The timing is terrible. The furore over my letter to the Prime Minister has exploded on the day I begin a family holiday in a place with no mobile signal and intermittent wifi. Sky sent a satellite truck to the middle of nowhere and, so, got their interview (although I struggled to hear the questions in my earpiece and, therefore, probably sounded incoherent). Otherwise, it is almost impossible to do interviews.

I think one or two comments of explanation are due:

  • My letter is neither “bitter” not an “attack” on the Prime Minister. That was journalese. My letter simply tries to ask questions many people are asking, but to which we are not getting answers. I wrote reasonably and respectfully.
  • The Prime Minister is in a difficult position and I bet even Ed Miliband is grateful not to have to attempt to bring some order out of the chaos of crises around the globe this month. Prioritising cannot be simple, given the complexity of the issues to hand.
  • Asking questions of “coherence” should not imply that there is none (even if there isn't); it does ask for any coherence to be articulated. We are all implicated in our Government's decisions and should, therefore, be able to understand the big picture into which the reactive details fit.
  • There is no implied hierarchy of suffering in my letter. Asking questions about the lack of attention to the Chritsians in Iraq cannot imply a rejection of the focus on the suffering of others. It is a specific question about silence.
  • It has become clear that many people have written to their MPs (including ministers) about their concerns, and often not even had a reply. Perhaps giving these questions a higher profile might help.
  • I do not expect the Prime Minister or his colleagues to reply immediately to my questions. Indeed, I would prefer to wait and receive a considered response that indicates how these concerns are being addressed holistically than to get a reactive response that doesn't take us further.
  • The central point (backed up by some quoted military leaders) is that there must be some overarching vision about what we want to see happen in the Middle East – the “we” being not just individual governments in isolation from each other. The strategy is the 'plumbing' that gets us there. If a strategy is to be at all coherent, then it must serve the 'end' to which that strategy is the means. It is this that needs to be seriously debated and agreed – as we will then have to accept the price we are prepared to pay in order to make it happen. (For example, if it meant us staying in Iraq for thirty years, rather than ten, will we do it?)
  • I doubt if the Prime Minister will have me on his Christmas card list after this. But, the letter was not an attack on him; it was a questioning of policy and practice. There needs to be a distinction between the letter and the reporting around it.

This is the text of a letter I have sent to the Prime Minister and which will be referenced in national media tomorrow.

Recognising the complexities of such matters and the difficult role of the Prime Minister in them, I wrote the letter as a constructive stimulus to discussion of the wider questions provoked by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Attempting to fix the immediate will prove costly in every respect, if we don't have a long-term, overarching and holistic vision for what we – along with other governments, agencies and partners (such as the churches) – need to achieve. The lack of clarity about such a comprehensive and coherent vision is being commonly remarked upon, and my letter seeks concisely and respectfully to elicit some response to these serious questions.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

Iraq and IS

I am conscious of the speed at which events are moving in Iraq and Syria, and write recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges faced by the international community in responding to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

However, in common with many bishops and other correspondents here in the UK, I remain very concerned about the Government’s response to several issues. I write with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to put these questions to you.

1. It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government’s response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq? Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect. The Church internationally must be a primary partner in addressing this complexity.

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

3. As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse. The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK Government. Therefore, I ask for a response to the question of whether there is any intention to offer asylum to Iraqi migrants (as part of a holistic strategy to addressing the challenges of Iraq)?

4. Following on from this, I note that the Bishop of Coventry tabled a series of questions to HM Government in the House of Lords on Monday 28 July. All but two were answered on Monday 11 August. The outstanding questions included the following: “The Lord Bishop of Coventry to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to resettling here in the UK a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq.” I would be grateful to know why this question has not so far been answered – something that causes me and colleagues some concern.

5. Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this. Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary? Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – which would demonstrate the Government’s serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?.

I look forward to your considered response to these pressing questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines (The Bishop of Leeds)

 

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's perhaps indicative of the original trauma itself that yesterday I got the shivers when I heard the A Level results were being published. I remember well – when I went with my dad to my old comprehensive school in Liverpool to get my results nearly forty years ago – the feeling of dread … the sense that the whole of the rest of my life depended on what would be revealed in the next ten minutes. Melodramatic? Maybe. But, I've never forgotten the experience.

Looking back, I think I saw education in rather narrow terms. Qualifications were a means of advancement – allowing me to move on to the next thing I wanted to do in life, which was to go to university. There was something functional about the whole thing: get qualifications in order to get the place in order to get the degree in order to get the job, and so on. And there are plenty of commentators today who would observe that this functionalism has become the be all and end all of education. Perhaps we should recover the German distinction between 'education' and 'training'.

Well, the whole process surely must be more than creating incarnated CVs. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago he stressed that we need to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” – that is, to allow our world view, our assumptions about who we are and why we are here, about what matters and why, to be re-shaped over time. But, Paul refused to accept that this can be done apart from consideration of how we use our bodies and spirits – what we choose to worship and how we do our ethics.

Funnily enough, this is the understanding that gave rise to universities in the first place. Education was seen as the development of the character of a person in community, and not just a means of getting jobs to earn money. Not surprisingly, it was primarily about expanding the world of a student into a freedom to live universally – an opening up and not a closing down of perception and experience. And, contrary to some of today's dominant cultural worship of 'success', this approach assumes we have something to learn. It is rooted in the humility that knows how little we know, and how hard it is to change our minds.

Essentially, then, this suggests that we need to recover – at the heart of our assumptions about education – that education is a means to an end and not an end in itself: the end is the formation of character, and qualifications simply help us to measure how far that character is being shaped.

There are many homes in England today that burst with celebration or are quiet with uncertainty. It can only be hoped that all students will see their value going beyond results that only measure a little of what matters … and possibly say nothing about who they are as persons.

 

One of the burdens of having written a blog for some years is that when you stop for a while people read into it something that isn't there. Apparently, silence about urgent world events – or, in my case, developments in the church – means I am a coward or unwilling to commit (despite regular media engagement on these issues). It is always interesting to me that the first (rather than the last) assumption is my obvious lack of integrity.

The real reason, of course, is more prosaic: I have not had the time or head space to hit the keys. Starting a new role in less-than-ideal circumstances, then moving house and settling into a new one (most of which is office or 'public' space), shifts the immediate priorities.

So, here is a bullet point observation on some of the things that have gone on recently, or are going on now:

  • The Gaza crisis will not be solved without Hamas ceasing its indiscriminate rocketing of Israel. Israel's response has been appallingly disproportionate, but responsibility is shared. In the end, a negotiated settlement will be needed, but by then the next couple of generations of mutual enmities and grievances will have been firmly established. In the end, this sort of violence resolves nothing.
  • The UK government should open our doors to those Christians and other minorities seeking asylum from persecution in Iraq and Syria. Numbers won't be great, but we have a moral obligation to rescue those whose situation has been generated by our interventions. Germany and France have led the way – there has so far been silence on this matter from home.
  • Rescuing Iraqis will not address the religiocide in Iraq and Syria. It is staggering that we would invade to oust Saddam, but hold back from stopping the shockingly brutal violence deliberately being inflicted on large communities of vulnerable people.
  • Jon Henley in the Guardian reports a massive rise in antisemitism in Europe and observes: “Across Europe, the conflict in Gaza is breathing new life into some very old, and very ugly, demons.” Interesting use of language. Jesus once exposed the idiocy of cleaning out one demon, leaving a vacuum, then being surprised when the gap is filled by loads of demons – most of them far worse than the one they got rid of in the first place.
  • The rise of antisemitism itself demonstrates that the supposedly rational European societies are neither as rational nor discriminating as they would claim to be. When opposition to Israeli policy is turned into intimidation of Jews in England, Germany or France, there has clearly been a breach in the synapses somewhere. Or, perhaps, it just reinforces the fact that even people who claim to be rational actually react from deeper emotions rooted in unarticulated prejudices.
  • Clear out one demon, leave a power vacuum, and all you have done is clear the way for power-hungry demons to occupy the space. I am taken back to the historian (I think it was Niall Ferguson) who suggested that if you are an empire, you must behave like one and not pretend to be 'nicer'. In relation to Iraq, this means you can't just pop in, proclaim “Mission Accomplished” and satisfy domestic political concern by leaving quickly. He suggests that you have to be prepared to bed down for thirty years, change the infrastructure, let a generation go through, embed systems that work and allow the space for indigenous power to develop. Imperial? Yes. Patronising? Probably. But, the point is: don't do an 'Iraq' unless you are prepared to see it through … however uncomfortable this might make you at home.

And, in all of these cases, the ground will have shifted again by tomorrow.

 

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. I wanted, within the constraints of length, to shine a different light on some of what is going on in the world.

I really don't feel old enough for this, but my grandson is about to start school in September. But, the prospect fills me with a mixture of pleasure and dread. At some point in the next ten years we will have to sit though a school production of 'Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat'. Apparently, there's no escape.

Believe it or not, this is a deeply subversive musical … but not because of its biblical origins or its frequent replaying: it is because one song in particular is very dangerous.

To put it bluntly: it is just not true that “any dream will do”. Look around at the world outside and this becomes blindingly obvious. The 'dream' that drives ISIS (Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq is one most of us would claim will not do. It gives the lie to that other oft-repeated mantra: “It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” That sort of thinking would cheer the heart of a Pol Pot or his newly-jailed henchmen.

The problem here is that in our liberal culture we have divided the dream (or, what we think and believe about the world and why people matter) from consequent behaviour. In other words, we have allowed a disconnect between idea and action – one that is being reconnected by all sorts of ideologically driven groups around the world, often with bad results. Our problem, however, is that we don't understand any longer the legitimacy of action or commitment following idea or belief.

In fact, it is worse than this. We often speak as if any world view will do as long as it is liberal-western (and, therefore deemed to be neutral), but then insist that any religious world view – regardless of its integrity – is to be kept private in case it might make a difference. Which, I always thought, was the whole point.

At the root of all this is the uncomfortable fact that human beings act out of deeply-rooted assumptions about why the world is the way it is. The task, then, is to question the dream that drives the action and see if it is a dream that really will do.

This is what drives the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The prophets of the Old Testament constantly hold up a vision of what human society ought to look like and hold the people to it. As Amos says, don't dare to worship a God of mercy, but then go out and trample on the heads of the poor. Don't praise a God of justice, but then institutionalise corruption in the legal systems that allow the rich and powerful to buy advantage. In the Gospels Jesus uses story and image to plant ear worms in the imagination of his friends and enemies – words that scratch away at mind and conscience, making us restless for the fulfilment of a different vision.

I think Joseph's technicolour dream is worth revisiting. It replaced vengeance and injustice with mercy and love. It allowed those who had betrayed him to be free to live again.

 

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, written in the face of the horrors of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine and all the other bloody conflicts filling the news screens, and with a strict word limit.

Way back in 1978 Boney M did a terrible thing: they took a song of desperate lament and turned it into a disco dance hit. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ was a boppy little number with a very catchy tune, but the music bore no relation to the content or the meaning of the words.

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This song – which is taken from Psalm 137 – is wrenched out of the guts of a people whose world has been lost – possibly for ever. Here they sit in exile, expelled from their homeland, being mocked by their captors while they weep in humiliation. After all, how can they sing songs of praise to their God when the evidence of their desperate experience tells them it has all been a big mistake?

Well, Boney M aren’t the only culprits when it comes to putting words to inappropriate music. But, this is the song that comes to my mind when I see the images brought to us from just about every corner of the globe by hugely brave journalists and film crews. Attempts to rationalize the immensity of human suffering in the world today must surely come second to some attempt at empathy. Our brains might be engaged, but our first response must be the surge of emotional horror and lament that is dragged from deep within us as we see the human suffering laid bare before us.

Now, Psalm 137 is not a comfortable song; nor is it a song for the comfortable. It ends with a shrill cry of pain and hatred: “God, I wish you’d take the children of my enemies and smash their heads against the rocks.” But, it isn’t there to justify an ethic. It isn’t there to suggest it is right to think such awful things of other people’s children. It is there for two reasons: first, to confront us with the reality of how deep our own human hatred can go, and, secondly, to tell us not to lie to God (thinking he can’t handle that reality or the depths of human despair).

If we thought the twentieth century of bloodshed and slaughter was bad enough, the twenty first is already proving pretty grim. Like everybody else, I have views on what is happening in the Middle East and closer to home in Ukraine – including the persecution of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere. And, having grown up in Liverpool in the aftermath of the Second World War with grandparents who well remembered the First, I am haunted by the human propensity for what historian Christopher Clark has called the “sleepwalking” into global conflict. Where does all this leave the myth of human progress?

“By the rivers of Babylon” perhaps gives us a vocabulary for times such as this – admitting the horror and the helplessness, but surrounded by other songs that compel compassionate response and action that is rooted in hope of a better future.

This last sentence is a reference to the fact that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tackle the hard task of imagining a future where one looks impossible.

 

Well, today the General Synod finally voted to make it possible for women to be made bishops. Which means that before too long we should be able to stop talking about “women bishops” and just talk about “bishops”.

Not everyone will be welcoming this development tonight, even if they knew it had to happen. The debate in York lasted nearly five hours and only a few speeches were off the mark (or manipulative).

The bottom line is simply that the Church of England has practised what it preaches and taken the time (lots of it…) to make a decision that keeps people together despite disagreement. It offers a model of how there is an alternative to simply cutting and running when conflict occurs.

My post-vote statement reads as follows:

I’m delighted that the General Synod has today voted in favour of the legislation that will allow women to be consecrated as bishops.

It’s been a long time coming, but that’s because the Church of England has worked hard to hold together those of contrasting views, even when those opposed were in the minority. But the wrestling has paid off and we have upheld our commitment to being a broad church.

With the guiding principles the bishops have set out, we have a process that will both fully support women bishops while providing for the flourishing of those who are still opposed, and we can now move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and trust.

I believe women bishops will have a hugely positive impact on the Church of England, and I look forward to the first consecration.

Real credit goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury who brought in a radically new way of doing Synod business and working the relationships. I am not naive – this must have involved more wrangling and diplomacy than most of us have any idea about. But, he set a new course and made possible what looked utterly impossible only twelve months ago.

The other real credit goes to the Bishop of Rochester who chaired the group that had come up with this process and solution. He exudes calm, reasonable, gracious authority, and I wonder just how vital his personality and skill have been to getting us this far so quickly and effectively.

The Archbishop of York chaired the debate with great skill and lightness of touch.

So, now the hard work begins. We have to make this work. (And we have to be patient while the legalities are worked through until the winter when action might begin to be possible.)

But, for now we can sleep in peace, knowing that today the Church did something remarkable.

 

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