April 26, 2012
Call it coincidence, but when I agreed months ago to do a St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral I didn’t think it would take place in the week the Murdochs returned to the Leveson Inquiry. Having agreed to speak about ethics and the media, I decided it was too big a theme and narrowed it down a little… recognising the context of the Leveson interrogation. (After dinner following the lecture the city hornblower came into the Minster house to blow his horn at the Mayor of Ripon. Surreal, but traditional!)
Here’s the basic text of the lecture, minus the Q & A and all the asides. It is long…
Andrew Marr begins his excellent history of British journalism My Trade with a rhyme by Humbert Wolfe. It goes like this:
You cannot hope / to bribe or twist, / thank God! The / British journalist.
But, seeing what / the man will do / unbribed, there’s / no occasion to.
It’s easy to be cynical, isn’t it? After all, even Wolfe would be gobsmacked at what has emerged from the Leveson Inquiry so far.
Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”
So, we need to begin this somewhat discursive look at media ethics by learning something of the media world in which we actually live and move and have our being. Having done a brief tour of some of the contours of today’s changing media environment, we can then move on to take a look at a couple of ethical issues in particular. And, given the potential breadth of any consideration of the media, I will concentrate most of my observations on journalism rather than, say, film, music, advertising or other entertainment media.
However, if what follows bores you, I suggest you fill the time making a note of two books that help us understand some of the trends and realities in media development, particularly print media. I have already referred to Andrew Marr’s excellent My Trade; the other is Nick Davies’s devastating Flat Earth News – of which more later.
In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Even this week we have seen Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson has dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the emerging picture begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation. Anyway, we’ll come back to this later, once we have surveyed the landscape. And I can illustrate some of this further when we get to questions later.
SURVEYING THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE
The media world is changing. You really didn’t need to be told that. My mother was born in 1932 and last week celebrated her 80th birthday. My dad gave her an iPad. She emails form it, takes photos with it and skypes my older brother when he is working in Kuwait. Five years ago she was struggling with a mobile phone. A true silver surfer, she has seen a revolution in media during her lifetime – a revolution that is speeding up by the minute. From no television in her childhood – and she even cut open the mesh on the front of her dad’s first radio in order to see the little people inside it – she now has hundreds of channels on cable and is adept at social media and googling. Fings ain’t what they used to be.
Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.
But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. In the last month we have heard that the position of Editor-in-Chief at the Yorkshire Post has been cut. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up.
So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it.
But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.
Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.
Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.
There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.
Anyway, it will come as no surprise to discover that online editions of the Guardian are accessed by forty times the number of people who read the paper on paper.
The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses.
Now, I don’t want to spend the rest of this presentation explaining media businesses or the radical challenges to traditional media platforms. Nor do I think it will be profitable to try to explain how the various contemporary media operate and interconnect. If we want to do media studies we can go to university and do a course. But, we do need to understand something of the real media environment if we are to comprehend anything of the ethical questions thrown up by the demands of this changing environment. Ethics are not abstract and reality impinges on chosen behaviours. I might add, of course, that to understand is not to condone.
THROUGH AN ETHICAL LENS
So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.
A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.
Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky.
Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.
Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.
The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.
So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased.
This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.
When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”
Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here.
Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.
Pontius Pilate wasn’t the only person in history to wonder what truth was all about. Truth is elusive. In a relativistic age it is perhaps more slippery than ever. But, if you ask most people what they want from the media – particularly reportage and journalism – they will probably ask for some representation of the truth. And this is where it gets sticky for some of us – where the realities of journalism conflict with the interests of a particular individual. Let me illustrate with a couple of relatively trivial examples from my own experience:
In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.
I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)
Nearer to home, I once wrote a book about Christmas. The Sunday Telegraph ran a story about it – or, rather, about one paragraph in (I think) the fourth chapter. The problem came with the headline which, of course, had been written not by the journalist, but by the sub-editor: ‘Bishop says carols are nonsense’. Good story and it travelled the world in hours. According to one newspaper in India I had ‘banned Christmas’ – something Oliver Cromwell tried to do, but failed in the end. For the journalist this was a great story and a good piece. For me it led to fifteen often aggressive radio and television interviews in two days in order for me to try to put the story right. His triumph was my misery… to say nothing of the embarrassment caused to my wife, my colleagues and the church. (I got a barrage of post and emails, one of which suggested ways I might like to take my life and then was signed ‘Yours in Christ’.)
Now, I am not complaining… really. The journalist has to get a story and get it as close to the front page as possible. ‘Bishop says carols are quite nice’ isn’t going to do it. But, I learned the lesson at last that the story is the story – not necessarily what I would like to be the story. It caused me considerable grief, but I survived. The question is, however, was the story true? In one sense it was: I had suggested that (as one of the Wesley brothers had said) we learn our theology from what we sing and not from what we hear from a pulpit – so, if we sing nonsense, we will most likely believe nonsense. I linked this to a comment about babies making no crying…
Yet, the story wasn’t true. I wasn’t saying that carols are nonsense, nor that we shouldn’t be singing them. The point is simply that the journalist was hoping for glory and I was hoping to flog a few books. He got his glory, I didn’t flog many books!
As I said, these are trivial examples, but they bring me back to the most frequently ignored verse in the Bible. The ninth commandment forbids misrepresentation: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’… or ‘you will not misrepresent your neighbour’s case’. The journalist has a responsibility to represent and not to misrepresent – even if the media game demands a bit of licence here and there. Of course, the problem is that most victims of misrepresentation are more concerned about their reputation and integrity than about the newspaper’s sales figures or the journalist’s career – especially when the latter is won at the cost of the former. The news moves on; the damage to the individual remains. The internet never forgets…
The former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, once wrote of the terrible effects of the media pressure on him when he said that the resurrection was more than a conjuring trick with bones. Quite depressed, he was taken out for lunch by a rabbi friend of his and the rabbi told him a story. A bishop and a rabbi went in a boat on a lake when the rabbi’s skullcap was blown off his head and away onto the water. The bishop got out of the boat, walked on the water, collected the yarmulkah and returned to the boat. The next day the newspaper headline read: BISHOP CAN’T SWIM!
But, if the examples I have cited are relatively trivial, then what do we do with the sort of thing that Nick Davies exposed in Flat Earth News and then in his relentless pursuit of the phone hacking story? For, it is worth noting, it was good, solid, intelligent and morally courageous investigative journalism that rumbled the scandals at the heart of the Murdoch empire – in the teeth of opposition from that bastion of a free press.
I guess the real ethical question this throws up is that of utilitarianism: do the ends justify the means? Can morally dubious behaviour be justified if the ultimate outcome is exposure of corruption? Was the Telegraph right to pay an individual to break his own commitments and steal data for the sake of a public story? Ultimately it can be argued that the public interest was served; but the story was run in such a way as to titillate the interest of the public, too – drawn out over weeks. So, even if we decide the ends (the public interest) were justified by the means (of obtaining the data), this doesn’t let the newspaper off the moral hook for the means it adopted. Accountability cuts more than one way, after all.
So, we have identified briefly three ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business. I think this leads us next to think a little about the phrase used to justify media intrusion into some people’s lives: public interest. Clearly, the publication or transmission of something that is ‘of interest to the public’ is not necessarily ‘in the public interest’, is it? 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 real 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 titillate 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. Which brings us back to Leveson.
This must be one of the very few public inquiries to have run for so long and yet still not have lost its power to shock. The fundamental question being addressed by Leveson is: how did a particular media organisation (a) manage to hold such power over public officials, the police and its own industry, (b) develop a deeply and endemically corrupt culture of unaccountable abuse, and (c) have the nerve to pervert the course of justice – allegedly – by attempting industrial-scale destruction of evidence of its wrongdoing? Having addressed these questions, Leveson will go on to draw out the lessons and commend a better way of regulating the press – or, at least, holding the press more accountable not only for its product, but also for its methods and behaviour.
In his Orwell Lecture in November 2011, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, reminded us of the context in which the phone hacking story broke. He said: “… I think Orwell would have been deeply interested in the broader story – not of how you regulate the press, but how one man and one corporation came to have such sway over British political, commercial and cultural life – and how we came within days of allowing him a position of even greater dominance.” You will remember that the new coalition government had decided that there was not really a problem in James Murdoch’s News International taking a major holding in BskyB – thus giving him and his business a staggering degree of ownership of a range of media enterprises. James Murdoch was being defended as a fit and proper person, despite the protestations of many of us who were alarmed for a number of reasons. The relentless rise of Murdoch only began to falter at the last minute when the extent of phone hacking began to emerge – challenging previous dismissals of the extent of any wrongdoing and putting a large question mark over the probity of previous refusals by the Metropolitan Police, Ofcom and the Press Complaints Commission to investigate further.
July 2011 – as Rusbridger recalled: “a month that saw revelations that plumbed new depths in journalism. There were resignations, arrests, a death, parliamentary debates, corporate high drama; family feuding; multimillion-pound payoffs, the closure of a newspaper … and the climax: the “most humble day” in the life of the most powerful media tycoon of this, or of any other, generation.” Yet that was not the beginning and it certainly wasn’t the end of the story. Within weeks the number of people suspected of having been hacked had risen to 5,800. Arrests have continued, prosecutions are now being considered, and Murdoch Junior has had to resign from two of his most prominent positions. Father and son have been summoned and grilled again. They have become the story – a disastrous position for the storytellers to find themselves in.
Yet, what is staggering is that July 2011 followed eighteen months of obfuscation by News International and politicians, intimidation by News International (claiming in print that the Guardian had ‘deliberately misled the British public’ over its allegations of widespread phone hacking), and negligence by a police force that now appears to have been complicit in corruption at different levels. As Rusbridger put it: “… fascinating in what it said about Britain and the settlement so many people in public life had made, over two generations or more, with Rupert Murdoch.”
How did we as a society allow such power and unaccountable freedom to Murdoch’s organs? How did we allow such intimidation to continue for so long? Why did we find it so hard to believe the extent or probity of the allegations against the News of the World and its parent? For, if corrupt journalistic cultures were allowed to grow for so long, they did so with the complicity of a public that gobbled up its product with a voyeuristic passion that now looks shameful. Someone was buying the papers in huge numbers when vulnerable people (the McCanns, for example) were being turned into entertainment commodities for the voyeuristic judgmentalism of a public that surely had lost its own moral bearings.
Yet, nothing should distract us from the ethical mire into which this particular media organisation has dragged us. Not only was there allegedly a culture of bullying in which journalists were compelled to indulge practices they clearly thought were dubious. This company generated its own private intelligence operation – “one that outsourced the dirtiest work to criminals and which, according to people in a position to know, had a formidable private investigation capability.” Intrusion into the private lives of huge numbers of individuals became routine – which suggests that these people were assumed to be dehumanised commodities, depersonalised and to be denied their privacy. Remember the imago Dei?
A brilliant illustration of this to be found in von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.
If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.
The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.
In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.
April 25, 2012
I have just been to speak to representatives of many faiths who are all involved in education in Bradford. I was offered two themes to choose from, but addressed both of them (fairly superficially) ahead of a discussion time. The first theme related to ‘religious pluralism in the lives of young people in Bradford’, the second to ‘the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society’. The following is a bit of a nit-picky skeleton of the matters we addressed, but I began with the observation that some interfaith work at international level resembles a BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk.’ Of course, what we mean is that it is good to talk (phenomenon) as long as we don’t talk about anything (content). Fear of ‘division’ drives an agenda of ‘least potential disagreement’. However, if there is no real discussion of difference, there can be no honest relationship anyway and the whole thing is really either a farce or a fraud.
First things first: ‘religious pluralism’ simply describes a fact, a reality, a phenomenon. It is not a virtue – something to be honoured and revered and never questioned. Different people live alongside and with each other, seeing the world and living in it in different ways. ‘Pluralism’ is the word that describes this. It is essentially neutral.
Therefore, we need to go on to distinguish between two sorts of questions: (a) those about truth and how claims for any world view of way of living actually stand up, and (b) given the acknowledged differences, how we then should live together in a single society or on a single planet. In relation to our children this means we need to grow a generation that experiences life within a particular understanding of its meaning, is informed about its own (and others’) world view and how it can be lived in and with, and is acquainted with the world view, lived experience and practices of others. This assumes that we give our children an informed reference point from which to look at the world and those who see it and live in it differently.
The problem here is that our children – I really mean those who do not belong to a strong faith community – are too often assumed to know Christianity and know where they stand as a base line from which to look outwards. They are more likely to be shaped by (a) the myth of neutrality – the assumption by many in the media and academia that a secular humanist world view is neutral (and therefore privileged in public discourse) while a religious one is a bit loony (and should be kept private); (b) a pride in ignorance or scepticism – see Richard Dawkins’ pride in never having read any theology (or philosophy?); (c) an assumption that materialism is a given and that salvation comes by having stuff; (d) an assumption that we can live in the ‘now’ and take no account of a future arising from the past that has shaped the present – because there is no inherent meaning to life anyway. See the studies of last year’s rioters and how some of them see the world.
This brought us to the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society. (I refer to a piece I wrote for the Guardian in July 2011 in whcih I draw a sharp distinction between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools as the Church of England understands them.) My main point here is that (a) ‘cohesion’ is one of those words that too often describes a lowest common denominator ‘absence of tension’ in a community – a bit like ‘peace being the absence of war’ or ‘a good football season being one in which Manchester United gets relegated; and (b) justice is inadequate as a goal for human beings in society.
Now, this latter point might well be contentious if misunderstood. Experience (and history) tells us that justice by itself can easily become just ice. Fragmentation and conflict in the Balkans came about precisely because communities could not let go of historic injustices – but they saw justice for themselves as the priority over against justice for their neighbour. I maintain that we need to teach our children (with a massive dose of actual hypocrisy) that justice needs to be transcended by mercy. Mercy goes further and is much harder than justice; it recognises the injustice and the pain and refuses to be consumed by them. Too often the demand for justice simply creates a vicious circle of just ice.
That’s a brief and unillustrated summary of my address which was aimed at stimulating discussion and debate in a particular context. However, it also falls in a context of wider concern: events in Sudan.
The Diocese of Bradford is linked with the Anglican dioceses of Sudan where communal violence is flaring up – not as an intellectual notion, but in the burning of Christian buildings, the destruction of books and Bibles, and attacks on people. Here’s a link to this week’s events and here is a statement by the World Council of Churches that goes to the heart of the matter.
Words spoken by politicians and, sometimes, religious leaders are taken up by those more inclined to violence as sanction for action. When such words burn in the wrong people’s hearts and minds, the burning of buildings, books and people follows. Some politicians and Muslim leaders in Sudan have expressed anger at the recent attacks; we need to hear this echoed not only in Sudan, but also by religious leaders around the world – and especially by those who sit around the table at conferences saying how good it is to talk.
April 22, 2012
Talk about mixed feelings. I was back in Liverpool for my mum’s 80th birthday great-big-family bash on Friday and listened on the car radio to the harrowing accounts of Anders Behring Breivik‘s cold-blooded murdering of 77 people in Norway last year. I know our minds do weird things sometimes, but while this was happening I had the Beatles going through my head. Norwegian Wood. But for those (mostly) young people on the Norwegian island, the woods were no place of sanctuary, but of agony.
It has been interesting listening to the commentaries and reading the commentariat on this appalling massacre – which cannot be easily attended to while the killer is given so much air time to describe his activities. Some commentators seem to think that he must be insane to have done these things – that a normal, rational person could not have done them, let alone contemplated them. This, of course, is nonsense. Breivik had a perfectly rational construction to his ideology – but to speak in terms of ‘moral evil’ is too inconvenient for some world views.
Fifteen years ago I half-wrote a book on the pastoral care of people bereaved through suicide. One of the things I found interesting (before I ditched the project) was the response of too many people: that anyone who commits suicide must be (literally) out of their mind. Perish the thought that this might be an act consistent with a particular world view that sees life as painful and pointless.
This is also on my mind because yesterday I returned to the parish where I became vicar twenty years ago. We moved to Rothley, Leicestershire, in April 1992 and left in April 2000 when I became Archdeacon of Lambeth in the Diocese of Southwark. It had been (for us, at least) a wonderful eight years, and I wept when it came to the leaving. I was asked to preach this morning on the parish’s text for 2012, taken from Jeremiah 29:11, and all about ‘a hope and a future’.
My problem in preparing to preach was twofold: (a) the text is neither bland nor obvious; (b) I know too many of the people listening to it – I have buried their husbands, walked with them through their traumas, celebrated their triumphs and wept through their griefs. So, I didn’t know if I could ask the obvious question provoked by the text: what do you do when your world falls apart? To cut a long story short, I managed to overcome the emotional poignancy and say what I think needed to be said from that text.
Jeremiah 29 sees the people exiled to Babylon being offered hope instead of ear-pleasing fantasy. Another prophet has told them what they want to hear; but, Jeremiah – never a populist – tells them the truth. Sitting on the banks of the Evil Empire’s rivers and being mocked as defeated fantasists, how do we keep ‘singing the Lord’s song’ – when all the evidence of our eyes and experience tell us a different story? Jeremiah simply tells the truth. Which is?
- No one is exempted from all that the world can throw at us – especially not those who claim to see through God’s eyes and try to live his way. As we see in Jesus, God opts in to the stuff – the muck and bullets – of the world and does not exempt himself from it. His people should learn from this.
- Hope has always to be vested in the person of God and not in any formula for ‘making everything better’. And why trust God? Think ‘resurrection’…
- God will not be rushed (as Asian theologian Kosuke Koyama constantly reminds us). We live in time, and time takes time. We need to learn to wait and be faithful during the waiting. (We also need to be honest with God and one another and scream when we need to; there is no place for pretence with God. Look at the searing honesty of the Psalms.)
Underlying all this is the simple stuff: God’s grasp of us is more important than our grasp of God. So, relax and take the pressure off. A future with hope is not the same as a hope for a particular future. As Timothy Keller has written: “Christianity is not advice, but news.” Christians should never be embarrassed to announce the news that God has not abandoned us – learn to wait and be faithful, even if you will be long dead before the deliverance comes. And God’s not abandoning us must compel us to demonstrate this by us not abandoning anyone else – which goes well beyond the Christian community itself and into the wider world.
I recall Jürgen Moltmann’s great lines: “God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.”
Life is sometimes total rubbish and we cannot simply escape it. Indeed, being Christian might actually be the cause of it sometimes. But, we can learn to help each other by creating the space in which the suffering can be lived with and not rushed. And the church can learn to provide its people in worship with a vocabulary for those times of complaint, lament, argument, questioning and pleading… as well as for those times of resolution, praise and celebration.
I miss being part of a community like Rothley.
(And I have come home to Liverpool’s latest home defeat. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…)
April 13, 2012
Just in case we think the matters being addressed by Lord Leveson are original or uniquely British, I have just dug out Heinrich Böll‘s scathing attack on (what we refer to as) ‘tabloid’ excesses in Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honour of Katherine Blum). Published in 1976 – one of the first German books I ever bought – it deals with how a tabloid newspaper destroys a young woman’s reputation and life.
Exaggeration, intrusion, misrepresentation, abuse, commodification of a person as entertainment: it is all there.
The disclaimer in the German edition is biting (Bild being the German equivalent to the Sun or News of the World):
Characters and events in this story are invented. Should the description of particular journalistic practices betray similarities to the practices of ‘Bild’, such similarities are neither deliberate nor accidental, but merely inevitable.
April 13, 2012
Here goes with yet another exposure of ignorance.
Until this week I had never heard of the Spanish artist Cristobal Toral. Born in 1940 and from the Andalucian town of Antequera, he works in a variety of media. However, his paintings, bronzes and sculptures all address the pain and loneliness of transience. He seems obsessed with luggage. Yes – suitcases. And lonely people. Some of the female subjects of his paintings are the most poignant I have ever seen.
Core to his concerns are concepts of emigration – images of suitcases and a lone traveler. Emigration seems to him to characterise human experience both in reality and existentially. Hence his categorisation by people who know what they are talking about as a ‘realist’ who sees reality as a starting point and not a limitation. The result is powerful images suggestive of displacement, uncertainty and loneliness.
You have to stand in front of them to see what I mean by this. (I’d never make an art critic…)
For some obscure reason this reminded me of Bill Viola‘s Nantes Tryptich which I saw nearly a decade ago (I think) at Tate Modern in London. Viola filmed the last thirty minutes of his mother’s life and the last thirty minutes of his wife’s labour, placing the former on the right and the latter on the left (I think) of a central video of a human figure floating through water. It was haunting and disturbing. Yet, it was also compelling – attempting to hold his audience to just thirty minutes of contemplation of mortality and time in the midst of a race through an art gallery. (What interested me was how few people seemed able to stick with the Tryptich for more than just a few minutes of curious voyeurism.)
Ideas of transience are not exactly new. But, representations of transience that make you stop and look differently at it demand real skill. Viola asked us to contemplate our mortality; Toral stacks his suitcases and invites us to consider the human experience of ‘leaving’. They both made me stop and, in their different ways, provoked reflection on Cain – the experience of common humanity depicted in Genesis 4.
Having found himself exiled from Eden and stranded in a meaningless expanse of uncontoured desert (‘the Land of Nod’), Cain builds defensive walls, constructs a world of meaning within them. We all need constructs of significance that make our transient life meaningful and not meaningless. If we leave God behind we still need to create some sort of structure that allows us to believe that life is not worth nothing. Of course, the problem comes when the defensive walls of our constructed world view get breached by loss or chaos or crisis (existential or otherwise). The point is, however, that common to all human beings is the need for life to be inherently meaningful and not simply random or pointless.
I have yet to meet anyone who claims that life is inherently meaningless… and lives accordingly.
Christian faith begins with an acceptance of mortality, of transience. It starts with an experience of human being and living that faces death and non-existence with frankness and realism. But, as Easter is all about, it does so in the light of a meaning found in the action of God the Creator raising Christ from death and shining new light on our living and dying. It doesn’t minimise the experience of loss or crisis, but it does challenge fear and dread.
It also suggests that Christians should start with people’s real experience and not with answers to questions they haven’t yet formulated. Our common humanity is where we should always start – empathetically as well as intellectually – because it is here that we shall also always finish.
April 10, 2012
Every time I think of packing in my blog (which is frequently) I remind myself that I’m not writing a book. I think a blog only works if any post is seen as the first word and not the last word on any matter. It allows for thinking aloud – something most leaders are not encouraged to do as changing your mind, learning or growing up are seen as weaknesses rather than strengths.
Anyway, this blog runs the risk that I will write ‘first word’ stuff that gets quoted back later as if it were ‘last word’ conclusions. Quotable lines from one context get held up as heresy in another. I guess it’s just part of the game, but it’s also a massive pain.
This isn’t post-Easter misery on my part. I just started thinking about it on holiday while reading William Boyd‘s Any Human Heart. In the preamble Boyd’s main character explains why he kept a journal (which forms the text of the book). He writes:
We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… a true journal presents us with the more riotous and disorganised reality… The true journal intime… doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyse: I am all these different people – all these different people are me.
A blog is not a journal intime. But it should allow the writer the freedom to be honest, to listen to response and reaction, to venture an idea or analysis, to express a view or present an interest, to try out a perspective – perhaps then to reject it and move on. The problem is, of course, that the text stands there to be lifted and used in evidence against you. Yet, unless the blogger strives only to convey a single persona – a particular image – or create a selective persona, the whole person will always run the risk of being undermined by the partial representation of a particular instant or period. Oh well…
William Boyd’s character, Logan Mountstuart, seems pretty selfish and narcissistic so far (I have only read the first had of the book and I haven’t seen the film version). I guess I’d better reserve any further judgement until I get to the end.
The end of any book always shines new light on all that has gone before. A bit like resurrection at the end of a gospel…
April 7, 2012
This evening we began the service in darkness and watched the light grow as we read the story of God’s freedom in Bradford Cathedral. I baptised five adults and confirmed more than twenty. The sermon was for them and the text follows here:
He has been raised (Mark 16:1-8)
I want to give you some advice – whoever you are and however old you might be: if anyone ever asks you to lead a tour of the Holy Land, try to say ‘no’. I have led several and I can only compare the experience to trying to herd cats… or attempting to get mice to walk in a straight line into a trap. Schedules go out of the window and any hope of sticking to time quickly becomes a fantasy. Go to Skegness instead.
However, if you do ever get the chance to go on a tour of the Holy Land, don’t hesitate. It will be wonderful and memorable. Just don’t agree to lead one, that’s all. And, if you do get to Jerusalem, here’s a question to ask people randomly around the streets (before the police come to pick you up, that is): “Can you tell me where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, please?” Whatever answer you get, follow it up with another question: “OK, can you tell me where the Church of the Resurrection is?”
You see, they’re the same place. Western Christians have traditionally called it the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’, but Eastern Christians know it as the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. And I guess the two questions this provokes are: what’s the difference, and does it matter? After all, aren’t they just names?
Well, the difference is more than just names or semantics. Some Christians stop at the cross and see Jesus bearing the sins of the whole world and thereby setting us free for forgiveness and new life. Others go through the cross and the empty tomb and emerge surprised and bewildered, but in a new world – or, at least, the old world lived in differently and seen differently… shot through with new colour and unsuppressed joy.
You see, the whole point of the Jesus story is that it didn’t end with death –even death on a cross. In a world of violence in which the mighty Roman Empire exerted its power by making people very afraid of dying and death, Jesus of Nazareth opens his arms on the gallows, taking whatever nastiness the world can throw at him, and doesn’t throw it back. He takes it… and it looks as if he has massively miscalculated. The Messiah was supposed to lead God’s people to freedom – just like Moses led them through the waters of the Red Sea towards the Land of Promise; yet, here he is, hanging dead on a cross, mocked by his killers and deserted by his friends. What a pathetic disappointment.
The problem with Jesus is that he has gone walkabout with a load of friends for a couple of years and has raised their hopes. They thought that he might just be the one to trust – the one who would not let them down. As they went about their rather odd business, he began to use words to fire their souls and did things to make people think that God himself might at last be among them again. The words of the ancient prophets echoed in their deep memories when they saw sick people brought to health and the most unlikely people discover that God was on their side – despite the strictures of the religious leaders. They thought they were on a roll – that triumph lay ahead.
But, here he is, hanging limp and bloodied on a cross. Rome has won again. All the hope was simply blind illusion – fantasy. What a let-down. And now what do they do with their minds and hearts? Do they go back to where they were before Jesus met them on the beach and asked them to go for a walk with him? Or do they rationalise their experience and return to business as usual, but with a new religious perspective?
In fact, they did what you and I would probably have done: they ran away and hid and cried and tried to make sense of all that had gone on – and worried that they might be next up on the Roman executioner’s job list. Their world had fallen apart. Not just their rational understanding of God and the world, but their entire world view – the lens through which they saw God, the world and themselves lay shattered and bleeding in the dirt of the rubbish tip that was Calvary.
Now, we know the end of the story – what happened next. But, they didn’t. They knew only that their world had ended and they had only fear and bewilderment to lead them through Friday and Saturday and into yet another dreaded day of emptiness. They hadn’t been able to figure Jesus out when he was alive and with them; they certainly couldn’t figure out what was to happen next. It just all looked bleak – their world had ended.
Let’s come back to now – Bradford in April 2012. Easter services throughout the world will begin with the priest proclaiming to waiting congregations: “Christ is risen!” And, with loud voices, the people will respond with: “He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!”
I think this might be wrong. We speak of Easter joy because we know what happened next. But, I think that if we were to really live the story of Holy Week and Easter, we wouldn’t respond like that. I think the priest would proclaim: “Christ is risen!” and the congregation would say: “What? Really? You’re joking! Don’t be so cruel.” If we were honest, that is.
When Mary Magdalene went to the garden on the day after the Sabbath, she did not expect to find an empty tomb, did not expect to be met by a young man in white, and did not expect her world to be turned upside down. She went there to mourn and weep. She went there expecting to find the world the way it always is: violence has won, might is right, power always defeats justice, goodness is feeble when faced by fear. She expects business as usual in the same old world.
But, when she and Salome come to the tomb, their world is challenged, their expectations confounded, their grief confused, and their destination redesignated.
Easter is not about death and destruction – business as usual in the tired old world. It is about life and surprise and transformation and hope. For, in their arriving at the empty tomb they are surprised by life and bewildered by hope. The old rules have been broken: death does not have the final word, destruction is not the ultimate victor, violence need not be accorded honour and respect. Indeed, we are offered new life not because Jesus absorbed the sin and muck of the world on the cross, but because having done so, God then raised him from the dead.
I once told a famous songwriter that I had changed the words of one of his songs. He asked which, and I said it was an Easter song in which the last line of the first verse said: ‘Back to life he came’. “No, he didn’t,” I argued; “as Paul put it, ‘God raised Christ from the dead.” Or, as Mark puts it in our Gospel reading this evening: ‘He has been raised.’ Jesus did not resuscitate. He did not come back to life. The molecules of his body did not simply reassemble after a couple of days of decomposition. No. The good news (the Gospel, that is) is that God raised Christ from the dead. God did it. Jesus was dead, not just a little bit tired and swoony. Dead as dead can be. And God raised him. As we see later in the story, he was the same, but different.
And the point is this. I want to be an Eastern Christian in Jerusalem. I want to live in the light of the resurrection, not stop at the crucifixion. Easter is not possible without having first gone through Good Friday and Empty Saturday; but, if we stop at Friday or Saturday, we have believed the lies of the old world – that violence, death and destruction have the final word in this world after all. The Holy Sepulchre is vital, but we move on to be the Church of the Resurrection – a people filled with hope, confident to live in the old world in the light of the new world of resurrection life. We are an Easter People and ‘resurrection’ is our cry.
This evening we baptise a number of people and confirm many more. Why? What for? What is going on here?
Well, baptism is not something we do; it is something that is done to us. We receive the grace and love of God that cannot be earned, grasped, claimed or nobbled. We are marked with the indelible cross and know that we have passed from darkness to light – from the world of destruction to the one in which the God of resurrection surprises us with a joy and confidence we didn’t expect. Then, marked thus, we discover that we are in the company of millions of others who – as we now see – have also been marked with the sign of Christ, the cross that makes a mockery of the world’s powerful pretensions. We are not in this alone.
In confirmation we stand, marked with the sign of Christ, and take our place – consciously and deliberately – in Christ’s resurrection company. We take responsibility – as did Mary Magdalene and Salome and Peter and Thomas and all the others – for telling the story and daring to suggest that the world and its fears look different when we are marked with Christ’s cross and belong to the company of those who dare to defy the old world’s expectations and miserable resignation to violence and death. We are in this together. Filled with the spirit of that same Christ – empowered and equipped by that same Spirit of God who raised Christ from the dead – we dare to live differently in the world for his sake. Our eyes have been opened and we can do no other.
Brothers and sisters, let’s celebrate that tonight the darkness – however real and however dark – is not the end of the story. Let’s celebrate that tonight the darkness will be penetrated not by choirs of angels, but by the quietness of a bewildering encounter with the God who always surprises us – and who always has the final word in this world and the next.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
April 7, 2012
Yesterday saw a group of people discovering that they weren’t as big as they thought they were. James and John, preoccupied with their own status have gone. Peter (or ‘Rocky’ to his friends) has contradicted every pretension and disowned his friend. And Pontius Pilate, a man with only the vocabulary of violence and power, of threat and of fear, stands in feeble judgement on the man who, silently refusing to play the Empire’s games on its own terms, stands in judgement on him. That was yesterday – the day hope lay bleeding in the dirt of Calvary.
Today is empty. The end of the story is unknown. A world has collapsed and only darkness beckons. Maybe Pilate was right: only power, domination, violence, destruction, threat, fear and death actually do matter in the real world we all know.
But, this will not be the final word.
Tonight, with the fires lit and the candles burning, we will be surprised – a surprise bigger than the Bradford West by-election result. Good Friday and bleak Saturday have been an experience of crisis (literally, from the Greek meaning ‘judgement’). We all – along with Pilate and the Empire – stand judged by the tortured man who looked to have been getting it all wrong, missing the point about real power. Surely God should look a bit bigger and a bit stronger than this man from the hill country of Galilee? Surely the ‘liberator of his people’ should make a bit more noise and, at least, collect around him some powerful people? But, Jesus collects around him a ragbag of ordinary people who, most of the time, have little idea of where this is all heading. He takes people like us and through them changes the world.
This Easter we face huge challenges in our own society. Economic struggle is accompanied by fear for the future… which looks uncertain for many people. Many people question the basis on which we are building our common future – a moment of crisis, a moment in which we are being judged according to what truly drives us. But, even in this context, the surprising Easter message is one of challenge and encouragement:
- On the cross Jesus opens his arms, embracing the world, absorbing all that we can throw at him and not throwing it back at us.
- Death, violence and destruction do not have the final word: God does – and that word will be ‘resurrection’.
- God is in the business of bringing new life out of what is dead.
- In the empty tomb God quietly points to the power of love and hope and new life.
God has come among us, as one of us, and nothing in this world holds any surprise for God; the world might be wobbly, but God calls his people to hold those who wobble; we are loved to death and beyond.
No wonder the risen Christ says to his frightened friends: ‘Do not be afraid.’
April 5, 2012
Maundy Thursday is when Anglican clergy and lay people join the bishop in the cathedral to re-affirm their ordination and baptismal vows. On the day when Jesus sat with his friends and shared (what he knew would be) a final meal, we poignantly address the reality of our life, discipleship and ministry – conscious of our failings and the need to re-commit ourselves. This morning we met in Bradford Cathedral – my first time for this service in this diocese. What follows is, for better or for worse, the text of my sermon to the assembled Christian disciples and ministers. (It’s a bit long, but I haven’t got time to abridge it…)
When I was a teenager, growing up in a Baptist church in Anfield, Liverpool, I discovered Christian books. I had very little money, but even then invested some of it in books – some of which I still have on my shelves. The content of some of them is deeply suspect, but they are part of my history, part of what has shaped me as a person and as a Christian. In fact, growing the confidence to judge for myself that some of them are nonsense was part of that story.
One book I bought back then was a rather narky rant about the difference between the church of our theological dreaming and the reality we often experience: it was called With a Church Like This, Who Needs Satan?
You will guess from this that the author was a bit fed up. Even as a Baptist he wanted the church to behave better, to live out its vocation in and for a world that needed evidence of reconciliation and not just words. With a church like this, who needs Satan?
This morning we meet as Christians conscious of – and soon to be reminded of – our fundamental vocation as disciples together of Jesus Christ. Yet, perhaps at this service more than any other, we are fully aware of how we fail the Lord who has called us, misunderstand the command he has given us, and fail to live up to the standards we set ourselves. Why? Because we see before us a vision of a Jesus who kneels at the feet of friends who squabble with each other, get the wrong end of the theological stick he hands them, and let themselves down whilst discovering that they aren’t all they thought they were cracked up to be. Within hours friendship will be challenged by betrayal, denial and, ultimately, abandonment.
So, why does John write in chapter 13 verse 1, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end?” Why did he not simply give up on them? Or work some magic and force the theological or ecclesiological penny to drop in their rather limited imaginations? How did he manage to love ‘his own’ when we find it so difficult to love ‘our own’? Or, perhaps the question is as simple and brutal as ‘why do we find it so hard to love?’
Well, let’s first look at what the love of Jesus really looks like.
Jesus has collected around him an odd group of friends. As we read the gospel narratives we find personality clashes (James and John versus all the others), differences in priorities (try Judas versus all the others in relation to money and poor people), varied misapprehensions of what Jesus was actually about (the disciples versus Jesus’s own mother and siblings in relation to his mental state). And, as we see in John 13, Jesus neither ignored, nor derided the contradictions and limitations of his all-too-human friends. He took them as they were, he walked with them as they somewhat blindly walked with him, and he lived with the frustration of knowing their limitations at the same time as recognising that understanding cannot be forced and love cannot be compelled by threats.
In the 1989 French-Canadian film Jesus of Montreal the bizarre nature of Jesus’s companions is portrayed beautifully. An out-of-work actor is asked to revise and refresh the passion play written by a prominent Roman Catholic priest thirty years before. Unfortunately, he takes his research a bit too far and produces a passion play that takes Jesus – in part, at least – a little too seriously. He gathers around him a company of actors who quickly begin to resemble the rag-tag oddities we see in the real disciples themselves. Moral ambiguities are not avoided and people with half-baked commitments to the project are not sent away. Instead, they come together to form a company of very human actors whose life together begins to reflect the play they perform under the night sky above Montreal each evening.
What Denys Arcand does in this film is to remove the halo from behind the heads of these disciples and show them to be the human beings we read about in the gospels: ambiguous, limited, enthusiastic, conflicted, ignorant, passionate… but, also, brought together – despite the incongruity of it all – by a Jesus who entertained no fantasies or illusions about them and was not surprised by what they got up to behind his back.
This is, I believe, important to us even today. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he does just that: he calls. He gives to none of us a veto over who else he might call and he does not enter into negotiation over the journey ahead together or the nature of our common life. He calls; we follow. And our obedience to that call is found nowhere other than in our following Jesus – together, despite and because of our differences, and regardless of our personal preferences. No vetoes. No negotiations. No exemptions. No compensations. No mitigations.
And here we come, I think, to the heart of Christian discipleship, once we have stripped away some of the million things we find with which to complicate it all. The nature of Christian witness is not to be found in our unanimity, but in our unity. That is to say, we are together whether we like it or not, whether we like each other or not, whether we agree with each other or not, and whether we find it comfortable or not. We simply cannot walk away from each other any more than we can walk away from Jesus.
Now, as if this thinking isn’t hard enough for people who find it hard to love, Jesus goes on to make it worse. He strips off his outer robe, takes a towel, kneels at the feet of his friends – including Judas the betrayer, Peter the denier, Thomas the doubter, and all the others who will soon run for cover when the going gets unexpectedly tough. He washes their feet and, acknowledging how hard it is to get their heads round his understanding of God and lordship and power and love, he backs up words with embarrassing action, thus leaving his friends with an active and embodied vision of God’s way of seeing and being.
No wonder, then, that, when he had finished washing their feet, Jesus sat down again and asked them what appears to be a simple question: “Do you know what I have done to you?” According to the text, this was a rhetorical question – Jesus doesn’t appear to wait for an answer. He spells it out in case none of them has understood what they have just experienced: this, he says, is how you are to see yourselves (not special and claimers of status) and this is how you are to behave with one another (kneeling at the feet of your friends, your betrayer, your denier, your doubter and all the others and washing their feet. No ifs, no buts. No qualifications or amendments. If this is how Jesus addresses status, power and authority – that is, the Teacher and Master of their language of address – then this is what must be lived and seen in the behaviour of those who claim his name – that is, those who claim to share his nature and character.
The church never stands still. If I had ten pounds for every time I hear that the Christian church is in crisis, I would be a very rich man. But, I would also be a deceived man. Every generation thinks its challenges are the ultimate challenges – its conflicts the worst and most intractable ever. But, when we read our church history – or any history, for that matter – we discover that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes discovered, there is nothing new under the sun. (I think it was GK Chesterton who observed that “when they say the church is going to the dogs, I note that it is the dogs that keep dying”.) Challenges have to be faced and the consequences of choices have to be lived with; seemingly intractable problems have to be solved or waited upon; conflicts have to be acknowledged and differences explored. But, none of this exempts any of us from witnessing the kneeling of Jesus before his friends – including Judas and Peter and Thomas – or hearing Jesus’s unambiguous words: “Love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you must love one another. This is how everbody will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other.”
So, what does this mean today and for us? I think we need to strip back the complexities of our lives – our church lives and ministries – and recover this core gift and challenge: do we love one another as Christ has loved us? Do we demonstrate that love in the way we serve, build up and talk up one another and Christ’s church? Do we build ourselves up by knocking other people – or Christ’s church – down… like children in a primary school playground or politicians in the arena of international rhetoric? Do we cut through some of the nonsense and clutter and build communities – in our parishes and deanery chapters and synods and so on – of love and service and generosity… for the sake of Christ’s church and our witness to a sceptical world that hears us preach words of reconciliation without necessarily seeing evidence of it in our common lives or priorities? Walking away from each other is not an option.
In the year since I joined you here as bishop I have done my best to get around the diocese and meet as many people as possible. I have discovered clergy and people who have deeply impressed me by their service, ingenuity and commitment. I could tell many stories of loving and living that, although not broadcast around the world, are evidence of the living presence of that Christ who gave himself and called his friends to do the same. There is much encouragement… not least in this cathedral and in and through the ministry of our departing dean, Dr David Ison. (David has served this diocese and this city with unusual skill and humility, leading the restoration of the cathedral in both diocese and city. We owe him a huge debt – and we promise him and Hilary our prayers and love as they move to the challenge of London and St Paul’s Cathedral.)
Much encouragement, yet there is also much still to do. But, as a tree can only bear fruit if it is drawing up the life-giving water from its roots, so can we only display the life of the crucified and risen Christ if we, too, are rooted in him and his lifeblood.
I believe that what we do here this morning is not simply a token or a motion through which we go. I think that what we shall do is pledge ourselves to one another in love. As a loving response to the generous love of God, and in obedience to the Christ who has called us and shown us what he expects of us in our common life together, we are pledging ourselves to build one another up, to talk one another up, and to see in one another our own interest. For, if the church is talked down, I am talked down; if you are diminished, I am diminished; if you are destroyed, I – and we together – are destroyed.
One of the most powerful images I have seen on television in a long time came at the end of the final episode of Rev. This motley – almost random – group of misfits, the lonely, the repeatedly failing, the demoralised, the fallibly committed, and even the recently humanised archdeacon, sit around a large table for a hastily cobbled together meal and we see a modern tableau of da Vinci’s The Last Supper. No romanticism and no haloes behind the heads of these London locals. No sentimentality or false piety. No pretence at some imagined perfection. Just people who know themselves to have been found by God and drawn together in circumstances none of them would have chosen, discovering in that meal their common calling.
Soon I and my fellow bishops shall recommit ourselves to the service of the servant Christ… and to the church that bears his name… and to you. A bishop is called to many things, but essentially to enabling you to serve Christ on whatever front line you find yourselves in the parishes, institutions, workplaces, clubs and societies located within the boundaries of obligation we know as the Diocese of Bradford. Priests and deacons will, in obedience to Christ and in response to his command, commit themselves afresh to the ministry that is not their possession, but belongs to Christ and his church. (And remember: bishops are also still priests and deacons, exercising their ministry diaconally and in a priestly manner.) The laity (which, remember, includes the bishops, priests, deacons and all other ministers) will be invited to commit themselves afresh to the commission that Christ has given to his church: to take responsibility for being the body of Christ in and for the sake of the world in which God has put us. Together we will commit ourselves to that mission, knowing that such a commitment demands more than our words and good intentions, but the evidence of our actions, our language and the reconciliation lived out in our common life.
We shall then recall the sacrifice of Jesus for us on the cross. We shall receive bread and wine with empty hands and open mouths. And we shall be caught up into that mysterious joy of resurrection glory from which we find ourselves empowered and enlivened to fulfil and live out the commitment we have made earlier – in the power of the Holy Spirit who bears witness to the God we see incarnate in Jesus himself. We shall take oils with the intention of being agents and ministers of reconciliation – of healing and restoration, of new life and a new start for people who have ceased to believe God is on their side.
Brothers and sisters, in this Holy Week, as we lead our communities through the story of betrayal, denial, crucifixion, the sheer empty bleakness of Saturday and into the surprising joy and colour of Easter, may we find our own hearts inflamed, our own imaginations fired, our commitment renewed and our energy replenished as we live in Christ and he in us… and as we seek – together and with love for one another – to show the people of our communities what we mean by ‘the joy of the resurrection’.
April 4, 2012
After a day of hard meetings I laughed when I got an email with the link to this video. Most of us just moan about things like the budget, but the wife of the Dean of Wakefield got creative and made the point much more effectively.
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