September 2011

Having been out of radio contact for the last three days (at a residential meeting at the utterly beautiful and wonderful Parcevall Hall in the Yorkshire Dales – no mobile signal and no accessible wi-fi), I re-emerge to find all sorts of comment about the Rowan Atkinson interview last week. I am beginning to wonder if he regretted slagging off the clergy in the first place or if it was a deliberate ‘get the headlines’ grab to raise his profile for the launch of his latest film. I wonder if he really thought his comments would become the story they did.

What is interesting from some of the response is just how personal it all gets. People have been questioning his own integrity, hypocrisy, etc and then having a go at his not-very-funny creations… as if disliking Mr Bean is enough to justify discrediting the actor behind the character. It’s all a bit odd, really.

I don’t feel at all hostile to him. I even wonder if he – like many who find the unwise aside quoted as the main thrust of the story – watched amazed as the story ran away with itself.

I have no idea – and it is hardly the most important matter in the world. The truth about clergy integrity can stand for itself, regardless of how comic actors see them.

However, I also emerged to the rather bizarre shouting match about the BBC and its policy decision to ban the use of ‘BC’ and ‘AD’ on its programmes. Yet another example of anti-Christian, liberal, politically-correct nonsense by the Beeb! Except, of course (and somewhat inconveniently), it simply isn’t true. (Listen to ‘Feedback’ on Radio 4 today – which I did in the car.)

No such policy decision has been made. The whole story emanated from a piece on the BBC website and from it all sorts of conclusions were drawn. Why did no one ask the BBC?

One of the shouters is, predictably, Ann Widdecombe. Hardly surprising, as she has form in this regard. She once slagged off (in a newspaper column – the Express, I think) the entire House of Bishops of the Church of England – and, by extension, the whole Church of England) for some research the House was supposed to have commissioned and published. I did a head-to-head with her on BBC radio and she went first, repeating her tirade. When I got my chance I asked her for an apology (on the basis of the ninth Commandment which says that we shouldn’t misrepresent our neighbour’s case) as the said report had nothing to do with the bishops, had not been commissioned by them, not published by them and not authorised by them. She managed to go through the entire interview trying to ignore this inconvenient truth and simply slag off the lousy Church anyway.

Very entertaining, of course. But, why, when these stories explode, do people like Widdecombe and others not exercise the self-discipline of finding out the facts before commenting? I wouldn’t have thought that would be so revolutionary. We all get caught out by the journalist phoning, telling us the horror story and asking for an instant response – and that’s fine. But, if we can’t resist nature’s propensity to abhor a vacuum (or silence), we shouldn’t then be surprised to find ourselves embarrassed by the exposure of our naivety, stupidity, credulity or self-righteous pomposity.

And I still find Rowan Atkinson funny. And the offer to show him some crackingly good clergy still stands.

Last Saturday, in an interview in the Times, the comic actor Rowan Atkinson accused Church of England clergy of being smug and arrogant. He didn’t just poke a little fun at them and he didn’t seem to be joking:

I used to think that the vicars that I played or the exaggerated sketches about clerics were unreasonable satires on well meaning individuals… But, actually, so many of the clerics that I’ve met, particularly the Church of England clerics, are people of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society… Increasingly, I believe that all the mud that Richard Curtis and I threw at them through endless sketches that we’ve done is more than deserved.

The Times kindly asked for a comment before publication and duly published my response in full:

We take the hit and I am sorry that this has been Rowan Atkinson’s experience. But it takes no account of the thousands of self-sacrificial clergy who don’t fit this stereotype. I would be happy to introduce him to some.

The first mystery, of course, is why my response is described in the Mail as ‘hitting back’ and the Telegraph as ‘reacted angrily’. How unclear is the first sentence of my response?

Of course, clergy do not have a monopoly on smugness, arrogance, conceit or  presumption – there are plenty of examples in other instances of human beings. The problem for clergy, however, is that they are supposed not to be like this. And I agree. We should not be arrogant, we should not be smug, and we should not be defensive when accused. As Frank Sinatra might have said, “I’ve seen a few” – and there will be people who will level the charge at me. Hands up, we take the hit, it shouldn’t be like this, but it sometimes is.

Not unsurprisingly, this has played around my mind a bit over the weekend and the first part of this week. I haven’t been able to follow it up or post on it because I have been out and about and had not time to do so.

On Saturday I was up in the Yorkshire Dales licensing a cohort of new Readers (lay ministers) who have given up three years of their time to train to give yet more of their time to serving their communities through their churches. They don’t get paid – indeed, it costs them to do it. Some of them have back-stories that are not uncomplicated and each one has a million excuses for not giving any of their time or energy to the church or community. But, they do.

Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? None in evidence here. Only serious commitment, some trepidation and a sense of adventure.

On Sunday I celebrated with a small congregation in Bradford where the vicar and his family have faced considerable stress in the few years they have been living and serving in a tough environment. Not glamorous, not pompous, not triumphalistic. Just committed, stressed and humble.

Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? No evidence here. Just a humility and courage that gets stuck in against the odds witha  selflessness that is costly.

Later on Sunday I was baptising and confirming in a small church on a large estate in Bradford. Surely here I would find some justification for Rowan Atkinson’s ire.

Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? None here either. Just clergy committed to the sort of area Rowan Atkinson doesn’t have to live in – and people Rowan Atkinson doesn’t have to bother with. How about those running from scratch an utterly demanding youth project in an unlikely area?

Monday and Tuesday I have been having face-to-face meetings with clergy in the fifth of the eight deaneries in the Diocese of Bradford. Last night we had an open evening in an inner urban church at which no holds were barred. (They never are, actually.) Eight meetings yesterday and another eight today. Tomorrow I have another four.

Smugness? Arrogance? Conceit? Not here. A weary resignation to the constant media battering, yes. Incomprehension at why clergy are such an easy target (always as a stereotype and never in the particular), yes. These were deeply impressive people who show no sign of smugness, who get on with doing amazing work in their communities without shouting about it, whose only conceit is never talking up their achievements.

My response to Rowan Atkinson was genuine. I have also met conceited clergy, but they are the exception and not the rule. Smugness is a charge all of us might be charged with from time to time, and we will hold our hands up. But, I could easily introduce Rowan Atkinson to clergy who will defy his stereotypes (partly by being genuinely funny, creative, committed and realistic), give him a stimulating and challenging conversation, and open his eyes to a world with which I suspect he is not familiar. It’s a genuine offer – it would make an interesting follow-up radio or television documentary.

Inevitably, the journos also asked Terry Sanderson of the National Secular Society for a comment. Naturally, Rowan Atkinson’s comments pressed Sanderson’s happy buttons and he reported that he had met a few smug clergy and that clergy assume a role in their communities without having earned it. No names, no examples, no evidence. Funnily enough, I agree with him – that clergy do have to earn their place in a community and that is does not come as of right. Those days have gone. But, my experience is that this is precisely what most (but not all) clergy actually do – that the respect they earn is hard-won and evidence of the commitment they live out every day.

And I still find Rowan Atkinson’s film clergy caricatures funny. After all, they are caricatures – based on a certain acknowledged reality, but hopelessly exaggerated and wildly hammed up.

There we are, trying not to be too complaining about everything, and the Guardian gets me going again.

Having moaned – with absolute legitimacy – about the state of language learning in England, I open today’s Guardian and find Simon Jenkins pressing another button: the history curriculum’s obsession with the Nazis.

Under the header ‘Britain’s Nazi obsession betrays our insecurity – it’s time we moved on’, Jenkins asks:

What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system.

He goes on to put his finger on a point we in the Meissen Commission have been trying to address for several years:

Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.

My own son managed to study history right through school and university, but it was only at uni that he managed to find an alternative to Hitler and Stalin.

Is it a mark of Britain’s insecurity that we can’t let Hitler go? Is it simply that 1945 was the last time we ‘won’ anything? Why when we play Germany at football do tabloids still do puns on Nazi imagery or football crowds sing such inanities as “Two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na.”?

The tragedy is that post-1945 Germany is an extraordinary story of division, political brinkmanship, economic re-engineering, social and psycho-social reconstruction, conflict, re-culturisation in Europe, and so on. If I didn’t like Berlin and Berliners so much, I would suggest that every school child in Britain should be taken to Berlin for a few days. Walk 100 metres down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor and you have to embrace language, history, geography, theology, economics and politics. You can’t understand German politics or culture without knowing history and how it has been shaped by theology.

The Meissen Commission is trying to address the English obsession with one exciting period of German history in two ways: (a) pressing for reform of the history curriculum in schools, and (b) embarking on what we are calling the Meissen Schools Initiative, aimed at establishing live links between schools in England and Germany.

Simon Jenkins concludes:

I must not fall foul of Godwin’s law, but the demands now being made of Germany “to show leadership” come with ghostly overtones of reparation for past guilt. Nothing is more likely to incur German resistance than to imply that rescuing Europe is somehow an obligation on a present generation of Germans for the deeds of a past one. Misreading Germany was a lethal failing of Europe’s 20th-century leaders. It is surely time to consign the Nazis not to oblivion but at least to history.

Like Jenkins, I suspect our obsession with Hitler and the Nazis is indeed a mark of our insecurity (or envy?). It is time we grew up.

The Meissen Commission finished its five-year work period on Monday and our report will now be completed and published in due course. The new Commission will begin work in the new year, completing its work in 2016 – leading into Germany’s Reformation Year, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

In a podcast recorded at the German Embassy last Thursday evening I referred to the deplorable state of language teaching and learning in England. This was picked up by several newspapers and has gained some wider comment.

In fact, I wasn’t criticising teachers. Language teaching in our schools is heroic. But, many teachers feel they are fighting a losing battle against cultural and political forces that are rooted in an island mentality. We might understand the emphasis on science and technology in schools, but the relegation of language learning to a not-very-enthusiastically-encouraged poor option says much about the British understanding of identity, communication and business.

First, language learning is essential to a good and broad education. Simply to be able to read or listen in one’s own language is severely limiting to potential. As Helmut Schmidt wrote in his marvellous book Ausser Dienst, no politician should think of entering the Bundestag (Parliament) unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Because, says Schmidt, you can’t understand your own culture unless you have looked at it through the eyes of another culture. And, to do that, you have to know something of the other language.

I said this to Ken Livingstone in a television studio last year and he laughed and said that we wouldn’t have any politicians in the UK. I thought that spoke volumes.

Second, we are disadvantaged in the business world with which we seem in this country to be obsessed. As I said in the podcast, business isn’t all done in English over the table; the real stuff goes on behind your back and if you can’t understand what they’re saying privately, you’re stuffed. It is appalling that we produce so few professional linguists, but – more seriously – we don’t produce ordinary business people who can cope with a foreign language.

Third, we Brits seem to find language learning too hard. Yet, we have Asian kids in our schools who move easily and unselfconsciously between two, three or four languages.

Fourth, we have a political class that is narrowly focused on an economic prejudice that concentrates on technique and technology as if they could stand independently of wider linguistic, communication or cultural factors. Language learning is being presented as less important than other studies, ignoring the importance not only of ‘knowing stuff’, but also ‘being able to communicate it’.

This isn’t special pleading by a one-time linguist. It stands for itself as an important cultural deficit in England. And, not only are we depriving our own children and young people of a vital dimension of human living, but also we are shrinking the cohort of potential language teachers for future generations.

It is serious and needs some intelligent attention.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


The Meissen Commission continued it’s work this morning with a review of last night’s interfaith seminar at the German Embassy.

This then led into a deeper discussion of how churches in Germany and England face the challenges and opportunities presented by a wider culture that can be characterised by both (a) multi faith and (b) ‘aesthetically postmodern’ (to use Wolfgang Huber’s phrase).

Part of this challenge stems from the assumptions of many in our societies (and particularly in the media) that religion is inherently problematic and that there is neutral space – and that the neutral space is occupied by the secular humanists. This assumes that if you took ‘religion’ out of people, they would then be secular and humanist and very nice and very humane. Of course, history begs to differ when it comes to evidence, but that is not the main point here.

I was reminded by a colleague here of Walter Brueggemann’s deceptively simple, but devastatingly accurate statement in his book ‘The Word Militant’ that “all reality is scripted”. In other words, there is no reality that is not accounted for outside of a ‘script’ – that is, a narrative according to which the account of reality makes sense and finds place. There is no neutral space. There is no neutral world view. It seems to me that every ‘script’ has to be subjected to testing, and that does not exclude any religious world view.

This arises when we begin to ask why so many Christians lack confidence in articulating a Christian world view in the public square. OK, it can be a rough environment; but, that’s never stopped us before. One of the questions here (and we have at least three serious academic heavyweights in three different disciplines among our number) revolves around how Christians can be helped to understand their faith, articulate it and allow it to be subjected to scrutiny. I noted (I think) Chesterton’s (but it might be CS Lewis) assertion that “if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”. Lose the fear. If it ain’t true, it ain’t worth living.

However, we live in a culture in which ‘truth’ is not asked about. Our pragmatic and relativistic culture asks if ‘it works for me’, not if it is ‘true’. And that is why people can believe several contradictory things at once and not be embarrassed. It’s also why we hear so often a view preceded by the phrase, ‘for me’… or ‘it is true for me’. Weird or what?

The concern of the Meissen Commission today was to explore how our churches can give real attention to apologetics and learning in building confidence in the Christian Church in a pluralistic society. I still find the phrase ‘confident humility’ appropriate in this context.

In order to earth some of this, we visited two parish churches in the East End of London, close to where we are staying at St Katherine’s Foundation in Limehouse. It is never good to do abstracted thinking without allowing it to be questioned or shaped by a particular context.

First we visited an evangelical church plant at St Paul’s, Shadwell – a predominantly younger church in the charismatic (Holy Trinity Brompton) camp. Around 300 people ‘belong’ to the church and the population is transient. The church finances itself and its staff and plants in other places from it’s own congregation. It is looking for ways of reaching out to the local Bangladeshi community, but already provides space for neighbours to meet each other (children and youth work, open fun days, etc.). They run menu of services (different cultural milieux) on a Sunday and see hospitality as a vital gift of the local church.

From there we went to St Mary, Cable Street, where we could smell the incense on entry. This is an Anglo-Catholic Church in the midst of a complex housing estate and it has a small congregation of committed people. Here the ministry is incarnational in the sense of being present and engaged in all aspects of the local community in the name of Christ, but not trying to grow the church ‘artificially’ from outside.

In very frank discussions with the clergy at both churches we heard different models of doing the same thing: churches being faithful to God’s call to worship, nurture, reach out and give away. And each has it’s own answer to how that faithfulness should be lived out: one is very well resourced (because of the generous giving of the people) and one is in need of generous support – because, on its model, it can’t grow in that parish into a large well-resourced church.

Te challenge to the Church is how to honour both approaches whilst ensuring that the weaker church is resourced for its particular ministry and outreach.

The Commission will be coming back to the dynamic of evangelisation, nurture, apologetics and learning in it’s future work – but this gives a taste of where we are heading.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Twenty years isn’t a long time in the grand sweep of history. Which makes it remarkable that agreements made in a very different world only two decades ago can have had such an impact on how countries and churches relate to each other.

In the mid-1980s Germany was divided and the Cold War was quietly defrosting in Europe. The German Church was also separated by the Berlin Wall and the role of the church in East and West looked very different. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the GDR and proposed a living connection between the Church of England, the EKD (in West Germany) and the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic.

The result was the Meissen Agreement – written in 1988 and signed at Westminster Abbey in 1991. It was written in a divided Europe and was signed in a different world.

Twenty years later this agreement has formed the basis of most of the Church of England’s European ecumenical developments and paved the way for the multi-national Porvoo process. The Meissen Agreement has led to very effective diocesan and parish links, exchange of people, thinking and expertise, and the establishment of theological, ecclesiological, ethical and other conversations between the churches.

The Meissen Commission meets each September alternately in Germany and England. The national committees meet three times per year in their own country. Added to this are other exchanges, visits and engagements with particular members of the Commission. I have chaired the English Committee for the last five years; the German co-chair is Professor Friedrich Weber, Bishop of Braunschweig and an Ecumenical Canon of Blackburn Cathedral.

In the last five years we have done a good deal of work on (and thinking about) interfaith experience, education (religious, historical and linguistic), and have agitated about the disastrous state of language teaching/learning in England. We have shared experience of church reform, fresh expressions and evangelism in a rapidly changing world. The next five years will see some continuity, but also one or two new points of focus.

The reason for writing this today is simple. This afternoon the Commission began the celebration of it’s twentieth anniversary with a seminar and reception at the German Embassy in London. The German Ambassador is a brilliant man and he hosted not only the seminars on the Meissen Library in Durham and expert reflections on interfaith work in our two countries, but also a very generous reception with nearly 70 guests. It was such a good evening and demonstrated the genuine friendships that have grown between our countries and churches. Bishop Weber reminded us that our parents were enemies – now we are friends.

Work will continue in Limehouse on Friday and Saturday (with visits to see how two churches in the East End are engaging with the Christian Gospel in a multi- faith and multicultural environment). On Sunday I will be preaching at a morning service at the Christuskirche in Knightsbridge (in English, fortunately) before we go to Westminster Abbey for a celebration Evensong at which Bishop Weber will preach. The Commission will conclude it’s work and celebrations on Sunday night and Monday morning. A new Commission will then be appointed for the next five years and I will continue as the English co-chair. There will be some change in the membership of the English Committee – three of the five members will retire this time.

But Meissen, not widely known about in England, is a very significant ecumenical relationship. It is living, is not bureaucratic, and is rooted in real relationships of respect, mutual learning and active friendship.

And it compels me and us to keep banging on about the dire situation in England vis-a-vis language learning. We are impoverished as well as incapacitated by our inability to understand (let alone speak) the languages of others.

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Following Morning prayer and breakfast, the College of Bishops meeting then breaks down into small groups for Lectio Divina – which is simply a way of engaging everyone in a reading of and reflection on a passage from the Bible. It is always fascinating and surprising to see who focuses on what in the same text. I always see differently because I am compelled to look through someone else’s eyes and listen to their perspective.

This morning’s reading was from John 12 and concluded with Jesus saying something that looks obviously intelligible until you dig into it. The particular bit says this:

“Jesus said to them, The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

I thought it interesting that Jesus says ‘walk’ and not ‘sit’. Time marches on, day follows night, and darkness has a habit of overtaking us when we simply sit still and enjoy where we are. But, that isn’t the point that really got to me.

What did Jesus mean by inviting us to ‘believe’ in the light. How do you ‘believe’ in the light? Either it is light or it isn’t. How do you not believe in what you can see?

Well, I think this simply fails to understand what is meant by the word ‘believe’.

Jesus’s mission statement summary in Mark 1:14-15 has four elements: (a) ‘The time is fulfilled’ – now is the time when God is among us again; (b) ‘the kingdom of God has come near’ – the presence and rule of God for which you have been praying for centuries is here now; (c) ‘repent’ – if you are to recognise the presence of God among you, you are going to have to change the way you look; (d) ‘believe in the good news’ – now commit yourself body, mind and spirit to what you now see.

Jesus’s audience could only see God’s return evidenced by the expulsion of the Romans and the resolution of their ‘problems’. Jesus asks them to see the presence of God in the midst of their problems, not just when everything is sorted out to their satisfaction. Jesus then says that those who can dare to look differently should now live accordingly. And that is what ‘believing in’ means: commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see… which is the transforming presence of Jesus himself, shedding different light on where we are and where we are heading.

Thus, ‘believing’ is not about girding up your loins and summoning up all your credulity. ‘Faith’ is not (as one little girl is said to have said) about ‘believing what you know isn’t true’. It is not about giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It is not about pretending to see what we don’t see – on the grounds that we feel we ought to do so. It is about seeing the world as Jesus does – in the light he sheds – and then throwing ourselves into it.

Seen this way, believing has more to do with curiosity and a sense of adventure, and less to do with nailing down all the details. it is the starting point, not the destination.

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