June 2010

It has been announced today that James Langstaff, Bishop of Lynn in the Diocese of Norwich, is to be the new Bishop of Rochester. This is excellent news of an excellent appointment.

Firstly, James and Bridget are friends and will soon be neighbours. So, it will be great to have him/them closer and to have James in the group of South-East Bishops.

Secondly, James brings all the right qualities and experience to his new ministry. He will be pastorally strong and has both Church and world in a healthy perspective. He will be good news for clergy and people of Rochester.

Thirdly, he brings vast experience of both urban and rural ministry and has the wisdom that derives from that experience. Good news for communities in the diocese.

Fourthly, he brings international experience of partnership with dioceses in other parts of the world, particularly Papua New Guinea and Sweden. He will now bring that experience and clarity of engagement to Rochester’s link with Harare, Zimbabwe – and this (along with the commitment of the Bishop of Tonbridge, Brian Castle) will strengthen the Zimbabweans and the links my own diocese (Southwark) has with the other four dioceses in Zimbabwe.

But, the good people of Rochester also need to ask him about cross-cultural communication and what his experience has to teach the Church of England and the Anglican Communion during their current cultural ‘challenges’. Bishops in England confirm people who usually turn up to church clothed. In Papua New Guinea it is culturally unacceptable for a young woman to bare her thighs, but she always presents herself topless. I bet that never happened in Lynn and I bet it won’t happen in Rochester.

(Personally, I find it harder to cope when a candidate turns up for Confirmation wearing a Manchester United shirt…)


The G8 Religious Leaders Summit began this morning, but with three introductory addresses.

Dr Lloyd Axworthy runs the University of Winnipeg, but is a former Foreign Minister of Canada. He spoke about the need for religious leaders to have a common witness in matters of human concern (I think).

Justice Murray Sinclair has been chairing the recent Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission which wrestled with the historic abuse and injustices instigated against the indigenous (aboriginal) communities of Canada. He rooted our thinking in the more local (Canadian) experience of (a) state legal oppression of indigenous people and (b) the loss of credibility of churches for most indigenous people. Interestingly (and contentiously, given the language involved), he observed that the greatest oppressors of the indigenous communities are now what he called ‘fundamentalist aborigines’ – those who ‘converted’ away from their indigenous roots and now evangelise their fellows.

However, the third speaker was the most powerful and arresting. Senator Lt. General Romeo Dallaire (Retd) is famous for having been given command of UN forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In a serious, passionate and informed presentation, he questioned whether politicians are now offering leadership in the world or merely reacting to crises. He stated that leadership by crisis management does not offer leadership in shaping the future.

He cited George Bush’s ‘New World Order’ and changed it to a ‘New World Disorder’ in which the sheer complexity of a world undergoing technological (and other) revolution is being reacted to by politicians who are overwhelmed by panic and finding it difficult to live with ambiguity. For example, he wanted to know what were the criteria for deciding to send 400 UN troops to Rwanda in 1994 while allocating 67,000 to the former Yugoslavia: who set the priorities and according to which criteria?

The lack of an answer to that question represents the most serious challenge to the ability of politicians to lead: which world view (rooted in which assumptions and according to which moral base?) will be thought through and owned by those making decisions to shape the future rather than simply keep reacting to events/crises? Dallaire thinks that our political masters are waiting for citizens to give them the authority to lead.

This raises the most fundamental questions facing us all. It is not enough to make policy without doing the hard work of working through and owning the philosophical (or theological) assumptions/world view that will subsequently and consequently direct and shape specific policies that take a long-term view of the future and are not simply shaped to ensure electoral success in the short term.

Dallaire put it bluntly: are all human beings human or are others more human than others?

This was a very humane articulation of Justice Murray Sinclair’s conclusion that four fundamental questions need to be addressed by all peoples and communities:

  1. Where have we come from?
  2. Where do we go after here (that is, after death)?
  3. Why are we here (ethics)?
  4. Who am I / are we? (identity)

The implication offered here is that religious leaders might have to drive this sort of thinking in order to hold political leaders to a more informed account in a complex world that allows those political leaders little time for thinking, learning or reflecting before either reacting … or shaping the future.

These speakers were followed by Dr Andre Karamaga (General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches) – who asked for Africa to be partners in alleviation of poverty rather than simply recipients of others’ aid:

Don’t speak of doing it for us, but with us.

He was followed by Jim Wallis from Washington who stressed the need for a vision to drive politics and the rest of us. He noted that our faith traditions began not as institutions, but as movements – and that the difference is in the capacity of the latter for sacrifice. He called for religious leaders to “announce the impossible and then work to make it happen”.

And here lies the fundamental problem for conferences such as this one: despite the challenges by Dallaire and Wallis, responses from the delegates resorted to “telling the politicians that poverty is unacceptable”. I will be arguing later that statements like that need to be read through the eyes of those who will receive them – and I can’t see any politician responding with anything constructive. It is like being told that we must support human beings in staying alive: no one will disagree with the sentiment, but it doesn’t help the decision-makers to know any more clearly how this should be done in a complex world of competing priorities and expectations.

Sitting here, it is hard not to hear successive contributions as worthy recitations of what we all already know (for example, about environmental disasters, the power of capital and the global problems of blind materialism). If we are to make any impact, we will have to be sharper and more savvy than this about the intended audience and the language of our discourse.

Winnipeg is mosquito heaven. One problem that comes with losing your hair is that is gives the mozzies a more expansive feeding ground. My head now looks like I’ve done five rounds with Mike Tyson. Yesterday it rained and now the sun has come out – which will bring the little bugs out in force. I’m trying not to take it personally, but, today I think I’m going to stick my head in a bucket of chemicals…

The summit of religious leaders began yesterday afternoon with a welcoming ceremony by some indigenous (First Nation) Anishnabe Nation people who lit a fire in a tent, spoke, sang and used drums to ‘send the word out’. This was preceded by two introductory speeches, the clearest coming from a man with authority.

Dr Alberto Quattrucci is here from the St Egidio Community in Rome. This is a remarkable communitywhich cares for poor, disabled and marginalised people – a visit there while we were in Rome last year for a communications conference made a huge impression on our group. Alberto is not only impressive, but is also a very nice man. He spoke quietly, firmly and with humility. He made the point simply that

the struggle against poverty means solidarity with poor people… Transformed structures do not change hearts; transformed hearts change structures.

This raises an important question about conferences such as this: what do we want/expect to achieve? Yes, we can add a voice and make a case for a different way of living in the world and running the world’s economies; but how is the making of that case likely to impact on the politicians who will gather for the G8/G20?

This question is one I will need to push at this gathering over the next two days. If we are to follow the process through France in 2011, the USA in 2012 and host a similar conference in 2013 in the UK, we will have to have a better and clearer idea of how we might achieve what we want to achieve (or think is worth achieving). Simply to make a statement – however powerful or worthy – is redundant unless it is heard and understood by the intended audience.

Given that the G8/G20 summit is always a photo-opportunity for the political leaders – the work has already been done and dusted long before they get there – it feels a bit late delivering a statement to a charade when the business was completed before we got there.

This means that we have to face the challenge in future: do we want profile concurrent with the politicians’ event or do we want to influence the agreements they come to before they get here? I side with the wish for effectiveness in influencing the content and process (by doing our work earlier, pulling together fewer people, keeping statements tight and light, getting effective media traction and maximising the impact whilst minimising the work involved).

Today we get down to business with a focus on ‘Extreme Poverty’ in relation to economics, peace & security and climate change. Some impressive speakers will focus our thoughts. I’ll report later on content and process.

Back to the other world, yesterday saw an interview with CBC about the World Cup. I gather the press in the UK and elsewhere have picked up on my latest World Cup prayers – some even recognising humour where they spot it. One Slovenian website has picked it up and made a comment which looks funny, but I can only work out a little of what it says (not the crucial bits).

Today France will probably get their flight tickets back to Paris. England will prepare for tomorrow’s showdown in the light of the severest UK budget cuts since the Second World War. If anyone can tell me what the Slovenian piece says (even if it is rude – I am getting used to that), I would be grateful!

I’m beginning to get superstitious. A soon as I leave the country the goals start going in in South Africa. Portugal have just banged seven past North Korea who will now have to go home and face the pleasure of their unenlightened dictator. I’ll still be away for England’s decider against Slovenia, so will just have to keep praying my latest prayers from Canada.

I can’t remember the last time I woke up to see seven goals go in during a World Cup. But there are lots of things I can’t remember. And I am clearly not alone in having rather limited powers of recall. Governments clearly have the same experience.

I arrived in Winnipeg with a colleague yesterday (or is it today?) afternoon and we got straight down to work. A tradition has grown up during the last five years whereby religious (usually Christian) leaders in the host country of the G8 summit also arrange a prior summit of world religious leaders. The purpose is basically (a) to bring the religious traditions together and offer a united voice in favour of the poor people of the world, (b) to offer a deeper/wider moral perspective on political, economic and social decisions by our political leaders, and (c) to remind the same leaders of the commitments they have made in the past.

The G8/G20 are meeting in Toronto, but the religious leaders are meeting in Winnipeg. Why not in the same place? Have you tried moving around the city where the G8/G20 meet? Anyway, Winnipeg has a history of religious diversity (and struggle) that makes it the right place to be – apart from the mosquitoes, that is…

On 9 June the Guardian reported that the draft G8 Summit communique had dropped any reference to the Gleneagles pledge to Africa – to double aid to the poorest countries by 2010. That would have amounted to an extra £17 billion ($25bn) each year as part of a £50bn increase in financial assistance. Last year’s summit in Italy concluded:

G8 countries reiterated their commitments, including those made at Gleneagles and more recently at the G20 London summit, to support African efforts towards promoting development good governance and achieving the millennium development goals [the UN targets for addressing world poverty by 2015].

At the Winnipeg summit, starting this evening, global religious leaders (with me representing the Archbishop of Canterbury) will be doing three things and working to make their voice heard by the politicians:

  • uniting their voices in favour of the world’s poor by working on a statement to be presented to the Muskoka summit on Thursday
  • reminding the politicians of the commitments they have already made and holding them to account
  • articulating the moral conscience of the politicians’ summit, thus putting political and economic debates/decisions in a wider moral and spiritual context against which their value can be weighed.

Of course, people are going to argue that this is whistling in the wind – that the financial crash and the fragile predicament of some leading economies have changed everything, thus rendering earlier ‘altruistic’ redundant. It is an understandable argument and carries some practical, realistic force.

But, it ignores the fact that in a global recession it is the poorest who always suffer the most (and not just relatively). The poorest, believing in many cases that they have been lied to or unjustly ignored, do not tend to stick to democratic niceties in trying to change their circumstances. The ‘rich’ countries will pay an even heavier long-term price if they do not continue to stick to their pledges to help end poverty.

As is often the case, the moral argument is often supported by what appears to be a purely pragmatic one: it continues to make good economic and political sense to do everything possible to meet previous G8 commitments and serve a longer-term economic, social and security end.

In a few hours we will start to debate these issues from diverse perspectives at the University of Winnipeg. No doubt the final statement (which is too wordy and worthy) will be edited to give it more punch and purchase; but the Canadians have done a superb job in pulling it all together and giving us a good start in combining our words and convictions.

I have spent the last few weeks explaining to around twenty radio stations from around the world why I didn’t write a prayer for England to win the World Cup. God is not partisan, I explained, and there are bigger things to pray for – especially as prayer is about (a) expressing our desires honestly (even if they are dodgy), and (b) having our own vision of God, the world and us changed by our praying.

Anyway, I suggested, it might take too much of a miracle for England to win the World Cup: we constantly over-rate, over-hype and over-anticipate England performances… and then indulge in a collective intemperate bloodletting against team and manager when they (consistently) fail to deliver on the big stage. At least we are fairly consistent in behaving like this in every competition. (On BBC’s Newsnight programme Gavin Esler said they had intended to show highlights of the game, but there weren’t any…)

But, after watching England’s remarkably aimless and seemingly dispassionate performance against Algeria last night, I now feel moved to pen two new prayers specifically for the England team. (I will be praying from a distance as I will be in Canada for the G8 Faith Leaders Summit – I am NOT leaving the country because I can’t bear to watch the Slovenia match next week…)

The first is simple and honest:

Oh God…

The second offers a little more:

God, who played the cosmos into being, please help England rediscover their legs, their eyes and their hunger: that they might run more clearly, pass more nearly and enjoy the game more dearly. Amen.

Well, don’t say I didn’t try.

Song posted this in a comment on a previous post, but it is funny enough to deserve a post of its own!

There’s a great Bruce Cockburn song which begins:

You can’t tell me there is no mystery…

Well, Bruce might have been talking about the nature of human experience in the vastness of the universe, but I have to disappoint him: one thing seriously mystifies me right now.

The Telegraph has reported today on a lecture given last night by the excellent Francis Campbell, Britain’s first Roman Catholic Ambassador to the Holy See (the Vatican, that is… not a vast expanse of water). I met him in Rome last September and was very impressed – he’s one of those guys you wish you could talk to on your own for a day: clever, articulate, funny and with a really interesting ‘take’ on the world. He was speaking to members of the Wyndham Place Charlemagne Trust (which debates politics and Europe) – I was invited, but couldn’t go.

One of the interesting points he made is that politicians often understand religion, but their officials don’t. According to Martin Beckford’s report, he said in an interview following the lecture:

I make this observation in general on what I’ve found in four and a half years in this post and beyond, around politics and religion and civil servants. I’ve often found politicians and ministers have a far better grasp of religion than officials. I think it’s because ministers and politicians are grounded in constituencies, they have that lived experience of religion.

He went on to observe (accurately):

The Soviet Union had many centres for the study of religion but they didn’t understand it. They saw it as some distant species, they didn’t have that lived experience.

Apologies to Martin Beckford for quoting a large chunk of his interview, but Campbell makes a point that is not often heard (and that is unwelcome in many quarters when it is articulated in this way):

One of the things I would do is perhaps to encourage people who are in these departments to be a little bit more forthcoming with their insight into this concept of religion. If you have a colleague who is practicing their faith and you know this person, it’s more difficult to marginalise them or dismiss where they’re coming from.How do you challenge that theory that somehow we’re on some sort of trajectory where we’re going to secularise ourselves out of religion? In actual fact that’s going to create more problems for us, because if the rest of the world is getting more religious and we’re getting less religious how do we have that grammar and conversation?

The more that people are encouraged to step forward a little bit and challenge this notion that we can compartmentalise religion between 9 and 5 and then you can be religious again, it just doesn’t function like that. Politicians and ministers appreciate the role that religion plays in peoples’ lives rather than being something remote that we study.

The significant thing about this is that it is not Campbell’s intention to proselytise or evangelise; rather, he is making a neutral phenomenological claim about the importance of public authorities (which really means ‘people’) understanding the role and purpose of religion in a society – whether they agree with the ‘content’ of that religion or not. A religious world view is as valid as any other, but needs to be understood in its own terms.

Campbell’s point is interesting also because it could be said to apply particularly to the media. In the last census (which, of course is now out of date…) well over 80% of the population of England and Wales claimed some sort of religious faith; in a survey of media professionals (I think, in the BBC) only 22% held a religious world view. And media people often claim that they reflect the world we live in whilst showing astonishing ignorance of the religious experience of people in that world. And there are lots of reasons for that.

The BBC has set up its internal academy for journalists and this includes ongoing ‘education’ about religion, religions and how these are lived out in the world. Yet recently it became clear that outside the BBC and Channel 4 there is no interest among the media giants about religion.

As Chairman of the Sandford St Martin Trust (which met this morning) I have an interest in religious programming on radio, television, print and new media. The challenge is also a fantastic creative opportunity for programme makers to discover the fascination (at lots of levels) of religion in the world and represent that in creative formats that don’t naturally slot into the old-style ‘religious broadcasting’ genre.

It is not good enough to whinge about the decline in religious broadcasting or the ludicrous ignorance among public bodies of religion as a phenomenon that shapes the world and is not going to go away. We have to encourage and stimulate people to be creative in their professional field and create the opportunities for addressing religious themes in ways that will grasp the imagination and command the attention of large audiences.

The bottom line for the media is simple: programmes will never be broadcast because they are ‘religious’: they will be broadcast because they are good programmes.

The bottom line for our public authorities is also simple: to ignore religion because of some assumed ideological embarrassment is both culturally stupid and pragmatically short-sighted.

Francis Campbell’s voice should be heard.

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