September 2009

So, the Sun newspaper has decided to switch its allegiance and back the Tories in the next General Election. I guess they’ll be hoping to repeat their ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ headline from Tony Blair’s triumph way back in 1997.

It won’t come as any surprise that I have no affection for the Sun at all – on two grounds: (a) I am a Scouser and I remember Hillsborough very well; and (b) it’s owned by Rupert Murdoch – whose son recently exposed the values of the family business.

Hillsborough disaster

In Helmut Schmidt’s wise reminiscences over a lifetime in public office and publishing, Ausser Dienst, he makes the following comment about what connects politicians and journalists (my rough translation):

Politicians and journalists live in an antagonistic symbiosis: one can’t live without the other. But they don’t particularly like each other and they observe each other with a mutual and deep suspicion. Yet they have at least two things in common. First, they have to speak or write today about subjects and issues that they won’t adequately understand until tomorrow or the day after; secondly, they are required to fascinate their audience at any one time. So, both professions are subject to the temptations – be they a glance at opinion polls or a look at the numbers. Both are part of the political class, but both professions contain the spectrum from statesmen to delinquents. (p.30)

I thought this was an interesting observation at a time when politicians are smelling the gaining or loss of power and when the newspapers, losing readers by the day, are attempting to increase and exercise their (waning?) influence over the political processes.

It can only be hoped that the British people might be mature enough to make up their own minds and to bring to what they read a critical eye that asks the questions of editorial motive, selectivity and fundamental assumptions.

Perhaps we do need to compel every child to do Media Studies after all – just in order to enable them to take an intelligent and informed part in the democratic process…

Well, I can tell you what it isn’t – according to Helmut Schmidt (former Bundeskanzler in West Germany) in his wonderful book Ausser Dienst. He says this on page 28 of the German edition:

Tradition ist etwas Wichtiges, aber es ist nicht der Hauptzweck des Lebens. (Tradition is something important, but it isn’t the main purpose of life.)

He is actually talking about the tradition he inherited when he left public office and moved into publishing with the great German newspaper, Die ZEIT. But his comments put very succinctly something that bugs me and has done for a very long time.

I grew up in a Baptist church in Liverpool. (Obviously, I grew up in a house with my family, but you know what I mean.) We prided ourselves on having no regard for tradition or liturgy … like those Anglicans down the road who probably weren’t Christians anyway.

But, of course, we did have traditions – inherited ones we revered and assumed to be sacrosanct. They had to do with particular theologies, particular ways of reading the Bible and understanding history and the church. And we did have liturgies … well, just one, really. Every service was the same-ish in the journey on which it took us and it was not hard to predict who would do what in which order and using which words.

Human beings are by nature traditional. We build today on what and whom have gone before us. We make unconscious assumptions about what we regard as essential, useful and desireable in life and they become part of the ‘backstory’ that gives us our identity now.

So, I don’t have a problem with traditions or how to maintain them when they are worth maintaining. I do have a real problem, however, with the sort of people and churches who claim not to have traditions (or ‘be traditional’) or who pretend not to be ‘liturgical’ when it takes only ten minutes of being in a service to work out what actually is going on, who is in control and what the likely future journey will be.

Just admit it: we are liturgical and traditional beings. No shame in being honest about the human condition.

The former Bishop of Sheffield, Jack Nicholls, is a wonderful man. While sitting on a commission with him (and others) for two years at the end of the 1990s, I learned a huge amount about humility, humanity and humour from him.

Jack NichollsHe is speaking at the Southwark Diocesan Clergy Conference at Swanwick and he has already made a huge impression on people here. This evening he spoke – as requested to do so – about what has sustained him through 42 years of ordained ministry in the Church of England. He did so by citing six people who have shaped him and one in particular is going to get to a wider audience now.

A now-deceased nun told him many years ago that there are only three things to be involved with as a priest:

  • the praise of God
  • the pain of the world
  • the repentance of the church.

He went on to say that the place and purpose of prayer is to locate us at the place where the love of God and the pain of the world meet … which happens to be where the cross is to be found.

Churches that emphasise their praise of God without being rooted in and brought into the pain of the world and its people are living the sort of fantasy that the prophet Amos railed against in the Old Testament. The church needs to be constantly repentant because we keep focusing on the wrong things and failing to resemble the one whose name we bear: the Jesus we read about in the gospels. As I said in Berlin yesterday: if the church does not look, sound and feel like the Jesus of the gospels, then we are a fraud and a lie.

Jack clearly built his ministry on those three blocks. So, should the rest of us?

Helmut SchmidtWhile in Germany the other day I picked up a copy of Helmut Schmidt‘s latest (and probably last) book, Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz. Basically, it is a collection of ruminations 25 years after leaving office as Bundeskanzler in the Federal Republic of Germany. Schmidt was Bundeskanzler from 1974-1982 and was, to my mind at least, one of the greatest politicians of the post-war years. As well as being probably one of the most intelligent politicians of his generation, he was also a generous and always interesting man. He also managed to keep Margaret Thatcher in check.

In the introduction to his book of reminiscences the chain-smoking 91 year-old (whom I managed to miss when he did a long session at the Kirchentag in Bremen last May – many went to see if he could manage to last a whole two hours in a hall where smoking was banned) says:

Now approaching the end of my life, I simply wanted to put in writing what I believe I have learned politically in the course of the decades I have served.

He left public office in 1987 after three decades as (what we would call in Britain) an MP. So, his reflections and reminiscences bring with them an authority and wisdom that need to be taken seriously. It seems to me that every politician should be forced to read this book … and Denis Healey’s wonderful The Time of my Life.

Here Schmidt discusses the need for politicians to learn the art of compromise and tolerance, observing that the responsibility of a politician is not abstract, but has to be worked out in very real and complex situations. He makes comments about the need for all politicians to do two things before taking public office: (a) travel widely and (b) learn at least two foreign languages. Can you imagine any British or American politician taking that seriously? Yet he is absolutely spot on.

To learn a language is to enter beneath the surface of a people, their history and their culture. It is necessary to learn a language in order to understand how relatively limited is your own culture and understanding of the world. Schmidt handled the British media and people like Margaret Thatcher with consummate ease, speaking English with a rare skill for semantic nuance and shaming the linguistically-challenged British by his unshowy facility to understand the British mindset – even when he clearly thought he was dealing with rather limited intellects.

Whenever I am abroad I feel rather ashamed at my weakness in languages. Compared to what it should be, my German is now not very good. But, I cannot forget the experience of learning French from an early age (but never practicing it) and, later, Russian as an adult and professional linguist. As you learn the language and explore the history and culture of a people, you begin to understand why they think the way they do. You begin to loook through their eyes and comprehend why the world looks as it does from their perspective.

So, why, I ask, are languages relegated to the second division of the English school curriculum? Why are we so stupid as to allow children to drop all foreign languages at the age of 14? Do we not realise that not only do they lose the opportunity I have just described of entering into the soul of another people and, therefore, finding a new way of reflecting on their own identity, but they also put themselves at a massive disadvantage when it comes to making their way in the world of work and business? If young children in some of my Croydon schools can have an easy facility with several languages – of which English might be their third – why can’t English children surmount their island mentality and manage at least one foreign language to some degree of articulacy?

Schmidt says this (in my translation):

My many travels have confirmed for me just how important it is to observe your own country from the outside and to compare its institutions and laws with those of another state.

Reading that on the flight back from Berlin last night, I reflected that the same is true of the Church. When I listen to some Christians extolling the virtues of the Reformers in Europe (usually very selectively), I smile to think how they would react if they saw what that reformed tradition actually looks like in reality. We all need to see through the eyes of others and be willing to see our own certainties differently as a result.

But, as Schmidt suggests in his wonderful, wise and very personal book, to see through the eyes of others is dangerous: you might end up being more generous to them and more critical of your own.

And that would never do – would it?

… which, of course, is the title of a Leonard Cohen song – best version by Jennifer Warnes.

In England we have this rather sad envy of all things German. In Germany – so the story goes – everything is top quality, everything works as it is supposed to work, the trains run on time and they all speak English anyway.

Well, they do ‘do’ quality – just look at their buildings. Everything works everywhere – and, if it doesn’t, they put it right very quickly. Most speak English – which can be a little frustrating if you want to work on your German. But – and it is with some relief and a certain Schadenfreude that I report this – the trains no longer run on time.

Or, at least, mine didn’t yesterday. The Deutsche Bundesbahn was late!

September 2009 011I took part in the final ‘pilgrimage’ walk with 1000 people through Kassel, concluding with me and Carla Maurer (from Switzerland and on the right of the picture) sending people on their way home with God’s blessing. This final event also involved Bishop Wolfgang Huber and the President of Germany, Horst Koehler and his wife. So, I sat with them on the stage, had a good conversation with them afterwards (in which I suggested he didn’t come to Berlin Cathedral on Sunday morning) and then had coffee with friends before catching the fast train to Berlin.

September 2009 012

It took 90 minutes longer than it should have done. By the time we got into Berlin I had missed the lecture I had planned to go to at the Humboldt University by Professor Dr Christoph Schwoebel. That’s ninety minutes late! So, I checked into the hotel, got a meal and had an early night.

September 2009 013This morning I was preaching at the Berliner Dom and I have worried about this for weeks – probably annoying everyone else by moaning about it too openly. In Kassel a good friend of mine, Christoph Roemhild, helped me with the German; so I was able to mount the extraordinarily enormous and intimidating pulpit with more confidence than I deserved. There was a congregation of (so I was told) around 700. I preached on the raising of Lazarus (you can read the basic text on the Berliner Dom website) and when I finished there was spontaneous applause. That has never happened to me before. I think they were so relieved it was over that they couldn’t contain themselves.

The service was wonderful and nearly had me in tears. The choir and orchestra led the setting by Johann Sebastian Bach and the service was led by the Dompredigerin, Frau Petra Zimmermann, and the EKD Bishop for Ecumenical and Foreign Affairs, Martin Schindehuette.

This service was, however, more than an opportunity to hear an Englishman speak German in public – which is usually good for a laugh. It represented yet another opportunity for German and English Christians to worship and serve together. This month represents a number of anniversaries: 70 years after the outbreak of the Second World War; 60 years of the German Constitution (Grundgesetz); 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and almost 20 years of the Meissen Agreement (bringing together the German Protestant Church and the Church of England in a common service of the people of Europe).

In my sermon I did draw attention to the fact that much of the reconciliation after the war was only possible because of the readiness of the churches to admit guilt, reach out and provide a rationale and locus for forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. We take it for granted now, but I found myself deeply moved by the unity we demonstrated and genuinely felt as we worshipped together this morning.

September 2009 014While waiting for the bus to the airport (where I am writing this) I looked again at the Berlin television tower – an embarrassment to the East German authorities during the Communist years. Every time the sun shone on it, the reflection took the form of a cross!

Incidentally, the reason I advised the German President to worship elsewhere this morning was because it is Election Day in Germany and he told me he would normally go to church before voting. I thought he might prefer to hear a German sermon rather than an outsider’s ruminations. I hope he had a good morning – he is a very nice man.

I am back in Germany for a few days. The EKD (the German Protestant Church) – which is more fun than it sounds – is going through a process of reform in order to re-shape the church for the next few decades. This began in 2006 with a conference in Wittenberg and has been driven with determination and vision by the soon-to-retire top bishop of the EKD, Wolfgang Huber. The conference this time is in Kassel and has brought together over 1200 people from all over Germany – and it is excellent.

kircheimaufbruchekdThe Germans also know how to do hospitality. The food and drink is wonderful and they attend to minute details in making sure everything works and everyone is comfortable. I am here to represent the Church of England as an ecumenical partner and have spent the whole of today taking part in discussions and addresses. Unfortunately, my German is struggling with the complicated stuff and, although I understand everything, I do have to think hard when speaking. (Which wasn’t a problem during the evening awards dinner where the wine flowed like the Rhine…)

Martin LutherThe EKD launched this visionary and very brave exercise in reforming itself, with a view to celebrating in 2017 the 500th anniversary of the Reformation started by Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg. This time a full programme has seen celebration go with worship, wine with serious engagement with the contemporary challenges for the church in Germany and in Europe, and a market place of what we in England would probably call ‘fresh expressions of church’. Creativity is being encouraged and – believe it or not – the Church of England’s experience is regarded here as exemplary.

Of the many impressions and lessons, three things stand out for me:

1. Bishop Huber spoke in his opening address of what he called ‘mentale Gefangenschaften’ – mental imprisonments. One of the things that I brought into today’s session was the assumption that anything we start must have the potential to last for ever. But the church needs to find the courage to start initiatives, let them run for a while and then kill them or move on. The second example I used was the fear of failure. We must encourage churches to take risks and not fear failure. I, as a bishop, will never refrain from supporting a church that takes a risk and fails; I worry more about those that try to play everything safe. Or, as an Austrian bishop put it this evening: ‘Too many churches fears disappearing less than they fear change.’

Huber2. Many Protestant churches in Europe are small. This means that their voice is hard to get heard in the cacophany of voices in the public square. The churches in Europe need each other to offer a combined voice on matters of huge importance in Europe such as assisted suicide, economics, ecology, etc. Christians are for ever whingeing about the way the world is going, but have no idea what to do about it. Well, the message here is clear: swallow your pride and join with others (whether you agree with every jot and tittle of their theology or not) as Christian churches with a common task.

A wonderful young woman from Switzerland made this clear in a very strong critique of the input at this afternoon’s forum on ecumenical matters. One of the things that worries me about the fragmentation of English Christians into new alignments such as New Wine, etc. is that they don’t contribute to a Christian coalition on these matters of massive human and social import beyond the church – they fragment our voice. This is not a criticism of New Wine or any other renewal movement in the Church for what they do do, but simply a way of asking a question about whether our preoccupation with our church brand keeps us singing spiritual songs while the world goes to pot for want of a coherent and united Christian voice.

3. The young Swiss woman, Carla Maurer, took me to task for speaking of ‘a cacophany of voices in the public square’ and challenged us (older generations) to accept the fact that the world has changed: that people like her are now citizens of Europe who embrace eclecticism and diversity. She called for the churches to prioritise what she called in German ‘Chaoskompetenz’ – an ability to cope with, live with and master ‘chaos’. She is right.

Perhaps I might add a fourth thing that impressed me. The Book of the Year award by the EKD for 2009 went to a retired pastor called Christian Fuhrer who opened his church in Leipzig to the opposition movement in the 1980s. He is a humble and unassuming man with a backbone of steel when it comes to his conviction about what is right and wrong – and what the Christian’s responsibility is. In his autobiography, Und wir sind dabei gewesen, (And we were there) he records the events that led to the peaceful challenge to and downfall of Communism and the obscene Berlin Wall in East Germany in 1989. It is increasingly common these days to read about these events as if they were the result of post-Enlightenment rationalist inevitability – and forget that the Christian churches offered the space, the consistently intellectual rigour, the moral courage, the political encouragement and the spiritual vision that led to those remarkable days 20 years ago when the world changed for the better.

Tomorrow we finish here in Kassel with a Reisesegen – a journey of blessing. Several thousand people will walk through Kassel, stopping to pray and meditate on the Church’s vocation in the world. Then I will give the final blessing in the company of the German President Horst Koehler and the head of the EKD. Then I get the train to Berlin to catch the end of an academic conference on the Reformation and preach in Berlin Cathedral at an ecumenical service on Sunday morning.

What is a ‘friend’? I know that sounds a stupid question on the face of it, but it is bugging me.

We’ve just been having conversations about contemporary culture in Germany and England and the pressures facing (particularly) young people in societies that are changing rapidly. It has been an informed, challenging and stimulating conversation – it always is when you engage with people from a different culture – and I have more questions than answers. But, then I came across the Guardian article about a Japanese guy who runs an agency for providing ‘rent-a-friend’ facilities for lonely Japanese.

FriendsWell, given Japanese culture and some of the factors mentioned in the article, the creation of a false friend agency might not be totally surprising – even if it is somewhat depressing. But this chimed in with something we were talking about during the Communications Conference in Rome last week: why does Facebook tell you you have ‘friends’ when they are nothing of the sort?

At best most of them are virtual acquaintances. And what sort of friendship do we encourage when we use the word ‘friend’ to describe a relationship in which you can simply delete someone who offends or bores you? How does that help grow people to work at relationships, cope with disappointment, learn to forgive and be forgiven, and so on?

I realise this is sounds like miserable nostalgia-seeking. However, I am not against new ways of building communities or getting people to relate to each other. Indeed, I think new media and social networking facilities are opening up all sorts of new possibilities for relating. But I am not sure that diluting notions of friendship by the shallow use of the word ‘friend’ in such fickle contexts is helpful to concepts of healthy relationships.

facebookI guess I am saying that a friend has to be known. And you can’t know someone you don’t know – or can easily dismiss if the relationship ceases to please you.

So, we shouldn’t sneer at the Japanese initiative unless we also address the weaknesses in our own culture.

Just walk into any pub and you’ll find people pontificating about everything under the sun with great authority. The same can happen at the General Synod of the Church of England – and I bet it happens in every boardroom, every other church and every other medium. We love to speak about things we don’t actually know about.

The General Synod brings together some fantastic people of vast and impressive experience. But there are times when the theme of a debate blanks some brians and brings to the microphone people who have no idea what they are talking about with such confidence. For example, whenever the General Synod debates something to do with the media, my heart sinks as speaker after speaker makes it evident they read the Daily Mail and have no idea what they are talking about.

Iron CrossToday in Blackburn was different. A German member of the Meissen Commission (which I am currently chairing) spoke with serious passion about his confrontation in East Germany with young neo-Nazis. This guy grew up in the Communist GDR and worked as a Christian pastor in a society that persecuted you for your Christian commitment (or lack of atheism). He now faces a society in which atheism is taken for granted and neo-Nazism is gaining ground eveyr day – even with demands for a return to Germany’s 1937 borders.

His question was put in the context of a discussion about the nature of truth and truth claims. If we have no conviction of the absolute truth claims of Jesus Christ, how (he asked) do we deal with the young person who says he wants to be a neo-Nazi? It is not enough to simply tell him he shouldn’t – without giving a cogent reason why not … one that is rooted in something more reasonable than wishful thinking.

My German friend’s point was that if you accept (uncritically) the common assumption that relativism is normal and any ‘truth’ is OK as long as it is ‘true for you’, you have nothing to say to the young neo-Nazi. He has chosen his path and you have no grounds for denying him whatever will make him feel fulfilled. On the contrary, he said, we have to have a grounded and consistent theology and anthropology for giving a cogent reason for not becoming a neo-Nazi.

In other words, the problem lies not in the neo-Nazism, but in the relativistic thinking that reduces our fundamental philosophical and ethical choices to mere consumer preferences. If you reject the need for a ‘truth claim’ that you believe is more true and more compelling than other truth claims, you have nothing to say and no grounds for saying it.

His point was that a Christian needs to be intellectually as well as culturally and pastorally sharp in addressing the real lives of young people in East Berlin. To neglect the seriousness of the philosophical/theological task is to vacate the space in which nasty cancers like neo-Nazism can fester and grow without coherent challenge. Simply mounting a demonstration to shout that ‘my preference is better than your preference’ is hopelessly inadequate and will achieve the opposite of what you hope to achieve.

NaziA coherent response to the neo-Nazi requires a clear understanding of and commitment to a view of the human person that is rooted in him having been created in the image of God (anthropology); in him being morally responsible in a way that regards some choices as more or less moral than others; in him assuming a view of society that involves mutual responsibilities; and in him committing himself to a way of life that sees power in a wooden cross and not in an Iron Cross.

This is challenging. In a liberal democracy the question might not be too urgent – yet. But in East Berlin this is the real challenge of today among young people who are given pride and certainty in political doctrines rooted in seriously dodgy anthropologies – but able to flourish in a society that has relativised its moral judgements to the level of ‘your choice is equally valid to mine and I can’t stand in judgement on your choices’. That way lies deep trouble – as Berlin discovered once before.

Having got back from the Communications Conference in Rome, I am now chairing the annual meeting of the Meissen Commission at Whalley Abbey near Blackburn.

The Meissen Commission was set up almost twenty years ago with an agreement between the Protestant Churches of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and the Church of England (neither federal nor democratic!). The national committees meet three times a year, but we join up once a year, alternating between Germany and England. Last year we were in Meissen, this year in Blackburn.

One of the focal points of our work at the moment is to learn from our different experiences how we address and live with Islamic communities in our respective societies. Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture on Sharia a couple of years ago, I was in Germany doing meetings and promoting one of my books that had just come out in German. Hard questioning and discussions made me realise why the Germans were so upset at what they thought Rowan was proposing. (In a 45-minute radio interview in Hannover I kept repeating that he hadn’t ‘proposed’ anything – he had posed a question…)

Germany has a written Constitution (Verfassung) – a Basic Law (Grundgesetz). This means that everyone is subject to the same law and this renders this element of ‘public space’ neutral. I had to explain that in England we have no written constitution and that we have what can best be described as a ‘negotiation based on precedent’. Furthermore, Islam in Germany derived from the (mainly) Turkish Gastarbeiter, whereas in England Islam is connected with the consequences of colonialism and involves communities from a wide variety of countries. (Yes, I realise it’s a bit more complicated than that, but sometimes you have to simplify it to understand it.)

The central theme of this Meissen Conference is Islam and our engagement with Muslims in our different contexts. So, we visited Blackburn Cathedral this afternoon and had a long and stimulating session with Canon Chris Chivers and Anjum Anwar, Dialogue Development Officer and the first Muslim employee of a Cathedral. This was followed by a rivetting session this evening with Dr Michael Ipgrave back at base. I now feel a renewed sense of pride in and gratitude for the Church of England – for three main reasons:

East London Mosque1. We still try to maintain a presence in every community in the country (in some form or other – including buildings, schools and people). We don’t just go where we think we’ll ‘grow’ our numbers, but stay where we need to serve. Anglican ecclesiology starts not with ‘the church for the sake of the church’, but with ‘the church for the sake of the world’. So, when an area becomes inhabited almost entirely by people of another faith such as Islam, we don’t leave and go away. Presence matters – even when it is immensely costly – which is why we have C of E schools with 100% Muslim population. Christian presence is important in such places – and it also gives us an unparalelled understanding of what is going on at the grassroots of our communities.

2. Presence by itself doesn’t do much. So, we engage in our communities and work hard to know and love our neighbours. This sort of engagement is risky business; any genuine encounter leaves you open to change and some people don’t want change (unless it is in those with whom they disagree). Engagement in such areas does not bring the great rewards of big numbers of bums on pews, but it is vital to the witness of the Christian Gospel that Christians engage fully in their communities in terms of service and love. Engagement creates relationships.

3. Such Christian communities – often very small – bear witness to the great Christian gift of hospitality by sharing themselves, their time, their lives with communities of people who are not like them. This is, again, where hospitals and schools come in.

Blackburn CathedralThere are too many stories to tell about what this looks like on the ground. But it is late and I’ve said enough for now.

A couple of years ago the Church of England produced a short booklet as an attempt to describe its theological approach to Presence and Engagement. Called Generous Love – an Anglican theology of Inter Faith Relations, it is more than worth a read.

Today brought me from Rome to Blackburn via Croydon and emergency root canal treatment by my wonderful dentist. The travel also afforded me the space to think about the communications conference in Rome that ended last night. The last few days demonstrated to me again what a gift the Diocesan Communications people are to the Church: committed, creative, professional and open to learn. Some are compelled to reactive roles (firefighting – ‘naughty vicar’ stories, etc) when they should be given the space to be proactive in telling the good stories of God and the Church.

Rome september 2009 023The last few days in Rome have seen them engage with intelligence, curiosity and professional articulacy in meetings, debates, discussions and conversations with a variety of varied and various people. Whether with media professionals, professional academics, clergy or church communicators, they have made the most of every encounter and the conference proved to be excellent in every respect. It also raised serious questions which will need to be taken forward now we are back in Blighty.

At the department of Social Communications at the Salesian University yesterday, I asked a question that goes to the heart of the matter for us in Rome and at home. It went something like this:

Any genuine encounter between two parties must leave open the possibility that each might be changed by it or by the other. The dynamic has to be two-way. The same must surely be true of our theology – it shapes our experience, but must also be subject to re-shaping by our experience. How, then, does a ‘controlling’ and dogmatic church (such as that of the Vatican) engage in genuine discussion and conversation if it sees the media simply as a one-way vehicle for conveying the truth to the world?

The ensuing conversation was very interesting. The media, we were told, are not simply to be exploited by the Church, but should enable the Church to listen, understand and then respond to the world outside. Not just ‘talking at’, but ‘listening to’. And that is why the Dean of the Faculty described communication as ‘an act of love’.

Via a discussion of communication as conversation, it was noted that:

  • communication cannot be a separate (or free-standing) discipline, but must be the lens through which everything else is seen
  • there has been a massive shift in society from ‘mass media’ to ‘individual media’ – the shared and common experience of watching a TV soap opera (for example) giving way to isolated interaction with media via the individual’s computer screen
  • the need to grow media-competent young people in order that they can grow up as persons of integrity, able to critically analyse media and negotiate the world they are in
  • the need for clergy to be ‘animateurs’ and not just catechists
  • the need for the Church to forge the connection between media -competence and good citizenship
  • the need for the Church to listen to/for the voice of God in and through the world to which it pays attention.

These weren’t the only questions – and it would take too long to expound them all any further. But we did discover the frustration produced by trainee priests who engage in ‘conversation’ with culture and theology generally, but, when it comes to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) simply say that ‘conversation’ doesn’t apply here because here we have ‘revelation’. Now, that rings a lot of bells. So, they will engage openly with everything else, but then close down the shutters when it comes to the Bible. This is the sort of impenetrable self-protection that emits a ‘don’t-blame-me-it’s-what-the-Bible-says’ disclaimer that releases the fearful from having to think.

Yet this was pointed out to us a number of times in relation to the Church’s understanding and exploitation of communication media: they exist to enable us to propagate our message. So, the Vatican website tells you stuff, but you can’t interact with it. The youth-oriented has a section called ‘Wikicath’ – but it isn’t a wiki bacause it can’t be fiddled with in any way.

Of course, none of this is unique to the Vatican. Similar questions need to be directed at the Church of England as well: just how do we understand the dynamic of our own communications functions? What is actually going on in our world? And is the messiness of the Anglican Communion precisely what happens if a Church takes the same risks Jesus did and gives the Gospel away to people who might twist, distort, half-remember or mis-remember what he was trying to tell them about himself, God, the world or us? Can the good news of Jesus Christ really be controlled by a Church institution without it being fossilised into a tool for the preservation of that institution and the elite who are served by it?

Or, to put it more provocatively, is the messiness of the Anglican Communion evidence of genuine risk-taking Christianity – compared with the controlled didacticism of a Church that cannot let go for fear of what might happen if the Gospel got out?

Change the names of the denominations, if you wish. But the questions won’t go away.

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