I am in Leicester from yesterday until Saturday night leading a Meissen Delegation Visit. The EKD is focusing this year on 'tolerance' and interfaith issues, so we have a group of English and Germans learning about (and experiencing) interfaith co-existence in an English city.

Very pertinent that we arrived here as the murder of a soldier in Woolwich continues to shock. Yesterday we introduced the Germans to the 'Leicester story' – with quite a lot about Richard III – and ended the day in a Sikh gurdwara.

Today we will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the EKD at the St Philip's Centre in Evington – a centre setting the pace for faiths working together (not just talking) in this complex city.

It is purely coincidental that we set the theme of the Meissen Delegation Visit a year or two back and we were only able to tie in the Archbishop of Canterbury once he had been appointed and agreed it. The murder in Woolwich changed the context in so far as the Christian response to it and to the fears of the Muslim community are concerned. Our primary concern has to be for the victim, his family and friends, those serving in our armed forces who do the will of our political leaders, and the community who witnessed these shocking events in Woolwich – the desecration of 'home space'.

But, Muslims have responded with unequivocal outrage to this murder. Yes, there is a fear of copy-cat behaviour on the part of other unhinged fanatics; and yes, there will be some who perversely see such brutality as justifiable in the name of some bizarre jihad. But, the response of Muslims has been immediate and straight – and this needs to be strongly encouraged.

Several newspapers this morning are urging Muslim leaders to be more proactive in addressing hate-preaching and the radicalisation of Muslim young people. They are being exhorted to take more responsibility for addressing some of the serious issues in their own communities. And that is OK. The question, however, is whether the rest of us will encourage them practically as they face this task, standing alongside them in these difficult and challenging circumstances.

The coincidence of the Woolwich murder with this Meissen Delegation Visit sadly adds an immediate emphasis to looking at what we are doing in the field of interfaith work in England – our response offering a cases study in how the English church responds to the immediate in the context of our long-term commitment to the common good.

The rest of today will help us look at both English and German interfaith perspectives. No hard questions will be ducked and the talking will, as always, be generous and straight.

 

It’s that time of year again. Easter is when the press do their ‘isn’t the church rubbish’ and ‘isn’t Christianity hopeless’ stories. So, in the middle of an excellent ecumenical Good Friday walk of witness in Ilkley, I got a phone call from a national newspaper about the story they are running on Easter Day.

Lindau crossI won’t spoil their fun (yet), but doesn’t this just get wearying? I would feel professionally a little embarrassed to keep doing the same thing every year and not find anything original or interesting to do instead.

Be that as it may, Good Friday happens to be a good day to think through this year’s shock charges against the Church. (That’s ironic, by the way.)

The Church of England is getting a bit of a kicking these days for not being ‘relevant’. I think the phrase this time is ‘out of touch’. Now, apart from the usual stuff about ‘out of touch with what or whom’, this sort of question in a poll simply tells us nothing. The main point, however, is that it has never been the job of the church to be ‘relevant’. Of course, the church has to live in the real world and understand/speak the language(s) of the cultures in which it serves. But, when ‘relevance’ is taken to mean that the Church should go with the flow of popular culture – for no other reason than that the popular culture is assumed to be unquestionably unquestionable – then the church has to dig into its tradition in order to find its bearings.

And what does this mean? Well, start with the prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures got a seriously hard time for saying what people (especially powerful people) didn’t want to hear, and for not saying what the people (especially the powerful people) did want to hear. Being popular or ‘relevant’, whilst nice and affirming, can never be the primary motivating aim of the Christian church. If, for example, we are to change our mind/practice on ethical questions, then we must do so because it is right to do so and not (as some politicians and media commentators seem uncritically to think) because ‘most people think this way today’.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgAnd the Good Friday light on this? Well, as I observed in Ilkley this morning, if Jesus had been asked to submit a business plan before going walkabout in Galilee and beyond, he would never have got the contract. Three years and then dead? Call that ‘being relevant’? Was Jesus ‘in touch’ with popular culture? Dead in less than three years was not an encouraging fact for people who think the business of God’s people is simply to give people what they want, to say what they want to hear, or do what people want them to do.

Just read the first few chapters of Isaiah. Or any of the Gospels. Or… er… anything else in the Bible.

The second charge (yawn) is that the church is doing a bad job at offering moral leadership. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this is closely linked to the first charge. I remember Rowan Williams saying to me that when people ask him to lead, what they really mean is to go in the direction they want to see him go in. And when they ask him to be prophetic, they simply want to hear him say loudly what they want to hear him say loudly. To not lead in their direction and to not say loudly what they want to hear means quite simply that he is not leading and is not prophetic.

Let’s take a moment of embarrassed silence to think about the nonsense this represents.

OK, that’s that dealt with. But, what the story does challenge the church with is (a) how to articulate its story and its life in languages that can be heard and understood, (b) to engage in conversation with culture rather than simply shouting at it (which is what some people mean by ‘moral leadership’), (c) to get stuck into the world as it is in a way that offers an alternative to the usual cycles of destruction and violence, and (d) to be more confident in putting itself ‘out there’, even if we get a good kicking (deserved or underserved), get ridiculed or end up having to say “we got it wrong”.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Unlike some Christians in today’s world, no one has tried to martyr most of us yet.

wpid-Photo-12-Apr-2007-0945.jpgGood Friday confronts us with mortality, death, endings and the bleeding loss of a world and a future – the disillusionment and betrayal of those who dared to think that God might be present in their world and found their hopes bleeding in the dirt of a rubbish tip on the edges of Jerusalem. If we stay with today’s experience, we might as well pack up and go home. But, Sunday will come and those who thought Friday confirmed the world’s mantra that ‘might is always right’ will find some embarrassment by Monday.

I am not worried about being relevant or having my leadership criticised or ridiculed. I am concerned about how we tell with credibility, conviction and imagination the story of Easter surprise – shining new light into a world that too often accepts that death, violence and destruction have the last word.

The last week has been a bit … er … busy. But, that didn't stop the questions flying around my head.

1. How does the press manage (a) to have the brass neck and (b) not to laugh when telling the rest of us that they alone should be accountable only to themselves? Everyone else must be regulated, reported on, “held to account”, but the press must be completely “free” – to shred people's lives with impunity. Leveson's recommendations on statutory underpinning were made precisely because no one trusts bodies that want to run their own regulation. The point of regulation is that it should be independent – and self-selecting bodies don't fit that bill.

2. Would Leveson create a Soviet scenario? Don't be ridiculous. Comparisons with Pravda are utter nonsense and the newspaper industry knows it. If any of these guys had ever read Pravda, they would know that like is not being compared with like.

3. Will the Archbishop of Canterbury ring the changes in and for the Church of England? Who knows? He needs the space to recover from the last couple of days and then get down to business. Tough call, but he will be backed by his bishops as the brown stuff is poured on him.

4. Whose agenda is running when the BBC report his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday and remark at the beginning that he didn't mention women bishops or gay marriage and conclude by saying that he won't be able to escape these issues for long? Remarkable! If he had referred to these issues, the church would have been accused of being obsessed with gender and sex; he didn't, so we are accused of running away from them for a day. It isn't the church that is obsessed with these issues to the exclusion of all else, is it?

5. Why did I sell my best fantasy league players and get stuck with the ones that get injured or earn me no points? Never, ever, take me on as a football manager.

So, the Daily Telegraph has dug into the old writings of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and discovered something deeply shocking.

It would appear that he has said and written things in the past – in different contexts, for different audiences and free of archiespiscopal ambitions – that he might now either hold to, reject, nuance or express differently.

What this means is that – perish the thought – he might have grown up and learned and thought and developed as he has matured.

Now, I know anyone in public life is not allowed to have been a child or to have grown or changed. I realise that my own archive of parish magazine articles, etc. might be found to contain expressions that might embarrass me now. This is what happens to human beings as they grow up.

The bizarre thing is that anyone thinks this is anything other than story-creation. The Archbishop might or might not hold to views held or expressed in the past. I have no idea, and he can speak for himself. But, the notion that he should now be entirely consistent with what he said or thought or wrote twenty, ten or five years ago is utter nonsense. It simply suggests that he should never have grown up.

What matters is what he thinks now. The journey there might also be interesting. But, the fact that he might have said things or thought things in the past matters little… except, of course, to those looking for contradictions.

I remember a fellow curate in the late 1980s rejecting the idea that Jesus might have had to learn or change his mind (we were talking about the episode in Matthew 15 with the Syro-Phoenecian woman). In the end, I asked if he was suggesting that somehow ‘learning’ was sinful… and he said it was – the logic being that Jesus was perfect and didn’t need to learn. Er…

 

Amazing.

Processed foods contain the wrong animal. And what line do media sensationalists take? “Do you mind eating horse rather than cow?” Brilliant.

How can there possibly be any objection to eating one animal rather than another? Whenever I find myself in Central Asia, we eat nothing but horse. It is the staple meat on the Steppe. And it is fine, if you like that sort of thing.

Surely the real controversy ought to be about misrepresentation and obligation. If a company tells us its lasagne is made of beef, then it should moo rather than neigh. The producer should know what is in their product and tell us the truth on the packet. Furthermore, if we trust cow – because there are rules about what goes into their rearing and which drugs cannot be used on them – then we might reasonably question if the same rules apply to horses.

Hence, it is a question of integrity and confidence, not of food safety. We should not be sold a pup… as it were.

And, as I said on Twitter, whoever in the government chose to call the matter 'distasteful' should get instant promotion.

 

What a way to go out?

Dr Rowan Williams celebrates his first day of freedom from office with a brilliant documentary journey through Canterbury Cathedral: Goodbye to Canterbury. The BBC at its best and Rowan at his best: brilliant, poetic, articulate, fascinating, stimulating, educative, erudite, clear.

I still maintain – as I have consistently – that the 'Rowan is too hard to understand' narrative was mostly an excuse by lazy commentators who couldn't be bothered to work at thinking.

In this programme – written and presented by Rowan himself – he proves himself to be an adept communicator and media operator. How embarrassing for so many to have written him off so easily.

In this wonderful programme we have poetry, art, history, music, aesthetics, theology, philosophy, drama, beauty, honesty, storytelling, ecclesiology, evangelism, rhetoric, social analysis, realism, education, communication, interpretive clarity, personal reflection, politics, economics, explanation, and more besides.

Perhaps Rowan might be persuaded to do more of this now he has left office?

I came to London today to sit on a panel at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide annual conference in Westminster. Other panelists were Ruth Gledhill (Times Religion Correspondent), John Coles (New Wine) and Fiona Bruce (MP for Congleton), and it was chaired by Steve Clifford (General Director of the Evangelical Alliance). It was surprisingly good fun and stimulatingly lively.

My main point was to encourage greater confidence by religious people – Christians in particular – in occupying the space they have… and not to react to everything 'offensive' in victim mode. Ruth Gledhill articulately explained the role of journalists and editors, castigated religious people for not getting 'good news' stories into the press, and told them to use the clout they already have for raising concerns about issues of religious freedom. I concurred, noting that Christians need to look first in the mirror when moaning about failures to tell our stories – asking ourselves who is to blame for this. (Earlier Os Guinness had noted that the primary casualty of religious bad news was the failure of Christians to love one another in public.)

Of course, the other media angle is simply that religious groups often simply want to 'get their message over' – which is hopeless in the new world of social media in which 'interconnectivity' and 'interactivity' are the key features of discourse. We now engage in a conversation and not in a monologue. The message emerges from the conversation and its mode.

It is always a little difficult to deal briefly and concisely with complicated issues. However, I did describe the contemporary conflict of 'freedoms' as a 'crisis of liberalism': that once we claim equality and equal validity of any opinion (including the right to be offended, etc.), it becomes hard to deal with conflicts in rights/freedoms. We are left with having to establish hierarchies of value or rights, and this is problematic. In other words, if my freedom compromises your freedom, who judges which is to have priority – and against which criteria?

I also sat there recalling silently on the eve of Remembrance Day that more religious people died in non-religious conflicts in the twentieth century than in all previous nineteen centuries put together.

Anyway, I had to leave afterwards and missed the people who were to reflect on cases of religious persecution around the world. (Of course, we had agreed earlier that 'marginalization' and the 'religious illiteracy' of media people and politicians do not constitute 'persecution'.)

And my Fantasy League team is doing rubbish today…

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,993 other followers