February 27, 2010
The resignation of Margot Käßmann as Bishop of Hannover and Chair of the Council of the EKD earlier this week has made me think about why people resign. Or - which is probably more accurate - why the rest of us put pressure to resign on people who have got something wrong. This has always mystified me and I have always assumed I was simply missing what was obvious to everybody else: that if someone got something wrong, they deserved to lose their job or role.
I know I am not alone in questioning the link between failure and resignation – the opposite, I suppose, of the link between ‘success’ and bonus. There are several bits of this that bother me and I offer them as a first word rather than a final word, a question rather than a statement:
- If someone gets something wrong, they are not likely to get it wrong again. In that sense the safest person to have on board is one who has learned from failure or error. Of course, if serious error is repeated, that’s a very different story.
- Fear of failure can inhibit creative risk-taking and lead to limited and short-term thinking.
- The fact of having got it wrong should produce a humility that is not inimical to confidence. (I don’t trust people who appear to claim that they have been spotless; I listen to those who know their fallibility.) This is not about hubris or hypocrisy, both of which demand resignation for the sake of all parties.
Margot Käßmann believed that her drink-driving offence would render her unable to speak with authority to power or challenge ethical injustice. I question this. Christian leaders are always assumed to be speaking down to the world from a moral pedestal which they themselves have established for the satisfaction of their own ego. But this is nonsense – which a conversation with any bishop would quickly displace. None of us speaks about ethics from a pedestal: the basic starting point of Christian morality is that we’ve all screwed up and none of us has a leg to stand on when it comes to throwing stones at others. (Great mixing of metaphors there…)
This is not to say that no one can make moral judgements or hold others to account. But it is to say that leaders like Käßmann would – I believe – be listened to all the more keenly because any challenge she brings cannot be stood against any imputation by others of moral superiority.
I know this sounds silly in our current climate, but surely a wise business/institution would invest in the long-term development of its leaders, taking failure as part of the development, and thus avoiding the short-termism that dogs us today? I heard yesterday that the average tenure of a Local Authority Chief Executive is around 3.5 years – it isn’t hard to unpick the implications of that.
I can’t help wondering if the immediate clamour for the resignation of ‘senior’ people has something to do with a desire for punishment or some sort of vindictive schadenfreude – even when it might not be in the best interests of the business/institution (or of the people they serve) for the resignation to be accepted.
Which, I guess, is another way of asking why we love to heap opprobrium on those to be blamed (our new national sport) and voyeuristically enjoy watching the downfall of people who were only doing their best?
Margot Käßmann must not disappear. The Church needs her – perhaps more than even she would dare to realise.
February 24, 2010
This is a massive tragedy. Margot Käßmann resigned earlier today both as Bishop of the Hannover Landeskirche and as Chair of the EKD Council (Ratsvorsitzende).
Following the incident a few days ago when she drove through a red light, was stopped by the police and found to be well over the alcohol limit, she resigned all her posts. The Council had a teleconference last night and gave her unanimous support – and I gather support has come in from just about everywhere. She made no excuses and made no attempt to duck her responsibility. So, her resignation press conference demonstrated just what the EKD and Germany have lost: a woman of stature, humility, dignity, clarity and courage. She is the best communicator the EKD has and is by far the best media operator in the Church.
When she finished her statement and rose to leave the press conference, the journalists applauded her.
It is too early to say why she resigned so quickly and against the will of so many in and outside of the church. She said that her ability to offer a prophetic critique had been compromised, but I am not sure that is true. I think many people are more ready to listen to the challenging voice of one who has ‘fallen’ and speaks with humility from a place of realism (and not from a pedestal of righteousness). Her departure is a tragedy and I have emailed her personally to assure her of my personal support, prayer and love.
Her statement ended with this affirmation:
Zuletzt: Ich weiß aus vorangegangenen Krisen: Du kannst nie tiefer fallen als in Gottes Hand. Für diese Glaubensüberzeugung bin ich auch heute dankbar.
‘You can never fall deeper than the hands of God.’ James Jones once wrote a Lent book called Falling into Grace. In it he makes the point that whenever we fall into sin we then fall further into the grace of God. Clearly that is what Margot is saying. That same grace must lead her through this trauma and then restore her gifts and experience to the service of the world through her service of the Church. She must be encouraged to speak, to preach and to write – she is brilliant. That’s what I am praying for her on a very sad day.
February 23, 2010
I had an interesting meeting with a newspaper editor this morning. One of the things we discussed (in general terms) was the plight of public figures whose life might be remarkable and admirable for the most part, but who are brought down by a single flaw or misdemeanor. This afternoon I read that the Ratsvorsitende of the EKD (German Protestant Church), Bishop Margot Kaessmann, has been arrested on a drink-driving charge.
I don’t particularly want to respond to this – I hate knee-jerk reactions which pile grief on people who know (without us telling them) they’ve screwed up. People should not be used as fodder for vicarious stone-throwing.
Interestingly, the first article I read was in Die Zeit and it was simply a factual reportage of what had happened and noted that she had cancelled all engagements for the rest of this week. It reported that the EKD would be discussing the matter. No further speculation and no great moralising.
Then I went to Bild, the tabloid newspaper that broke the news. Inevitably, they have started polling the ‘angry people’, sought out the voices who will (inevitably) call for her head, and (reluctantly?) noted at the end of its pieces the fact that lots of church leaders are supporting her. My contempt for the moral hypocrisy of those who produce these ‘newspapers’ is well known, so I won’t say more here.
However, what of Kaessmann herself? There will be lots of cries for her blood elsewhere, so I will approach it from a different angle. She has admitted the charge, expressed shock at her own behaviour and said she will face whatever the law throws at her. But she is media-savvy and will know that she now faces being taken apart as a form of public sport. The following is obvious, but needs saying:
- Drink-driving is not only criminal, it is crazy
- Church leaders – in the public eye – should be more careful than most and should not take such risks
- Driving through a red light (as she did) is dangerous
- Kaessmann’s sense of judgement on this occasion should be questioned
- She should be subject to the discipline of her church.
But it is a matter for her and the EKD how she and they proceed from here.
Should she resign? I think not. It would please the self-righteous, but wouldn’t achieve anything else. However, she and the EKD Council will have to ask if this single misdemeanor of itself and automatically obviates all her other gifts and qualities. Does this compromise her ability to represent the Gospel of Jesus Christ through a church that needs little reminder of its own potential for compromise of a more sinister sort?
I still think Kaessmann is a very good thing and am sad to read what she has done. Nevertheless, she has always been startlingly honest in public, and has shown great courage under the spotlight as well as being a powerful articulator of the Gospel and the engagement of theology in the modern European marketplace of ideas. She is flawed as we all are. She is also more gifted than most of us in many respects. I hope the EKD doesn’t lose her.
I doubt if she will ever make this mistake again. I hope, however, that she will be given the chance to start again. Sometimes it is the leaders who need judgment and mercy – with some recognition of the pressures under which they work. That isn’t an excuse or special pleading. Yet, although I don’t drink and drive, I do look at her and think that ‘there but by the grace of God go I’.
February 21, 2010
When the Telegraph launched its month-long revelation of MPs’ expenses I posted a very critical response. In turn I was heavily criticised and posted further pieces as the very interesting debate between several offended journalists, me and others developed.
My fundamental charge was (put succinctly) that having ‘pulled down’ trust in public servants, what responsibility does the media have for ‘building up’ trust in public institutions? I was roundly told that the media have no responsibility for building up: they merely report what the wicked people do and leave it to the rest of us to put the pieces back together again. I refused (and continue to refuse) to accept this – that as long as journalists consider themselves to be part of civil society, they have a responsibility to be constructive within it. Or, put differently, those who hold the rest of us to account must themselves be open to public accountability for their own behaviour. The media do not only ‘reflect’ our culture, they shape it powerfully.)
Part of my concern in these matters derives from the deep respect I have for many politicians at both local and national level. Much of their work is unseen and unglamorous, they often work very long hours in the interests of their constituents, they are required to master ridiculously detailed briefs on a ridiculously broad range of matters, and they are then held up to ridicule, denigration and suspicion by media people who make a living out of critical observation of others. Perhaps this is why so many good politicians (as well as bad ones) are now questioning whether or not they should stay in public life any longer. Many of us wonder why they have stayed so long.
It seems fundamental to human flourishing that people need to be valued and affirmed. Perhaps it should not be surprising that we don’t get the best out of people who are consistently derided and constantly having to defend themselves. And if journalists consistently rank below politicians in public trust ratings, it is a little surprising that we give such authority to journalists when they write negatively about politicians.
Now, none of this is written to condemn journalists or naively praise politicians. It is just how it is – and maybe always has been. But, despite cries for a change in how we address our public culture, there has been a distinct lack of positive movement in addressing widespread concerns about the corruption of our public discourse. Again, perhaps it should not surprise us that political apathy – reflected in fewer and fewer voters exercising their democratic responsibility – proves to be the fruit of such ‘language’.
So, the launch of the Citizen Ethics Network is hugely welcome. This has been established in conjunction with the Guardian and its inaugural pamphlet (which was published with Saturday’s Guardian) can be downloaded and debate entered on the Comment is Free website. When I read it I felt genuine hope for the first time in a long time that it might be possible to change the way we talk about ethics, public policy and those who engage in the public discourse. Perhaps, at last, we can begin to talk properly, intelligently and passionately (but politely) about how we are constructing our public life and conversation about it.
The foreword by Philip Pullman is superb (apart from a single line – which I will mention later). He describes three characteristics of a virtuous state:
- courage: the courage to keep economics in its right place and for public servants to do what is right even when faced with strong persuasion to do otherwise;
- modesty: inviting Britain to become realistic about its contemporary reality in the world and cut its image-cloth accordingly;
- intellectual curiosity: linking such curiosity to freedom and claiming (rightly) that ‘delight’ is fundamental to a culture that promotes freedom:
…delight is like a canary in a coal mine: while it sings, we know that the great public virtue of liberty is still alive. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion and hostility cannot sustain delight for very long. If joy goes, freedom is in danger. A nation that was brave, and modest, and curious would understand that, and would never forget the value of telling its children stories.
Each contribution in the pamphlet is worth reading – if only to see how differently people see ‘virtue’ and, therefore, how essential is the task of creating a common conversation built on respect, curiosity and commitment to human flourishing and the public good.
My only small caveat in this is in a single sentence from Pullman’s foreword:
Those who insist that all ethical teaching must be religious in origin are talking nonsense. Some of it is: much of it isn’t.
In my experience the problem lies not with religious people thinking they have a monopoly on virtue, but with non-religious people assuming that religious people think they have such a monopoly. The response is to try to exclude religious thinkers from the conversation. I wonder why Pullman didn’t write: “Much of it is: some of it isn’t.” That might have been more accurate. The point is, however, that ‘secularists’ need to stop trying to ridicule or exclude religious voices – whilst religious people need to listen carefully to what secularists say and how they see the world and human meaning. That way lies a conversation that will be courageous, modest and brimming with intellectual curiosity – and ultimately leading (hopefully) to delight.
As the great Bruce Cockburn wrote:
Amid the rumours and the expectations / and all the stories dreamt and lived / Amid the clangour and the dislocation / and things to fear and to forgive / Don’t forget about delight…
February 20, 2010
The first time I met Bishop Tom Butler he left me in tears.
It was in his study in Leicester in 1991. I sat on an orange box. He and Barbara had only moved in on the Monday, this was the Thursday and he was due to be enthroned on the Saturday as Bishop of Leicester. I had moved from a wonderful curacy in Kendal to a bit of a disaster in Leicester. The mistake was obvious after only a few days in post as an Associate Vicar and my world felt like it had collapsed. I had moved my family (with three children) and we were going to have to move again. Without going into detail, I thought of throwing the whole thing in.
Tom asked me questions, then told me to leave the diocese and start again somewhere else. That made sense. But that wasn’t the thing that brought me to tears. Two things did:
1. He gave me complete clarity about process: “Deal with me regarding jobs/posts; deal with the Assistant Bishop for pastoral care of you and your family.” I never needed to consult the Assistant Bishop, but I knew where I stood. When things got so bad I had to be pulled out of the parish, Tom acted decisively and with clarity. That is what I needed.
2. Tom prayed for me. That’s when the tears flowed. I have no idea whether or not he remembers this, but I do.
There are some in the church who wish to divide the words ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’. Apparently, Tom Butler is a managerial bishop – and some have accused me of being the same. Well, I see it as a compliment in one sense. Why? Because the dichotomy between ‘pastoral’ and ‘managerial’ is a false one – and a dangerous one. What some people mean by ‘pastoral’ (when asking for it in a bishop) is someone who won’t challenge, who is malleable and won’t interfere too much. But pastoral care begins with getting the administration, communication and ‘business’ right: how do you respect someone who says they care for you pastorally when they then double-book you, fail to reply to letters or emails and don’t do what they promise to do?
A bishop is called to be an accountable steward of the resources of people and stuff/things. He is not called primarily to be ‘nice’ or popular. If niceness and popularity follow, then that is fine; but episcopal leadership and ministry are not good for people who want to be everybody’s friend. The alternative to good management of the resources God gives us is, presumably, bad management. Can anybody show me how bad management equates to good pastoral care?
Tom Butler has led the Diocese of Southwark through nearly twelve years of challenging change. Holding this diocese together was never going to be an easy task and Tom’s early days were not easy for anybody. But he leaves with the respect, gratitude and affection of thousands of people in the diocese and beyond who realise that pastoral care means attention to detail, careful handling of structures, utterly fair treatment of clergy and people, consistency of practice and a life rooted in prayer for those you serve and lead.
Tom’s ministry has spanned nearly five decades and the Church owes him a huge debt. As was recognised by politicians, peers and civic representatives this afternoon at the civic reception prior to Tom’s Farewell Eucharist in the Cathedral, wider society owes him a massive debt, too. He has never been content to let the Church live in a private religious ghetto. His final words today before leaving the Cathedral were the proclaim Jesus Christ and love one another.
The Cathedral was packed. The applause was long and resonant with affectionate respect for Tom and Barbara. They will be hugely missed here. And, for a second time, Tom brought me to tears as he left his diocese having faithfully done what he was called to do. Only he knows the cost of this long ministry – some of us got glimpses. He has been faithful in preaching the gospel, faithful in leading the church and (contrary to the behaviour of some) has never simply cherry-picked the bits of church he likes. But, if I could be half the bishop he is, I would be satisfied.
Tom deserves a long and happy retirement. And the Church of England must hope he will continue to serve her with the wisdom, clarity and loyalty he has exemplified thus far.
Others will have their own say. I remain hugely indebted to Tom and will miss him.
February 18, 2010
The National Secular Society – which seems to be a small group of angry people we would fit into Liverpool Cathedral in one sitting – has just awarded the excellent Southall Black Sisters the Secularist of the Year prize. Unfortunately, I can’t work out what the Sisters actually won. Was it money, a trophy, a bunch of flowers? I think we should be told (or, at least, I should be told where to look for the answer).
Southall Black Sisters was set up to meet the needs of Black and Asian women who are the victims of domestic violence or injustices in the legal system. The main aim of the organisation is to empower women in gaining more control over their lives, to be able to live without fear of violence and be able to assert their human rights to justice, equality and freedom. It is right on the forefront of the feminist struggle in this country. It celebrated its thirtieth anniversary last year, being founded in 1979 during the Southall race riots.
They were awarded the prize for the following reason:
… because they provide a secular space where women fleeing violence or injustice – often resulting from religious attitudes – can find a safe haven… The Government’s ‘cohesion’ agenda has put an enormous amount of power into the hands of religious leaders in minority Asian communities. These are almost always very conservative in their outlook and some consider women’s rights to be unimportant. The Southall Black Sisters can provide women with some time away from this all-powerful religious patriarchy for them to sort out their problems in their own way.
This raises two intriguing questions:
1. What has any of that to do with ‘secularism’? I’d love to know the view of the Southall Black Sisters on this. But to set this against some silly prejudice about ‘religion’ just pushes the NSS into the ‘we’ve stopped thinking’ corner. Since when has defending women against injustice and violence been the sole preserve of ‘secularists’?
2. Did the NSS not check out who actually funds the Sisters? Here’s the list (as discovered by someone else):
The Bromley Trust, John Lyon’s Charity, Department of Health Section 64 Funding, The Sigrid Rausing Trust, City Parochial Foundation, Bridge House Trust, Comic Relief, London Borough of Ealing, Network for Social Change, Princess Diana Memorial Fund, Oak Foundation, Wates Foundation, Henry Smith Charity, London Rape Crisis Centre, Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg.
At least three of those are Christian charities and there may be more.
So, how much financial support is the NSS providing to their award winners? Just asking.
February 17, 2010
During my recent visit to Jerusalem I had a conversation with a young man on the desk of our guesthouse. We were talking about the diminishing numbers of Christians in the so-called ‘Holy’ Land when I referred to the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’. He seemed puzzled until he realised I meant the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. The western churches focus on the cross/death and the eastern churches focus on the resurrection/new life.
Today is Ash Wednesday and there will be much focus on sin and misery and giving up and ‘death’ to things you enjoy. The fasting element of Lent has really given way in popular practice to trivia such as gaining added impetus to a narcissisticly-fed diet by giving up alcohol or foods that make you fat.
But all of this seems to miss the point. We focus on sin in order to move on to the forgiveness that can be received but never bought (unlike everything else in our society). Reminded of the sheer generosity of God’s freedom (‘Let there be’ – rather than ‘Close it down’), we re-engage with the world, free to live and love because we know we are all in it together.
I am reading Andrew Rumsey’s book Strangely Warmed and find myself challenged not to give up for the sake of giving up, but to give up for the sake of taking on. Rumsey makes the following observation:
The season of abstinence is … bookended by banquets, which is highly symbolic. For only the worldly can become godly. It is mortals who sport the ash-smudge of Lent and sinners that are summoned to repentance. Just as those who properly adore chocolate are the only ones who may truly, if grudgingly, let it go, you cannot die to the world when you have never really lived to it, for the simple reason that it is impossible to relinquish something you don’t possess.
He then goes on (provocatively) to observe:
Those who don’t love the world – and there are many Christians who appear not to – really needn’t worry about sacrificing it, for it is not theirs to give. They would do better to start at the beginning and receive the world on a plate.
It is here, surely, that Lent bites. Not in the trivial and self-regarding games we play with ourselves in the name of ‘fasting’, but in struggling between loving the world and all that is in it and not letting that love tear us from God and truth and light. World-haters can spend their Lent looking for extra reasons to hate the world (and themselves?) – after all, there’s plenty of resource material – and confirm themselves in their ‘bury my talent and await the return of the king’ passivism. God-lovers must be world-lovers who so love the world that giving up even a bit of it is painful.
World-hating is common. It is easier to condemn and moan (which is the cultural pool in which we swim) than to get stuck in and bring about change for the better. A quick scan of the front pages of our newspapers and magazines tells us that everything is bad, all people are suspect, no one can be trusted, everywhere is dangerous. There is little celebration of ‘resurrection’, but an overwhelming celebration of what is deadly and threatening.
Andrew Rumsey puts the self-denying call to Christian discipleship in its proper context, recognising that ‘giving up’ does not mean loving the world less:
…if we seek first the Kingdom of God, then, by their demotion, the other things added unto us gain their true status as gifts.
And there, it seems to me, lies the key to Lent. It gives us the space to be grasped again by the overwhelming generosity of world as gift, of life as gift, of time as gift, of gifts as gift. Lent should make us more generous in and to the world, gracious for the world and committed in and to the world.
February 14, 2010
So, the General Synod of the Church of England has deliberated for a week and generally disappointed the doom-mongers by not splitting apart into enemy factions. In fact, some of the debates turned out to be good and intelligent, allowing a voice to some well-informed and experienced people – the debate on science and faith, for example. What has been described as ‘the conflict metaphor’ got a damn good thumping by scientists and mathematicians who happen to be committed and convinced Christians.
That’ll upset the arrogant fundamentalists.
I was pleased to see Andrew Brown in the Guardian asking if science and atheism are compatible - following a post suggesting that the Synod is boring. Some of us might be relieved to hear it was boring as that means it was probably substantial in terms of content whilst failing miserably to burst into conflict. The Synod isn’t primarily a talking shop to keep the media ‘in story’, but the Church of England’s legislative body; so it does have to attend to insider stuff which has to be done, but won’t get sexy headlines.
Coming back into things following sabbatical (study) leave and time abroad, I was pleased to see generally good media coverage of the Synod. I felt that for the first time in a long time the Synod and its business was treated generally with a seriousness and granted an integrity that has often appeared lacking. It felt almost German…
…which brings me back to another thought provoked by the great Helmut Schmidt, 91 year old former Bundeskanzler. I recently picked up in Friedrichshafen a book of interviews with Schmidt. The interviews are conducted by editors of Die Zeit and may only last as long as it takes Schmidt to smoke a single cigarette – they originally appeared in the German weekly newspaper and have now been collected and edited. It is brilliant and exactly the sort of thing other ‘grand old men’ (and women) should be asked to do: very insightful, revealing and interesting.
There are two things that struck me:
1. Schmidt says that he was generally unwell while serving as Bundeskanzler. In an interview about politicians and their holidays he says that he has now had five heart pacemakers fitted, ‘the first while in office’. He goes on to describe not only heart problems, but also thyroid and other health deficiencies. He says: ‘We kept this concealed from the public’.
2. When he became Defence Minister he discovered that NATO had a secret plan to bury nuclear mines along the border with the GDR and Poland. He thought this was insane and got his American counterpart to agree to remove the hardware and bin the plans. When asked how this didn’t get out into the public domain, he said that one or two journalists knew about it, but had the restraint and wisdom (for the greater good) to keep quiet. A decision was made in the interests of the social order rather than the private or commercial interests of a newspaper in possession of a certain scoop.
The question this raises is simply this: could this happen today? Or does ‘transparency’ – based in lack of trust in anyone else’s integrity – trump everything else? Is the world a better or worse place for the secrecy exercised only a few decades ago? Would we be better off not knowing some of the things we do – such as Ashley Cole’s phone habits, John Terry’s sexual predilections or Gordon Brown’s parental grief? (Incidentally, how do the press get into Cole’s phone or Terry’s privacy?)
The press will repsond that they simply give us what we want to read or watch. But we are more than mere consumers, bound to be fed the raw meat we demand; we are human beings who might be better for not knowing everything about everything or everyone.
I was aksed to comment on a live radio programme about John Terry’s infidelity. I declined because I was abroad. But I would have declined anyway – not because I think John Terry needs to be protected, but because he has a wife and children and they have not been spared not only the personal anger and grief, but have had to see their life shredded in every paper and screen. I didn’t want to add to their grief with some distant moral condemnation – there were plenty of others filling that gap.
I am just not sure that we are better people for knowing what we know. Or for wanting to know it and being willing to pay for it.
February 11, 2010
Meeting Archbishop Elias Chacour again last week at his home in Haifa, I was reminded about his ability to speak eleven languages. He frequently questions those people who claim to be unable (or unwilling) to learn the language of someone else. His main reason is that the inability to speak (or at least understand) more than your own native language imprisons you from the richness of seeing through other eyes and thinking through other minds. It is diminishing. In Israel-Palestine it becomes a matter of life and death.
This is not new. I have written before about Helmut Schmidt‘s call to (German) politicians to have at least two foreign languages in their skill bank. When I mentioned this to Ken Livingstone (former Mayor of London) in a television studio in December, he laughed and said that we would have no politicians in Parliament if this was enforced. This is funny – but it is also disastrous.
I studied German and French at the University of Bradford from 1976-1980. Bradford was leading the way in a degree that put heavy emphasis on the spoken language, translation and interpreting. But it was made clear to new students on day one that there is no point being able to speak a language if you have nothing to say in it. It was an excellent and demanding course and one I was not very good at: unlike some of my colleagues, I was never a natural linguist and had to work hard at it, often with not much confidence.
Yesterday I discovered that the University of Bradford has discontinued both its undergraduate courses in Modern Languages and its postgraduate course in Interpreting and Translating. The reason? Not enough young people are learning foreign languages or wanting to study them at university level. To make matters worse, I was told recently that the EU in Brussels is now having to employ non-native English linguists as interpreters (you always work into your own language) because of the lack of suitably qualified linguists from the UK.
This is dire, short-sighted and in need of serious challenge. Even being pragmatic about it, the inability of British people to speak foreign languages already disadvantages them in a globalising economy. Yet, successive governments have put little emphasis on language-learning and now relegate it to the ‘not-very-important’ slot in the curriculum.
Contrast this with the remarkable address given by JK Rowling to academics, parents and graduating students at Harvard in which she addresses ‘failure’ and ‘imagination’ in an example of excellent communication, superb writing and intelligent reflection.
February 9, 2010
There’s nothing quite like spending time in a potential war zone for putting other concerns into perspective. A week or two in Israel-Palestine raises questions of life and death, justice and oppression, propaganda and truth. You meet people who are up against it (on all sides of the divides) and then come back to the General Synod of the Church of England discussing religion in the media in its overblown terms. And just to add to the Christian mix, I discover that traditionalists are threatening to go off to Rome while Reform evangelicals are threatening to hold back their money and grow their own little church – threats obviously being a biblically grounded way of ensuring you get your own way. (That was ironic…)
But, it’s the media stuff that I am interested in on my depressing return to the UK. The General Synod will debate a motion bemoaning the decline of religion in general and Christianity in particular on the BBC. Fortunately, the bishops have proposed an amendment that is a little more grounded in the real world. However, this won’t stop the usual suspects from getting to the microphone to bewail the country and the church going to the dogs. (I think it was GK Chesterton who said something to the effect that it’s the dogs that keep dying…)
Before going any further, let me say clearly (lest I be misrepresented…) that I think the BBC has an obligation to cover religion fairly, fully, intelligently and interestingly. The BBC has a duty to cover Christianity (and all other religions)with respect, scrutiny and intelligence. This must include covering acts of worship as these are not minority sports. We can find a million reasons for moaning about when the broadcasters get it wrong, but we rarely stand up and shout when they get it seriously right. Religion in general (and Christianity – as the dominant religion of these isles – in particular) demands careful and intelligent coverage and broadcasters need to reject some of the ‘religion is only ever a problem’ stupidity that often dominates the media discourse.
And here lies the problem. A friend of mine who is ‘big’ in the media has always countered any complaint of mine about media coverage of religion with the sensible and obviously true retort: ‘Well, you have no right to be broadcast anywhere if it isn’t ‘good radio’ or ‘good television’. In other words, the churches have got to broaden their horizons, improve their creative game and see ‘religious broadcasting’ as more than Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day. Good characterisation of Christians in soaps and drama will be more important and effective than some of the stuff we usually consider in this category.
Come to think of it, we know little or nothing about the liturgy of Jesus in the synagogue, but we do know he used image, story and characterisation to draw people’s imagination into the Kingdom of God in everyday life.
In the last year or so, the best religious broadcasting I think I have done was to contribute to a thirtieth anniversary documentary on the Life of Brian, a radio documentary on Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah (before X Factor got its hands on it) and a documentary on Pete Seeger’s song Turn turn turn – all for BBC Radio 2 and none of them in the ‘religious broadcasting’ slot. This means speaking into the public discourse and not simply hoping the disinterested public will listen in to our churchy preoccupations.
I sympathise with the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, Aaqil Ahmed. He was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph, but later blogged that he felt misrepresented by the article. He praised the interview printed in the Church Times (not available online until next week) as being more accurate and claims that religion at the BBC is safe in his hands. Well, as I said in a speech at the Sandford St Martin Awards last June, we will watch this space and see what the evidence is as time goes by. (He thought I was attacking his appointment – which I wasn’t – when I was simply stating the obvious.)
The reason I sympathise with him is not only his feeling misrepresented, but his insistence that the media environment is changing so rapidly that debates such as that at the General Synod this week feel a bit like discussing paddle design while the ship is either sinking or sailing away. The media world is mutating in so many different directions that any religion that wants fair coverage will have to be much more creative at engaging with a much wider range of media in a wider range of ways. This will demand creativity, imagination, confidence, risk, adventure and wisdom – and it will be suspected and hated by many Christians who wish the world could go backwards.
Christian broadcasters and media people need support and encouragement to keep going and keep growing in the face of church nostalgia. That is what the churches’ MediaNet is for.
Anyway, the debate will happen and the usual things will be said. The media world will continue to change and we will either be left behind moaning – or we will be in there re-signifying ‘religious broadcasting’ for new generations. We will still fight for Songs of Praise and Thought for the Day, but we’ll keep them in perspective and get the energy to try new ways of representing and exploring the faith in the public arena. At least it won’t be boring.
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