March 31, 2011
There’s a great scene in Amadeus when the Emperor is prompted by the disgruntled Salieri to tell an over-excited Mozart that his latest piece “has too many notes; just take some notes out”. It sometimes seems that there are too many words in a world drowning in noise and shouting for attention.
So, I was pleased to see how the Fabio Capello story was picked up recently. He has limited English (and how dare English journalists deride him for his poor English when knowledge by journalists of any language other than English is extremely rare) and is reported to have said that he only needs 100 words to do his team-talks:
If I need to speak about the economy or other things, I can’t speak… But when you speak about tactics, you don’t use a lot of words. I don’t have to speak about a lot of different things. Maximum 100 words.
What a star! And he makes a serious point. As Twitter has proved, much can be communicated in very few words and very little space. The concision concentrates the mind and excises the waffle. Fewer words can create better communication. On Pause for Thought on Radio 2′s Chris Evans Show we are allowed around 320 words with which to grab the attention, tease the imagination, say something and give a pay-off back into the programme.
I know I have mused on this matter many times before, but I wonder what sort of ‘team talk’ I could give to the Church in 100 words. Something that captures the ‘big picture’, earths it and encourages action/response. Here’s one for starters:
It’s all about God taking us and the world seriously. The Church is called to live life so that the world can see who and how God is – which looks like Jesus. God opts into the world as it is and does not exempt himself from it. So, live in the world, love it and open up to it the possibility of a different way. Start with you and yours. (71 words)
The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, did even better in summarising the Creed memorably as:
God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So, there is hope.
Further submissions welcome (but not on a postcard).
March 30, 2011
Preparing to move from Croydon to Bradford at the end of April, I am conscious of the discontinuities that make life interesting. In Rumsfeldian terms, I am moving from a particular set of knowns and unknowns to a different set of known unknowns and straightforward unknowns.
What interests me about this is something that underlies much of the language we use to explain the news. There seems to be an underlying assumption (or desperate hope?) that there is a pattern to be followed, an outcome to be assumed and a ‘plan’ to be conformed to. Somewhere. Somehow.
Human beings seem to be wired for pattern. Maybe part of the notion of the Imago Dei (being made in the image of God) is the instinct to bring order out of chaos – or, at least, to think that order should be brought out of chaos. Whether with telephone numbers (doubles or triples?) or travel directions, we look for pattern and shape and order.
But, the truth of the matter is: despite the best preparation and the fullest briefings, we have no idea what might happen tomorrow. The outcome in Libya will be shaped by decisions and dynamics that can’t be fully predicted because they are made or shaped by people – and people do strange things sometimes. I have little idea of what awaits me in Bradford (other than in structural terms) because it is hard to be categorical where people are concerned – and people change their minds, behave irrationally in certain (unpredictable) circumstances and have an infinite capacity for surprise.
It might be helpful to the rest of us if politicians and journalists (in particular) left a little space for the unpredictability of life and the inconsistency of human agents – especially where the ‘observer’ becomes ‘agent’ and changes the context. Read any political biography and we realise that what was presented as intended outcome was really a jammy confluence of factors that brought a certain ‘orderliness’ to otherwise random events. Utopia is a fantasy – as is the notion that we are masters of our chosen destiny (rather than constantly surprised by events beyond our control).
And the difference between this fantasy and what is known as the Kingdom of God is simply that the latter takes human agency seriously. Wherever order is sought, chaos is not far behind… and chaos can always be wrested from the jaws of order. Equally, however, what looks inevitable can be transformed by the surprise of hope.
In other words, we just have to get on with whatever is presented to us. In my case, I have to work with what I find and (yes, on the basis of previous experience and the wisdom acquired from it) go from where we really are to where we might realistically become… and put up with whatever good or bad stuff shapes the journey. That’s what makes it all so interesting.
This reminds me of the great Bruce Cockburn song Pacing the Cage in which he says:
Sometimes the best map will not guide you
You can’t see what’s round the bend.
Sometimes the road leads through dark places
Sometimes the darkness is your friend.
Spot on, Bruce. And that reminds me of the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister who, after being given a hard time by a group of us in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem some years ago, banged the table and said:
Sometimes it seems there is no light at the end of the tunnel. But it is not because the light is not there; it is because the tunnel is not straight.
March 25, 2011
Chris Evans spotted that I had written this morning’s Pause for Thought for his show while on a train to Bradford yesterday. I was up there for meetings and hadn’t had time the day before to do the script. So, it was fitted in on the train journey between reading a book manuscript for which I am to write a foreword and reading papers for the meetings ahead.
It’s not always straightforward knowing what theme to pick for these thought pieces. I didn’t know who the special guest on the show was going to be and the heavy themes had already been addressed by other contributors. So, having received a text from my anxious daughter last week asking me when the clocks change (and is it backwards or forwards?), I thought I’d say something brief about ‘time’. I also managed to quote three people: anon, Albert Einstein and African friends:
Someone once said that you can’t change the past, but you can waste the present by worrying about the future. The great Albert Einstein teasingly (but not very illuminatingly) stated that ‘the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once’. My African friends laughingly say that in the West we have watches and clocks, but in Africa they have time.
My point was that time is all we have – it’s precious. As I put it succinctly (we only have 330 words):
I have no idea how much longer I have to live: I might still be going strong at 90… or I might not. I have no idea. But, whenever it happens I want to know that I did my best to use time to the full. Which isn’t a miserable thought about packing life with serious stuff; it’s also about living and laughing and working and playing.
Now, that could be misunderstood. For most of the world’s population life is not very funny, but is a struggle to stay alive. So, am I just being frivolous, over-comfortable and inappropriately hedonistic? Well, this is how I concluded the piece:
We’re heading towards Easter and we will be reminded that Jesus only had around three years of public ministry. But in that time he got a following by people who loved and laughed and partied and wept and suffered and lived life to the full. As a follower of that same Jesus, I don’t think anything has changed.
That is a serious point. One of the questions we are meant to ask when we read the Gospels is who were the people who responded positively to Jesus and who were those who were threatened by him and (ultimately) nailed him? And why? Read the texts and we find that the sort of people who were rejected by the religious establishment welcomed Jesus – maybe they had nothing to lose. But, given the reputation they helped Jesus get (“a glutton and a drunkard” who mixed with all the ‘wrong’ people), it is not surprising that these were the people who knew how to party.
One of the questions I frequently asked of clergy and PCCs was: When do you party? When do you celebrate God, his world and each other? One of the shocking things about visiting some of the poorest people in the world is that they know how to celebrate and laugh and share what they have – which is often time, themselves and the food they manage to get. No anxiety about protecting all their ‘stuff’. (Or queuing for two days to be the first to get the new iPad 2 from London’s Apple Store – when you could probably just walk in tomorrow and pick one up without any detrimental effect on life or limb…)
So, the ‘time’ thing is really just a way of suggesting that we get our lives and busyness into perspective. We aren’t here for long – better make the most of it. I don’t want to reach my death bed and state proudly that (a) I managed never to get tired or (b) at least the house and car were always clean.
PS. A friend once helpfully suggested that the way to remember which way the clocks go is this: they ‘spring’ forward and they ‘fall’ back (as in ‘autumn’). And that was fine until I realized that it is perfectly possible to spring backwards and fall forwards. So, I’m still confused. I think it’s forward and we lose an hour’s sleep tomorrow night.
March 22, 2011
The Archbishop of Canterbury got another Honorary Doctorate this evening. This time it was from King’s College London and he was given it after he had delivered a typically robust lecture on the ‘Big Society’ in a small and globalised world.
The lecture – entitled ‘Big Society, Small World’ – was the 2011 Commemoration Oration and pulled in a large and mixed audience. The guy next to me clearly had no interest in the lecture and, judging by his constantly turning head and distracted look, little comprehension of Rowan Williams’ argument.
I am not going to attempt to summarise Rowan’s argument – you have to read the text and concentrate. He does offer a sentence in his introduction which does the job, but it demands definition and explication… which is, of course, what the rest of the lecture does. He says:
A politics, national and international, of local co-operation and ‘mutualism’, rooted in a sense of political virtue and appealing to human empathy…
But, in it he raised some questions that go beyond the immediate ‘Big Society’ conundrum and challenge the way we see and shape (wittingly or otherwise) society. Try these, for example:
- We need to ask where power is located – where the levers of change and control lie in society. “And this in turn generates a crucial set of questions about political ethics or political virtue: if we need to explore where power lies, we need also to explore what we want power to do and why. It is in this context that discussion has been developing about – for example – the proper definition of wealth and well-being, about individual and communal goals, about the sort of human character that is fostered by unregulated competition and a focus on individual achievement, and about where we derive robust ideas of the common good and the social compact.”
- We need the language of character and of virtue; “and no amount of exhortation to pull our weight in society (big or otherwise) is any use without some thinking about what kind of people we are, want to be, and want others to be; what are the habits we want people to take for granted, what are the casual assumptions we’d like people to be working with?”
- We allowed ‘freedom’ to be defined as “essentially a state in which you have the largest possible number of choices and no serious obstacles to realising any of them. And politics has accordingly been driven more and more by the competition to offer a better range of choices… But as our current debates seem to indicate, we have woken up to the fact that this produces a motivational deficit where the idea of the common good is concerned.”
We then get an exploration of empathy, character, human rights, civic responsibility, institutions, the humanities, localism, international development, micro-credit, farming in Zimbabwe, the proper role of the State and theology. It is dense and searching and deserves serious consideration. He concludes:
My concern is that we use this opportunity to the full – and particularly that we do not treat the enthusiasm around some sorts of localism simply as a vehicle for disparaging the state level of action to secure the vulnerable, nationally and internationally. It is welcome that there is a concern to think about relocating power; but, as we have seen, for this to work well depends on being reasonably clear as to what you want power to do – which includes the ‘backwash effect’ of serious localism in re-energising national and international policy, to the extent that it is building real civic virtue.
This lecture seems to me to push the debate about the ‘Big Society’ in a direction that has theological and philosophical depth whilst identifying the key questions that demand intelligent answers if the ‘Big Society’ is to mean anything useful in reality.
March 20, 2011
It is a fact of life that decisions made by politicians or any other leaders are analysed by observers as if they were made in isolation from other factors. The moral purity or political expediency of a particular decision is examined as if this decision were made to stand alone and bear the weight of concentrated critique.
Yet, most of life is just not like that. The decisions we make are sometimes forced upon us at a time of least expediency and are conditioned by factors that might be either unfortunate, unwanted or, in some way or other, compromising. I suspect that this is usually unwelcome and even unhelpful.
So, at a time when many commentators – seemingly glad of some action to get their teeth into at last – are following the attacks on Libya with a critical eye back onto the hypocrisy of Western support for regimes such as Gaddafi’s, the decision to act over Libya is not capable of being seen through some pure moral lens. We might regret having (a) thought that stable Arab regimes were culturally appropriate and desirable and, therefore, sustainable, and (b) having aided such regimes for a generation or more by arming them to the teeth… in the interests of domestic security, of course.
But, our vision is always limited. It is easy to stand in the academy or the editorial office casting judgement that costs nothing to the judge;it is a different matter entirely to be compelled to jump when you would prefer to wait for more conducive circumstances. David Cameron might reassure us that Libya is no Iraq, but the threats of a ‘long war’ from Gaddafi and the concerns raised by the Arab League (these attacks were apparently not what they thought they had signed up to) might well confound him.
I began to think about this element of leadership while reading a paper produced this month by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on Cohesion, counter-terrorism and community in West Yorkshire. I have a huge amount to learn from those on the ground when I move to Bradford next month, so I make no pretensions about fully understanding local cultures there. But, the interesting thing about this paper is the questions it poses to the way we ‘see’ communities in complex circumstances and the assumptions we bring to our judgements.
The paper, based on research, makes a number of points, but two are particularly interesting:
- Despite allegations by politicians, media and others that communities lead ‘parallel lives’, the evidence suggests that there already is a huge degree of ‘community cohesion’ in everyday life.
- Well-intended policies (a) to prevent terrorism and (b) to build community cohesion conflicted to the extent that potential for neither was maximised.
In the latter case it was simply that policies that were comprehensible in their own right were inhibited by their contextual association with the other. In the words of the summary findings, “The implementation of Prevent at the local level had direct and negative effects on the parallel attempt to pursue community cohesion programmes.”
This is similar to the coincidence of a good idea – the ‘Big Society‘ – with another reality – the Comprehensive Spending Review. The former might well be negated by its association with the latter… despite government attempts to separate the two and retain their distinctive integrities. Put simply (rather than simplistically), the Big Society depends on voluntary groups taking responsibility for services previously provided by the State while the funding for such groups is cut off because of the spending constraints. The association of the two initiatives is unfortunate for many reasons.
This might all be obvious to everybody else, but it has got me thinking about the nature of leadership in complex organisations and in complex contexts. We rarely have the freedom to make simple decisions in isolation from the rest of reality: normally our decisions are compromised, subject to unwelcome and intrusive extraneous factors, and held hostage to consequences which cannot be predicted. In the words of the final conclusion of the JRF paper:
Community cohesion as a policy cannot be isolated from the impact of other government policies.
A statement of the obvious, maybe; but, even though the powerbrokers need tight scrutiny in a democracy, we observers might do well to at least recognise the complexity of the decision-making process and its context when we cast our judgements from a distance and the comfort of a study.
March 17, 2011
I know I should have better things to think about, but someone pointed me to this great commercial celebration of the up-coming Royal Wedding and I thought it was worth passing on.
Just proves that the detail matters…
March 13, 2011
Massive catastrophes such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan not only remind the world of (a) the fragility of life, (b) the commonality of human lives and (c) the contingency of all life, but also render as insignificant luxuries many of the preoccupations that drive our energies. (They might also provide an attentiveness smokescreen behind which the unscrupulous will increase their violence while the world and its media are distracted – think ‘Gaddafi‘.)
Apparently, something significant is happening in the world this week as a handful of clergy and a few hundred lay people leave the Church of England and head for pseudo-Rome (otherwise known as the Ordinariate). Well, God bless them in their journey – as, presumably, he does those coming the other way. I read that 14 RC clergy have crossed the Tiber in the opposite direction, but that sounds odd – possibly because we don’t count the numbers coming our way. I can immediately think of half a dozen Anglican priests who were once Roman Catholic priests – in this one diocese – and countless other clergy who were once RC lay people. Spread that across the country and the picture looks interesting.
Interesting, maybe, but also irrelevant to most of the world. (Do the numbers really tell us anything at all? I don’t think so.) I have yet to read or hear anything about the Ordinariate that had anything to do with the big wide world; it seems that all the talk and all the preoccupation is with seeking a ‘pure’ church in which to do purely churchy things. I respect the conscience of those who have embarked on this journey (and those who are still struggling with the decision) and I pray that they will find in Rome a spiritual home. But, I also pray that they will be driven out of the churchy preoccupations and back into the world itself. It seems from the Bible that God sent his Son into the world for the sake of the world, not into the church for the sake of its purity. Isn’t that precisely the problem in the Gospels between those who got the point of it all and those who had to fit God and his ways into the systems their faith shaped for them?
In the meantime, we in the Church of England will just carry on our often flawed attempts to live out the Gospel, to be what was fulfilled in Jesus but was always the vocation of God’s people: to give and live our lives for the sake of the world and not for the sake of our own purity, power or security (however defined). As we pray for those going to Rome, I assume they will be praying for us in our faithful obedience to God’s call.
But, to go back a step, all of this is frippery in the context of the world’s needs. It is luxury. It seems to me today that these ‘conscience’ matters are a privilege for those whose lives are reasonably secure. And they don’t address the hard questions about God and human suffering in a contingent world. Which is of more concern to most people than how much lace the clergy wear in church.
Contrary to some Christian sentimentalism, the key feature of Christian doctine is that God opts INTO this contingent world and does not exempt himself from it. The earth is a living, moving, changing planet which would cease to exist if any of these characteristics stopped applying. Life depends on the movement and this movement must necessarily bring unpredictability, mutation, cataclysm and eruption. Which is why cancer and disaster and suffering are part of the deal of being human on this particular planet. It cannot be otherwise.
So, why do people assume God is absent when tragedy – either global or individual – strikes and strips away our securities? Why does ‘God’ depend on everything going right for us – as if he were a puppet bound to intervene whenever there is a threat to our happiness? And why do some Christian theologies collude with this (possibly narcissistic?) nonsense?
Without writing a book on the matter (which is probably what it requires), it seems that we need to toughen up a bit and be a little less prissy or precious about our individual comfort. I have no right to be spared cancer or hurricane.
In what has been called ‘the scandal of particularity’, God opts in to the world at a particular time and in a particular place and thereby suggests that faith can never be real if it takes us out of time and space and place. Faith cannot be a form of escapism or fantasy – as if we can invoke God to ‘make everything better’ for us. Rather, genuine Christian faith plunges us back into the world and all it can throw at us – without any hope of or desire for exemption. Christian hope is not derived from a fantasy of personal happiness or security, but rooted in the person of a God who doesn’t spare himself and drives the people who bear his name (and have been grasped by him) away from their own securities and into places of vulnerability. We are not called into the light, but to shed light in the dark places: the distinction matters.
There may be good reasons (and I use the word ‘reasons’ advisably) why communities shouldn’t live on tectonic faultlines or flood plains. But, they do and they suffer the consequences of doing so. The imperative for the rest of us is to get stuck in to helping those devastated communities to hear the faint echo of a melody that (a) puts flesh and blood onto the ‘idea’ of a common humanity (using all our human ingenuity to do so) and (b) whispers of promise that the violence does not have the last word.
I care about the fate of Liverpool Football Club, I love my music and books, I thrive on diversity of culture, I dread saying ‘farewell’ to the Croydon Episcopal Area and the Diocese of Southwark this very evening – but these all need to be kept in a broader perspective… one that recognises that Christian hope is rooted not in a desired set of circumstances, but in the person of God who has been here, seen it all and now has to see it all caricatured on a t-shirt.
March 10, 2011
Life is a bit full-on this week because of a deluge of speaking engagements and my final working weekend in Croydon. So, there hasn’t been much time for blogging.
The work I have been doing in my study has been accompanied by the most hauntingly beautiful music that helps make sense of some of the contradictions of life, yet also makes me feel guilty for being moved by it.
Terezin/Theresienstadt is a collection of songs written by artists condemned ot the concentration camp north of Prague, most of whom were later deported to their death in Auschwitz. Anne Sofie von Otter was behind the project to record the songs, observing that out of the horrors and propaganda of this benighted place came not just death, but also an unquenchable beauty rooted in a hope that was not fantasy.
I am listening to this in the context of a visit by our Zimbabwean Link Bishop and his wife. In Zimbabwe the Anglican Church is being victimised by Mugabe and his fellow losers. Intimidation, brutality and corruption are rife – but the bishops continue to lead their people in resisting and in working for a better future for all Zimbabweans. They make my life look easy. Their experience also relativises mine: is ‘peaceful living’ the norm or the exception?
In this connection it is worth having a look at Charles Reed’s excellent blog and, in particular, his questions about ‘justice’ in the light of current conflicts. But it also underlies the concerns behind Christian Aid‘s imaginative Lent programme which involves me and lots of other people tweeting our progress through a reconsideration of stuff, motivation and lifestyle choices. Join up on Twitter and join in the exercise…
March 4, 2011
This morning saw me staggering into London only half awake to do Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2′s Chris Evans Show. Chris and the production team are excellent and never make me feel like an intruder on their territory – which I suppose I am. This morning’s real guest was the wonderful Stephen Merchant – clever, funny, insightful and very tall. This is a gig I never take for granted.
The problem is, however, how to write something that says something, but fits into the milieu of the programme and doesn’t sound like a jarring add-in. Following a funny and interesting hour with a famous guest means that a Pause for Thought script can easily sound out of place. At least, that’s my fear.
So, this morning I did something on ‘thinking’ and comedians. I found a story to begin:
A wise man goes to the market and finds, among all the hustle-bustle, a man selling a parrot for the astronomical cost of £100. The wise man can’t believe his eyes and asks why it is so expensive. ‘Aha,’ says the vendor, ‘this parrot can talk.’ So, the wise man goes home and comes back to the market with a duck, which he puts on sale for £500. People are outraged: ‘£500 for a duck? There’s a bloke over there flogging a parrot THAT CAN TALK for only £100!’ ‘Yep,’ replies the man, ‘but my duck can THINK.’
I then went on to admire the way comedians don’t just make you laugh, but make you look differently at the world. I used three examples:
It’s watching David Brent dancing in The Office and realising that that’s how I dance normally. It’s four revolutionaries sitting on the ground discussing ‘what the Romans ever did for us’ that makes Monty Python’s Life of Brian expose the humbug of selective political memory. It’s Jesus making people laugh by suggesting that trying to get into heaven with all your accumulated stuff is like trying to get a Rolls Royce through a revolving door. (Although he didn’t actually put it quite like that.)
I wasn’t being funny about Jesus either. When he said his thing about camels and the eye of a needle, his audience would have laughed. Comedy makes a point more acutely than any amount of earnest seriousness.
No surprise, then, that there was humour in a serious meeting this evening. Four of the five Anglican Bishops from Zimbabwe are with us in Southwark for the enthronement of the new Bishop of Southwark this coming Sunday. They are intimidated, threatened and squeezed by the Mugabe-backed renegade Nolbert Kunonga and Elson Jakazi. Their churches are stolen form them and their people are under huge pressure. An 82 year old woman was recently tortured and raped by Mugabe’s men in Harare diocese. The rule of law is non-existent: court rulings are simply ignored by the powers.
Yet, in our conversation this evening there was much laughter and funny stuff. Why? Because there is something prophetically subversive about the refusal to let the darkness overwhelm everything. As resurrection suggests, death, violence and threat do not have the final word: God does. And there is laughter in the face of the destruction.
It’s as if all the violence of Golgotha is met ultimately by the laugh of a rolled-away stone and the absence of fear.
March 1, 2011
My grandson is almost seven months old. He lives with his mum and dad in Liverpool. On the notice board in my office I have a big photo of him. He’s laughing all over his face… wearing his first Liverpool kit. No wonder he’s happy.
Does dressing him in a Liverpool kit mean that he is being brainwashed or indoctrinated by narrow-minded parents and grandparents? Well, if one line of argument is right, we should probably all be in court for ‘shaping’ the little lad and not allowing him to grow up and make up his own mind.
One of the bizarre things clergy often get told is that parents want their baby baptised, but that they don’t want the child to be brought up in the life of the Church because ‘we want him/her to make his/her own mind up’. Apparently, this applies to religion, but not to any other aspect of a child’s life. So, we can play a particular type of music, provide any nurture framework shaped by any worldview or set of values, dress the kiddies according to our taste and… and pretend that this is all neutral territory and value-free in any ‘indoctrination’ sense. But, when it comes to shaping a child’s world view (which issues in practice and habit), anything is OK provided it isn’t religious.
How have we got to a position where some people think (uncritically assume?) that there is some ‘neutral’ ground – which they occupy – over against the ‘loaded’ ground occupied by, for example, religious people?
There is no neutral, value-free territory. Every child is brought up according to some world view or value framework which is often not argued for.
What has brought this to mind is the rather odd view I heard on the radio this afternoon in the context of the latest fostering controversy. It was to the effect that people are free to believe whatever they want, provided they don’t do anything with it. In other words, ‘belief’ is a private opinion which can only be acted upon if it conforms to someone else’s assumed norms.
So, if you ‘believe’ that living according to the precepts of Jesus Christ is good or essential, you are supposed to keep your ‘belief’ in the realms of opinion. But, if you ‘believe’ that no negative judgement should ever be made about any other practice or lifestyle, that is a ‘belief’ that can be given free rein. Is that not weird?
This is the real question behind some of the noisy debates occupying both airwaves and the digital world. Who decides what is ‘neutral’? And when did ‘belief’ get reduced to mere private opinion when inconvenient to those who consider themselves to be ‘neutral’?
These aren’t the only questions, but it seems to me that they are the ones most ignored.