July 31, 2010
I saw a t-shirt in Chania, Crete, yesterday that asked a perfectly reasonable question: ‘Three reasons for being a teacher? 1. June; 2. July; 3. August. It must be the Greek version of English jokes about teachers always being on holiday. Knowing teachers the way I do – I go into schools most weeks – they deserve every day of holiday they get… but they could do with having them spread out a bit more effectively (and getting away from the ridiculous summer pattern we have inherited from the times when the kids had to be released from the classroom to help bring in the harvest).
I had no idea that Crete gets rubbish weather for most of the year. I just assumed it would be permanently sunny – after all, I have only ever seen sunny photos of the island. No wonder they take June, July and August as school holidays, though: too hot, full of tourists and a winter of cold and rain to look forward to.
Crete is where the Apostle Paul got into sailing problems and ended up shipwrecked in Malta. No wonder he was suspicious of Cretans. He wrote to the first Bishop of Crete, Titus:
It was one of them, their very own prophets, who said, ‘Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’ That testimony is true…
Not in my experience so far, it isn’t. Not one for holding a grudge or a prejudice, old Paul, was he?
Knossos (ruins of the ancient Minoan culture) was excellent. Bit of a problem for those who think the world is only six thousand years old, though: people have lived here since c.7000BC…
Anyway, apart from the touring and swimming and other fun stuff, so far I have relaxed and read the following books:
- Elie Wiesel, Night
- Robert Harris, Lustrum
- Robert Harris, The Ghost
- Bernhard Schlink, The Reader
- William Boyd, Ordinary Thunderstorms
- Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
What unites these books – all considerations of the human condition under stress – is their treatment of guilt. The complexity of the human condition means that trite solutions to the haunting and debilitating destructiveness of guilt sound hollow. Bonhoeffer knew what he was talking about when, in his most famous book Discipleship (Nachfolge), he condemns what he calls ‘cheap grace’. With the Nazi jackboot soon to descend on him with violent vengeance he eschewed easy notions of forgiveness or bland resolutions to serious ethical dilemmas. (After all, not only was he a brave theologian and pastor, but he was also a double agent implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler.)
The shipwrecks of people’s lives provide the raw material for good novels and music. Another artist to grapple with the complexities of guilt and grace is Bruce Cockburn. In his great song Shipwrecked at the Stable Door, he writes – as only the poets can when the deep stuff of human living needs some expression in words:
The man who twirled with rose in teeth
Has his tongue tied up in thorns
His once expanded sense of time and
Space all shot and torn
See him wander hat in hand -
“Look at me, I’m so forlorn -
Ask anyone who can recall
It’s horrible to be born!”
Big Circumstance comes looming
Like a darkly roaring train -
Rushes like a sucking wound
Across a winter plain
Recognizing neither polished shine
Nor spot nor stain -
And wherever you are on the compass rose
You’ll never be again
Left like a shadow on the step
Where the body was before -
Shipwrecked at the Stable Door
Big Circumstance has brought me here -
Wish it would send me home
Never was clear where home is
But it’s nothing you can own
It can’t be bought with cigarettes
Or nylons or perfume
And all the highest bidder gets
Is a voucher for a tomb
Blessed are the poor in spirit -
Blessed are the meek
For theirs shall be the kingdom
That the power mongers seek
Blessed are the dead for love
And those who cry for peace
And those who love the gift of earth -
May their gene pool increase
Left like a shadow on the step
Where the body was before -
Shipwrecked at the Stable Door
July 24, 2010
There comes a point before holiday becomes a reality when the desk has to be reordered, the email inbox emptied, the office in-tray cleared and the clutter of the previous year’s indecions (where to put things and whether or nto to keep them) sorted. I put off this point until as late as possible. Today that point has been reached.
Fortunately, I was able to postpone much of this because I got distracted by the need to select which books I want to take away with me – which novels need to be read and which theological books can continue to hold their guilt-inducing stare at me while they sit un-opened on my soon-to-be-organised desk. Apart from a couple of Robert Harris novels, I pulled off my shelves several books I haven’t read for a very long time. Unfortunately, they all seem to be miserable: Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Elie Wiesel’s Night. Oh dear.
While musing on how to choose more cheerful books, I dipped into the Church Times and read the extract from Terry Eagleton’s new book On Evil. Hah! Even here it is grim! Or not…
Eagleton’s point is basically that evil is frequently portrayed as dramatic, sexy and glamorous. In some wonderful language he debunks all this and claims evil is basically boring and banal. Try the following:
[Evil] is boring because it keeps doing the same dreary thing, trapped as it is between life and death. But evil is also boring because it is without real substance. It has, for example, no notion of emotional intricacies. Like a Nazi rally, it appears spectacular but is secretly hollow. It is as much a parody of genuine life as the goosestep is a parody of walking.
Isn’t that perfect? He goes on:
Evil is philistine, kitsch-ridden, and banal. It has the ludicrous pomposity of a clown seeking to pass himself off as an emperor. It defends itself against the complexities of human experience with a reach-me-down dogma or a cheap slogan.
Wonderful! And then:
Hell is not a scene of unspeakable obscenties. If it were, it might well be worth applying to join. Hell is being talked at for all eternity by a man in an anorak who has mastered every detail of the sewage system of South Dakota.
I think I’ve met him!
But Eagleton, taking in Aquinas, Augustine and Blake, goes on to conclude:
…evil is a kind of spiritual slumming… The evil, then, are those who are deficient in the art of living.
This opens the provocative question of whether it is possible to think you are a Christian (Jesus talked of giving ‘life in all its fullness’) while actually being a life-denying, over-simplifying, boring, philistine, purity-obsessed, fear-driven (of hell?) parody of the real thing? It’s a question I am now asking of myself as well as of the Church.
Anyway, his book is now on order. I never expected to laugh at prose about ‘evil’. Thanks to the Church Times for publishing the extract – it’s brilliant.
Or, as my son would put it, wicked.
July 22, 2010
Tonight saw the Faith Shorts 2010 Awards by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at BAFTA in Central London. A very high-profile group of judges had shortlisted 26 short films in three categories. Young people around the world had bid for a video camera and the 50 winners had then submitted their films for judgement. The event was compered by the ubiquitous Adrian Chiles.
The judges included (among others) Tony Blair, Jonathan Caplan QC, Hugh Jackman, Anil Kapoor, Natalie Portman, Nik Powell, Queen Rania of Jordan and Deepak Verma.
The films were judged in three categories: (a) Under 18 Film Pitch, (b) 18-25 Film Pitch and (c) 18-25 Film Maker. The winners and runners-up were astonishingly good. Each film seemed to last up to five minutes, but they were totally engrossing. Awards went to:
Under 18 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘Forgiveness’ by Dolly Deeb from Jordan. Runner-up: ‘The Old Bridge’ by Rijad Guja from Bosnia Herzegovina (about the bridge at Mostar as a symbol)
18-25 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘The Guide’ by Shiv Tandan from India. Runner-up: ‘Under Cover’ by Sara Al Dayek from Lebanon.
18-25 Film Maker: Winner: ‘People I Know’ by Esteban Pedraza from the USA. Runners-up: ‘Let Us Show You How Our Faith Inspires Us’ by Tariq Chowdhury from the UK and ‘Self Realisation’ by Silvina Estevez from Argentina.
I intended to take some photos, but I found the whole thing engrossing and very evocative and only managed one. Here were young people of different faiths offering a new language for articulating faith with confidence in a complicated world. Some of the films were funny, others surprising, all powerful – especially having been made by such young people on such limited equipment.
One feature of the event was a panel discussion in which Lord David Puttnam observed that “the British media are self-referential” and Blair added his view that they are largely ”religiously illiterate”. Being asked by a journalist prior to the event, “Is your faith important to you?” exemplifies this – a seemingly interesting question that assumes faith is some sort of odd consumer accessory, an add-on to an otherwise reasonable life. This led afterwards to a discussion about the assumption of neutrality on the part of our media, regardless of the fact that there is no such thing as a neutral worldview.
One of the young award winners made the point that the word ‘tolerant’ in relation to interfaith relations is inadequate. “Tolerance,” he said, ” is about simply bearing with people you don’t like – but love goes further than mere tolerance and it is love that is needed.” I was glad to hear this – a point I make repeatedly at the global interfaith conferences I attend and a point that is rarely understood (especially in the ex-Soviet bloc where ‘tolerance’ is heard as a stronger word than it is in the West where it is a lowest common denominator concept).
One problem of contemporary ‘public speak’ by government and local authorities is the use of the language of ‘tolerance’ without recognition that ‘peace’ is not simply ‘the absence of war’, ‘community cohesion’ is not simply ‘stopping people from hitting each other’, and ‘interfaith relations’ is about more than ‘reducing tension between faith communities’ (which usually doesn’t exist). Constructive love offers a better future than fearful ‘prevention’.
The problem with ‘tolerance’ is that the people who speak of it are often the same people who are totally intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their idea of ‘tolerance’. There is nothing more dangerous than an illiberal liberal – one who proclaims freedom for all who conform to his idea of freedom, but leaves no space for those whose idea is more limiting.
Funny old world.
Update 6 August 2010: Tony Blair has written about his reasons for launching the Faith Shorts initiative here.
July 21, 2010
I have to confess to being a little puzzled about David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. The term appears to have been coined originally as a rhetorical antithesis to the bogey ‘Big State’, but we have had to wait to see it cashed out in terms of substance we can understand. If it is not to be simply a slogan, what does it actually mean?
It is already painfully obvious that the politicians who so loved the freedom of Opposition are now having to endure the ordeal of accountability. This coalition government has had the courage to address hard economic challenges (even if their solutions beg many questions – such as why the financial measures that got us into this mess came about in order to rescue banks which are now making huge profits which don’t seem to be paying off the debts incurred by the public purse…) and is approaching some issues with fresh vision after several years of stale over-legislation. But, the concept of the ‘Big Society’ has remained somewhat elusive. It feels as if what began as a mere rhetorical device has had to be filled with some sort of content after all… but simply being posited as the opposite of what we had before (as certain ideologues would see it) is clearly not enough.
Cameron’s speech in Liverpool offered a good start at helping us understand his ‘passion’. But it was striking for two reasons: (a) yes, it is a concept capable of some really interesting content, and (b) it has already been going on (largely unrecognised) under his nose for decades.
Commentators have been questioning whether the ‘Big Society’ is a concept or simply a con. Bloggers have launched in, too – sometimes helpfully identifying the right questions to be asking of the concept (or con). But, what is being missed is the recognition that what Cameron wants, the Church already does. He is walking on our territory without realising we have been there for years. It is what we do.
Take some basic facts which can be found among others on the Church of England website (now outdated by a year or two). The C of E isn’t always very good at telling its good news stories or conveying its successes. This is partly because we are busy getting on with the job instead of talking about it. Here are some facts:
- More people do unpaid work for church organisations than any other organisation. Eight per cent of adults undertake voluntary work for church organisations while sixteen per cent of adults belong to religious or church organisations.
- A quarter of regular churchgoers (among both Anglicans and other Christians separately) are involved in voluntary community service outside the church. Churchgoers overall contribute 23.2 million hours voluntary service each month in their local communities outside the church.
- The Church of England provides activities outside church worship in the local community for 407,000 children and young people (aged under 16 years) and 32,900 young people (aged 16 to 25 years). More than 116,000 volunteers and an additional 4900 employed adults run children/young people activity groups sponsored by the Church of England outside church worship.
- Church of England congregations give more than £51.7 million each year to other charities – that’s even more than the BBC’s annual Children in Need appeal.
- More than half a million worshippers subscribe to tax-efficient giving schemes such as Gift Aid, accounting for half the voluntary income of parish churches.
It is easy to hear David Cameron and his colleagues speaking as if we need to begin creating the ‘Big Society’ when it is already here, but unappreciated.
Of course, time will tell whether or not the concept is really a cover for getting stuff done on the cheap by volunteers. What also remains to be seen is whether churches and other groups have the capacity or competence to do some of what is likely to fall into their collective lap. Cameron says,
It’s about saying if we want real change for the long-term, we need people to come together and work together – because we’re all in this together.
But, we are not. Some people and some communities are ‘in it’ more than others and some are replete with the resources and skills to make differences less likely elsewhere.
It will be interesting to see where this will all lead – as the concept takes flesh and we find out what it really looks and feels like. Cameron says:
Not long ago, four parts of our country – Eden Valley in Cumbria, Windsor and Maidenhead, Sutton and here in Liverpool – came to us and said: ‘we want more power and control. You’ve spoken about it long enough. Now give it to us’.
Really? I cover Sutton and so far I haven’t found anyone who remembers saying anything of the sort.
Watch this space and join in the debate. It’s going to be an interesting ride.
July 18, 2010
Some friends of ours live on a boat on the River Thames.
That statement in itself would have made me laugh a few years ago. Having grown up on the Mersey, the Thames always seemed like a poor substitute for a good, working northern river. Living in London for the last ten years has changed my view considerably (the South Bank is just fantastic at any time of year), but in my experience the Thames ended at Vauxhall.
This afternoon we drove over early because the sun came out sooner than expected and life slowed down remarkably. Our friends drove their boat-home down the river from Surbiton to Hampton Court where we went for a walk before returning in time for dinner on the river. It was beautiful, relaxing and felt like an unexpected gift in a rather frantic life.
The last time I went to Hampton Court Palace was also the first time I had been there. That time I went because a couple of foreign vistors wanted to see it. I did my best to swot up on the history and tried hard to think of something good to say about King Henry VIII who developed the place built originally in 1514 for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. But, what I remember most from the day was a sign outside the chapel.
It was on a tripod and said simply: ‘This is a working chapel’. Fair enough – there was some scaffold and a few blokes looking as if they were trying to look busy. (I’d seen another sign outside a college chapel that read: ‘WORK IN PROGRESS’ – equally aposite) But, it struck me that the sign accurately described the activity for which the chapel existed in the first place: worship.
The Greek word from which we derive our word ‘liturgy’ – leitourgia – means ‘work’. I often feel a terrible tension these days between the need for worship to be ‘accessible’ – without compromising the reality that worship is testing, demanding, exercising – and ‘transcendent’.
I grew up in the bad old days when worship leaders or clergy would begin a church service with the injunction that we should leave outside all the cares, activities, concerns and worries of our lives in order to let us worship God without distraction. Our minds were to be free of the clutter of life in order to enable us to gaze on God (or something similarly questionable). It was as if God could not cope with the stuff that clutters our lives and minds and memories.
But, what sort of worship is it that separates us off from the real stuff of our lives? Worship surely involves bringing all that stuff into the place where we come face to face with God and one another – looking at it in the light of God’s presence and transforming light. So, worship demands something from the worshipper, expects a price to be paid for the experience. It is not an easy activity designed for the convenience of consumers who want everything in life to be smooth and easily accessed. We all know that valuable things are costly.
Worship of God, an encounter with the Creator, Sustainer, Lover and Healer of the world is not a thing to be treated loosely or lightly. An engagement in worship or reflection will come at personal cost and will demand that the worshipper be exposed, challenged and transformed by the experience.
This is not trendy stuff. A convenience society of powerful consumers is not patient with anything that makes you work or wait. Shouldn’t religion be easy and accessible, we ask? Well, God is a realist and never sells people illusions. Jesus told his friends that if they wanted to follow him they would have to pick up a cross and carry it - in other words, it might cost them their life in one way or another.
I guess the chapel can only be described as ‘working’ if those in it move from being tourists or consumers of ‘worship experiences’ to people ready to do business with God – or have God do business with them.
July 16, 2010
Well, not me, actually. I am quite happy and enjoying a rare day off.
I’m even not unhappy about Damian Thompson’s silly spoof on his Telegraph blog about bishops and nuns – although I did respond to one enquirer (as to whether I would respond) with : “I’m too busy climbing every mountain…”. Mind you, I also added my own question: “What does Damian Thompson want to do when he grows up?” I thought his spoof quite amusing (despite the fact that I don’t think I have seen Sister Act), but was rather shocked to see how many people clearly think what he said was true. What price credulity? Soon the story will be reported across the world as if it were true.
Anyway, back to the real business. I don’t get to hear much preaching, so it matters to me that what I do get to hear is good and gets my mind working as well as my spirit inspired or challenged. Last night I was hugely encouraged. I attended the tenth anniversary Choral Evensong of the Southwark Cathedral Girls Choir. Apart from the glorious music and wonderful congregation, the sermon was superb. It won’t be quite the same written down, but it was rivetting, funny, moving, inspiring and challenging.
Canon Lucy Winkett, soon to move from St Paul’s Cathedral, preached – the first time I have heard her. Perhaps the more important fact is that the young people there appeared to give full attention to her, too. It was a model of communication and excellent preaching. The Morrisey lyric (the title of this post) was one that summed up Lucy’s feelings on her cycling pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela:
Music is itself a language of the human spirit and as such teaches us about God.
Music expresses the “otherness” of God. It is somehow over us, beyond our analysis or understanding, calling us out of where and who we are.
Music is also immanent; that is expressing truths about this world as well as the next. The creation of music almost always involves a patron, an agreement; The heavenly language of music is that of gift and grace, but it is created in the worldly context of contract and exchange. Sacred music sung in a sacred space – invites us to claim liturgy as a de-tox against the sickness of consumerism, a unique activity of the believing community that cultivates wisdom, rehearses justice and gives us a foretaste of heaven.
This brought to my mind the Leonard Cohen poem I blogged on some time ago, Thing. Human beings are made to sing, made for music. No wonder the Psalms are full of songs about the whole of human experience: lament, complaint, questioning, love, praise, wonder, etc.
Lucy’s sermon deserves a wide read. But it is half-naked without the person and the voice and the silence and the moment.
July 12, 2010
Yesterday I asked whether the language of ‘power/control’ and ‘victim’ in the context of ‘future foreshortening’ had anything useful to say to the Church in our various responses to the twists and turns of current debates. What I didn’t make clear was that I intended this question to apply across the board – not only to those who ‘lost’ the vote on the Archbishops’ amendment in the Women Bishops debate, but to those who might have lost it.
Put differently: had the vote gone with those who wished some accommodation under Measure for those opposed to women bishops (the majority of all voting members of the Synod), how would the ‘losers’ have responded?
I don’t think this is a question for one particular group, but for us all. The language of victimhood is to be found everywhere in the Church and it is this that needs to be addressed. Pious language can be used to dress up what is really about power and control. Hence the intriguing question that arose for me listening to Professor David Wilson on Saturday morning. This is not to equate responses to particularly deficient psychological behaviour, but to raise a question about whether or not there is a potential framework here for questioning dominant behaviours in the Church when contentious issues are being addressed.
I don’t know which way I would have voted, if I had been on the Synod. Clarity has to be better than muddle (so, go for the simple proposal and ensure generosity through an effective Code of Practice), but pastoral space is required for people who feel rejected (so, let’s be big enough to give way on a principle in the name of grace). But these two ‘rights’ inevitably lead to a ‘wrong’: the circle appears not to be squarable as both responses have clear inconsistencies and deficits.
In the event of the vote itself, I go along with Jeremy Fletcher and hope that grace can win out in the end – but, grace that empowers bishops to be generous and gracious in implementing the Code of Practice. In my own case, this would make no difference to the way I try to care for, support, encourage and respect my traditionalist clergy.
I remain puzzled, however, by a phenomenon I encountered during my ten-year period on the General Synod: why are bishops so resented or distrusted by clergy? If the bishops spoke of their clergy in the same terms as some clergy speak about bishops, all hell would break loose. The problem lies deeper than it appears – and that is why I asked the question about David Wilson’s language and if it offers us anything useful in thinking about what we are currently witnessing in the Church. If not, what would be helpful?
July 11, 2010
Not being at the General Synod in York and having work to do (which stops me from sitting at a computer all day long following developments on Twitter), I am not sure of the details of yesterday’s voting on Women Bishops. I am suspicious enough of the reporting (having heard on the radio that the Archbishops’ amendment fell in the House of Laity – it was actually in the House of Clergy), but am not yet clear about what is going on.
What I don’t understand, however, is why the ‘system’ or process of synodical government is OK when it works in your favour, but not when it doesn’t. Clearly, people have to decide what to do in the light of particular decisions, but there is something odd about accepting votes in your favour as legitimising your stance whilst claiming votes against as demonstrating that the system/process itself is wrong.
I understand that the Archbishops subjected their amendment to the process and did not see it as a test of loyalty. How mature is that? Misguidedly – when it is then discussed in such childish (win-lose) ways?
I was in the BBC Radio 4 studio yesterday for the Today programme. We (Ben Summerskill and I) were in the studio with Professor David Wilson, the criminologist. He was talking about the Raoul Moat saga and rejected the sympathy that some people were expressing because of Moat’s cry that he didn’t have a dad. Professor Wilson said that Moat’s behaviour was typical of a ‘paranoid narcissist’ (I wrote it down) who saw everything in terms of power and control. Violent to his girlfriend and child, he was now trying to push the police to kill him in order to compound his own denial of responsibility and push the guilt onto other people. Sounded clear enough to me.
Then he used a phrase which I thought might get picked up in the ensuing conversation about the Church of England: ‘future foreshortening’. I assume this is a term used in forensic psychology or criminology. It describes someone like Moat blaming other people for taking away the future, making death inevitable, ending the possibility of a new/different future.
Important note: I am NOT equating church responses with paranoid narcissistic criminological psychology – just using the language as a jumping off point!
I wonder if this language might be useful in standing back and looking at how different parties are now looking at the Church in the light of the Synod’s decisions thus far? (The process still has a long way to go, so I am not assuming that yesterday was an end-game.)
It is easy to blame others for ‘foreshortening my/our future’. But that is to play victim – exactly what Wilson was describing as part of the power-control narrative of Moat. This puts responsibility anywhere other than on ourselves and this – at least in Wilson’s world – looks suspiciously like rather suspect behaviour. Are we all narcissists really?
I am not making a case for this. I was just intrigued by the language Wilson used in the studio and wondered whether it shone any light on the phenomena (and the conscious or unconscious motivations behind them) we are witnessing in the Church. I obviously recognise that this raises unwelcome questions, but, on the other hand, they might just help us to see what we are doing differently. I am trying to think it through from the position of one who disagrees with decisions made – I am NOT making accusations or imputations.
I would be interested to think this through further (even have it debunked) and would welcome comments and observations. I suspect that whichever way certain decisions go, the reactive behaviour that follows might be worth questioning in order to understand it.
July 9, 2010
When I posted Lesson 1 the other day, it clearly slipped the notice of one or two people that my target was readers, not writers. I have given up hoping that journalists are driven by anything other than the clamour for column inches. And that is OK by me. I wish it was otherwise, but we have to live in the real world and get on with it. Anyway, I have added to it in the Guardian.
But, just as we have to get on with it, so do journalists have to get on with having their work critiqued by readers. Jonathan Wynne-Jones got a great scoop with his Southwark story and should be demanding royalties from all the other journalists who have simply lifted his story and his words, put them under their own name and given his story legs. And that brings us to the first part of this lesson in media literacy.
As I discovered for myself last December (when I ‘banned’ Christmas – apparently), the initial story is taken as accurate, embellished in repetition and broadcast without question or critique. So, JW-J’s article on the Southwark saga has been lifted wholesale by other journalists who have asked no questions, checked no facts, done no further critique. The response, therefore, is to the story as presented and not necessarily to the facts of the case. My point is simply that readers need to be aware of what they are reading, where it has come from and at least think that some of it might be based on questionable assumptions.
We need a reality check here. JW-J says on his blog – with reference to me and one other bishop:
Then there are the bishops who have decided to put their heads in the sand by blaming it all on the media. Yawn. Why not blame the weather for the rain? Whether they are deluded or deliberately disingenuous, it is a sad indictment of their failure to face the real issues at the heart of the story. In an attempt to shift the focus, one bonkers bishop suggested that the initial story was written “out of ignorant mischief-making”. Talk about condemned by his own words. If anyone looks ignorant here, it is the bishops who have lost touch with reality and are happy to point the finger anywhere rather than at their Church. Because the truth is that the Jeffrey John saga has once again exposed the mess it’s in, but they’re just too blind or embarrassed to face it.
Yawn. I thought we were past this sort of stuff. There are worse places to put your head – such as up the backside of your own hubris. But for JW-J to confuse critique of his story with delusion about the facts underlying it is … er … disingenuous at best. Let’s be serious:
- The Church of England is not a papal autocracy, so we have open debate about serious matters and the resulting conflict is a scandal for the church and a gift for the media;
- The ways in which these debates are handled is sometimes appalling – people are too ready to jump to a microphone on the basis of reportage rather than truth;
- The Church does damage to itself without help from the media and it is the Church that has to address this.
However, that is not all. Journalists who tell our stories are not disinterested, objective observers. They are part of the story and, indeed, shape it by the way they tell it. They do not occupy neutral territory – hence the importance of the words they use (‘frontunner’, ‘favoured candidate’, ‘blocked’, etc.).
Is that really so hard to grasp?
JW-J needs better advice on choosing examples: we don’t blame the weather for the rain – but we do know that the rain is part of the weather. And it is clear that to at least some of the 3,000 people who have read my last post that the shaping of the Southwark story itself begged questions – questions JW-J avoids with a dismissive yawn.
July 7, 2010
Life is a bit busy at the moment and there doesn’t seem to be much time for blogging. However, despite watching Germany play Spain in the company of German friends (who are not happy…) and reading about the reality of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ (66% cuts in Croydon’s voluntary services budget – of which more anon…), my real surprise is how easily people believe what they read in speculative (mischievous?) media reports.
Recently – in relation to World Cup prayers – Ruth Gledhill described me in the Times as ‘one of the favourites to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury’. By the time this reached the other side of the world, I was ‘the favourite to succeed…’. It doesn’t take long to be made an object of ridicule.
Now, apart from the obvious silliness of this suggestion (among other things: Rowan Williams isn’t leaving, I’m not a diocesan bishop, I lack the gifts, academic qualifications and experience … and would prefer to boil my head), the obvious question the reader should be asking is simply: favourite among whom?
Did the journalist do some research? Did she ask a few mates in the pub? Did she ask the House of Bishops or a scientific sample of clergy around the Church of England? No. It is baseless and meaningless. Fortunately. So, the reader should look at such stuff and dismiss it as baseless fabrication. It might add colour to a piece in the newspaper, but it should be dismissed by the reader as nonsense.
I have ignored this until now. But, reading the mischievous speculation last weekend about the nomination of the new Bishop of Southwark, I thought I’d have a fresh look at the language. (Linguistic analysis of texts isn’t just the preserve of under-occupied pedants; it can be useful in shining a light on reality – as we discovered when training in it at university.)
According to the Telegraph last Sunday, a particular person was ‘understood to be the favoured candidate’. What does that mean? I have served on one of these commissions and there is no such thing as a ‘favoured candidate’. There is a longlist which gets reduced to a shortlist and from that a series of votes comes up with the final name(s). To speak of a ‘favoured candidate’ is nonsense – the most that could be said is that a particular person favours a particular candidate.
Then the article goes on to say:
Members of the Crown Nominations Commission, the body responsible for selecting bishops, will vote this week on whether Dr John’s name should now be put forward to the Prime Minister for final approval.
Er… the CNC will vote on which of half a dozen names should be put forward to the PM. That’s different.
And if that isn’t enough, the piece goes on to state (as if fact) that ’the overwhelming majority of clergy in the diocese are believed to be very keen’ to have a particular candidate as their bishop. Really? How does he know? Has anyone asked ‘the majority of the clergy’, let alone the ‘overwhelming majority’? This is speculative nonsense dressed up as statistical fact. It should be dismissed as such by anyone who can read with their brain engaged.
And don’t get me started on the way in which disconnected observations are associated as if they were intimitely connected.
In today’s update (again, speculative) the language has shifted interestingly from Sunday’s edition. On Sunday the Crown Nominations Commission is a ‘confidential meeting’; now, apparently, it is a ‘secret meeting’ which took place at a ‘secret location’. How sinister. Confidentiality is something we respect (allegedly), but secrecy implies something to hide. Yet this is purely in the mind of the writer. Clergy are said to be ‘furious’ – really? Who? How many? And the candidate was ‘considered the frontrunner’? By whom? The journalist who was making the story?
The point of this ramble is to encourage a closer questioning of what we are being fed. The words matter. Journalists might want to tell a story and raise temperatures – that is fine, that is their job. But the readers should engage brains and not take seriously this sort of language without seriously questioning it first. This isn’t knocking journalists – I am more interested in how the readers read rather than how the writers write.
And if you are wondering why I am not commenting on the person at the heart of the speculation, the answer is simple. He could do without this stuff and I have no intention of commenting on what I don’t know about – the conversations or decisions of the CNC in which I wasn’t involved and about which I know nothing.
After all, it was confidential. Wasn’t it?
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