This Konrad Adenauer Stiftung symposium in Cadenabbia, Italy, began on Sunday by setting the scene for the main theme: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung. It did so by discussing Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. Day Two continued by examining Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit – looking at some of the challenges to religion in Europe and some of the cultural changes that lie behind them. Day Three focused on how several different religious communities are responding to religious pluralism: the Orthodox in East and South Eastern Europe, the Roman Catholic Church in France, and the Church of England in the light of increasing religious illiteracy. We concluded (prior to a boat trip across Lake Como in a thunder storm and visits to a couple of nice places) with a discussion about the future of religion in a pluralist Europe. Needless to say, the whole conference thus far has been intelligent, informed and fascinating. (Although, as usual, I feel like the dunce in the class…)

Professor Dr Radu Preda from the University of Babes-Bolyai in Romania did a superb analysis (in embarrassingly fluent German) of how the Orthodox churches have responded to the radical changes in East and South Eastern Europe: Die Situation der Orthodoxen Kirchen in den Transformationsländern Ost- und Südosteuropas. Acknowledging that Orthodoxy cannot speak with one voice – because of its national and ethnic ('tribal') polities – he went on to relate the church's mission in relation to territory and power. What is clear is that those churches that found freedom in the end of Communism have simply been so compromised by their allegiance to the 'new' political powers that they have lost their prophetic voice. The big challenges are (a) pluralism and (b) corruption.

This was followed by Professor Dr Henri Ménudier (Université de Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle) describing the situation in France with its particular and unique process (ideology?) of laïcité. Addressing the title of Proposer la foi: Das Angebot der Kirche in Frankreich, he described the challenging situation facing the church there (what's new?) before going on to suggest where the challenges are actually throwing up opportunities where the church is willing to be creative. Inevitably, celibacy, women priests and the Roman Catholic Church's sacramental response to divorced people (50% of marriages in France, apparently) must be up for grabs. Pluralism is a further challenge, and he surprised me by saying that there is little dialogue between Christians and Muslims in France. This led to a wide-ranging discussion of social and political debates in France.

It is never easy to follow good, informed and fluent speakers on any subject and in any circumstances. Following these guys didn't exactly fill my heart with overflowing gladness. But, I had been asked to do a paper on Der Weg der Kirche von England gegenüber Unwissen und Distanz zu religiösem Glauben. I will post the basic paper separately, but I offered a glimpse of how we in the Church of England try to engage creatively in a context of pluralism, religious illiteracy and media variability in respect of religion in general and the church in particular. As always, the real value came in the questioning and debate that followed the paper. The point relayed back to me by both theologians and journalists (there are several serious journalists here, including the Political Editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – and he is a really good bloke) was my comment that the church has always been a mess, is a mess, and always will be a mess…, so get used to it and relax a bit more.

After a heavy three days we spent the rest of the afternoon on Lake Como and continuing conversations into the evening. I know I am privileged to be here and to be invited to take part in conferences like this. I think, though, that such engagement feeds my mind and soul, represents the best Continuing Miniaterial Development that I cold ever do, and, at a time of great uncertainty about my own ministerial (episcopal) future, gives me the space to withdraw from the immediate pressures of the diocese and reflect on broader themes that shape how I see God, the church, the world and myself.

We conclude in the morning with further papers and discussion before headig for Milan and the long flights home to Bradford (via Munich and Manchester), but I probably will not get space to post before leaving.

 

A great lunch with the Bundestagspräsident, a former Ministerpräsident of Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (Bernhard Vogel), a French theologian and a Jewish academic – we discussed the NSA revelations, spying on Merkel, the Holocaust and other things – and then back to work.

Wo Sprache endet: Das Verhältnis von Literatur, Transzendenz und Politik was a paper delivered by Professor Dr Lydia Koelle (Bonn). I expected some sort of treatment similar to that by Rowan Williams in his book on 'Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', but what we got didn't seem to address the theme of the title. However, it led to a good question about the transference of 'trauma' from a generation of Germans who did not 'live' the Holocaust, but reads 'trauma' back into an experience that was not actually lived as a trauma by those who actually went through it. (I might be doing this session an injustice, but it was the post-lunch slot and we had wine with lunch…)

Zwischen Medialisierung, Religionskonflikt und Rückkehr der Figuration: Religion in der Kunst am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts saw Dr Johannes Rauchenberger (Graz, Austria) illustrate how contemporary morally-challenging events are handled in art – for example, Razoume (?) on the recent Lampedusa migration deaths.

Ulrich Khuon, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, was really interesting about theatre and film as he addressed the theme Glaube, Welt und die Kunst des Spiels: Kino und Theater als Seismographen der Gegenwart. He began with Pasolini observing Jesus from a distance in his 'Gospel of St Matthew', then ranged widely around Friedrich Schiller, Mallick and Julian Barnes in relation to death, suffering and the human condition.

Zwischen Skandal und neuer Kunstreligion: Das zwiespältige Verhältnis von Künsten und Religion in der Öffentlichkeit, an exploration of how art provokes and challenges, saw Professor Dr Wolfgang Ullrich (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) tackle public responses to (a) Gerhard Richter's east window in Cologne Cathedral, and (b) Martin Kippenberger's 'Crucified Frog'. Both caused huge controversy: the former because it subverts both the architctural form and the received nature/purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, and the latter for obvious reasons. The window substitutes traditional biblical images with 11,500 four-inch 'pixels' cut from original antique glass in a total of 72 colours, dividing opinion between those (like the bishop) who hate it and those who say that “all the saints, all the parables, every thought, every idea, transcendence itself are all here in these windows”. Richter observed that the critical bishop had actually understood it: [it is] “gar nicht katholisch.”

Interestingly (and pertinently), the symposium has heard no reference in today's papers to music – a surprising omission. Mind you, there isn't time to cover everything…

I need dinner…

 

I have not had time to post on all the myriad of things going on in the world. I am writing this on the train back from London before heading off to lecture and preach at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tomorrow (after a 3.30am wake up).

But, these are the questions I would ask anyway:

1. Why do newspaper editors want everyone else in the world to be regulated, scrutinised and accountable to outside agencies, but scream when it is proposed that they should be regulated, scrutinised and accountable? When did regulation become a synonym for censorship? How do you spell 'special pleading'?

2. What do members of the English Defence League think they achieved by coming to Bradford last Saturday and shouting to themsleves for an hour before going home again? Genuine question. Nobody was listening. It just seemed like a waste of time and money – to say nothing of the cost to Bradford and the police.

3. Are Manchester United fans not just the teeniest little bit embarrassed about bleating like babies after a couple of games where they didn't win? After laughing at everyone else for twenty five years?

4. Where was all this new Madeleine McCann stuff hiding before the UK police got going on it?

5. We already owned the Royal Mail; so, why were we asked to buy it?

6. Who decides whether Edward Snowden did the world a favour or played into the hands of the bad guys?

7. When is the Pakistani government going to start protecting all its citizens, particularly Christians who are being targeted with violence?

8. Which Americans are proud of their political system when it inhibits the working of government?

9. How do we get the balance between protection (intelligence agencies) and oppression (intelligence agencies)? And who decides what is appropriate secret service?

10. Are we nearly there yet?

 

The Church of England has issued a new course aimed at providing a basic resource for catechesis – that is, nurturing people in Christian faith. Hardly controversial, one might think. The course was launched a few days ago and it provoked some media interest.

I haven't read what the Times seems to have published this evening (but gleaned from what is being said on Twitter), but it would appear that in a phone interview I gave this afternoon I said that there is no point trying to convert anyone anymore because the people of England have gone too far away from the faith.

Well, how interesting. Compare what the Times seems to be saying with what I actually said.

The new resource is called Pilgrim. It starts from an assumption that people know little, rather than that they already know a lot about Christian faith. This is clearly a strong point and one I illustrated from when I ran 'Open to Question' courses in my parish in Leicestershire in the 1990s. We need to assume little knowledge these days, use language that is appropriate to this changed situation, and enable all people – including those who have been Christians for a while but are not confident – to enagage in such a course without fear of being embarrassed.

Many such courses work on the same basis – that it is better to be as inclusive as possible and speak a language everyone can understand.

OK so far?

I then went on to say that religious illiteracy is an issue – that one cannot any longer (even in preaching) allude to a biblical story without telling it. Academics complain that students of art, literature and history have so little basic understanding of (or familiarity with) biblical stories or language that they simply cannot begin to understand … er … art, history or literature.

Controversial?

So, how does this get translated into the Church of England giving up on evangelism – when the whole point of such courses as Pilgrim is to evangelise and catechise?

How does an observation about the challenge of religious or biblical illiteracy become a surrender instead of a creative challenge – which Pilgrim takes up with creative imagination?

I will read the piece tomorrow and see how (apart from Twitter) I have been reported. If the Twittersphere is right, I will respond with a piece on media literacy.

 

Being away has made me feel a little detached from the sound and fury of home. But, as I used to work for them, I have followed the GCHQ/NSA business quite closely. It seems as if, suddenly and because of inept handling of the Guardian by 'the powers', people are waking up to the enormous ubiquity of surveillance in the UK.

So much has been written during the last few weeks (including this reflection from Der Spiegel in Germany) and I won't add to it here. But, what it all suggests is that – as I have written before now – (a) we need a public debate about the powers of 'the powers' who act in our name, (b) we need a public debate about what sort of security we want and expect, and (c) we need to ask if the answer to (a) and (b) has any consequence for the realism of our expectations.

We can't have our cake and eat it. If we want total security – which means giving security services some substantial leeway – there will be a cost in terms of privacy. If we want less surveillance, we must be forgiving when stuff gets missed by the security services.

Given that total security is an illusion anyway, I prefer to limit the powers of 'the powers' and then face the consequences. And I would resist complaint against the security services if/when stuff gets past them. We can't have it both ways.

If anything, however, all this Guardian/Snowden business demonstrates the importance of a free and professional press, capable of investigating and digging deep behind the propaganda. Which, of course, raises the further question about the viability of a responsible and professional press when the digital revolution is rendering the old business models obsolete and making it harder for good journalism to survive or thrive.

We have choices…

 

It does, indeed.

Cutting services and access to things that make individuals and communities thrive runs the risk of saving money from one pocket while thereby ensuring that more will be paid out from the other pocket in order to address the consequences of the former.

I haven't been writing much lately. This is because I have been working morning, noon and night on other matters since returning from the Bermuda gig. These 'other matters' include: (a) following up observations on the need for excellent broadcasting that interprets the world and human experience through a religion-shaped lens; (b) convening a meeting of Muslim leaders to discuss serious questions arising around the sexual grooming phenomenon and its implications both locally and nationally (including challenging the elision ethnicity with religion); (c) spending a day in a rural deanery, discovering more about the effects of austerity and other pressures on rural communities and parishes; (d) attending a dinner aimed at raising awareness of the work of the Church Urban Fund in turning round the lives of troubled people; (e) convening a meeting between Christian leaders and civic leaders in Bradford, aiding mutual understanding of some of the remarkable work done under the radar in supporting people in tough communities; (f) visiting an excellent Cancer Support centre and hearing about the funding pressures on local charities; (g) meeting with a local councillor and the Child Poverty board in Bradford to discuss some of the heroic efforts to support children for whom austerity brings undeserved misery.

And all the time I was up to this stuff (these are just the highlights of a demanding couple of weeks) Bradford celebrated the nationally-televised Bollywood Carmen (capping some great and positive recent media coverage of the place) and faced a serious threat to the future of its National Media Museum.

Pic. BBC Radio Leeds

The cord that runs through all this has at least two threads: money and human need.

Wherever one stands on the government's welfare cuts, it is clear that the choice of what to cut is not neutral. Nor is it obvious. Billions can be magicked up to save the banks – whose culture seems not to have changed a great deal subsequently – but the poorest in our country must pay the highest price at every turn. Local authorities have had their budgets cut to the extent that, all the flesh having been cut away, there is only the bone to begin to hack into. Councillors have been in tears as they make decisions they know will damage children and families and vulnerable people.

Choices, as always, are rooted in ideological assumptions about who matters most in our society. It would be no different if another party were in power; but, it does no harm to state the truth about the ideological motives that always lie behind economic priorities.

Local evidence sees a huge increase in demand from food banks – including from the 'working poor'. We see increasing numbers of children and teenagers arriving at school in the morning without having eaten. Some schools are hiding the real costs of this because they feed their children from their base funding, thus reducing the funds available for 'education'. I discovered today that if an eligible student stays on in a school 6th form, he/she is eligible for free school meals; if he/she transfers to an FE college, this eligibility disappears – which clearly distorts access options and raises other questions. I also hadn't realised that whereas the benefits system is operated by the Department of Work and Pensions, the funding of free school meals to needy children is the responsibility of the Department for Education – which seems both odd and not-very-joined-up.

According to Investor Today child poverty costs the UK £29bn a year. In other words, what is saved on 'welfare' is paid out again in addressing the consequences of cuts on the very people affected. Is this not weird?

And this is where the threat to the future of the National Media Museum comes in.

Not only is this one of three national museums in the north of England (the Railway Museum in York and the Science Museum in Manchester being the other two), it also offers free access to people who are being deprived at every other turn, and stimulation/education in the vital areas of science, industry, communications and technology. The National Media Museum is unique; it is not a luxurious frippery riding on the back of a cultural surplus in the north of England. It is unique. It's loss would be a national cultural and educational loss, not just a loss to Bradford and its local economy.

This threat emphasises and fleshes out the growing north-south divide. Noting the growing economic divide, health inequalities and life expectancies between people living in the north and the south of England, the Archbishop of York has commented:

I was shocked to hear of the cuts that our museums are facing. It is simply incredible that we are now considering cutting back on funding which benefits the whole community – investment which not only helps to educate future generations, but which also gives them a sense of their cultural heritage and identity… We need to recognise that our cultural heritage is an important part of our country’s history. A country which forgets its heritage becomes senile.

Increasingly it seems there is a growing economic divide between the North and the South. Too often we are seeing communities across the North of England bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. We need to see a level playing field. Whether we are looking at transport investment, education, employment, health or about where our children and grandchildren learn about what made our cities the fantastic places they are today, we need to put wellbeing at the centre. Everyone deserves the opportunity to blossom and flourish, regardless of where they were born.

No wonder, then, that Bradford is campaigning hard to ensure the future of the National Media Museum here. This museum contributes £24m per annum to Bradford's economy, provides 103 full-time equivalent jobs, and generates Gross Value Added of around £3.7m. The city is the world's first UNESCO City of Film and a Producer City that makes science and technology the foundation of its future. Local businesses are committed to this development. Bradford contributes £8.3bn to the UK economy and this is expected to grow. It is also the youngest city in England outside London.

Is it remotely conceivable that serious consideration would be given to closing a London museum of national importance? Why, then, are northern museums considered an easier target?

This all hangs together. Ultimately the decisions taken will speak eloquently of our national communal priorities. These will betray our ideological as well as economic assumptions. And underneath it all will seethe a pile of questions about our anthropology, our fundamental philosophy of the common good, and the gap between our words of 'social solidarity' (for example, “we are all in it together”) and the reality we fear to face.

And, one way or another, it will cost us.

 

Last night I was the president and preacher at the ordination of Nick Dill as the Bishop of Bermuda. The Cathedral in Hamilton was packed and it was – for us feeble Brits, at least – hot and sweaty. For me it was a privilege to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury here.

I know I am always banging on about this, but being somewhere different invites (or compels) you to look at 'home' through a different lens. Familiar themes and assumptions have to be re-thought when applied in a different context. So, preaching here made me ask basic and simple questions about what a bishop is actually called to do – when you strip away all the detailed stuff and try to identify the big picture of the church's vocation. I don't know what it feels like to be a bishop in Bermuda and I can't look through the eyes of people for whom this reality is in their DNA. But, I can recall the fact that a bishop is called to hold before the people – whoever and wherever they might be – the story told in the Bible of God's engagement with his people: that we are to give our lives in order that the world might see who and how God is.

If we lose the plot (the basic narrative of our vocation), we will lose the plot (the stuff that speaks to us of our identity – as Israel lost the land during the prophetic years of the eighth and sixth centuries BC).

Anyway, the hospitality, welcome, kindness and friendliness of the people we have met here is wonderful. The new bishop is hugely popular and is a source of hope and encouragement – and, I suspect, of necessary challenge.

I have also discovered the link between Bradford and Bermuda: Nakhi Wells, the Bradford City footballer who is very popular here. At the same time I read today that Liverpool's brilliant Luis Suarez is complaining that the British press don't understand him. Fan though I am, this is not a bleeding heart moment of sympathy. Suarez is brilliant, but he dives a bit, bites opponents and then feels 'misunderstood'. I'd hate to see him go, but, even given appropriate criticism of the British press, this is a fatuous reason for heading for Spain.

Oh well, better go and cool off in the sun.

 

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