June 2010

I’m beginning to get superstitious. A soon as I leave the country the goals start going in in South Africa. Portugal have just banged seven past North Korea who will now have to go home and face the pleasure of their unenlightened dictator. I’ll still be away for England’s decider against Slovenia, so will just have to keep praying my latest prayers from Canada.

I can’t remember the last time I woke up to see seven goals go in during a World Cup. But there are lots of things I can’t remember. And I am clearly not alone in having rather limited powers of recall. Governments clearly have the same experience.

I arrived in Winnipeg with a colleague yesterday (or is it today?) afternoon and we got straight down to work. A tradition has grown up during the last five years whereby religious (usually Christian) leaders in the host country of the G8 summit also arrange a prior summit of world religious leaders. The purpose is basically (a) to bring the religious traditions together and offer a united voice in favour of the poor people of the world, (b) to offer a deeper/wider moral perspective on political, economic and social decisions by our political leaders, and (c) to remind the same leaders of the commitments they have made in the past.

The G8/G20 are meeting in Toronto, but the religious leaders are meeting in Winnipeg. Why not in the same place? Have you tried moving around the city where the G8/G20 meet? Anyway, Winnipeg has a history of religious diversity (and struggle) that makes it the right place to be – apart from the mosquitoes, that is…

On 9 June the Guardian reported that the draft G8 Summit communique had dropped any reference to the Gleneagles pledge to Africa – to double aid to the poorest countries by 2010. That would have amounted to an extra £17 billion ($25bn) each year as part of a £50bn increase in financial assistance. Last year’s summit in Italy concluded:

G8 countries reiterated their commitments, including those made at Gleneagles and more recently at the G20 London summit, to support African efforts towards promoting development good governance and achieving the millennium development goals [the UN targets for addressing world poverty by 2015].

At the Winnipeg summit, starting this evening, global religious leaders (with me representing the Archbishop of Canterbury) will be doing three things and working to make their voice heard by the politicians:

  • uniting their voices in favour of the world’s poor by working on a statement to be presented to the Muskoka summit on Thursday
  • reminding the politicians of the commitments they have already made and holding them to account
  • articulating the moral conscience of the politicians’ summit, thus putting political and economic debates/decisions in a wider moral and spiritual context against which their value can be weighed.

Of course, people are going to argue that this is whistling in the wind – that the financial crash and the fragile predicament of some leading economies have changed everything, thus rendering earlier ‘altruistic’ redundant. It is an understandable argument and carries some practical, realistic force.

But, it ignores the fact that in a global recession it is the poorest who always suffer the most (and not just relatively). The poorest, believing in many cases that they have been lied to or unjustly ignored, do not tend to stick to democratic niceties in trying to change their circumstances. The ‘rich’ countries will pay an even heavier long-term price if they do not continue to stick to their pledges to help end poverty.

As is often the case, the moral argument is often supported by what appears to be a purely pragmatic one: it continues to make good economic and political sense to do everything possible to meet previous G8 commitments and serve a longer-term economic, social and security end.

In a few hours we will start to debate these issues from diverse perspectives at the University of Winnipeg. No doubt the final statement (which is too wordy and worthy) will be edited to give it more punch and purchase; but the Canadians have done a superb job in pulling it all together and giving us a good start in combining our words and convictions.

I have spent the last few weeks explaining to around twenty radio stations from around the world why I didn’t write a prayer for England to win the World Cup. God is not partisan, I explained, and there are bigger things to pray for – especially as prayer is about (a) expressing our desires honestly (even if they are dodgy), and (b) having our own vision of God, the world and us changed by our praying.

Anyway, I suggested, it might take too much of a miracle for England to win the World Cup: we constantly over-rate, over-hype and over-anticipate England performances… and then indulge in a collective intemperate bloodletting against team and manager when they (consistently) fail to deliver on the big stage. At least we are fairly consistent in behaving like this in every competition. (On BBC’s Newsnight programme Gavin Esler said they had intended to show highlights of the game, but there weren’t any…)

But, after watching England’s remarkably aimless and seemingly dispassionate performance against Algeria last night, I now feel moved to pen two new prayers specifically for the England team. (I will be praying from a distance as I will be in Canada for the G8 Faith Leaders Summit – I am NOT leaving the country because I can’t bear to watch the Slovenia match next week…)

The first is simple and honest:

Oh God…

The second offers a little more:

God, who played the cosmos into being, please help England rediscover their legs, their eyes and their hunger: that they might run more clearly, pass more nearly and enjoy the game more dearly. Amen.

Well, don’t say I didn’t try.

Song posted this in a comment on a previous post, but it is funny enough to deserve a post of its own!

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song which begins:

You can’t tell me there is no mystery…

Well, Bruce might have been talking about the nature of human experience in the vastness of the universe, but I have to disappoint him: one thing seriously mystifies me right now.

The Telegraph has reported today on a lecture given last night by the excellent Francis Campbell, Britain’s first Roman Catholic Ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican, that is… not a vast expanse of water). I met him in Rome last September and was very impressed – he’s one of those guys you wish you could talk to on your own for a day: clever, articulate, funny and with a really interesting ‘take’ on the world. He was speaking to members of the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust (which debates politics and Europe) – I was invited, but couldn’t go.

One of the interesting points he made is that politicians often understand religion, but their officials don’t. According to Martin Beckford’s report, he said in an interview following the lecture:

I make this observation in general on what I’ve found in four and a half years in this post and beyond, around politics and religion and civil servants. I’ve often found politicians and ministers have a far better grasp of religion than officials. I think it’s because ministers and politicians are grounded in constituencies, they have that lived experience of religion.

He went on to observe (accurately):

The Soviet Union had many centres for the study of religion but they didn’t understand it. They saw it as some distant species, they didn’t have that lived experience.

Apologies to Martin Beckford for quoting a large chunk of his interview, but Campbell makes a point that is not often heard (and that is unwelcome in many quarters when it is articulated in this way):

One of the things I would do is perhaps to encourage people who are in these departments to be a little bit more forthcoming with their insight into this concept of religion. If you have a colleague who is practicing their faith and you know this person, it’s more difficult to marginalise them or dismiss where they’re coming from.How do you challenge that theory that somehow we’re on some sort of trajectory where we’re going to secularise ourselves out of religion? In actual fact that’s going to create more problems for us, because if the rest of the world is getting more religious and we’re getting less religious how do we have that grammar and conversation?

The more that people are encouraged to step forward a little bit and challenge this notion that we can compartmentalise religion between 9 and 5 and then you can be religious again, it just doesn’t function like that. Politicians and ministers appreciate the role that religion plays in peoples’ lives rather than being something remote that we study.

The significant thing about this is that it is not Campbell’s intention to proselytise or evangelise; rather, he is making a neutral phenomenological claim about the importance of public authorities (which really means ‘people’) understanding the role and purpose of religion in a society – whether they agree with the ‘content’ of that religion or not. A religious world view is as valid as any other, but needs to be understood in its own terms.

Campbell’s point is interesting also because it could be said to apply particularly to the media. In the last census (which, of course is now out of date…) well over 80% of the population of England and Wales claimed some sort of religious faith; in a survey of media professionals (I think, in the BBC) only 22% held a religious world view. And media people often claim that they reflect the world we live in whilst showing astonishing ignorance of the religious experience of people in that world. And there are lots of reasons for that.

The BBC has set up its internal academy for journalists and this includes ongoing ‘education’ about religion, religions and how these are lived out in the world. Yet recently it became clear that outside the BBC and Channel 4 there is no interest among the media giants about religion.

As Chairman of the Sandford St Martin Trust (which met this morning) I have an interest in religious programming on radio, television, print and new media. The challenge is also a fantastic creative opportunity for programme makers to discover the fascination (at lots of levels) of religion in the world and represent that in creative formats that don’t naturally slot into the old-style ‘religious broadcasting’ genre.

It is not good enough to whinge about the decline in religious broadcasting or the ludicrous ignorance among public bodies of religion as a phenomenon that shapes the world and is not going to go away. We have to encourage and stimulate people to be creative in their professional field and create the opportunities for addressing religious themes in ways that will grasp the imagination and command the attention of large audiences.

The bottom line for the media is simple: programmes will never be broadcast because they are ‘religious’: they will be broadcast because they are good programmes.

The bottom line for our public authorities is also simple: to ignore religion because of some assumed ideological embarrassment is both culturally stupid and pragmatically short-sighted.

Francis Campbell’s voice should be heard.

What I am seeing of the World Cup is not too bad so far. Germany were great, Italy got a shock, the Africans are having one massive party and the vuvuzela is driving everybody mad.

I wonder if it is the swarm-of-killer-wasp noise that put Robert Green off his mark when he let the ball through his hands for the USA’s equaliser against England?

This reminded me of the epic game back in the 1960s when Liverpool were playing their arch-rivals Leeds United at Anfield and the Leeds goalkeeper, Gary Sprake, threw the ball into his own net. The crowd erupted into a full and comprehensive (even sarcastically tuneful) rendering of Des O’Connor’s number one hit Careless Hands. It was funny, witty and spontaneous.

What is lacking from this World Cup is any spontaneity, wit or fun from the crowd. All you can hear is the relentless drone of the vuvuzelas. Pity, really (especially if you hate wasps and wonder what God was thinking of…).

The World Cup has finally begun… with two exciting … er … draws.

Some people have had a humour bypass already. The Telegraph phoned the other day because they were doing a light piece on Wayne Rooney’s temper. I offered two quotes and the Telegraph ran them together. Helpfully noting that I am a Liverpool fan, the quote then ran in the paper as:

You might say anyone who has played for Everton and Manchester United is bound to have a bad temper. But perhaps Wayne should take some time out and read the series of World Cup prayers I have written especially for the tournament.

Some people seem to think this was a serious comment and a serious dissing of Everton and Manchester United. Or perhaps they think that bishops only ever make serious comments devoid of irony or humour. Tough. Life’s too short to worry.

The best joke I have heard during the World Cup (apart from the variations on: “Penile erectile dysfunction is common amongst men. Sufferers are asked to express their solidarity by displaying white flagswith a red cross on their cars…”) came on BBC Radio 4′s News Quiz from Sandi Toksvig. Miraculously relating the Labour leadership campaign to the World Cup, she referred to:

Ed Balls – sounds like Wayne Rooney’s job description.

Just funny.

How predictable! ChurchAds.net comes up with a striking image for the Christmas poster campaign and the responses could have been written before they were given. First, the poster:

As I discovered last December, speak about the reality of the original Christmas events and you invite the piling of ordure on your head. After all, they say, who cares if the Nativity narratives of the Gospels get confused with Cinderella and the pantomime stories? There is something shocking about making the humanity of Jesus too real – sometimes a problem in the Church itself where a spiritualised version of the Messiah is easier to contemplate than one who had to eat, went to the loo, endured the real temptations of young men and got his hands and feet dirty in real muck.

So, this image compels the viewer to consider the reality of the Incarnation in a mode familiar to anyone connected in any way with anyone pregnant. When my daughter-in-law had her scans she texted them over to family and friends. That’s how it’s done and the good news is shared around these days. When we had scans twenty or thirty years ago they were indecipherable to amateurs like me: I couldn’t tell the head from the rear end.

So, what were the predictable responses? Look at the Times article which reported them:

John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, said: “This advertisement sends a powerful message to everyone in Britain where 570 babies are killed every day in the womb, 365 days a year, under the Abortion Act. Whenever we kill an unborn child in an abortion, we are killing Jesus.”

Er… this isn’t an advert for SPUC or the anti-abortion lobby (although they might wish they had thought of it first). And the last sentence is simplistically contentious (although the need for a serious moral debate about mass abortion in the UK is long overdue).

Then we get the ubiquitous Terry Anderson of the miniscule National Secular Society (why is he asked about everything – because he can be guaranteed to miss the point, get irrationally cross and draw the wrong conclusions… which is great for the media):

Terry Sanderson, of the National Secular Society, criticised the image. “At first glance it looks like a poster for a horror film — perhaps The Omen VI: He’s Coming to Get You,” he said.“But it is also the kind of image widely used by anti-abortion campaigners and I hope that the Church of England isn’t trying to use its Christmas poster campaign to make a political point. If that’s the intention, we may have questions to ask at the Charity Commission… If, on the other hand, it’s supposed to make a Christian Christmas more appealing to our secular nation, I think it is likely to have the opposite effect.”

Terry! Calm down! This isn’t a Church of England poster campaign. And it isn’t remotely political. So, don’t waste the postage on your letter to the Charity Commission. (But your reaction does reveal again your lazy assumptions and prejudices – clearly not the sole preserve of religious people…) And it is not about abortion – that’s just another lazy connection based on prejudice. As for Terry’s final (subjective) judgement, well, he would, wouldn’t he?

Full marks to Ruth Gledhill for kicking off a good story, but fewer marks for resorting to the usual suspects  for critical comment. It will be interesting to see which Christians stick the boot into the campaign – and on which grounds. But, as in the past, if some people hate it, it’s a sure sign the campaign got it right.

This poster is designed to arrest the attention of the usually disinterested. It is aimed at awakening the imagination, teasing the curiosity and provoking fresh consideration of the heart of Christianity – precisely what Jesus did with parables, images and stories. No, it doesn’t cover all the bases and deal comprehensively with every theological nuance; but it gives a huge kick start to thinking about what Christmas is all about.

And that is needed as much in the Church as outside.

It would be hard not to draw attention to the unsurprising but embarrassing outcome of the YouGov poll commissioned by the Exploring Islam Foundation. Apparently, 58% of respondents linked Islam with extremism while 69% believed it encouraged the repression of women. 40% disagreed that Muslims had a positive impact on British society.

Not really suprising, though. Islam is represented negatively in the media and with an ignorance that would be deemed embarrasing in any other discipline. See Bishop Alan Wilson’s blog today for just one example – and it doesn’t even come from the nightmare Daily Mail. Alan remind sus of the ninth Commandment:

You will not bear false witness against (lie about/misrepresent) your neighbour…

However, this is simply a symptom of a wider religious illiteracy in our society… and perpetuated in the media (with some exceptions). Perhaps it isn’t coincidental that yesterday saw a further report of the ineffectiveness of some Religious Education teaching in British schools. According to this research, the problem lies with teachers who don’t understand Christianity in particular and can (for example) tell the Nativity story, but can’t say what it means.

The response in some quarters was predictable. For them the problem lies with the requirement to teach anything religious in the first place. But, that misses the point completely. This is not about believing or defending the content of any particular faith (which would demand commitment of some sort), but, at the very least, understanding it.

This harks back to a long discussion last year about the (then) Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s argument that people need to understand the Bible if they are to stand any chance of understanding art, literature or music. He was not saying that people have to believe it or live by it, but simply to be familiar with it and understand something of it.

The same goes for religion in general. Whether the secularists or so-called New Atheists (they are hardly new…) like it or not, religion is a phenomenon without which politics, economics and culture cannot be understood.

  • If, as they attest, religion is purely dangerous fantasy, then it needs to be understood if only to be countered.
  • If, as they attest, religion is a loaded worldview whose followers sit somewhere up the loony scale (away from their assumed ‘neutral’ space), then it is all the more vital that it be explored in order to be rubbished intelligently.

It is shocking to encounter some of the popular ignorance in the media and government. All religious groups are lumped into a single misleading category called ‘faith’ and seen as a minority interest for inadequates. Ignorance of finance, business economics, etc on such a scale would not be tolerated and would be a source of some shame. But, when it comes to religion in general – and Christianity in particular – the usual informed, intelligent and curious mind turns to incomprehending blancmange.

I don’t believe for one moment that Hindus have got it right, but I do need to understand Hinduism if I am to understand the politics, culture and societal shapes of countries where Hinduism shapes not only what a large number of people believe, but also how they live, vote, fight, etc.

Islam needs to be taught with integrity (as seen through the eyes of a good Muslim). Christianity needs to be taught with integrity (as seen through the eyes of a good Christian). And the truth claims of these faiths need to be taught – not as commanding inevitable allegiance, of course, but in order that people know (a) what they are dealing with and (b) how such believers are to be understood.

This is an appeal for intelligent and informed understanding – prior to any thought of commitment. The appeal to commitment is the job of the church – those Christians who can do no other than commend and defend their faith. The church has to be evangelistic; schools should be informative. And the media should pay attention to reporting religion accurately and intelligently – unlike the examples given by Alan Wilson and a myriad of others across recent years.

During an interview last Saturday one of the candidates quoted someone as saying

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Unfortunately, we should care (deeply) how much we all know – shoddy understanding, reporting or commentary simply means we don’t care a toss about those with whom we are trying to communicate.

Which is also why I keep urging my clergy and churches to renew their commitment to learning, understanding and growing in confidence in the content of the Bible and Christian faith… which we don’t usually learn by means of (what I like to call) liturgical osmosis.

This morning I was doing the first of two Confirmation Services today and preached about Paul’s story (and our own distinctive story) from Galatians 1. Considering Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but beginning with my own story of coming to faith as a child in Liverpool, I was trying to encourage the congregation to consider how they have been met by God in a way that brought life in the midst of death. Every person’s story is unique and God never seems to replicate his encounters in ways that make them susceptible to engineering or formulaic repetition. (Which is why I am sceptical of the many ‘health and wealth’ preachers who advertise themselves around London…)

Driving home afterwards, I was thinking about how the media narrative that lazily trots out unchecked ‘church in decline’ or ‘emptying pews’ language should be embarrassed by the reality that lots of people are becoming Christians and affirming their commitment publicly. Most confirmations I do are for adults these days and candidates often have remarkable stories to tell of how they have come to this point. 18 this morning and a load more this evening. Week in, week out, I find myself baptising and confirming adults and young people.

What interests me today, however, is the uniqueness of their stories and a particular story I read a couple of days ago. Joanna Robertson wrote for the BBC’s From our own Correspondent an article entitled ‘Setting the memory of Holocaust victims in stone’. Basically, in Berlin brass cobblestones are appearing in the pavement outside buildings and houses in the city. These brass stones bear the names of Jews who lived in these places before being removed and sent to their deaths in Hitler’s Final Solution.

In fact, this isn’t new. I walked round Hamburg a couple of years ago with German friends and these stones appeared everywhere we walked. It struck me then that this is almost more powerful than simply putting up hundreds of names together on a single memorial in a town centre. It becomes impossible to take in the enormity of the crime and the loss when hundreds or thousands of names are put together in a single place. The names blend in and become anonymous to those who had no other connection with them.

But, when you walk down city streets and every step you take seems to place your foot against yet another brass Stolperstein (literally, stumbling block) bearing the name, dates of birth/death of a dead Jew… and the nature of their fate (‘murdered’, ‘suicide’, ‘killed while trying to escape’, etc.), it brings it powerfully home that each individual counted – that each one had a name, a story to tell, a home from which they were ripped out, a family that was destroyed like vermin. Their stories might be largely forgotten now; but they themselves cannot be forgotten because these stumbling blocks cannot be ignored.

This need to re-member the story and to dignify the individuals involved is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian fundamental conviction that human beings have infinite worth – not because other people happen to say they do, but because they are ‘made in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27). According to this conviction, every human being is valuable, and Christian ethics start at that point. Therefore, every story of every person deserves dignity.

Just before laying hands on a candidate and confirming him/her, I look them in the eyes while I say the set words:

[Name], God has called you by name and made you his own.

Each one needs to hear that clearly. And behind it lie the stories of  people in the Gospels whose experience of religion told them they were worth little or nothing (ritually unclean women, for example)… until they met Jesus and he restored to them their value – sometimes even giving them a new name.

A good example is in Luke 13: 10-17 where Jesus takes an excluded woman and heals her. However, the real point of the story is twofold: (a) the religious keenies miss the point (a woman got healed) and diss Jesus for having done it on the wrong day (the Sabbath); (b) he publicly refers to the woman as ‘this daughter of Abraham’, immediately and unequivocally restoring to her her place in society, her dignity as a human being and her identity as part of the community of God’s people.

I have always thought of ‘stumbling blocks’ as a rather annoying problem. Perhaps they have a positive purpose in making us stop, read the names, think about our fundamental anthropological-theological assumptions, root our human ethics and consider how easily we dehumanise those with whom we disagree or who we would prefer to stay outside our preferred group of the self-defined ‘righteous’.

If you go to Hamburg or Berlin, you can’t avoid them.

A quick flash through the last eighteen months of this blog makes me realise that some themes keep coming up. One of them is our perception of time. And on a hot, sunny day off in Croydon, it has crept back into my thoughts again.

This might be because I had two brilliant and apposite experiences in the last week in parishes in my Episcopal Area (comprising 102 parishes).

Last Sunday I spent most of the day in Thornton Heath celebrating the third anniversary of a Lugandan congregation that is part of (yet separate from) St Jude with St Aidan. The service lasted two and a half hours and involved choirs from a South Indian congregation, a West Indian Pentecostal church, the Lugandan lot and others. It was vibrant and time flew by. This was the best example of different congregations serving God and their comunities differently, but together. None of the headline-grabbing antagonism that dominates media perceptions of Christian churches – just wonderfully celebratory and serious-minded service. It all ended after lunch with dancing… (But they are not good at telling their good stories and don’t have a website!)

Then, yesterday I visited the suburban parish of St John, Old Coulsdon. This year they are celebrating their 750th anniversary and they are doing great stuff, using the gifts of the loads of people who belong to the church, and keeping their outreach simple. One of the best things is this: they are taking a card round to every house in the parish and inviting people to write on it something that is ‘good news for me’. They aim to pull together 750 of these and tell something of a good news story for that community and the whole community is getting involved.

This starts where people are, invites people to tell their story and doesn’t simply dump on them a message they aren’t either ready or willing to hear. It assumes that there is good news to be told and good news to be heard. Even the local newspaper has picked it up and given it space. And some of the cards I read yesterday were moving, some were banal, some indecipherable and some instructive. They all form the context in which the Good News of God in Jesus Christ can be seen and heard – the local church seeking to reflect the Jesus we read about in the Gospels.

But, what struck me in both these parishes is the fact that the church has been there through generations of a changing world. In the 750 years of St John’s, Old Coulsdon, England has seen plagues, wars, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), world wars, the Cold War, the Civil War, the birth and death of the British Empire, the Elizabethan Settlement, etc. It has even seen Manchester United equal Liverpool’s record of domestic football dominance (which just goes to show that there’s a down-side to everything).

Yet, we are still here, still worshipping, still praying, still serving the local communities. Every generation thinks it is the ultimate point in history and that the ‘now’ is all that matters. Every generation thinks its problems are the greatest and that the whole of their existence is threatened by whatever the latest fear might happen to be. And, of course this is nonsense. Today is simply tomorrow’s yesterday – and we need to recover a sense of perspective on time, history and the importance of ‘now’. There is little that is original in life – we have usually been here before. Which brings me to John Donne…

I was reading a sermon by John Donne (for pleasure, not punishment) and then an hour later saw it referred to in Third Way by the always-interesting Lucy Winkett. On page 10 of his sermon, preached at St Paul’s Cathedral on Whit Sunday 1629 (two years before his death), and speaking of those in the Church who find their raison-d’etre in arguing the toss regardless of how this looks and sounds to the outside world, he says:

They dispute, and they wrangle, and they scratch, and wound one anothers reputations, and they assist the common enemy of Christianity by their uncharitable differences…

Nearly 400 years gone and still we think we are original, that current circumstances are ultimate, and we still don’t listen to that simple admonition.

All the machinations in the Anglican Communion might be entertaining to the outside world (although the outside world seems now to be totally indifferent or bored by it all), but they are consistent with behaviour throughout the ages and this will probably never change while human beings are involved. However, Donne’s frustration was real and it still resonates today.

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