September 29, 2010
Posted by nickbaines under media
| Tags: Labour politics
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David Miliband expected to be elected Leader of the Labour Party. His brother surprised almost everyone by winning the job by the slimmest of margins. And now questions are being asked about the form of the election itself and whether its bizarre nature (one person I know had three votes…) actually delivers the best outcome. A bit like our first-past-the-post system where someone can be elected by a minimal fraction of the electorate and still be thought democratically legitimate.
But, today Miliband Senior, David, has announced that he will withdraw from frontline politics in order to allow his younger brother to have a clear run at leading the party into the future.
Some see this decision as selfish or niggardly. They think David is being petulant because he didn’t get the top job. But, to my mind, the key element of his interview comments today was this:
“Staying in the shadow cabinet would be a route to real difficulty. Instead of focusing on winning in 2015 and beyond, the team would be subject to permanent scrutiny of body language – everything from sneezes to comments. Ed needs an open field to lead as he sees fit. It is the cleanest and clearest decision to take, though not the easiest.”
In the letter he addressed to his South Shields constituency party, he said:
…Ed is my brother who has just defeated me for the leadership. I genuinely fear perpetual, distracting and destructive attempts to find division where there is none and splits where they don’t exist, all to the detriment of the party’s cause. Ed needs a free hand but also an open field.
Now, I might be naive, but this sounds like a mature and personally costly decision made in the interests of his brother and the party. But it focuses on a side of life that continues (to my mind, at least) to be worrying. An able politician feels he cannot continue because the media would focus their attention on the potent yet probably spurious drama of his relationship with his brother – another Brown-Blair drama. The ‘conflict metaphor’ is the only one the media would use and the consequent interpretations of body language, statement language, etc would only be reported through the lens of fraternal conflict.
He decides to give his brother a clean run at the job he thought should have been his. Be cynical, if you want to, but I think this decision is mature, adult and takes family relationships seriously.
So, we lose an experienced politician because of – among other things, of course – how the media will inevitably handle his presence in the Shadow Cabinet. The country loses substance for fear of press obsession with its own story constructs.
Sad, really. Whatever you think of Labour or Miliband.
September 27, 2010
If that sounds like an odd question, that’s because it is. Or it isn’t.
Looking out of the hotel window in Berlin back in August I caught sight of a building with black letters on a white background. Despite the lack of a question mark, the question it posed has bugged me for the last five weeks. Here it is:
This week, ‘now’ is not long enough. Too many demands, too much preparation to do, too many decisions to make and too much to think about. I just wish ‘now’ could be longer.
But, I have also met an elderly couple today who have been giving their savings away in order to help the next generation. No sentimentality here. No easy life that has led to the freedom of costless generosity. This couple have known tragedies and loss, dislocation and regret. Yet, they told me that it is more important to live and give now than to keep saving it all up – for what? For a future that might not be there? For plans that will not be fulfilled? For an old age they are already in?
There is something to be said for living in the ‘now’ and not thinking you can take it all with you when you go. And there is something to be said for giving in the ‘now’ – not for any reward or benefit, but for the mere grace of being generous to those whose ‘now’ is proving tough.
How long is now? Answers on a postcard.
September 24, 2010
There hasn’t been much time this week for posting. The return from Wittenberg landed me with a pile of work and appointments – all good and all encouraging in one way or another.
Apart from the total and unmitigated misery of Liverpool’s abysmal performance against Northampton Town – which silenced me for a couple of days simply because I couldn’t bear the mockery from my ‘friends’ – I have met great clergy, helped judge an interfaith award, read an excellent book and got up to date with correspondence of all forms.
However, I missed the 76th birthday of the great Leonard Cohen. How sad is that? If you follow the link, you get to a site from which you can download the Radio 2 documentary (in which I took part) on the 25th anniversary of Cohen’s song Hallelujah.
And my quote of the week? Terry Eagleton writing in the Preface to his wonderful and funny Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (which I will post on more fully when I get time):
Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs. For the most part, it has been a squalid tale of bigotry, superstition, wishful thinking, and oppressive ideology. I therefore have a good deal of sympathy with its rationalist and humanist critics. But it is also the case… that most such critics buy their rejection of religion on the cheap. When it comes to the New Testament, at least, what they usually write off is a worthless caricature of the real thing, rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to match religion’s own. It is as though one were to dismiss feminism on the basis of Clint Eastwood’s opinion of it.
Eagleton goes on to challenge Dawkins, Hitchens et al, but is also profoundly challenging to the Christian churches. The language he uses is very funny as he penetrates through the superficialities of much of the contemporary debate. More anon.
September 20, 2010
I got back from a great Meissen Commission meeting (in Wittenberg) late last night and have been catching up on the news from the Pope’s visit (as well as emails, correspondence, paperwork, etc.). Tomorrow I’ll be at the consecration of three new bishops at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The juxtaposition of these experiences sent my mind off at a bit of a tangent.
The Pope clearly went down better than many had thought (or hoped). But, now he has gone, life carries on. Someone pointed out to me that he was in the air on his way here while I was in the air en route to Wittenberg and he was in the air on his way back to Rome as I was in the air coming back form Berlin. Spooky…
But, what I wondered was this: does he ever get do do anything that broadens his horizons or fires his imagination? And I don’t mean Benedict in particular, but the office of Pope. The demands are infinite, the pressures massive and the walls of the Vatican high.
The three bishops being consecrated tomorrow will find that their world changes and it takes some getting used to. The big danger is that we become so churchy and preoccupied with churchy things that we lose the things in life that also feed us. When I became a bishop I virtually stopped doing music – no time for regular rehearsal or playing. Not inevitable, but that’s what happened. So, I have had to work hard at listening to new music, watching films and reading more than theology. The new bishops will have to find their own way, but they shouldn’t neglect their own nurturing.
One of the things that fires me up (and, I think, feeds my ministry) is finding new bands or being pointed towards old stuff I never really listened to. At the moment I’m loving Franz Ferdinand and watching The Wire. I have just finished reading Chris Evans’s autobiography alongside Hans Küng, Terry Eagleton and Tom Wright.
But, how does the Pope ever get the space to watch good theatre, hear new music, watch good films or relax with good fiction? There might be a simple answer to this and it is possible that he has cracked the challenge and has a wonderfully developed ‘hinterland’ that feeds him and fires him. But I wouldn’t bet on it. (The Archbishop of Canterbury does read a huge amount and has an amazing memory: he also knows some interesting and surprising telly stuff.)
Here’s my recommendation to the Pope, the Archbishop and the new bishops: they might not like it, but it will introduce a new world to them.
Tim Hain lives in Surrey, is an interesting bloke and a damn good guitarist. He has also invented a fusion of Blues and Reggae which he calls ‘Bleggae’. He plays loads of small, localised gigs, but he deserves a bigger audience. It’s fun, it’s thoughtful, and it makes you want to dance.
If you bump into the Pope, pass on the link…
September 18, 2010
When I suggested I might post 9.5 Theses from Wittenberg (a poor substitute for the 95 Theses Martin Luther supposedly nailed to the door of the Schlosskirche in 1517), I didn’t think it would be too difficult.
It is commonly thought that Luther, angry with the dodgy theology of the Pope, launched the Reformation and split the Church. However, Luther was doing more than this. The Church was raising funds to build St Peter’s in Rome by selling forgiveness and guarantees of heaven to gullible sinners. His protest was not just at the control-freakery of the Roman Catholic Church and its dodgy theology of atonement, but was also a strike against the political, cultural and economic power of the day. It was rooted in theology, but was aimed at ‘the Powers’.
So, against whom would he protest today? Not just the Church, but those political and cultural ‘powers’ that imprison people in today’s world. He went to the heart of what made life worth living for people of his world: key to this was the radical idea that you could be made right with God (happy?) without being manipulated by the Church. So, the Theses I propose here are aimed at wider targets than just the Church, but they include the Church.
Anyway, here goes (but I admit it sounds a bit trite – I can’t work up the anger of a Luther and it’s late):
1. Today’s big lie is that you can earn or buy happiness. Consumer culture is seductive, but things won’t being you joy. Nor will working yourself to death. There is more to life than ‘stuff’. Freedom from our slavery to consumer culture can be found in discovering that we are known by a God who cannot be surprised.
2. Systems are supposed to serve people, not the other way round. Visa does not make the world go around. Money might bring power, but it does not necessarily bring freedom and it certainly brings accountability. If banks cannot be allowed to fail, why can millions of poor people? If banks can be saved, why is it the poorest who will suffer the most?
3. Economic decisions have moral consequences – what is done in one part of the world affects real people everywhere else. Everything is connected and moral responsibility for the fate of others cannot be ducked. (That also goes for discouraging use of condoms in Africa…)
4. The material world should not be exploited by today’s powerful or greedy consumers, the price being paid by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We must be prepared to pay a price for reducing our consumer demands. Responsibility means making hard choices now.
5. Celebrity culture is a form of distraction therapy from the reality of the world. Think of Weimar Berlin… or Marx’s ‘opiate of the people’ observation (which he aimed at religion). Ask why our media collude in this destructive and ridiculous fantasy.
6. Get a sense of perspective. Human beings might be clever, but we are not omnicompetent and we are expert in screwing up the world, ourselves and our societies. It is not clever to be selective in our historical remembering, harbouring grievances from long ago that serve merely to fuel (justify?) our corporate resentments and narcissism. (And, pace the French, you can’t just pretend Europe’s Christian history – for good or ill – did not happen…)
7. Security will only be found where the security of ‘the other’ is also protected. Building fences and walls will not ultimately protect – just prolong (and justify?) the cycles of violence. Love of one’s neighbour makes forgiveness possible and new relationships imaginable. Self-protection without regard to the security of others is futile.
8. Those who hold others to account must themselves be made accountable. Freedom of the press cannot be extricated from the responsibility of the press to act justly, fairly and accountably. If no other group (MPs, for example) can be trusted to police themselves, then why should the media be allowed to do so?
9. Hierarchies of victimhood are a symptom of a feeble, introspective and rootless culture. Some Christians (including the Pope) and others who think Christians are being ‘persecuted’ in Europe need to drop the whingeing. Vigorous debate should be enjoined with confidence, joy and freedom. Not surprisingly, this demands a recovery of intellectual rigour and apologetic confidence.
9.5. The Christian Church should get into perspective its primary vocation which is to look, feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. Anything else is a fraud. The divisions between Christians – and the ways they are expressed – are a scandal, an offence and a distraction for the world that needs to discover joy, freedom, forgiveness, new life and generosity.
OK, this is a start. I could have written 9.5 specifically addressed to the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope while he is in my country and I am at the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. I could have addressed them to the Church of England, business, the banks, the ubiquitous gambling industry or the military. I could have addressed them directly to myself. It all gets a bit confusing in the end.
So, there is my ‘starter for 9.5′ (as it were). Over to you for your ‘Theses’ to ‘the powers of this world’.
September 17, 2010
The agenda here in Wittenberg means that I only catch odd snatches of the Pope in the UK. I also don’t have time to review all the commentary. But, I think I can say this: thank God that the Pope’s visit clears some space for some clear thinking to be expressed.
The Pope is German. He doesn’t show much emotion, yet his feeble voice hides an intellectual rigour that repays attention. It is too easy to write him off (from a secular point of view) because of all the stuff ‘we’ disagree with. In one sense, such sneery dismissal is simply a form of distraction therapy – it makes us feel OK about not actually engaging intellectually with what he has to say and why he says it. The Archbishop of Canterbury often evokes the same response. None of what he said was new, but he made the most of the space cleared for such talk.
In his speech at Westminster Hall he drew a straight line between Christian theology/ethics and the assumptions we now take for granted about the importance of (for example) the rule of law. This thinking did not emerge from a vacuum. This is not to make a ‘truth claim’ for Christianity, but to stake a claim for historical factuality.
He then went on to make a strong prophetic demand to a culture that values banks above people:
The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.
Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore… The central question at issue, then, is this: Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?
This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation. Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation…
In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere…
In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor.
But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare.
Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’.
Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: Here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail’.
There you have it: the rule of law, foundations for ethical thinking that is not merely pragmatic, economic justice… all rooted in a clearly thought-through philosophical and theological anthropology.
We might not always like the logic of where his dispassionate thinking takes him, but at least he has the confidence to use his brain in a rigorous way. It is probably too much to hope that his critics will apply the same intellectual and philosophical rigour to their opposition.
However, if they do, the conversation should at least become interesting.
September 17, 2010
In 1517 Martin Luther is purported to have nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, an act that ignited the Reformation in Europe and divided the Church. (Of course, it divided much more than the Church and much blood flowed as a consquence. But, it is naive to draw a straight line between the Luther’s action and the bloodshed without recognising the inextricable interplay of culture, politics, economics and education.)
Well, here I am in Wittenberg, having happily and efficiently completed a substantial part of the Meissen Commission’s agenda and about to do a tour of the Lutherhaus. The sun is shining – unlike the first time I came here in February 2006. Then it was freezing cold, windy and inhospitable. It was then that I was struck by my own thesis that the Reformation could never have happened in southern Europe. It goes a bit like this:
- In the climate of northern Europe you have to associate indoors with people you choose to speak with. This means it is easy to argue, discuss and see the world in narrow terms.
- In southern Europe, where the climate is warmer and drier, people spend much more time outside and, therefore, bump into lots of other people. This shapes both conversations and views of the world. It also slows life down.
- No wonder, then, that northern Europe is Protestant and southern Europe Catholic.
- Stand in the snow and wind in Wittenberg and you realise why Luther was impatient and had a bad temper…
So far nobody has pursued this suggestion, let alone agreed with me that there is a question worth pursuing!
The story of Luther nailing his Theses to the church door is disputed. No matter, the Theses were disseminated quickly via the equivalent of the Internet of the day. Printing was not welcomed by many in the Roman Catholic hierarchy on the grounds that control is lost when any old pleb can get hold of, read and interpret stuff like the Bible for him- or herself. Luther not only saw the potential and importance of new media, but exploited them to great effect.
Now, I promised that while the Pope is in London I would post not 95 Theses on the church door, but 9.5 Theses on this blog. The intention is partly just to make me think about what might be spoken to ‘power’ today. But, now I am here I have hit on a problem: what or who today is the equivalent authority to the Roman Catholic Church of Luther’s day? In other words, to whom should my Theses be addressed?
There is a wonderful medaeival map in the British Library that places Jerusalem at the centre of the world. The geography represents status, authority and claims to universality in the things of the world. It just looks curious and amusing now. Britain is stuck at the bottom left of this map rather than in the middle of the northern hemisphere as in contemporary maps. Having been in the Vatican it is easy to see how the Curia can think itself to stand at the centre of the world today. But, this is a curious notion when seen from the outside.
The Roman Catholic Church is huge. But it cannot ignore the fact that there are more Christians outside it than inside. In real terms, it is one church among many. This might be an inconvenient and ecclesiologically suspect statement/perspective, but one only has to step back a bit from planet earth to see that the Christian Church is rather big and widespread and more differentiated than we would perhaps like. Simply maintaining that Lutherans, Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals and Anglicans are ‘ecclesial communities’ (rather than ‘proper’ churches) looks increasingly limited.
This fact is unavoidable when we sit (as I am doing this week) with Christians of other histories, cultures, ecclesiologies and traditions and see our own in relation to them. I am praying for the meeting of the Pope with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but the world is changing rapidly and common Christian cause should be seen to be more important than constant talk about who is in and who is out.
However, this still leaves me with a problem – here in the place where Papal Bulls were rejected nearly five hundred years ago. Would Luther have been arguing with the Roman Catholic Church today, or would there be a greater ‘authority’ (with greater claims over human life, destiny, values and potential) against whom he would have felt himself compelled to protest? If so, who or what might that authority be?
After all, Luther wasn’t simply obsessed by ‘theology’ (in a privatised, churchy or introspective sense), but by the invitation and demands of God in the whole of life. Power, whether political or ecclesiastical, was always limited: God was top of the pile. And human flourishing depended on (a) getting the theology right and (b) living it out.
So, to whom should I address my 9.5 Theses? And what should they be?
Suggestions welcome before I post tomorrow…
September 16, 2010
I know. It sounds like a firm of solicitors or a dental practice in London. But, read on…
It’s frustrating being on the move and not being able to post quickly on ‘interesting’ news stories. The news about Cardinal Kasper’s withdrawal from the Papal visit to the UK came as I was leaving the annual College of Bishops meeting in Oxford in order to get to Heathrow for the night before flying to Berlin and Wittenberg for the Meissen Commission joint meeting which starts today.
Two stories dominated my mind: Cardinal Kasper’s extraordinary interview with German magazine Focus and Baroness Warsi’s much-reported speech to the Bishops earlier in the day.
Let’s take Kasper first. I have met him several times and found him to be generous, open and not at all pompous (despite the dressing up). He is also very media-savvy and discreet. But, maybe retirement has allowed him to let his guard slip a bit. Whatever the reason, his remarks were rather inept and unfortunate.
Yet, I am bugged by the fact that I am sure I have heard these views before. Although the interview is recent and appears to be specific to the Pope’s current visit to the UK, the formulation of his observations is not new. I cannot remember where I heard them before, but the context must have made them less remarkable then. His observation about landing at Heathrow and feeling that he is in a Third World country is only derogatory if you think that Third World countries are places you’d rather not land in.
I have no idea if Kasper’s withdrawal from the Papal Visit is coincidental or causally connected. But, it is a shame because he is probably the one person in the Vatican who understands something of the Church of England (even if he doesn’t like what he sees and we don’t like what he says).
Baroness Warsi is a different kettle of fish. I wasn’t going to write about Baroness Warsi’s speech to the Bishops in Oxford as I was unsure of its confidentiality status. However, later in the afternoon I got the AP reports and then the copy of her speech along with the press notice. So, here goes…
Baroness Warsi is a breath of fresh air. She is warm, funny, has an infectious sense of humour, a good sense of perspective and is great to listen to. I love her northernness and the fact that she looks you in the eye when speaking to you. She delivered an interesting, straight and direct speech to an appreciative (but not uncritical) audience. She is a very good communicator.
She does understand ‘faith’ and the role of religious bodies. Crucially, she understands the role of faith as the motivator of good stuff and not just the destructive stuff which is always singled out by opponents. Compare her rationality and knowledge of her subject with that of the shouters like Polly Toynbee and the usual suspects from the usual sources.
But, having said all that, where is the substance? It is good that she (and the government) understands and wants to free up local public service of communities in order to energise and mobilise faith groups to do best what they do best. But, the rhetoric begs lots of questions. For example, cutting bureaucracy usually seems to create further bureaucracy. (It always amazed me that the Thatcher regimes chopped up institutions such as the NHS in order to make them more efficient and ‘competitive’ (!), but then oversaw the creation of extra tiers of management and regulation, often duplicating ‘support staff’ before coalescing into larger consortia and, ultimately, reinventing the wheel after having spent billions of pounds in a bit of structural engineering.)
The slogans sound good and the intentions are great: but, I am looking for some awareness of the law of unintended consequences and some statement of how the slogan will be translated into effective action.
However, the really startling thing about the question-and-answer session after her speech was her inability to respond in any way to a question about education policy and academies. The success of Labour’s academies system was rooted in the fact that poor schools were given new life and purpose. Michael Gove is now opening this out (unthinkingly, in my view) to all schools and the real fear is that successful schools will become academies, leaving others to second-class status. The future of LEAs and their support to ‘ordinary’ schools is also unclear. But, the fact that a government minister cannot comment on what is a central plank of government policy and ideology was, at best, strange (and not at all encouraging). It is beginning to sound like ‘spin’ again: like the Millennium Dome – all form, no content (yet).
Baroness Warsi was followed in the afternoon by Lord Wei. He got a great build up from people who had heard him before – particularly in the House of Lords. He was slick, smooth, very articulate and very likeable. He clearly lives on a different planet from the rest of us, though, and his language has not yet escaped from the McKinsey management-speak that has shaped his career thus far. Most of the bishops sitting around me gradually lost interest, became increasingly incredulous of his grasp of reality and by the end had given up thinking of engaging. We didn’t feel we were living in the same world as he is.
The man is bright and you can see why Cameron wanted him on board. But, when talking to bishops whose parishes and clergy are rooted in communities that cover every inch of the country (and some of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh bishops were with us, too) and every socio-economic context that exists, you have to be careful about generalising, categorising and being over-confident about things of which you obviously have little experience. Lord Wei seems to think that a couple of ‘good ideas’ such as ‘time banks’ can be rolled out anywhere and will solve our problems.
Of course, the root problem for both Warsi and Wei is not a new one. Reagan and Thatcher both assumed that people, basically, are good, altruistic and desperate to put themselves (and their money) out to support the weak and the poor. Provided, of course, that we don’t question the systems that give the rich and powerful their wealth and power. Warsi and Wei need to give some attention to their understanding of human nature as ‘fallen’ (in Christian terms) or ‘all-too-frequently selfish and destructive’ (as others might put it). The formulae so far look a bit thin.
[Update 18 September 2010: For a much better and clearer (and more generous) analysis of Warsi and Wei, see Bishop David Thompson's post here.]
September 14, 2010
Do you remember them? I dredged it up from my rather worryingly selective memory – a soap in the shape of a pope on a rope so you could hang it conveniently in the shower.
Reading some of the stuff about the imminent visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the UK later this week, you could be forgiven for thinking that lots of otherwise reasonable people would be quite happy to see the Pontiff suspended from a rope. The nature and degree of the personal venom directed against him raises other questions about what it is that fires such vindictiveness.
Cards on the table: this Pope is a PR disaster and, while being as brainy as one could hope for in a spiritual leader, seems to have little or no grasp of symbols or gestures or how these work in relationships or communications at any level. I disagree with some elements of his social ethics (contraception and condoms being the obvious target), but I do know how he gets there. I don’t like the way he has taken the Roman Catholic Church back towards a pre-Vatican II map in which Rome sits bang at the centre and everything else revolves around it.
But, on the other hand, I respect a man who refuses to go along with ‘contemporary’ cultural and ethical mores simply because he is expected to. Benedict has a brain. His arguments need to be heard and understood before a response is offered. What we are reading this week doesn’t show much of a rational grasp of what all this is about.
Sorry to pick an easy target, but the sheer sloppiness of Polly Toynbee‘s tirade (yes, another one) in today’s Guardian is breathtaking. Let’s be clear: a rational, reasonable, informed, credible critique of the Pope and his assumptions should be achievable and might even be welcomed by Christians (among others). Get the argument going. Tackle the philosophical and theological assumptions which then shape the Pope’s doctrine and ethics. Prove him to be flawed, stupid, wrong, misguided or dangerous – if that’s appropriate – but just to throw things at him from your pram is both inadequate and sad.
Here are some examples from Polly Toynbee’s piece (which seems to have been rather uncritically welcomed by many readers whose sentiments she articulates):
…sex lies at the poisoned heart of all that is wrong with just about every major faith.
Er… and at the heart of nothing else? Sex and how we handle it (so to speak) is a human issue, not just a religious issue. It is not self-evidently true that ‘sexual freedom’ sets us free and improves human relationships or well-being. Everyone wrestles with sex (if you see what I mean…).
Women’s bodies are the common battleground, symbols of all religions’ authority and identity. Cover them up with veil or burka, keep them from the altar, shave their heads, give them ritual baths, church them, make them walk a step behind, subject them to men’s authority, keep priests celibately free of women, unclean and unworthy. Eve is the cause of all temptation in Abrahamic faiths. Only by suppressing women can priests and imams hold down the power of sex, the flesh and the devil. The Church of England is on the point of schism over gay priests, women bishops and African homophobia. The secular world looks on in utter perplexity.
So, let’s pick on the worst elements of religious expression (which millions of religious people also find weird and/or dodgy), shall we, and ignore the rest? What response would I get if I used Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and the other usual suspects as the epitome of secular atheism? Like everything else in this world – the real one in which most of us live – religious institutions or movements comprise huge ranges of agreement and dispute with just about everything the institution or movement lays claim to. There is no objective monolith – not even when leaders pretend there is.
And, just to be really clear, (elements of) the secular world looks on with utter perplexity at all sorts of religious motivation, belief and behaviour: self-sacrifice, humility, generosity, etc. (There I go again – generalising…) The mere fact that ‘the secular world looks on with utter peplexity’ tells us nothing other than that some people are perplexed by other people – it says nothing about the subject of the perplexity itself.
But the Vatican still talks of a few bad apples requiring internal discipline, the pope refusing to hand rapists over to secular law.
The Vatican might not want me as its defender, but that is simply nonsense. But why let reality intrude into a good rant?
The other dominion the religions control is death. Were it not for the faiths with their grip on hospices and palliative care, the law on assisted dying would be reformed.
Good grief! Clearly the assumptions behind Polly Toynbee’s view on the ethics of assisted dying are self-evidently true and the development of palliative care through the hospice movement (which is also concerned with the whole person in the context of the whole family, etc) is clearly a destructive fraud on dying people. Oh, right. No need to argue that point, then.
Where once secularism and humanism were relics of a bygone religious age, its voice is important again. But pointing out the blindingly obvious need to keep faiths in their private sphere has united religious gunfire against secularists.
Now, that really is breathtaking. It seems ‘blindingly obvious’ to some of us that Polly Toynbee has not bothered to listen to any challenge to her root assumption that her world view is self-evidently true – and therefore needs to have privileged place in the public square – while that of religious people is self-evidently stupid and dangerous and needs to be confined to the private sphere where it can’t do any harm. This nonsense has been knocked on the head in the last twenty years even by atheists.
All atheists now tend to be called “militant”, yet we seek to silence none, to burn no books, to stop no masses or Friday prayers, impose no laws, asking only free choice over sex and death.
No, not all atheists are being called ‘militant’. That’s ridiculous. That’s like bleating that all religious people are being labelled ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘brain-dead’. It might apply to some, but not to all. Please give us the rational atheists (of which there are plenty) instead of this sort of unthinking tirade.
And, actually, you are ‘wanting to silence’… by insisting on religion being confined to the private sphere (like an unmentionable hobby or embarrassing habit). You can’t have it both ways.
Religion deserves its say, but only proportional to its numbers.
Really? We all know how to play with numbers and proportions. Add the membership of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Society together and ask if they would have any voice anywhere in proportion to their ‘numbers’. And, if the argument is that many more people are secularists than belong to the formal societies, then the self-same argument can be made for religion. Which gets us nowhere.
No privileges, no special protection against feeling offended.
At last, I agree. But it is amazingly easy to offend those who object to the ease with which religious people are offended. Watch this space…
Anyway, there are reasons for objecting to the Pope’s visit and the basis on which it has been set up. But, Polly Toynbee’s argument isn’t one of them.
September 13, 2010
I was speaking in a church on Sunday evening about the former (and late) German President Johannes Rau. One of my parishes does a series of evening Compline services through the summer and different speakers are invited to address a common theme – such as, ‘People of Faith’. In past years I have done Bruce Cockburn, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller.
Why Johannes Rau? Mainly because a couple of years ago I picked up a book of some of his sermons and found them lucid and helpful.
Now, I realise that some people are getting spooked already. What is a State President doing preaching sermons? Well, read on…
Johannes Rau was born in Wuppertal in 1931, just as Hitler was coming to power and the terror was digging in. As a schoolboy he was active in the Confessing Church – thus showing not only great courage, but clarity about the ethical and political implications of the theology he had grown up with in church. It is this (developing) theology that fired his political, economic and social passions in the post-War years when Germany was being re-built, divided and, eventually, reunited.
He became a journalist and publisher in 1949 and joined Heinemann‘s Gesamtdeutsche Volkspartei from 1952-1957 when it was disbanded. (Ironically, this is now the name of a neo-Nazi party in Germany.) He joined the SPD in 1958, rose through its ranks until he became Ministerprasident of Nordrhein-Westfalen from 1978-1998. In 1999 he was elected Bundesprasident at his second attempt - a post he held until 2004. He died in 2006. (In 2000 he became the first German head of state to address the Israeli Knesset in German.)
What is striking about Rau is that he was an intelligent lay theologian whose rigorous thinking about social justice during the reconstruction years was shaped by his theological convictions and understandings. These were rooted in a costly passion for what is now called ‘the common good’.
For Rau the concept of reconciliation – again derived as a theological imperative to be worked into the fabric of social order – was no mere pious ideal or religious construct. Reconciliation had to be worked at at every level and the price had to be paid where necessary.
Underlying this was the root conviction that (in the words of the subtitle of the book I read) God and the world must be brought into conversation. That is, there can be no disembodied ‘spiritualised’ godliness that is not rooted in the real world we experience every day. The corollary, of course, is that the world cannot be cast adrift from considerations of God. The title of one of his sermons nails this: Diese Welt geht nicht zum Teufel (This world is not going to the devil).
And all this was rooted even deeper in Rau’s notion of ‘hope’ – perhaps one that grasped him rather than one that was simply grasped by him. The book is titled, Wer hofft, kann handeln (Whoever hopes can act). The motto of the Confessing Church had been “teneo, quia teneor” (I hold because I am held) and this became his personal maxim throughout his life.
What was remarkable was his ability to relate and communicate at both political and theological levels. His Bible studies and sermons at the lay-organised Kirchentags were not only popular, but also biblically alert, theologically interesting and spiritually challenging/encouraging.
And that’s a condensed snapshot of the great man who is largely unknown outside of Germany. He spanned a time in German history that demanded giants in all areas of life. Rau encompassed several areas and was remarkable for the respect he gained from all sides of German life.
(Now back to the business of the annual College of Bishops meeting in Oxford for the next four days…)
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