian pilgrims from the US, Canada and Finland joined with right wing Israeli settlers to celebrate the resumption of settlement building on the West Bank (which threatens the peace process).  They rattled tambourines and released thousands of blue and white balloons, the colours of Israel’s flag, into the sky. They also waved banners reading: “We love Israel.” One young Canadian Christian said in an interview: “We knew this was happening today, and we wanted to stand in support for all of Israel and God’s land. We love the Israelites, we love God’s way.”  When asked if she supported a land for the Palestinians, she admitted she was “not familiar” with the politics.

This sort of misplaced Christian fervour confirms the idea widespread in the Middle East that Christianity is a western religion, when, of course, it originated in the Middle East. It adds to the burden of our Christian brothers and sisters there.

Researchers at the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland used a medical scanner to investigate the brain activity of 22 boys aged between 14 and 17 while they viewed four-second video clips of violent scenes taken from 60 different videos.

They found that the more the boys were exposed to violent videos, the less emotionally sensitive they became to the violence. Dr Jordan Grafman said that the study suggests that exposure to violent videos will make an adolescent more accepting of violence, and more likely to commit aggressive acts.

I wonder how much the research cost. I’m not saying it has no relevance. But since it is blindingly obvious to anyone with common sense that watching violent videos encourages violence in some people, I do wonder if the money (and the time and energy) could have been better spent.

I mention elsewhere that I once read about research which showed that people tend to fall asleep when they are bored. They could have saved a lot of time, money and energy by interviewing some preachers!

Many people have rejected the Exodus story of the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites as a myth. But recent scientific research has shown that the story does have a basis in physical laws.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Colorado said that computer simulations show the wind could push water back at a point where a river bent to merge with a coastal lagoon. The leader of the research said: “The simulations match fairly closely with the account in Exodus.  The parting of the waters can be understood through fluid dynamics. The wind moves the water in a way that’s in accordance with physical laws, creating a safe passage with water on two sides and then abruptly allowing the water to rush back in.”

The research showed that a 63 mph wind, blowing for 12 hours, could have pushed back waters 6 feet deep. “This land bridge is 3-4 km (2 to 2.5 miles) long and 5 km (3 miles) wide, and it remains open for 4 hours.”

If this did in fact happen it was a miracle of timing, rather than an event transcending physical laws. At least it should make people think twice before they dismiss these old stories in the Bible.

Round about the time the very foolish and offensive American pastor was planning to burn the Koran I was involved with a dialogue with the Muslims at the local University. As always, we were given a warm, friendly welcome and treated with courtesy.

We observed the men having their prayers. I always find it quite moving to experience the reverence of their bodily actions and silences and the sense of the greatness of God, even though I don’t understand many of the words. There is more of a sense of the greatness of God in their worship than in many churches. Nevertheless I also feel a great desire for them to know and trust Jesus, not just as a prophet but as Saviour.

I am under no illusion about the major, even fundamental theological differences between Christianity and Islam on vital issues. But there is no justification for treating Muslims with antagonism and contempt. Jesus calls us to love our Muslim neighbour.

We sat on the floor for the meal which began with milk and various kinds of sweet dates. They also served very tasty savoury cakes. Then the full meal was served: curried chicken, rice, vegetables, potatoes, salad and other tasty but indefinable foods.

We chatted happily both with students and with older men (we only meet the “brothers”; the “sisters” are accommodated in a separate room). I have talked with people from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Egypt and Pakistan. On this occasion I spoke at length with an older man who is an Iraqi Sunni Muslim and a diplomat in Saddam’s time. He is now exiled to Britain. He was not very positive about the aftermath of the war for ordinary Iraqis, including the Christians.

How sad that some Christians express contempt for Muslims and even threaten to burn their sacred book publicly. How sad that my friend Canon Andrew White, Vicar of St George’s, Baghdad reports planned attacks on his already vulnerable church because of the American pastor’s threat to burn the Koran. (Yes, Islam has its extremists as well as Christianity).

Next time we meet with our Muslim friends it is planned that we have a dinner and discuss “Jesus in the Bible and the Koran.”  What could be more important than that discussion?

I am fascinated by cosmology and astronomy. They can be awesome subjects and sometimes provide real challenges to religious thinking. I also really enjoy dialoguing with atheists and agnostics.

Professor Stephen Hawking’s previous book “A Brief History of Time” was a best seller. Millions bought it, but I was one of the minority who actually read it! A friend told Hawking that the original draft was too complicated for the intelligent reader and had to be simplified. I read the “simplified” final version and it certainly taxed my brain which is predominantly theological, not scientific.

I’m not naive, I’ve written several books and I know that publishers like publicity. To lift a very controversial quotation – indicating that a very famous scientist disproves God, and to give that to the news-hungry media at the end of the August silly season is good PR. The book may prove to be much more reasonable than the media hype.

The book isn’t published at the time of writing but I’ve read a long extract. Hawking is saying that the universe could have created itself spontaneously out of nothing. But his reason is that he believes in the multiverse theory, namely that there are many universes, so one was bound to develop that suited creatures like us. Maybe so, but there is no proof of the multiverse theory. So Hawking is saying: ‘You don’t need belief in God which is an ‘unproven’ theory because of my unproven theory about the multiverse!’ The question remains: why is there something rather than nothing? As for spontaneous creation of the universe out of absolutely nothing, (without a divine agent) – that seems to me to be dangerously close to “believing what you know ain’t true.” Hawking seems to be saying it happened because there is a law of gravity. But why is there gravity? And so we can go on.

I’ve experienced it all in my time. I’ve been censed as the preacher in an anglo-catholic service and enjoyed a variety of high church services. I’ve been Rector of a largely middle of the way church which had a weekly Sung Eucharist. I’ve experienced various types of evangelical Anglican churches – conservative and solemn, open and relaxed. I’ve also experienced “Fresh Expressions” such as a Cafe Church.

I believe all those types of worship have their place, because different people (even in a single parish) have different tastes, different subcultures. I don’t fondly imagine that everyone living in our parish would enjoy all of our services. We need a variety of worship and we already have that to some extent. There is our formal, traditional 1662 Evensong/Communion, our more informal Morning Worship, our All Age Services and our special services.

A parish church is a church for the whole parish, not just the catholics, middle of the way, evangelical or happy clappy residents.

A few years ago I deliberately chose to a parish which was not evangelical, although I remain a convinced evangelical. The worship centred around the beautiful Sung Eucharist which I thoroughly enjoyed. Although we developed a new more informal morning service in our other church, suitable for newcomers, we made no changes to the Sung Eucharist. That way we catered for people with widely differing tastes.

Sometimes Christians speak disparagingly of “happy clappy” churches. However, whereas there are some superficial and unhelpful examples, nevertheless there are many lively churches which are growing rapidly and drawing in young people (and children). Before we criticise, we ought to ask how well we are doing in terms of church growth and find out why they are growing.

People’s tastes in worship should be respected. No-one should be pressed into expressions of worship with which they are not happy. Whatever their taste they should be loved and accepted. There is a place for more traditional worship alongside more radical expressions of worship (on separate occasions or in separate venues).  The Church of England is a Broad Church and now encourages “Fresh Expressions” of worship.

The best form of worship should be that which best helps us to worship God in spirit and in truth.

I understand the objections to women bishops because, as you know, at one time I held them myself. I have never understood the argument that Jesus chose only male disciples therefore all priests (and bishops) should be male. He only chose Hebrew-speaking Jewish men but the lobby for only appointing Hebrew-speaking Jewish male priests and bishops is not a strong one! But I do understand the problem some people have that the New Testament appears to teach that church leadership should be male. (I have no room here to say why I now believe the New Testament allows female church leadership. See http://www.christianteaching.org.uk/womensministryinthechurch.pdf).

Some of these folk can tolerate women priests in the next parish. But they can’t accept a woman bishop because she would have authority over them. This is not, for many of them, misogyny (hatred of women) but a sincerely held belief. The Church of England will have women bishops but the House of Laity of General Synod were, in my view, wrong to torpedo the archbishops’ proposals for procedures to respect the consciences of those who object. The final decision over women bishops has yet to be made and there is time to rectify the House of laity vote.

Would you like to be a better Christian? Then try reading the Bible regularly.

Going to church, taking Communion and praying are all very important but listen to St Paul: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man [or woman] of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16).

If that isn’t enough, listen to the Church of England. According to church law, the most important authority under God for what the Church of England believes is the Bible and nothing is to be believed which is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. However the Church takes very seriously the teaching of church leaders in the early centuries, if it is consistent with the Bible. And obviously we have to use our minds to understand Scripture properly.

The actual wording is: “The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures.”

The Prayer Book makes it clear that the Bible contains “all things necessary to salvation.”  So if you want to be a Christian and to mature in your Christian faith you will find the way in the Bible.

I thank God that the churches I attended as a child were rooted and grounded in Scripture and that I went to two theological colleges which, amongst many other things, extensively taught the content of Scripture. Despite what the Church of England says about the Bible, I have even sometimes over the years come across clergy who don’t know their Bibles. They might have been taught about the Bible and about the problems that sometimes arise in interpreting it. But they do not seem to know enough about the content of Scripture and consequently some congregations are not well-taught.

I recommend that, if you don’t already, you start to read a short passage of Scripture each day. It is a great help to get hold of some Bible reading notes to help you. They suggest a passage for each day and give a comment and explanation on it.

I had a whole morning free so I spent it exploring the site of the Battle of Hastings in the hot Sussex sun. It was fascinating but sad. So much blood has been shed in conflicts over the years, normally because of selfish, power hungry leaders.

I was on the South coast to speak at meetings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whilst we were living in Jerusalem we developed a deep concern for reconciliation. I was responsible for 60 staff, many of whom were Jewish or Arab Israelis. I knew a lot about Jewish culture and attitudes, but not so much about Arabs. I therefore spent a good deal of time listening to the Arab staff. It was very illuminating. I had gone out there to major on relating to Jewish people (which was my job description) and I was quite pro-Israel. But talking with the Arabs (including some Palestinians – the same people group as Israeli Arabs but without Israeli citizenship) transformed my understanding and removed some misconceptions.

One meeting was held in the Roman Catholic Church. I was brought up to believe that Roman Catholics probably couldn’t be Christians(!) and here I was speaking in a Roman Catholic Church and being warmly welcomed by the priest. Obviously I had long since realised, through talking with many of them, that Catholics can be wonderful Christians. I was also thrilled that there were 15 Ministers present in the audience, from Pentecostals and Independent Churches through to Anglicans. At the invitation of the priest, they all stood at the front to bless the congregation. Since then a group of Poor Clares (Catholic nuns) have been in correspondence with me and gone on my mailing list.

Another meeting was chaired by the Dean of the local Cathedral. He had been very active in reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants when he ministered in Liverpool. He said publicly that he was surprised, having been on General Synod during my campaigning days, to hear me emphasising reconciliation and balancing the needs, pain and fears of Israelis and Palestinians. He was even more surprised that I publicly admitted changing my mind over women priests, after voting against them in the 1992 General Synod debate. He would not have known all this had he not heard my talk.

The whole trip illustrated one of the main points I was stressing in my talks. We must listen carefully to both sides in the Holy Land conflict. That goes for all human relationships where there is tension. At times over the years I have been totally convinced by a wife that her husband was responsible for their marital problems – until I have listened to the husband!  Only then could I get an accurate picture.

So lesson number one in reconciliation is listen (directly) to both sides, listen (directly) to those with whom you disagree. Only then will it be possible to reach that reconciliation which is always God’s will, even if it means agreeing to disagree (as I still would with those I opposed in General Synod). Only then will it be possible fully to reach that attitude of forgiveness and reconciliation which Jesus said is a condition of being forgiven by God.

There are some things God won’t do in our church (or in our private lives) if we don’t pray. Is that because God is being awkward? No, it’s because he loves us. He regards what we do and how we live as very important. But he regards it as even more important that we have a relationship of trust with him. If we pray we are taking notice of God and not taking him for granted. How many wives have said to their husbands (who might be helpful and kind to their wives): “Why don’t you talk to me? We never seem to make time to talk.” God is like that. We might try to serve him, supporting his church and he’s pleased with that. But he’s saying: ““Why don’t you talk to me?”

Do you remember when the children were small? You wanted them to ask for the good things, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ In other words, you wanted them to develop a relationship of courtesy and gratitude with you. God wants the same with us. So he won’t bless the church (or the individual) as much as he wants to unless we say ‘please’ (pray) and ‘thank you’ (giving thanks). That’s why it is essential to pray if we really want the church to grow spiritually and numerically.

But why corporate prayer in a prayer group? As Jesus said: “if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matt 18:19-20). There are some things God will only do in response to corporate prayer and a prayer group allows more time to pray about more topics and to concentrate on some of the more important ones.