February 2019


The limits of one’s own horizons and experience always become exposed when seen through the eyes of an outsider. Since being in Jena for the last two weeks, I have not only read a shed load of books, but also seen a couple of films and listened to some interesting (challenging?) perspectives on life, the world and British political culture.

Before this week I had never heard of Curt Goetz or his wife Valerie von Martens. Goetz was a playwright, novelist and actor who, along with his wife, made some comedy films in the 1940s and ‘50s. Exploring German humour in film and literature is a never-ending task – based in a profound mystery – but, commenting on this to the friend with whom I am staying (a university professor of practical theology), led to two evenings watching Goetz and von Martens. And they are funny.

Das Haus in Montevideo, in black and white and cleverly scripted, actually presents the moral dilemmas involved in finding your strict morals challenged by pecuniary potential. Napoleon ist an allem Schuld sounds like farce, but mocks historical pretentiousness at the same time as depicting human generosity of spirit. You have to see them to get the stories, but they offer a German slant on morality from someone who left Germany in 1939 to avoid working for Hitler, but returned after the war to recover at least some elements of German theatrical culture from the ashes of destruction.

The other gift of these two weeks has been an introduction to theologians with whom I was unfamiliar. My friend has many books of German sermons. I dipped into Wolfhart Pannenberg, Eberhard Jüngel, Martin Niemöller and the poetry of Goethe, Schiller, Ingeborg Bachmann and, in a bookshop, Bertolt Brecht. All of these I knew. But, I had not heard of Manfred Josuttis until I dipped into his Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht, followed by several books of sermons. Now dead, he was a theologian who clearly knew how to preach in a way that gripped the attention and tackled both the biblical text and contemporary issues with rhetorical clarity.

There are connective threads between a number of the books I have been reading. In Germany history presses in from every side. Jena was the site of a Napoleonic victory in 1806 – we visited the battlefields at Cospeda. Only a few miles from Weimar, where the first German democratic constitution was framed and signed – it lasted only fifteen years before the Nazis tore it up – Jena was bombed during the war and then found itself in the German Democratic Republic until 1989/90. People here have Russian as their second language and English as only the third. The Stadtkirche (in which I preached several years ago) was where the great Old Testament theologian Gerhard von Rad also preached when he was a professor in the Theologische Fakultät in the 1930s and ‘40s. Three of the sermons he preached – in a collection of sermons from the whole of his ministry – have to be read in the light of the context in which he spoke: two to congregations of the Confessing Church in 1943 when the future was still unclear – and one on Easter Day 1943 to a general congregation including, presumably, Nazis and members of the Movement of German Christians.

Manfred Josuttis, in a sermon on Psalm 25:1-10 in Wirklichkeiten der Kirche, says: “Kein kollektivesGedächtnis kann uns davor bewahren, daß sich die Barbarei wiederholt. Schreckliche Bilder lösen nicht nur Entsetzen aus, sondern regen auch zur Nachahmung an.“ (p.80) [“No collective memory can preserve us from the repetition of barbarity. Shocking pictures don’t just horrify us, they also excite imitation.”]

Compare this with Marilynne Robinson in her book of essays What Are We Doing Here?: “It is not always easy to tell a slumbering conscience from one that is weighing consequences,” (p.4) or: “A society is moving toward dangerous ground when loyalty to the truth is seen as disloyalty to some supposedly higher interest. How many times has history taught us this?” (p.20)

We don’t always learn from history.

These questions were not merely academic to preachers and theologians such as Josuttis and von Rad and they shouldn’t be to us now as we cast an eye over developments across the world. We never foresee the future, even when we see the clouds gathering. But, the experience of those who found themselves exposed to existential challenge in relation to truth, integrity and politico-theological consistency is worth revisiting at a time when global norms are under pressure and change is in the air.

This evening I am going to listen to a lecture at the Theologische Fakultät of the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena where I am staying for two weeks. The lecture will address the response to National Socialism by the university during the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently, it isn’t a happy story; but, I will await the detail.

History is easy with hindsight, isn’t it? It all looks obvious – or destined. Well, yesterday I had lunch with a wonderful PhD student from the university who is starting her research into ‘collective guilt in the Old Testament’. In our conversation we roamed over 20thcentury German history and the rise and demise of the British Empire, asking at what point does responsibility – collective or personal – cease to apply. Intergenerational guilt has to be held in tension with the consequences of the choices and actions of our ancestors. History is not so easily reckoned with, after all.

So, this morning I sat in a bookshop and read a lecture by Amos Oz, given in Berlin a couple of years ago, but published in 2018 and seemingly only available in German. Judas und Jesus, with reference to his novel Judas, tries to understand the character and motivation of Judas and make sense of a story in the gospels that he says is unnecessary to the gospel narrative. It is a quick, but arresting read, recounting the thinking behind the novel. The text of the lecture is followed by a description of Jewish-Christian relations by a Jewish academic and rabbi.

The immediate pertinence of these three events – the lecture later this evening, the conversation with the student, and the Amos Oz book – is that all are run through by charges of treachery, traitors and betrayal. But, without the benefit of hindsight: who/what did the theologians of Jena think they were betraying if they supported (or didn’t support) Nazism; or who did the Empire-builders think were the traitors to the cause while they were busy exporting Anglicanism to the world and looting the colonies of their riches; or did Judas feel that it was Jesus who had betrayed him by failing to bring in the kingdom of God in the way he had expected or been led to believe?

I ask the question because, although delivered from the burden of emails for a while, I am following the news from a German perspective – not least Brexit. It isn’t a happy exercise. The language and discourse of Brexit is shocking, but also surprising to the Germans who are eager to speak about it (some are, frankly, too embarrassed). When Donald Tusk wondered yesterday which special place in hell has been reserved for those who led Brexit without any plan for how to do it, the emphasis was on the lack of a plan – the sheer recklessness of demagoguery without strategy or vision that knew what it wanted to be free from but no idea of what it wanted to be free for (‘free’ being the word they use for the final destination of Brexitannia). Contra the (utterly predictable) snowflakey screaming in the media, he did not condemn Brexiteers or those who voted for Brexit. He rightly put the responsibility on those who led and promised and then abdicated responsibility for the consequences.

It seems everyone is a traitor. Brexiteers have betrayed the best economic interests of the United Kingdom; Remainers have betrayed democracy and the ‘people’ (das Volk, as they say here); Parliament has betrayed its function; the media (particularly the BBC) have betrayed everyone unless they can be interpreted as saying what any particular group wants to hear them say.

It is an easy accusation to make of anyone whose opinion or judgement differs from mine. It usually bears little scrutiny. I guess history will tell who betrayed whom … and whether or not they knew what they were doing … and whether or not the language of betrayal was even remotely appropriate at the time. In the meantime, the dialogue of the deaf will no doubt continue, and we will perfect the art of self-exculpating blame-throwing. As Donald Trump might say: “SAD!”

(Now for Dostoyevsky for whom the theme and experience of betrayal were no stranger.)

Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

Having returned on Thursday evening from Sudan I left agin in the early hours of Saturday for Jena in Germany. This forms the real beginning of my sabbatical leave and gives the opportunity to read, write, think, meet people and, most importantly, gain a fresh perspective on life, the universe and everything. Somehow, being outside the UK, looking through a different lens and listening through a different language and culture, helps to make space for (what I think I want to call) newly refracted lines of looking, seeing and reflecting.

I am staying with a friend who is a professor in the Theologische Fakultät at the Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena. This is where Hegel taught, and where Schiller met Goethe. Martin Luther spent time here, too. And it is the place where I have already come across thinkers I hadn’t encountered before.

I have on the table before me six books by Manfred Josuttis. Six of them are books of sermons, but it is the title of the other one that grabbed me: ‘Petrus, die Kirche und die verdammte Macht’ (‘Peter, the Church and Damned Power’). I am about to start reading it – and, yes, I probably should have read it before writing about it – but it was the title that arrested my attention. Jesus promised to build his church on the rock that was Peter, but the rock turned out to be more limestone than granite. Power might be damnable, but it is unavoidable in the real world … and that means in the real church. The question is: how do we handle power and in whose interests is power exercised?

Although it is good to be away from the UK for a time, the UK does not disappear. Nor does Brexit. Nor does the complex interplay of truth, power, victimhood and exploitation. If Brexit is bringing out the worst in us Brits, Germany is facing challenges with the Alternative für Deutschland and similar abuse of truth, fact and reality. Wherever we see this phenomenon – it is tempting just to shorthand it with the word ‘Trumpian’ – danger lies in waiting.

I recognise that this is a tenuous link, but Jesus’s friend Peter had to undergo a dreadful, world-shattering loss of personal illusion and confidence. After his denial of even knowing Jesus (just prior to the crucifixion), Peter watched his illusions of  brave new world bleed real blood into the dirt of Calvary. He had to live through the emptiness of Saturday … only to find himself bewildered by the events of Easter Day. Subsequently, he was compelled to wrestle with the other friends of Jesus, with public authorities and political leaders, and with questions of how to lead and shape a church made up of people like and unlike himself. If he didn’t welcome power, he certainly had to face responsibility, costly choices, personality clashes and hard decisions that were bound to divide as well as unite.

So it is with politics. Power – to be exercised with responsibility and humility in the interests of the common good – is a hard business. Decisions will always disappoint someone. Leadership can be very lonely, even in the best of teams. But, it always exposes the truth about character. Our handling of power displays the reality of our character. If we merely resort to lies, game-playing and manipulation in the service of ideology, then the truth about our character, virtue and motivation will become evident quickly. And this, I suggest, is worrying. For, the evidence shows that I am usually the last person to see what everybody else sees quickly and clearly.

Looking at the news from a distance, and seeing it through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, it is evident that we in Britain cannot see how we are being perceived from outside. The news that Nissan will not be investing further in Sunderland is terrible; but, the executive who is reported to have said privately that no one is going to be investing in Britain because we are now toxic (or words to that effect) has put his/her finger on the true cost of Brexit for the UK. Regardless of whether I want or do not want Brexit, the process and the people who have been prominent in it have shown that we are a people who are limited in our insight, still maintain dreams of empire, cannot face reality, like to hear what we want to hear (regardless of facts), and cannot be trusted to be competence. If counterparts in EU countries initially couldn’t believe our decision to leave the EU, they have long past that and are now incredulous about our sheer incompetence as a parliamentary democracy.

I can understand the ideological commitment to leave the EU. Questions of sovereignty, EU values and the bureaucratic machine in Brussels and Strasbourg make some sense to those who want some semblance of independence as a nation state. But, this commitment has to be earthed in relationships, processes, agreements, and future-orientated realities. Wanting to “get out” without paying attention to how to do it (and at what cost) is both ridiculous and dangerous. So, we see rich and powerful people leading the charge, making promises to which they will not be held, and knowing that they will not suffer at all if it all goes wrong for the UK. Poor people in challenging communities will pay the price – as they have been doing during the so-called ‘austerity years’ – and the powerful will exercise their power by maximising and protecting their own benefits … all while blaming everyone else for the ills that follow. We can’t all take our businesses to Singapore or Ireland.

Brexit will bring disillusionment – probably on all sides. Brexit won’t lead to economic or social nirvana for Leavers, and Remainers will continue to resist its consequences. Just as Faragistes never accepted the decision to join (what became) the EU, so many will immediately start the campaign to rejoin the EU one day. Brexit has not, could not and will not resolve the issue on these islands. But, it has exposed our deeper divisions (many of which have nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit or the EU), the poverty of our political culture (how can Labour still be six points behind the Tories in today’s polling?), the weakness of our national character, and our willingness to tell, hear and believe lies.

To return to Peter, his process of disillusionment was bitter, but necessary. Only by going through this and facing the truth about his own self could he grow to be the limestone leader he later became. In this sense, he bids us to do the same collectively: to grow up, lose our need to big ourselves up, see ourselves as we are seen from the outside, and value truth above illusion. The power – however damned – for this lies with us, and we can’t blame anyone else (Tories, Jeremy Corbyn, the EU) if we decline to use it.

I went with a colleague to Sudan last Saturday for a series of meetings and a day conference on ‘freedom of religion’ in Khartoum. Originally, this was instigated by the British Embassy, but then the US and Canadian embassies got involved. The Sudan government wanted to address the theme similarly, so it was all subsumed into one event last Tuesday.

The various meetings (which for me included a roundtable with diplomats, lawyers, academics and religious leaders and a dinner at the embassy with a wider group, including young civil rights people with interesting perspectives on the current protests) were characterised by frank and open conversation. Although running the schedule and chairing the conference itself, there was no restriction on open speech and honest exchange of views. I later did an hour-long television interview (a Sudanese equivalent of the BBC’s Hardtalk) in which the argument was robust as well as comprehensive.

Sudanese newspapers have offered an interesting interpretation of what I said at the conference – much of it news to me. But, they also picked up on some key points. For my address at the beginning of the day I did not have a final script. In fact, as usual when wanting to keep some flexibility in knowing how to address whom (for example, I didn’t know until I got there that the audience would include ambassadors, diplomats, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders, lawyers, academics, police and military representatives), I just had a few notes of key points to make. How to make them – and what language to use – was a matter for judgement at the moment itself.

I reconstructed my speech, not as actually delivered, but in terms of the key points made. Here it is:

I am the Bishop of Leeds in the North of England, but I also sit in the House of Lords (the upper house of the British Parliament). Questions of religious freedom – fundamental to matters of human rights – belong within the political discourse. Politics and religion cannot be separated: politics has to do with the common good – our common life together in a society of which we are equal members – and social order; religion has to do with how people live together and what motivates both individual and corporate behaviour. So, religion is political and politics cannot ignore religion. In secular states religion is too often seen as an add-on to ‘real life’ – a sort of private enterprise that sits alongside real life and social order rather than being integral to them. But, there is no neutrality.

Sudan, then, is not unique in facing questions of how in practice to guarantee freedom of religion, and the Sudanese voice in this challenging area should be heard alongside others. But, today we are focusing on the particular challenges in Sudan.

As I have said in relation to media in the UK, you can’t understand the world if you don’t understand religion. And if I am not free to change or drop my religion, then I am not free at all.

I also belong to an international parliamentary network on freedom of religion or belief. Sudan is not the only country facing challenges in relation to freedom of religion. But, we are here to address the questions particular to the Sudan. This is my third visit to Sudan – a country with whom my diocese has been linked for forty years and a country I have grown to love. So, I am here to listen and learn and be better informed about the situation in Sudan, but also here to offer an outside perspective on a matter of current importance. It is clear that three or four issues predominate here in relation to freedom of religion. I will come back to these in a moment.

Freedom of religion is integral to any consideration or exercise of human rights, based in a common humanity. Constitutions can commit to freedoms that become more difficult when we try to enshrine them in law which then shapes the lived experience of minority groups. It is precisely the translation of these commitments into real experience that is challenging. But, discrimination that is experienced by minorities becomes the touchstone of whether there is actually space for religious freedom that sees all people and faiths as equals and not just the recipients of generosity from the majority.

The three issues that become the touchstone of freedom are: (a) the closure of schools on Sunday in Khartoum State; (b) the demolition of churches and issues of land registration; (c) the default registration of babies as ‘Muslims’ (and the difficulty for Christians and others in correcting it afterwards – it can take years). A fourth issue is apostasy and the freedom to convert.

In my diocese we learned many years ago that leaders and members of faith communities need to build strong relationships when there is peace – when things are good and there is little or no conflict. It is no good waiting until a crisis occurs and then trying to build instant strong relationships; we build strong relationships in the good times in order that we are ready in solidarity for robust conversation when things get more tense.

The particular issues here in Sudan to which I referred earlier become touchstones of how freedom is experienced. So, to achieve a simple change in respect of several matters indicates something substantial about the reality of the commitments made in the Constitution regarding freedom of religion for citizens as equals. How are the commitments made in the Constitution to be translated into law and then protected in practice?

For many years I represented the Archbishop of Canterbury at global interfaith conferences where the key aspiration was ‘tolerance’. This is a weak word in English: it means that I tolerate (bear with) you, but I need not engage with you in any way that costs me anything. As a Christian I must go further. Jesus spoke of loving our neighbour – and love goes far further than tolerance. Love makes equal space and defends the interests of one’s neighbour even at cost to oneself. Love is costly … or it isn’t love.

The question for this workshop is, then, to recommend changes that the Government could easily make in respect of religious freedom. Freedom to convert goes to the heart of freedom of religion. Should an Interreligious Council be revived in order to facilitate strong conversation, relationship and advocacy? Will Muslims – the majority – stand up for the equal interests of Christians and other minorities? I trust that the workshop today will address real changes in Sudan – not only in concepts of freedom, but also in lived commitments that ensure this becomes a reality for those who find themselves discriminated against.

My key question was how to enable especially politicians to hear and respond to critical points. Freedom of religion is indicative of how human rights are negotiated and protected, so the theme itself should be seen in a wider light. There was no element of special pleading by the Christian minority, but that equality of rights and obligations in a mature democratic society must be guaranteed. Constitutions that guarantee rights and freedoms have to be supported by laws that enable them to function; but, religious (and ethnic) minorities in Sudan experience a lack of alignment between law and constitution.

Recommendations read out at the end of the day included some key ones: Sunday rules in Khartoum State that forced Christians to have Friday and Saturday as public holidays – meaning that Sunday had to be a work day – have been dropped. Problems of land registration and the demolition of churches were addressed head-on, and consideration will now be given to how the processes might be made more transparent and discussions with affected communities be handled more wisely. The registration of babies as default Muslims (and the later correction of such in the case of Christians and others) will be looked at – the principle objection was acknowledged and the administrative processes will be addressed. Perhaps the boldest recommendation – which was suggested by a government minister – was the establishment of a law reform commission to examine and report on divergence between law and constitution.

We will be following up progress on these and other matters (clear and strong representations from Muslims across civil society that apostasy should play no role in civil law and that sharia should not frame the law of the state, for instance).

So, a full visit, excellently facilitated by the British Embassy (and including preaching, meeting bishops and clergy), saw some frank discussion of challenges in Sudan, especially those that concern deeply the wider international community. Security was tight, but Khartoum felt largely relaxed. Protests are being organised at many localities rather than in one place, and some activists are clear that they will lead to change. We will see.