November 30, 2010
I have just spent 24 hours at St George’s, Windsor, for a Church & Media Consultation. This has happened twice before: in 2000 and 2005. The aim is to bring together serious players in the British media and the Church of England for a frank and constructive (as well as instructive) conversation. The level of representation this time was lower than last – for example, no national newspaper editors – but the conversation takes seriously both Church and media.
Apart from being enjoyable and stimulating, it was also illuminating and challenging. Chatham House rules apply, so I am not at liberty to say who said what about what to whom. Which, in fact, is a good example of where confidentiality allows for a conversation you couldn’t have if everything had to be ‘transparent’. Confidentiality is not the same as secrecy.
It seems to me that this distinction is more important today than some thought it was a week ago. Wikileaks has again put into the public domain records of communications the interlocutors thought were confidential. I think Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was right to maintain (on the BBC) that the news media which edited the leaked documents for publication did so in order to ensure that the story which would ultimately be told was a coherent one – rather than simply having millions of documents dumped into the electronic ether. The problem, however, is not now primarily whether news media should have got involved with ethically ‘dirty’ material, but what such leaks will do to the nature of confidential diplomacy.
Do we want everything our diplomats say and do to be regarded as public property? Even if such disclosure (a) inhibits honest or speculative communication – often necessary if options are to be explored before judgements are reached, or (b) betrays information that might be needed in case of conflict? Or are even these questions now redundant in a world of electronic access which renders any electronic communication subject to exposure? Clearly, there is a price to be paid for refusing people a forum in which they can have a non-public conversation.
The justification offered for leaking is ‘the public interest’. Last weekend the News of the World published a story based on the so-called Lambeth List, the confidential list of clergy who have been disciplined because of misdemeanours or who have decided to relinquish their orders (often for good and honest reason). The justification in an email was that ‘publication is clearly in the public interest’. My question is this: was it of interest to the public (and, if so, which public) or in the public interest? The distinction matters.
This question was also raised at the Church & Media Consultation at Windsor. Apart from rehearsing some serious observations about ‘religious illiteracy’ in the media (but not confined to the media), we were looking for creative, positive and opportune ways of engaging with the media… starting from a recognition of the realities and pressures under which (particularly) news journalists operate. The media professionals were asking for the Church to be more confident about its ‘story’, its communicative ability, its resources (some very able communicators) and its possession of what people are hungry for.
But this distinction between ‘public interest’ and ‘of interest to the public’ kept rearing its head. A story that is interesting to a particular community might not be of importance to the wider community addressed by particular media organs. Equally, a matter of public interest might not be communicable in a form that makes it of interest to the audience. However, ‘public interest’ should not be used as a cover for telling tales that tittilate some while destroying the subjects – when the fact of it being interesting to some prurient people says nothing about its importance for the common good.
One of the most interesting questions to be raised at Windsor was the inherent good fit of the Church of England to the direction in which the media are drifting: local. Digital media are increasingly focusing on ‘the local’ and ‘the local’ is precisely where the Church is. Frustration was expressed with the fact that the national media are interested only in the politics of conflict in the Church (so they cover the General Synod with its peculiar preoccupations) while remaining ignorant of what goes on in every community. Now, that is not a complaint! The politics of women bishops are inevitably more interesting to the Times than what a vicar is doing to support sanctuary-seekers in an otherwise unremarkable South London inner-urban parish. Indeed, it is the Church’s responsibility to tell its stories locally and to value the local in the face of the dominant messaging of the national media.
I guess this is where people like me fit in. Local people (not just bishops and other clergy) can use the connectedness of social networking and new media forms (such as blogs) to tell stories, challenge prejudices, correct misrepresentation and form a locus of interest, communication and confidence.
I would argue that this is both of interest to the public and in the public interest.
(And isn’t today’s snow in Croydon just beautiful?)
November 28, 2010
One of the best nights of the year in my little life has to be Jools Holland at the Royal Albert Hall in London. We get there each year courtesy of a mate of mine and it is just brilliant. Every time. Without fail.
Not only do you get the huge sound of Jools himself on piano, but also the most amazing array of musical talent you could hope to see. Three great trumpeters, four trombonists, five saxophonists enjoy their way through a beautiful noise. Gilson Lavis takes my breath away as probably the best drummer I have ever seen – his long solos bring the audience to their feet. Dave Swift is the coolest bass player ever. Mark Flanagan is the Scouse guitarist who makes playing the blues look easy. Chris Holland brings the organ alive with a never-intrusive finesse. The sound is huge and you can’t help but get up and dance. Even in a box.
And not only does Jools give a couple of hours of totally enjoyable and flawless entertainment, but he gives spotlight space to the wonderful voices of Louise Marshall and Ruby Turner (the Queen of Boogie-Woogie). They best their way through song after song with a joy and energy that has to be seen to be believed.
The other great thing is how Jools nurtures new talent and gives space for younger musicians to learn their trade and play to huge audiences they could never command for themselves at this stage of their career. Look where the wonderful rockabilly Imelda May is now. This time it was Rumer in support – great singer, lovely voice, but a bit samey…
However, it is the main guests who do the challenging stuff. In the past we’ve seen Paul Rodgers, Jimmy Cliff, Lulu, Marc Almond, Solomon Burke and other greats. This time it was Alison Moyet and she didn’t disappoint for a single second. No prima donna showmanship – just excellent music from excellent musicians at the top of their game.
Can it get any better than this? Well, try Rico Rodriguez doing a ska version of Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. One of the creators of Jamaican ska, he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks and just sings his way through. He gives another go in the first encore with the glorious:
Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself while you’re still in the pink. As years go by as quickly as a wink, enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.
(Which is parodied by one of the crew as ‘Endure this song, it’s longer than you think…’)
Jools tours most of the year. Go to the website. Book for a gig near you. You will not regret it. Whatever your taste in music, this is musicianship at its joyful best.
November 28, 2010
In his excellent novel A Week in December, Sebastian Faulks characterises a pretty bleak contemporary Britain, riddled with uncertainty about identity, who ‘belongs’ and which values are driving us as a society. In my last post I briefly described the book. The book is timely because it raises in ‘flesh and blood’ terms the huge challenge to a diverse and disparate society such as ours of identifying the values which we want to shape our future.
This is pertinent because for the first time since the Second World War (in my humble opinion) we are all faced with making defining choices about what we want our society to look like. Having muddled through the relatively affluent post-war decades, the global financial crash has made hard choices unavoidable. We cannot simply go on the way we were; we must now change direction. But that direction should be informed by values and not simply be a reaction to immediate circumstances (such as economic challenge).
Last week we held a consultation in Croydon on the theme of the ‘Big Society’. Leaders of our very many faith communities came together with community and Council leaders to explore what the concept means and how we might engage with it. We met under Chatham House rules, so I will not give a resume of what was said. However, I will outline my speech (in response to the Council Leader) and my perceptions of where we go from here.
As with any concept emerging from the mind of a politician in the run-up to a General Election, the temptation we all face is to critically take apart the concept, question the motives behind it and justify our clever non-engagement by picking holes in it. Of course, it is always easier to critique someone else’s proposals than to come up with our own original and positive ones.
The problem with the ‘Big Society’ concept is that none of us has been sure what was intended by it – even in the minds of those who invented it. Some months ago I rather rudely compared it to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich: build a big tent and then wake up one day and realise we have to actually put something in it. The term ‘Big Society’ began as a rhetorical device to contrast with ‘Big State’ or ‘Big Government’. (Unfortunately, the term ‘big’ evokes memories of the bragging Barclays Bank adverts of just a very few years ago in which the actor Anthony Hopkins captured the hubris of the ultra-Capitalist nineties and noughties with that sneery ‘big is self-evidently right and best’ claim to universal power and identity.)
The further problem we now face is that the debate about the ‘Big Society’ has become confused with the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) and the programme of drastic cuts to public expenditure in Britain (while bankers’ bonuses seem to have resumed after their inconvenient interruption). Whereas the CSR impacts on what society will look like, it says little directly about the value base of the society we are now shaping. ‘Big Society’ is a debate about values – what should characterise our common life, politics, government, economics, education, etc. – and what sort of people we wish to become; it is not primarily or intially about the particular economics of a particular government.
In fact, this is my starting point in engaging positively with the ‘Big Society’ project (which was also debated at last week’s General Synod of the Church of England in London). A couple of opening salvoes to remind me of the nature of the game:
- Either we shape our future or we become victims of other people’s decisions. It can be easier to opt out and then blame other people for creating what we don’t particularly like – but that is puerile and irresponsible.
- The language we use matters: and here I think the word ‘Big’ should be dropped and the word ‘Good’ instated in its place. The ‘Good Society’ asks us to question more than its size, compass or mechanics; it goes to the heart of its values and gets the priority right: values should shape our behaviour – our behaviour should not simply be an ad hoc reaction to other stimuli, through which our real values might then be discerned. ‘The common good’ is the term used in Roman Catholic social ethics and it is the right one.
- The ‘Big Society’ as a descriptor of a way of living that (a) asks people to take responsibility for their lives, (b) takes subsidiarity in decision making seriously, and (c) asks people to be responsible for the well-being of their neighbour is thoroughly commendable. But it is not original. Many thousands of our communities have schools, hospitals and hospices because the Church (of England, usually) saw the need and created them generations ago. This might be an uncomfortable fact, but there it is. Croydon’s schools and hospitals were shaped by the compassionate ingenuity of an Archbishop of Canterbury over 400 years ago: John Whitgift.
How, then, should we engage with the ‘Big Society’ debate? I think the first thing the Christian community needs to do is recover its nerve and remember its history. ‘Big Society’ is what we do – and what we have always done. We are not here to serve only our own Christian community, but the whole of the community in which we live. Every time I institute or license a Vicar I am reminded that he/she is the Vicar of the Parish and not simply the chaplain of their congregation(s). Even if (as was suggested to me) 80% of churches are not ‘volunteering’ enough in our communities, it is still true that nearly 80% of volunteers in the community come from and through the churches. Why? For theological reasons, no doubt; but also because we are there in every community and it is in our blood.
Anyway, to cut to the chase and suggest a dynamic for positive engagement in a rather complex morass of competing ideas about our current social challenges, here goes – as simply as I can make it.
First, we need to identify the values that we want to shape our society and cultures for the next two or three generations (long-term). For example, we might say we want all children to have (a) equal educational opportunity and (b) equal aspiration. We might want to have our economics driven by our moral choices and not by assumed inevitabilities (the personalised ‘Market’, for example). We might want freedom and justice – with proper sanction when the irresponsible abuse that freedom and cause injustice.
Second, we need to ‘earth’ those values in the stuff of (for example) housing, education, transport, access to law, immigration issues, etc. Values cease to be of any value if they do not ‘take flesh’ in the real and mucky world of money, structures and things.
Third, we then shape political action and decisions according to the values we have enjoined. But, in all the detail we keep holding up the bigger picture of the values we commonly hold to be the shapers of our society. It is these that should guide our political judgement and critique.
If you want a good example of where this has not worked thus far, look at (a) Rowan Williams’ critique of ‘childhood’ in (for just one example) Lost Icons and (b) The Good Childhood Report by the Children’s Society in 2009. How might they be used to shape policy and all that goes with implementation of it?
So, there’s a starter for ten. So-called ‘faith communities’ (a misnomer which drives me mad because it ignores differentiation between those communities and assumes that only religious communities have ‘faith’ – which shows woeful ignorance of how world views function) can organise to get this simple three-step process going in focused discussion, debate and communication with those who wield the political and economic axes.
November 27, 2010
I spent a week in November reading (on and off, obviously) Sebastian Faulks’ excellent A Week in December. Faulks manages to take snapshots of characters and events that characterise something of the nineties and noughties in Britain.
A book to capture today's Britian
The tensions and comprehension gaps between a disillusioned young Muslim man – looking for some certainties and a place to belong – and his parents who have tried hard to assimilate and be accepted into British society is beautifully expressed. Even better is the lack of easy resolution: both end the book still not understanding the other and yet the need for human belonging has to find expression for both.
Many of the women in the book – wives of politicians, footballers and rich businessmen, for example – are depicted as casting around for love, identity and ‘place’. A literary critic shows up the superficial and personal nature of arts criticism: personal agendas and rivalries, jealousies and snobberies, all get exposed. There is a light shone on so many aspects of shallow culture that every page made me wince with both recognistion and embarrassment. Is this what we have really become?
The period covered is, however, epitomised by the character of John Veals, the high-finance money manipulator whose addictive lust is not for money itself (ironically, given his accumulation of the stuff) – and certainly not for his rather regretful wife and neglected children – but for the miserable pursuit of power and ‘winning’. Relationships mean nothing; the world is simply a playground for his exploitation; people are pawns in his trading games; rules are for breaking; laughter is for the sorts of people he despises. The final line of the book sends a chill through the soul as the sheer empty, vacuous, selfish and value-free monster of greed exposes what happens when you gain the whole world but lose your soul.
I guess Faulks could be accused of caricaturing the worst of contemporary Britain without depicting or exploring the best elements of a complicated multicultural society. But, you can’t do everything in a single book – and in this book he paints a picture which only the wilfully blind will fail to recognise. This picture begs many questions of what sort of society we really want Britain to develop in the next few years of the so-called ‘Big Society’… and that will form the subject of my next post.
November 24, 2010
Posted by nickbaines under Christmas
| Tags: Advent
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Advent, which begins on Sunday, ignites the anticipation of Christmas. It is all about God coming among us, where we are, in the ordinary stuff of life. It comes as surprise and it bursts quietly into a world that has got used to ‘things being the way they are’.
This is a brilliant expression of it.
November 24, 2010
Where to start?
- 29 miners dead in New Zealand.
- South Korea bombed by North Korea and now this most dangerous part of the world likely to be inflamed.
- Education about to be mucked about with in England (again).
- Pope saying something about condoms, but still not clear whether a tweak or a revolution.
- An extra day off for the forthcoming Royal Wedding.
- Thousands of families about to find their lives changed by government cuts in England.
- A really interesting debate opening up under the ‘Big Society’ umbrella about values, vision and the shaping of a different sort of society – both opportunity and threat.
So, what do we find ourselves occupied with? The non-’suspension’ of the Bishop of Willesden for being rude and unepiscopal about the Royal Marriage.
It’s absolutely clear: Pete Broadbent was wrong to say what he said in the way he said it. No question. Nothing is private any more and Facebook certainly isn’t. Pete apologised unreservedly and then was asked to ’withdraw’ from public office until further notice (whatever that means). And now two things have happened: (a) the Twittersphere is alive with charges that a dying story has been given new life, and (b) a campaign has been launched to get people to boycott the Daily Mail.
Isn’t it just conceivable that anyone who would wish to boycott the Daily Mail for this latest expose of a good bloke might already be boycotting the organ because of its shrill racism, ideological hard edge and willingness to destroy people who don’t share its own prejudiced complexion?
I understand the response to the bishop’s predicament. But, in the grand scheme of world events and the enormity of the Daily Mail’s offensiveness, there might be better reasons for choosing not to pay into the Mail’s coffers than their personal stuffing of the Bishop of Willesden. (Is their coverage of the Synod debate about the ‘Big Society’ useful?)
I hope Pete’s purdah will end and he can continue his excellent and valued episcopal ministry. I also hope the Royal wedding will be the beginning of a great marriage for William and Kate (but I seriously fear for their fate at the hands of the same media who are now defending their honour). And I hope we can recover some sense of proportion about all this stuff. As soon as possible.
November 21, 2010
I am grateful to Ruth Gledhill for tweeting frequent updates to the Pope’s condom story. I have been out and about and keeping track of comments on Twitter. Not only did she jump into the story with both feet, but then had the integrity to feed informed comment subsequently – comment that changed the story and posed questions of comprehension to the media commentariat.
The BBC website proclaims (in common with loadsamediaorgans):
Pope’s condom comments welcomed by campaign groups
Well, they won’t welcome them once they’ve engaged brain and thought about them. Why? Because this is a great example of people hearing what they want to hear, responding to it… and only then looking at the actual text of what the Pope said. So, the media story ends up being about the media handling of the issue rather than the content of what the Pope said.
It seems to me, from reading the text and one particular comment on it (fed by Ruth Gledhill and to be found at http://www.catholicworldreport.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=220:pope-benedict-on-condoms-in-qlight-of-the-worldq&catid=53:cwr2010&Itemid=70 - but WordPress won’t let me embed the link) that the Pope hasn’t changed his mind or the mind of the Roman Catholic Church on the matter of condoms, contraception or sexual morality. He hasn’t even opened the door to exceptions to the Church’s rulebook on these matters. He has answered a question with the precision one would expect from him (an academic), but with nuances too sharp for blunt interpreters.
Janet Smith contextualises and then quotes the interview given by the Pope:
There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
The comment goes on to make clear that the Pope has not changed his view that the issue is about sexual behaviour, not condoms. The example he uses is of a homosexual prostitute – so he is saying nothing about the procreative element of heterosexual sex. Janet Smith concludes with an analogy that is, at the very least, suggestive:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.
This might not be comfortable – and it certainly will be a nuisance to those who think (or hope) the Pope has opened a door to the relaxation of condom use – but I cannot see that the Pope has said anything remarkable or that deserves the ‘liberal’ headlines dominating our media. It’s a good story – but it smacks of misreading.
Unless I have misread it, of course.
November 17, 2010
Posted by nickbaines under Christmas
| Tags: nativity
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It starts on 1 December, but you can sign up to the Natwivity Census here and now (Facebook and Twitter).
Telling the Christmas story through Advent.
November 17, 2010
Posted by nickbaines under media
| Tags: Prince William
, X Factor
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A Martian landing in London this week would wonder what he had come to. The most intelligent life in the known universe and we offer a royal engagement and X Factor. Blimey.
I was horrified to see that the announcement of Prince William’s engagement to Kate Middleton set the press free not only to have a bit of a joy-fest (something to fill the pages and the screens for a while – it will now run relentlessly for ever…), but also to do its sneery, bitchy stuff, too. Kate’s appearance and dress sense comes under scrutiny; photos of her in a university fashion show get spread all over the tabloids; Kate’s family get the ‘commoner’ treatment – sneery comments and cartoons about their financial prowess, family business and occasional verbal faux-pas. I hate it.
What gives these people the right to take other people’s lives apart in this way? The uniquely English class system? The desire to see the happy couple go the same way as his parents? Anything goes as long as there are photos, stories, talking points and dramas? I want to rejoice for this happy young couple – but, I feel dread for what they and her family will now be subjected to… all because the nosey public has an insatiable capacity for seeing other people’s lives spread across the kitchen table or the train seat. It is a form of dehumanising voyeurism. I hope William and Kate survive it.
Media people, this isn’t a ‘go’ at you – you’ve got a job to do and this offers rich pickings. But, try to remember their humanity during the feeding frenzy. As for me, I’m not going to watch the television for months…
X Factor is bizarre. It has a terrible attractiveness – as does watching Ann Widdecombe dance. Part of me feels sorry for whoever will win the top prize because the campaign is already running to make sure the Christmas Number One is something else. Last year it was Rage Against the Machine. This year the options are being considered and the Twitterati are active in spreading the word.
I’ve got another suggestion.
I’ve posted on blues musician Tim Hain before. He wondered to me in the pub recently how it was possible for a professional musician playing a Bob Marley classic (at an X Factor audition)to be declined after less than half a minute when some acting dogs got through. Good question, I thought. Anyway, Tim has done a song with some excellent musos - you can download ’Sorry it’s a no’ here. I have no idea how to get this going virally as a potential alternative for the Christmas charts, but it’s worth a go.
Pass it on and say ‘No’ to Cowell’s clones.
November 12, 2010
I went into London today to have lunch with a friend who is ‘in media’. On the way in I read that ’80% of Bill Bailey’s new show is a rant against Christianity’. Can’t remember exactly where I read it, but that was basically what it said. “Oh no,” I thought to myself, “here we go again. There’ll be more protests about Christians being persecuted and attacked.” And I was right! (Which is shameful when you see what is happening in the real world in Iraq…)
I am beginning to feel in a minority of one in being a Christian who doesn’t think we are being persecuted. ‘Misrepresented’, ‘misunderstood’ and ‘an easy target for people too lazy to think through their own assumptions’, maybe. Subject to educational and political assumptions that are sometimes staggering in their arrogance and ignorance in relation to Christianity in particular, definitely. But ‘persecuted’, no way.
I go with the agnostic Marxist Terry Eagleton when he complains that the so-called New Atheists have bought their atheism on the cheap and that this enables others to think that their easy dismissal of ‘religion’ (let alone Christianity) has inherent intellectual credibility – that Dawkins’ position is self-evidently true because it is Dawkins who says it. And it is obvious that the methodologies Dawkins adopts in his television tirades would never pass the editor’s desk were it to be driving towards a theistic theme. (It would be like me depicting Stalin in the first minute, extrapolating from Stalin that all atheists are on the same road as the Soviet dictator, then writing off atheism as having any intellectual, cultural or ethical credibility worth thinking about.)
As contributors to this blog have demonstrated, there is a thoughtful and intelligent discussion to be had between atheists and Christians (or theists) – one that presupposes mutual respect. I usually find Bill Bailey sharp and funny, so look forward to his new show. But, if it does turn out to be an easy potshot at Christianity, I guess I’ll just have to be big enough to take it. Popularity and big laughs don’t prove any point whatsoever.
The problem is that there is much about Christians that is funny or odd or open to question. Now is not an easy time to speak of ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ in a context in which Christians appear happy to accuse each other of all sorts of nastiness. But, if our reputation is tarnished and our credibility low, then we cannot blame anyone else for this… even if the reputation also involves selective reporting, misrepresentation and misunderstanding.
Anyway, to go back to the main point, being misunderstood or misrepresented by a liberal elite who dominate the public discourse with a confidence that is ignorant of its own (religious) illiteracy, is inconvenient, painful, embarrassing and should be countered. But, it isn’t persecution. Bill Bailey is not pulling our finger nails out or stopping our kids from going to university purely on account of their faith – he is simply doing what people have done to Christian faith since Calvary. It’s not clever and it is boringly predictable - get used to it. The way to counter it is to stop being ‘against’ anything we don’t like and proactively present what we are ‘for’ in the public space. And, for God’s sake, try to enjoy it.
I come back again and again to the need for Christians to put their own house in order, gain confidence in the content of the Christian faith (which, strictly speaking and in shorthand, means in ‘the Word made flesh’ – the person of God seen in Jesus Christ), question the assumptions of those who attack or question Christianity, and stop complaining about being victims of other people’s horribleness.
And the BBC still needs a ‘Religion Editor’…
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