I managed to get home from a very positive Bradford experience (putting in a new vicar on a large estate) in time to see the second half of the first Make Bradford British programme. Having posted a media literacy lesson the other day, what is my response? I would simply make the following points:

1. Focus on the naff title is fair – especially as this first programme, if anything, is clear that Bradford is British. The question is: what does it mean to be British? It seems that when we try to identify identity we look to the past. But, ‘Britishness’ is not some sort of product we inherit and then try to keep in a cultural box; rather, it is evolving as time moves on. We are creating Britain as we go. In this sense, perhaps, the title of the series unwittingly opens up a more productive debate – or provides a better-shaped lens through which to look at local culture: how do we take our responsibility in shaping at every level the Britain we are becoming?

2. A friend who lives near the canal in Shipley was amused to see how the conversation between the white retired policeman and the Muslim ex-rugby player was edited. They were on a long boat on the canal – somewhere I haven’t yet been. The conversation seemed to be seamless, progressing from one expression of mutuality to another. However, according to my friend, for this conversation to have been played out the way it appeared, the boat would have had to have gone forward, then leapt backwards, then picked up further down the canal before sliding back again to a point they had already passed. Now, I don’t know; but, it wouldn’t surprise me if this were true. What we see on our screen is what I called ‘mediated reality’ – a narrative for which the evidence or illustration is then identified and edited into place.

3. The programme did portray some interesting encounters. I thought it showed strongly the important stuff of people realising through personal relationship the need for good listening, hard learning (about one’s own prejudices and practices), mutual respect and generosity. That’s good, isn’t it? Put aside some of the tacky stuff (like the title and the dramatic trailers) and the programme had some quite interesting stuff in it – certainly stuff worth thinking about and debating further. Such as how to create more such encounters so that people meeting together can challenge and be challenged.

4. It will be interesting to see whether the second programme points to how all the above is already going on in Bradford. There are loads of initiatives aimed at bringing people from different communities together. The Church Urban Fund sponsored Near Neighbours scheme (to name but one) is funding dozens of such imaginative initiatives – but they aren’t dramatic or sexy enough to hit the headlines. There is some great stuff going on here already, and in Bradford we know this.

5. So, if the picture of Bradford offered by the programme is of more interest outside the city, what might be the response so far? Well, inevitably the local media proclaim ‘fury’ locally – Bradford being ‘hit’ again, misrepresented by outsiders who then just walk away. Outsiders who know the city have rightly complained that it represents the place as a single-issue city in which ‘race’ is the only lens through which all else must be seen. This, of course, clouds the multifaceted richness of the place… and the other challenges we face which are identical to those faced by neighbouring cities such as Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. It would be more helpful to have a focus on Bradford that went beyond race. Such an approach would be enlightening for everyone and would demonstrate a maturity and intelligence on the part of media production companies (rather than a rather lazy stereotyping or recourse to tired cliche that a more media-literate and sophisticated audience simply sees through).

6. I might (again) be in a minority of one on this, but responses from around the country also demonstrate that how Bradford responds to a programme such as this also forms part of how Bradford is seen. The response is fairly cross so far. Yet we should have confidence in Bradford and its people to be able to watch a programme such as this and not be taken in. Confidence allows us to take the hits, turn the focus, shine a different light, and shape the debate as we go forward. Complaining makes us sound like weak victims when we certainly have it within us to take some control.

Bradford is a brilliant place. It is facing questions in the public spotlight that other cities face in a more hidden way. The microcosm we saw last night points to the source of hope: that people in relationship can see themselves more clearly, be ashamed by their prejudices more readily, and find themselves changed by their encounters. Relationships lie at the heart of how we shape our future – not just of Bradford, but of the Britain (and Britishness) we are now creating. After all, today’s ‘Britain’ will be tomorrow’s ‘inherited Britishness’.

I spent a week in November reading (on and off, obviously) Sebastian Faulks’ excellent A Week in December. Faulks manages to take snapshots of characters and events that characterise something of the nineties and noughties in Britain.

A book to capture today's Britian

The tensions and comprehension gaps between a disillusioned young Muslim man – looking for some certainties and a place to belong – and his parents who have tried hard to assimilate and be accepted into British society is beautifully expressed. Even better is the lack of easy resolution: both end the book still not understanding the other and yet the need for human belonging has to find expression for both.

Many of the women in the book – wives of politicians, footballers and rich businessmen, for example – are depicted as casting around for love, identity and ‘place’. A literary critic shows up the superficial and personal nature of arts criticism: personal agendas and rivalries, jealousies and snobberies, all get exposed. There is a light shone on so many aspects of shallow culture that every page made me wince with both recognistion and embarrassment. Is this what we have really become?

The period covered is, however, epitomised by the character of John Veals, the high-finance money manipulator whose addictive lust is not for money itself (ironically, given his accumulation of the stuff) – and certainly not for his rather regretful wife and neglected children – but for the miserable pursuit of power and ‘winning’. Relationships mean nothing; the world is simply a playground for his exploitation; people are pawns in his trading games; rules are for breaking; laughter is for the sorts of people he despises. The final line of the book sends a chill through the soul as the sheer empty, vacuous, selfish and value-free monster of greed exposes what happens when you gain the whole world but lose your soul.

I guess Faulks could be accused of caricaturing the worst of contemporary Britain without depicting or exploring the best elements of a complicated multicultural society. But, you can’t do everything in a single book – and in this book he paints a picture which only the wilfully blind will fail to recognise. This picture begs many questions of what sort of society we really want Britain to develop in the next few years of the so-called ‘Big Society’… and that will form the subject of my next post.

I referred in an earlier post to an excellent publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK. In it Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views.

sentamuThis has been picked up with some vigour by the Archbishop of York in yesterday’s Daily Mail. Responding to a couple of recent high-profile cases of apparent ‘victimisation’ of Christians, he goes to town on the dominant liberalism in Britain that, when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Read the comments under Sentamu’s article on the website and you’ll see how many others do not even begin to understand that their own assumptions about religion are flawed.

One essential problem is that the liberal secularists assume that their own worldview is neutral, whereas that of religious people is somehow dangerously loaded. Sentamu counters with: ‘Asking someone to leave their belief in God at the door of their workplace is akin to asking them to remove their skin colour before coming into the office. Faith in God is not an add-on or optional extra. For me, my trust in God is part of my DNA; it is central to who I am and defines my place in the world. It informs my whole life, not just a weekly service on a Sunday. It is the failure to grasp this basic understanding of what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ that lies at the heart of the problem …’

He then goes on to point out that ‘there is a deep irony at work here, and not simply because the first free schools and hospitals operating in this nation were run by the churches in our land. Those who display intolerance and ignorance, and would relegate the Christian faith to just another disposable lifestyle choice, argue that they operate in pursuit of policies based on the twin aims of ‘diversity and equality’. Yet in the minds of those charged with implementing such policies, ‘diversity’ apparently means every colour and creed except Christianity, the nominal religion of the white majority; and ‘equality’ seemingly excludes anyone, black or white, with a Christian belief in God.’

Sentamu then presses the question: ‘Of course, as a modern, forward-looking nation, we should be able to work and live together, black and white, male and female, without fear of harassment or indignity based on gender, ethnicity or disability. However, such policies also rightly point to the fact that neither should a person’s religion be the basis upon which they are subjected to any prejudice. Why then, while our children are encouraged to celebrate the religious festivals of all the major faiths, are there those in public office who seem to be ignorant of how this country’s established religion gave birth to this nation?’

This is an interesting point. During the attempt to produce a new European Constitution there was a battle over the removal from any script of any mention or acknowledgment of the Christian history of Europe. Yet Europe cannot be understood in any way without an intelligent understanding of its Christian history – for both good and ill.

I put this point to Richard Dawkins in a live TV discussion and he agreed, noting that you can’t understand art or literature without knowing the Bible or learning some theology and Christian history. Yet there are those who, seemingly for ideological reasons, cannot admit this for fear that to admit a history is to agree with what formed it. This is patently absurd. (And we saw a similar phenomenon recently on the publication of the Children’s Society report A Good Childhood when a number of commentators could not bear to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence base on the grounds that to do so would mean them having to change their mind about their own prejudices in respect of morality, lifestyle, parenting, etc.. So much for ‘intelligent liberalism’ over against ‘illiberal religion’.)

parliamentProfessor Michael Kenny, in his excellent and helpful Conclusion to the IPPR publication, draws attention to the danger of regarding faiths as static phenomena rather than changing and mutating organisms. He says: ‘…there is a danger in open, mobile and dynamic societies that we promote and institutionalise too static and fixed an idea of national identity and culture. A more appropriate understanding of national identity in a society like Britain needs to allow room for a sense of the complex interweaving of indigenous and newer traditions and the establishment of important cultural hybrids that permit individuals to experience their sense of religiosity as nested within a broader sense of national belonging.’

He then goes on to observe that we must take a longer-term view of such healthy social developments: ‘Such an approach faces a major challenge from the rigid and dichotomous polarisation that afflicts debate about migration, citizenship and religion in Britain. In response to this frozen discourse, we need to reach beyond familiar orthodoxies about the need to separate faith and the public realm and lazy caricatures about the harms associated with religious practice. Such a shift of perspective is particularly overdue among political ‘progressives’, many of whom still take their bearings from the secularist ambition of removing religion from state and public square, and the unquestioned premise that religious belief is only ever a source of division within the body politic… There is an overwhelming need in the UK for consideration of which kind of model is now most appropriate as a template for the regulation of the secular public sphere, and for the development of law and policy in the context of religious diversification.’

Kenny then makes a statement that should be blindingly obvious, but lies at the heart of the frustration articulated by the Archbishop of York and others: ‘A faith-sensitive approach should not be regarded as necessarily a faith-sympathetic one.’ In other words, you don’t have to agree with a Christian worldview to acknowledge that it is no more loaded and no less neutral than that of the secular humanist.

Sentamu ends his piece with a bit of bluff-calling. Those who moan about the situation facing Christians such as the praying nurse and the emailing school secretary should put their body where their words are and re-engage with the worshipping communities we call local churches:

‘For the millions of people in this country who profess a trust in God, these recent stories represent not only an insult to their common sensibility but also a sign of a growing gap between the mindset of the governing and the governed. The requirement of common consent that underpins any operation of the democratic contract is being placed under strain by those who, with the best of motives, are making the worst of mistakes. My challenge, then, to the 72 per cent of this nation who marked themselves as ‘Christian’ in response to the census of 2001 is that if they wish to safeguard that same Christian tradition, they must renew their faith and become actively involved in their local church. For those who despair at the treatment meted out to these Christian women, the message is clear: wake up, Christian England!’

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