As always these days, I am slightly behind on the news response front.

It seems that the Church of England is apologising for having urged – in the recent Bishops' Pastoral Letter – that no one should be paid less than the living wage. The Church itself is accused of 'hypocrisy' (how original…) as examples have been found where churches are advertising posts that do not pay the living wage.

For once, I don't think we should be apologising. To do so is to accept the premise that the Church is telling the rest of the country what to do – “preaching” is the word usually applied to anything we say or do.

But, I just want to put the obvious question: to whom was the Bishops' Pastoral Letter addressed?

The last time I looked, the church (and its thousands of separate charities that are individually responsible for “practising what it preaches”) was part of the world it is addressing. In fact, as the question assumes, it addresses itself first. The Letter was addressed to us.

 

How extraordinary?

This morning the BBC Today programme brought together a bishop and a politician to discuss the pastoral letter to be published later today by the House of Bishops. The Daily Telegraph and others tell the bishops to stay out of politics because they are “left-leaning”.

Two problems here: (a) Nadine Dorries began her interview by saying she had not seen or read the document, but would comment and criticise anyway; and (b) the “church stay out of politics” line is so ridiculously silly – at so many levels – that it is heard simply as a tired cliche. If we are going to be criticised, let it be on the basis of fact, and let it be at least remotely intelligent and a little original.

The pastoral letter issued later today does not trot out a party line. It attempts to encourage engagement with politics by Christians and voting by them in the General Election. It specifically states that it is not telling people how to vote, and illustrates how fragile some political judgements can be.

Isn't it remarkable that a politician will admit to not having read something, have no idea what is in it, but still be confident enough to go ahead and comment on it?

And, pace the Telegraph, if bishops and other Christians are to keep out of politics, who else is to be excluded? Politics are about life and the stuff of life – which isn't the concern of Jesus or the Bible or ethics or relationships?

Verily, the mind boggleth.

I know Dresden well. I know people in Dresden well. The devastation visited by Allied bombing on 13/14 February 1945 was horrendous. That is a phenomenological fact – apart from any moral consideration of the event.

It is shameful that a so-called free press, so often “defended” by the so-called “popular” press, sees fit to celebrate the freedoms gained by the sacrifice of so many 70 years ago by stooping to lies, misrepresentation, slander and brain-dead ideological nonsense. Is the Dail Mail going to have the courage and integrity – values demonstrated by those who sacrificed so much during World War Two – to apologise for the scandalous headline and story published a couple of days ago? There is no way that a half-thinking sentient being could read from the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon in the Frauenkirche, Dresden, to a headline that accuses him of apologising to the Nazis.

There are no words adequate to describe the shamefulness of that front page. Is this the free press we fought a war to preserve?

And what was the Daily Mail's motivation in publishing this headline and story on the front page? What was its moral drive?

When can we expect the apology? Or will the absence of an apology be left to speak for itself?

Edited at 23.29hrs: a paragraph was missing from the version that I posted. I add it here:

“Read for yourself the Archbishop's speech in its context. Then read his subsequent blog post and the earlier statement. His sermon in the Frauenkirche today is here. Then tell me this wasn't just a nasty headline looking for a story.”

 

The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

There’s a lot of talk around these days about role models. I was at Anfield last Saturday watching Liverpool offer a model of how other football teams should play. (Cough) Celebrities who misbehave in public are scolded about their responsibility to be role models for children and young people – despite the fact that most of the time they just get on with living and don’t think about people copying them.

The imitation game is an odd thing, isn’t it? I have never been one of those to follow a trend or want to look or be like someone else. I’ve never been afflicted with the burning need to dress like Elvis Presley or walk like Christiano Ronaldo – to have the gift of the gab like Chris Evans or write like Jane Austen. Obviously.

But, despite my protestations to the contrary, I think I’m kidding myself if I think there is no subconscious stuff going on in there somewhere. Deep in our heartlands we nurture models of how we would like to be or what we would like to look like. Our imagination sometimes plays games – like when you stand in front of the mirror and, for a few moments, pose like Lady GaGa or pout like Harry Stiles. (I can’t help thinking I’ve used bad examples there…)

Anyway, I’m fibbing big time, if I claim to opt out of the imitation game. I am a Christian – that fact motivates everything else for me. And this means – very simply – that I try to imitate the Jesus I read about in the gospels. It’s as simple as that. Although we complicate it a million times, Christian faith is surprisingly simple: the Christian answer to the question “What does God look like?” is “he looks like Jesus”. Which begs the question “What does Jesus look like?” And the answer is: “Read the gospels and look at people who claim his name.” The task of the Christian is to imitate the Jesus of the Gospels.

Like lots of Elvis imitators I have come across over the years, the imitation isn’t always successful and is frequently embarrassing. But, this shouldn’t put us off the task itself. I’ll never win a Bafta – but it won’t be for the want of persistence.

Questions of religious literacy in media and politics are being articulated more loudly by the day. It is a truism that is almost embarrassing to articulate, but you can’t understand the world (or art or literature or history or just about anything else that comes under the bracket of ‘human’) without understanding religion.

So, I was intrigued to read this excellent academic approach to the need for religious literacy of the highest order in the realm of diplomacy and foreign affairs.

More fuel to the fire, then.

(Just for the record: I got introduced into the House of Lords this morning.)

It was announced last week that the BBC is to shake up its commissioning briefs (so to speak).

According to reports, four of the BBC’s most senior commissioners will have their roles closed as part of a major overhaul of the factual division. The restructuring, which is being overseen by factual commissioning controller Emma Swain, is aimed at saving money and re-focusing the division ahead of the proposed closure of BBC3.

Basically, three-and-a-half head of commissioning roles will be removed and another created. This will result in the department having six commissioning heads, compared to eight-and-a-half currently.

The bit that interests me particularly is where this puts religion in the new scheme of things. One of the posts to go is that of Aaqil Ahmed, who currently combines being head of Religion & Ethics with being commissioning editor television.

The proposed three newly created head of commissioning roles will cover:

· Head of science, business, history and religion (specialist factual)
· Head of documentaries, current affairs and BBC3
· Head of specialist features and natural history

There will be consequences for other people involved in commissioning in the factual division.

This might all make perfect sense and be a rational and productive structural change within the BBC. But, in the absence of more detail, it also raises important questions:

Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of the religious coverage? Or will this be left as a sort of “fill in” content?
How much, and what sort of, religious programming does the BBC expect of each of its tv networks?
3. Why is there no BBC news religion editor to complement the science, economics, business, political, financial, arts and sports editors?

This is not about special pleading by religious interest groups. At a time when it is impossible to understand the modern world – its politics, economics, military and humanitarian events – without understanding religion, why is religion not being prioritised as needing expert interpretation in the public and broadcast sphere? You don’t have to have a religious bone in your body to see the need for this sort of exploration and interpretation in the media. Whether personally religious or not, religion cannot be avoided by any serious observer as a serious factor in shaping – for good or ill – the actions and motivations of people and communities.

So, where will religion sit in the company of science, business and history? And who will be well-informed enough in all four of these areas to give adequate priority to each?

My questions arise from the limited information I have read. They should not be interpreted as suspicious or negative. But, the answers to these key questions will be interesting.

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