I know. It sounds like a firm of solicitors or a dental practice in London. But, read on…

It’s frustrating being on the move and not being able to post quickly on ‘interesting’ news stories. The news about Cardinal Kasper’s withdrawal from the Papal visit to the UK came as I was leaving the annual College of Bishops meeting in Oxford in order to get to Heathrow for the night before flying to Berlin and Wittenberg for the Meissen Commission joint meeting which starts today.

Two stories dominated my mind: Cardinal Kasper’s extraordinary interview with German magazine Focus and Baroness Warsi’s much-reported speech to the Bishops earlier in the day.

Let’s take Kasper first. I have met him several times and found him to be generous, open and not at all pompous (despite the dressing up). He is also very media-savvy and discreet. But, maybe retirement has allowed him to let his guard slip a bit. Whatever the reason, his remarks were rather inept and unfortunate.

Yet, I am bugged by the fact that I am sure I have heard these views before. Although the interview is recent and appears to be specific to the Pope’s current visit to the UK, the formulation of his observations is not new. I cannot remember where I heard them before, but the context must have made them less remarkable then. His observation about landing at Heathrow and feeling that he is in a Third World country is only derogatory if you think that Third World countries are places you’d rather not land in.

I have no idea if Kasper’s withdrawal from the Papal Visit is coincidental or causally connected. But, it is a shame because he is probably the one person in the Vatican who understands something of the Church of England (even if he doesn’t like what he sees and we don’t like what he says).

Baroness Warsi is a different kettle of fish. I wasn’t going to write about Baroness Warsi’s speech to the Bishops in Oxford as I was unsure of its confidentiality status. However, later in the afternoon I got the AP reports and then the copy of her speech along with the press notice. So, here goes…

Baroness Warsi is a breath of fresh air. She is warm, funny, has an infectious sense of humour, a good sense of perspective and is great to listen to. I love her northernness and the fact that she looks you in the eye when speaking to you. She delivered an interesting, straight and direct speech to an appreciative (but not uncritical) audience. She is a very good communicator.

She does understand ‘faith’ and the role of religious bodies. Crucially, she understands the role of faith as the motivator of good stuff and not just the destructive stuff which is always singled out by opponents. Compare her rationality and knowledge of her subject with that of the shouters like Polly Toynbee and the usual suspects from the usual sources.

But, having said all that, where is the substance? It is good that she (and the government) understands and wants to free up local public service of communities in order to energise and mobilise faith groups to do best what they do best. But, the rhetoric begs lots of questions. For example, cutting bureaucracy usually seems to create further bureaucracy. (It always amazed me that the Thatcher regimes chopped up institutions such as the NHS in order to make them more efficient and ‘competitive’ (!), but then oversaw the creation of extra tiers of management and regulation, often duplicating ‘support staff’ before coalescing into larger consortia and, ultimately, reinventing the wheel after having spent billions of pounds in a bit of structural engineering.)

The slogans sound good and the intentions are great: but, I am looking for some awareness of the law of unintended consequences and some statement of how the slogan will be translated into effective action.

However, the really startling thing about the question-and-answer session after her speech was her inability to respond in any way to a question about education policy and academies. The success of Labour’s academies system was rooted in the fact that poor schools were given new life and purpose. Michael Gove is now opening this out (unthinkingly, in my view) to all schools and the real fear is that successful schools will become academies, leaving others to second-class status. The future of LEAs and their support to ‘ordinary’ schools is also unclear. But, the fact that a  government minister cannot comment on what is a central plank of government policy and ideology was, at best, strange (and not at all encouraging). It is beginning to sound like ‘spin’ again: like the Millennium Dome – all form, no content (yet).

Baroness Warsi was followed in the afternoon by Lord Wei. He got a great build up from people who had heard him before – particularly in the House of Lords. He was slick, smooth, very articulate and very likeable. He clearly lives on a different planet from the rest of us, though, and his language has not yet escaped from the McKinsey management-speak that has shaped his career thus far. Most of the bishops sitting around me gradually lost interest, became increasingly incredulous of his grasp of reality and by the end had given up thinking of engaging. We didn’t feel we were living in the same world as he is.

The man is bright and you can see why Cameron wanted him on board. But, when talking to bishops whose parishes and clergy are rooted in communities that cover every inch of the country (and some of the Irish, Scottish and Welsh bishops were with us, too) and every socio-economic context that exists, you have to be careful about generalising, categorising and being over-confident about things of which you obviously have little experience. Lord Wei seems to think that a couple of ‘good ideas’ such as ‘time banks’ can be rolled out anywhere and will solve our problems.

Of course, the root problem for both Warsi and Wei is not a new one. Reagan and Thatcher both assumed that people, basically, are good, altruistic and desperate to put themselves (and their money) out to support the weak and the poor. Provided, of course, that we don’t question the systems that give the rich and powerful their wealth and power. Warsi and Wei need to give some attention to their understanding of human nature as ‘fallen’ (in Christian terms) or ‘all-too-frequently selfish and destructive’ (as others might put it). The formulae so far look a bit thin.

[Update 18 September 2010: For a much better and clearer (and more generous) analysis of Warsi and Wei, see Bishop David Thompson’s post here.]

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