February 28, 2011
I was going to write something about the 2011 Census and the campaign by the British Humanist Association against the ‘religion’ question. But, then I got back to my office and read George Pitcher’s take on it – and he is funnier than I could be.
Read his blog post (‘The religion control freaks are telling you what to think for the 2011 Census’) and then the comments below. For contrast, have a look at Richard Littledale’s recent post.
He probably won’t thank me for it, but I’m with Pitcher.
February 26, 2011
All around the world is going mad. Regimes we have armed, funded and cosied up to are now being threatened with war crimes trials. The victors always implement the ‘justice’ and write the histories. So far, anyway. And the prophets warn that justice will one day be done.
Not for the first time, the epic lines of Leonard Cohen penetrate the fog of misery. Having growled his way through the list of drugs he had taken over the years, he concluded with a mischievous light in his eyes:
I’ve also studied deeply in the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through… There ain’t no cure for love.
Like Cohen’s ‘cheerfulness’, beauty has a habit of breaking in when the darkness and ugliness of human cruelties seem to dominate our consciousness. Today, for me, it has come through two wonderful albums.
I once wrote of 19 year old Alexandra Burke‘s X Factor version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that such a young person can’t possibly sing such a song. The depth of experience beneath the lyric and the haunting loveliness of the music demand the lived-in voice of someone more mature – someone who has lived and lost and loved and longed and languished. (Sorry!) I got heavily criticised for voicing such a heresy – mainly by 19 year olds. But today I have listened properly to Adele‘s 21.
Like with all the great poets, it is the agonies and losses that seem to produce the most beautiful art. Her acoustic performance at the Brits showed how exposed a musician can be – nowhere to hide and all the intimacy laid bare for all to see. I don’t know how she does it. But this stripped-back perfomance of one of her most moving songs just gives a hint of what lies in the rest of the album. And when you have listened to this, try Don’t You Remember.
The second album is categorised as ‘folk’, but it is more than that. Again, the lyrics are infused with the yearning for love and the pain of loss. Yet, they also reach out for the idea of ‘grace’. Like Leonard Cohen’s grasp of ‘true religion and virtue’ (Book of Common Prayer) – when he sings in Hallelujah:
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…
… Mumford & Sons depict the reality of life for most people who live and love and mess it up a million times, yet long for redemption – for the freedom to start again. They touch on the difficulty of being grasped by the notion of grace despite not being able to comprehend its scandalous generosity – a generosity that transcends even justice.
In the title track Sigh No More we hear (with a confident and defiant accompaniment):
My heart was never pure
And you know me
And man is a giddy thing
Oh man is a giddy thing
Love it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
It will set you free
Be more like the man you were made to be.
There is a design, an alignment, a cry,
Of my heart to see
The beauty of love as it was made to be.
Later, in Roll Away Your Stone (with its obvious biblical associations), we hear:
Roll away your stone, I’ll roll away mine
Together we can see what we will find
Don’t leave me alone at this time
For I’m afraid of what I will discover inside
‘Cause you told me that I would find a hole
Within the fragile substance of my soul
And I have filled this void with things unreal
And all the while my character it steals
Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think
Yet it dominates the things I see
It seems that all my bridges have been burned
But you say that’s exactly how this grace thing works
It’s not the long walk home that will change this heart
But the welcome I receive with the restart
This beautiful album shows that – again, in Leonard Cohen’s words – the cracks are where the light gets in. The well-armoured or self-righteous person is ignorant of grace; the cracks are covered up for fear and nothing will break in – not love, not light and not grace.
Adele and Mumford & Sons open the gaps in the darkness and let the shafts of unmerited beauty drift in.
February 25, 2011
I did a day trip to Bradford today for meetings. And the sun shone. Clearly no coincidence…
Sitting on a train for hours does at least allow some space for reading and today’s was very stimulating (apart from the addictive novel I’ve almost finished – Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo):
In his excellent ethicalcomment blog Dr Charles Reed offers an important lens through which to view the current revolutions going on in North Africa (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya). If we are not to react simply to the immediate – which stimulates short-term reactive action that inevitably leads to further trouble in the future – but think through the longer-term consequences of potential courses of action, then we need to delve into history. Charles points us to an interesting essay by Professor David Bell.
Remembering the accuracy of Jesus’s realistic warning (that if we clear the one demon out of the house before having something better to put in its place, then loads of demons will fill the vacuum that nature so abhors), this also raises the question about what support is to be given to building a new framework for civil society in countries where it has broken down. I remember very well the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the flood of nutters, pornographers, druggies, robbers and exploiters that filled the gap left where the social, political and economic frameworks had been.
The second interesting bit of reading was Timothy Garton Ash‘s reflection in the Guardian on the lessons of history as seen through the lens of Polish-Russian relations. He begins with this introduction to a discussion about truth-telling:
Adam Daniel Rotfeld, a former Polish foreign minister, has on his visiting card one of the world’s more extraordinary titles. It reads: Plenipotentiary for Difficult Matters. What a wonderful idea. Every country, every company, every family should have one.
The third article, also from the Guardian, is related to the previous two: ‘Churnalism or news? How PRs have taken over the media’. There is something funny about people being taken in by hoaxes. There is something very funny about journalists being taken in by hoaxes. But there is also something very worrying about the pressures under which journalists now work (understaffed and under too much pessure to produce headlines quickly and dramatically without proper checking of sources) that potentially reduces (a) the value of the journalism produced and (b) our trust in what we read, watch or hear.
The common theme of these three items is the need for intelligent appraisal of what we see and hear and the need for people (journalists and/or historians) who help us ‘see’ and think about more wisely what is presented to us in the media as ‘truth’. What I see on the news this evening means nothing without some contextual interpretation; however, that context is not just the contemporary events, but also the ‘deep’ (broader historical or cultural) lens through which we understand the current events.
We don’t need quick news. We need deep news.
February 23, 2011
Posted by nickbaines under music
| Tags: Italy
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Good grief! You watch some of the novelty acts in Britain’s Got Talent and the X Factor and wonder about the participants’ self-insight.
But, have a look at this extraordinary performance from three Italian lads (who look like their mummies don’t know they’ve sneaked out – probably because they are 14-15 years old) and ask what sort of culture encouraged and produced that.
February 21, 2011
As the Middle East continues to burn and the powers are being shaken by the winds of hope, some domestic matters maintain their importance for the future of British society. The Prime Minister seems to be letting no day go by without some major statement on something. This is not a bad thing in itself – especially as the subject matter is usually important – but it makes me wonder whether everything is being properly thought through before publication.
We all know that the forest sell-off has been embarrassingly dropped – and rightly so, in my humble opinion. But, today the Telegraph has an exclusive article by David Cameron in which he sets out his intention to expand his Big Society by decentralising public services and “replace targets with common sense”.
All this sounds great – giving local people control over the details of their lives – but there is a nagging doubt itching away in the back of my mind about the reality. ‘Decentralisation’ seems usually to increase bureaucracy, not reduce it. ‘Common sense’ of one group is the ‘madness’ of another. And none of this addresses the serious concerns about the impact of the ‘millionaires’ Cabinet’ proposals on the poorest or most vulnerable members of our society.
I don’t necessarily disagree with some of the sentiment behind Cameron’s agenda, but I have little trust that the outworking won’t simply benefit those who are most able to exploit it – at the cost of others for whom the charities will be expected to care.
The Bishop of Huntingdon expressed these concerns well – and with a clear appeal to the prophetic tradition in his sermon in the chapel of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge:
The strength of saying that we want a Big Society not a Big Government is that more people can be empowered and use that power to help others. The weakness, which many of us are worried about, is that for the powerful to say this, but then not take or not be able to take the actions that are necessary to empower others, but only cut their support, is to doubly disempower them: at best a Big Sell-Out – abdicating from government not augmenting society – and at worst a Big Smokescreen, if the benefits of privilege are perceived to stay just where they were, or even grow. If there is one thing that should sometimes keep our Prime Minister awake at night, this should be it.
One of the things I like about David Cameron is that you can usually tell when his own voice is behind the things he says or writes (as opposed to the voices of speechwriters or PR people). Reading his recent speech on terrorism at the Security Conference in Munich he not only wagged his real finger at his audience, but he also kept using the word ‘frankly’. This is good: it suggests openness, honesty and clarity. But, frankly, being frank and convincing isn’t enough when it seems that some thinking is being done on the hoof and without realistic thought being given to the implications.
February 17, 2011
I am in Berlin for today and tomorrow to speak at a conference of ‘middle managers’ in the German Church (EKD). I flew in this morning in time to hear a stimulating address by Dr Thies Gundlach which (to my ears, at least) focused on the need for fresh attention to be paid to spirituality (the Bible being a lens through which to see God, the world and us) and a need for the development of strategic competence in the outreach ministry of the church in a changing world.
I have met Thies a number of times and am impressed with the seriousness with which he engages – both personally and professionally – with these questions. He is also a very nice bloke.
My session was at the end of a heavy conference day for the punters and I feared I would send them to their early sleep. I was sharing the platform with a Dutchman who gave an interesting presentation about the challenges posed by the changing situation of the church in the Netherlands. The idea was that the two of us would be interviewed first by two comperes and then give a twenty-minute address each on the theme of the conference. I went second and addressed the question of ‘Leadership, Management and Inspiration’. I basically wanted to encourage the ‘middle management’ to be creative in leadership, to lose their fear of failure and enjoy the challenge of their ministry.
I was asked beforehand whether I was daunted by the challenge of moving from Croydon to Bradford. I was able answer immediately and without either delusion or hesitation: no! I am looking forward to the challenges and opportunities that this will bring. It is a fantasy that life is ever sorted; every day brings new challenges and there was never a ‘golden age’. So, if we are going to do this stuff, let’s at least try to enjoy the experience.
For the record, my line on ‘leadership, management and inspiration’ was basically that management of resources is important, but that leadership involves more than administration. Leadership demands from leaders the ability and freedom to inspire the led. I began with Liverpool Football Club…
Why can Kenny Dalglish get out of the same players who failed for Roy Hodgson more energy, commitment, flair, engagement, skill, optimism, determination and enjoyment? The same players on the same ground for the same club. Well, one answer is that King Kenny has restored confidence not only in the collective ambition of the team/club, but also confidence in the individual players’ creative ability. They look like they want to play and want to win.
Part of the distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ can be illustrated by the question I found myself asking as Archdeacon of Lambeth ten years ago. I can’t remember how or why, but I recall realising that there are two approaches to being an archdeacon (responsible for buildings, finance, law and ‘stuff’ in the Church of England): the first asks what the law allows us to do and goes from there; the second asks what we want to achieve (where do we want to get to) and then works out how the law might allow us to get there. In other words, leadership begins with a vision for which a strategy is then needed – but strategy without vision is meaningless. Poor management often sees the development of strategies without having first identified the vision that the strategies are meant to make happen.
Of course, this has to do with giving permission to leaders(at any level) to fail. Having identified clarity, confidence and communication as key to good leadership, I quoted Matthew 25:14-30. Here three blokes (they are always blokes…) are given money by their boss who was about to go away for a bit. Two blokes doubled the cash they were given, but one hid his away in order to preserve it from risk of loss. The first two were praised, the last was condemned. The church and the Gospel are to be risked – given away and possibly lost, perverted, misrepresented, twisted, half-remembered, etc – and not stuck in the ground where they can be kept pure, untarnished and ‘holy’.
We never really learn this, do we?
Anyway, as this isn’t a sermon, we went on to take questions form the floor – many of which began with the football allusion. One question made me think about the analogy between football matches and church services. I quickly thought and suggested that the liturgy of football involves (among other things):
- a commonly owned and understood liturgy
- that liturgy involves worship, praise, criticism, prayer (pleading for an outcome), complaint, questioning, singing, silence, emotion, reflection, critical appraisal
- the experience is centred on a common goal (literally!)
- everyone is a participant in the event – no one is a mere spectator.
Now, think about how church might take these elements on board – consciously – in the choice of medium, language, music, action, performance and articulated vision.
A question about the challenge of the so-called New Atheists led to the conclusion (among other things) that their major weaknesses are (a) their lack of humour, (b) their need to hold on to a caricature of religion in order for their critique to bear the weight they put on it, and (c) their ignorance of the fact that what they think of as ‘new’ is actually very old and didn’t hold much water even 200 years ago.
Anyway, that’s Berlin Tonight (to quote either Leonard Cohen or Bruce Cockburn).
February 16, 2011
Posted by nickbaines under BBC
| Tags: Mark Thompson
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I am glad I am not Mark Thompson, Director General of the BBC. He has had to take on funding of the BBC World Service from HM Government at the same time as having to slash the BBC’s expenditure. This makes the BBC-knockers happy, but there is another side to it (apart from the ‘little englander’ let’s cut the BBC down to size despite its global importance and reach).
There is a certain irony in the fact that just as popular revolutions are challenging autocracies across the Middle East (and, consequently, more widely?), a prime organ for consistent, informed and intelligent reporting and analysis is switching off its microphones and vacating the space to other voices.
The proposed cuts to the World Service involve losing a quarter of all staff, a 16 per cent reduction in the government grant over the next five years, and the closure of five foreign language services:
- · Five language services totally closed (Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian, English for Caribbean, Portuguese for Africa)
- · Radio programming ending in seven languages: (Azeri, Mandarin for China, Russian, Spanish for Cuba, Turkish, Vietnamese and Ukrainian)
- · Immediate end of short wave radio (March 2011) in Hindi, Indonesian, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Swahili and the Great Lakes Service for Rwanda and Burundi.
- · Immediate end to short and medium wave in English (March 2011) to Russia and former FSU
In a harsh world of financial stringency one or two of these make some sense – the last one, for example. But, just when Russia is kicking off again, Indonesia is suspect and central Africa faces ‘challenges’, aren’t these precisely the places we should be engaging with? Look at just a few of the figures:
- The average age of a World Service audience member is 29 years old.
- It is estimated that as a result there will be a 30 million drop in the World Service’s weekly audience from 180 million people to 150 million people worldwide.
Surely this is a time for investing in this sort of communication, not cutting it?
Even the Archbishop of York has pitched in. According to a press notice today, he said:
The BBC World Service output is much loved and respected across the globe. Not only is it the gold standard for international affairs coverage, it has a unique ability to reach into a variety of situations overseas – often where democratic values and basic human rights are not being upheld.
Just look at the way the World Service has been covering the protests in Egypt, or the way it reports natural disasters or war. There is no-one else providing the same level of insight for a global audience.
We should not underestimate the role that the World Service plays for those living overseas.
My concern is that these cuts will not only mean redundancies for those living at home, but a significant reduction in service for those living overseas. We have a responsibility to reach out to others and ensure that the message of hope the BBC World Service can bring rings out as widely as possible.
In my opinion, the Government is doing good work in relation to prioritising International Aid to countries that need it, but I would like to see this coupled with getting a message of hope, fairness, democracy and justice out to these same areas.
The problem is that you can’t measure the real value of the World Service’s impact on shaping the world views of people who might otherwise be shaped by other (less ‘helpful’?) perspectives. You certainly can’t measure this impact on some spreadsheet in an office in London.
But, perhaps that is why it is so important not to diminish it in the short-term when the longer-term cost to the global village might be to leave all the space for the village idiots to spread their own darkness.
I realise that this could be read as paternalistic superiority. I don’t think that should stop us from thinking about the communication of values we still think are worth hanging on to or commending to others. Or do we let the prevalent cynicism of our own culture keep us quiet?
February 15, 2011
So, Silvio Berlusconi is finally going to court. The abuse of power charge apparently relates to his procuring of prostitutes, some of whom were under-age.
What is amazing about this is that it is his sexual failures that have brought him to book (unless he manages to exert his usual patronage and power to escape once again) and not the big stuff about power.
For example, his massive ownership of media organs in Italy and the way this has enabled him to mediate information to his own benefit. This would be worrying enough were it not for the fact that someone in his position can occupy the position of ultimate political power in Italy. I worry about Murdoch, but at least he isn’t running to be Prime Minister or Queen.
Why does sexual misdemeanour count so heavily when other abuses of power are far more serious? This is not to say that his sexual life is irrelevant – and using power or money to buy teenagers for sex is a massive abuse of power. But, it seems that the value system is not too … er … ‘rightly balanced’ here.
Shouldn’t we be more alarmed by concentrated media ownership and its collusion with political power and patronage than about what Silvio does in bed (or to his remarkable hair)?
Edit 21.09: The point I should have made clearer above is that there is no hierarchy of abuse – his sexual exploitation of girls is damnable. But it is clearly easier to get him nailed on this rather than the other stuff. That’s what is challenging.
February 13, 2011
The week that brought freedom (we hope) to Egypt concludes with the memory of another event involving masses of people in a life-changing and state-challenging event. Tonight marks not only the eve of Valentine’s Day, but also the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden.
Between 13 and 14 February 1945 the Allies dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs on the beautiful Baroque capital of Saxony. 3,600 planes, of which 1,300 were heavy bombers, dropped as many as 650,000 incendiar bombs and other huge devices. The intensity of the onslaught destroyed 15 square miles (39 square kilometres) of the city centre and killed tens of thousands of people.
A couple of years ago I was preaching in Meissen Cathedral, only a few kilometers from Dresden. At the end of the service I shook hands with several hundred people as they left. One man refused to shake my hand. When I asked him why, he said that he could not shake hands with an Englishman who had the nerve to preach in a German pulpit. He had lived in Dresden all his life and had endured that night in 1945 which saw his family destroyed and his city devastated. He understood why we had attacked Dresden, but couldn’t understand why civilians had been targetted so directly when communications networks were up and running again so quickly.
It is a bit rough holding me personally to account for what the Allies did before I was even born, but I could see the enduring grief in this man’s eyes. I responded by saying that my own family (parents and grandparents) had endured the bombing of Liverpool and that war brought only victims on every side. He believed the bombing of Dresden was a war crime; I didn’t disagree.
Yet, last year (2010) the neo-Nazis decided to demonstrate on 13/14 February. The former East Germany is said to be ripe territory for right-wing resurgence and Dresden offers an iconic locus of resentment and perceived injustice. Yet, counter-demonstrations challenged the simplistic associations of the neo-Nazis and reminded people of why the bombing happened in the first place: the Nazis, the War, the attack not only on other countries, but on German civil society, too. Many Germans are saying that they have to be careful about claims of victimhood in the light of the facts about 1933-45. The Germans who remembered went onto the streets and kept the neo-Nazi revisionists off the streets. This year up to 20,000 people took to the streets to remember the bombing, to remind the world why it happened, and to challenge those whose ideologically-driven grievances demand a re-writing of history.
The bombing of Dresden was horrendous and – to my mind, at least – still has not been justified. It has been often described, but not adequately accounted for. But, when up to 20,000 people remember the context in which the bombing took place 66 years ago, they challenge the revisionism and easy sentimentalism of the neo-Nazis.
In June I will once again stand in the pulpit of the Frauenkirche in Dresden. I will be there to deliver a Bible Study as part of the Kirchentag. The church has been completely restored, the gold cross on top of the dome having been made by the son of one of the British bombers. The church speaks of reconciliation and its task is not just limited to a memory of 66 years ago, but the ongoing reconciliation between people now and in the future.
However, reconciliation with the reality of history also remains a difficult and permanent task of those who do not wish history to be repeated.
February 10, 2011
Posted by nickbaines under media
| Tags: BBC
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The BBC Trust‘s review of Radio 3, 4 and 7 makes for interesting reading.
In relation to religion, however, there are some intriguing statements:
Other types of content also feature in the Radio 3 schedule alongside the mainstay of classical music. These include arts programming (5 per cent of output), jazz (4 per cent), world music (3 per cent), religion (1 per cent), drama (1 per cent) and news (1 per cent).
I’m not quite sure of the definitions here, but I bet a huge amount of the ‘classical music’ content (at least) is ‘religious’ in origin, content or form. And ‘world music’?
On Radio 4 we read:
Radio 4’s commitment to a broad multi-genre proposition is reflected in its budgetary allocation. In 2009-10 Radio 4 spent £5.1million on entertainment and comedy; £3.4million on arts; and £2.6million on religion. Radio 4 is also allocated £2.6million of the BBC sports rights cost. These levels of spend have been broadly stable over recent years.
Excellent. But the report also concludes from audience responses:
Our research found that audiences were generally pleased with Radio 4’s religious output. … there are positive performance gaps for the statements relating to religion and beliefs, suggesting that Radio 4 is more than meeting audience expectations. We recognise, however, that this can be a very subjective issue for licence fee payers.
Well, that’s great news and demonstrates intelligence and maturity on the part of the audience. But, why is religion singled out as ‘a very subjective issue for licence fee payers’? Isn’t every judgement by licence fee payers subjective? Sport isn’t to everyone’s taste - nor is comedy. Or news and documentaries. Or short stories. I might be in a minority of one, but I can’t bear ‘The Archers’ and try to turn the radio off after the news and before that wretched music starts.
Ironically, the statement about subjectivity is a very subjective one and doesn’t belong in this report. If anything, it gives the ‘assumptions’ game away rather embarrassingly.
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