Blogging


1. Trying to prepare a half-appropriate sermon for the Closing Service of the Kirchentag in Hamburg on 5 May. But, my head is full of 'stuff'.

2. Trying to sort chapter of academic book for the most patient editor in the world. Need to source quotes, but am away from my books.

3. Currently speaking at a parish weekend in Cumbria – two talks done, one to go (tomorrow). And the big yellow thing in sky has emerged, bringing with it warmth, people and lack of concentration.

4. Trying to read TS Eliot's Four Quartets, but too many other things keep intruding. Like the progress of my hopeless fantasy league football team.

5. Tired. Nothing to say.

 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 450,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 8 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

Every time I think of packing in my blog (which is frequently) I remind myself that I’m not writing a book. I think a blog only works if any post is seen as the first word and not the last word on any matter. It allows for thinking aloud – something most leaders are not encouraged to do as changing your mind, learning or growing up are seen as weaknesses rather than strengths.

Anyway, this blog runs the risk that I will write ‘first word’ stuff that gets quoted back later as if it were ‘last word’ conclusions. Quotable lines from one context get held up as heresy in another. I guess it’s just part of the game, but it’s also a massive pain.

This isn’t post-Easter misery on my part. I just started thinking about it on holiday while reading William Boyd‘s Any Human Heart. In the preamble Boyd’s main character explains why he kept a journal (which forms the text of the book). He writes:

We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being… a true journal presents us with the more riotous and disorganised reality… The true journal intime… doesn’t try to posit any order or hierarchy, doesn’t try to judge or analyse: I am all these different people – all these different people are me.

A blog is not a journal intime. But it should allow the writer the freedom to be honest, to listen to response and reaction, to venture an idea or analysis, to express a view or present an interest, to try out a perspective – perhaps then to reject it and move on. The problem is, of course, that the text stands there to be lifted and used in evidence against you. Yet, unless the blogger strives only to convey a single persona – a particular image – or create a selective persona, the whole person will always run the risk of being undermined by the partial representation of a particular instant or period. Oh well…

William Boyd’s character, Logan Mountstuart, seems pretty selfish and narcissistic so far (I have only read the first had of the book and I haven’t seen the film version). I guess I’d better reserve any further judgement until I get to the end.

The end of any book always shines new light on all that has gone before. A bit like resurrection at the end of a gospel…

 

I don’t often get to watch live football on the telly, so Liverpool vs Utrecht tonight should be a rare treat. It is tedious beyond words. So, I glanced at my desk and found Dr Samuel Johnson‘s Preface to the Dictionary staring at me invitingly.

Before you think I’m being clever here, I have to admit that it was passed on to me by the Canon Theologian of Southwark Cathedral who did her doctorate on Johnson and did an intriguing address about him (and ‘translation’) recently.

In paragraph 3 Johnson says (miserably):

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules; wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.

Good grief, I thought. He could have been writing about the blogosphere. It’s a jungle of ideas out there and people express themselves on a myriad of themes in a myriad of ways. There are few rules and loads of unprincipled adulterations.

Iain Dale has decided to call it a day for now. I’m not sure he just didn’t get bored with it – the relentless need to write and keep it up to the minute. I understand the feeling. But, I think the blogosphere offers fantastic scope for expression, debate, learning, trying ideas, listening to people we don’t usually get to meet, and so on.

Anyway, to stop doing it simply abandons the space to the screamers and shouters. I have a funny sense that Dr Johnson would have blogged – if only to bring some order to the huge explosion of words in use. Maybe ‘copious without order’ needs to grow into ‘concise with order’. Maybe.

Today I will hit 500,000 views of my blog since I started it at the end of 2008 – about 20 months.

I know numbers mean little and that many of those might have hit the site by accident or dodgy referral, but it still seems rather a lot. I have no idea why people read it and I had no idea when I started that this number might be interested. It is possible that this is not many – I have no idea how many views other comparable blogs get.

But, from this rather bemused bishop, thanks to all readers and commenters. I have learned a massive amount from those who question, comment, criticise and so on.

Thank you.

Below is the text of the article I wrote for the Radio Times recently. Not surprisingly, it provoked a lot of comment and objection, mostly ignoring the central thrust of the article and picking up on the dismissal of Richard Dawkins as a ‘thinker’. The criticisms were fair and it was unwise of me to edit in a shorthand comment that needed more precision, clearer elaboration and a different context – none of which were possible in an 800 word commissioned article.

The deluge of comments (also by mail and email) was a little difficult to keep up with, given that (a) I have a rather busy day job and (b) it was Holy Week. But, apart from the reasonable criticisms levelled at me, there was some interesting discussion. Because it is spread over several threads (readers came in to the blog on different days and at different stages of posting), it is not easy to follow as a single conversation. However, I make the following observations before moving on to other areas of interest – after all, this is a personal blog and not an internet forum on a single theme:

1. I should be more careful before writing throw-aways without explaining them. Fair cop. (Richard Dawkins is obviously not an ‘awful thinker’ when it comes to some things, but is very vulnerable when it comes to religion, philosophy and that sort of thinking.)

2. Atheists derive their atheism from different origins and can’t be lumped together.

3. Some atheists are remarkably sensitive to any criticism of Richard Dawkins et al – and sometimes betray what comes over as a rather uncritical reading of him. This is odd when one of their criticisms of Christians/theists is their uncritical assumptions about the world.

4. Science explores and explains the mechanics of how the world works, but says nothing about ‘human meaning’. This is something that Philip Pullman and the Archbishop of Canterbury agree on. As ethicists put it, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. This is where people like Pullman take over from Dawkins in grappling with morality and meaning, taking a different starting point and proving much more interesting (in my view).

5. ‘Proof’ is a slippery word, often used as if it were monovalent. As I wrote in response to an email yesterday (and this is concisely illustrative, so not intended to be a knock-down argument):

I prove that a table is a table by looking at it, measuring it, testing it (does it do what we expect a table to do?), using it and checking whether or not it conforms to what we usually mean by ‘table’. I prove that Hitler existed by looking at documentary evidence, historical evidence (what has happened to the shape of Europe, for example), literary evidence and personal record. I prove that my children (or friends) love me by the way they behave towards me. But, I don’t write off the existence of Hitler because I can’t do to him what I do to a table or because I have no relationship with him. Nor do I reject my family’s love on the grounds that I might be deceived and cannot provide incontrovertible ‘proof’ that that love is real.

In other words, we accept different ways of experiencing and validating reality. I can’t put God in a box and measure him. I can’t find a birth certificate for him. But I might want to explore the history of humanity, the search for meaning and morality, my/our experience of love (and what makes me think that my life and death matter at all).

6. I am grateful to all those who engaged in this matter and hope it leads to a more mutually respectful conversation along the lines I intended to open up in the article itself – before inserting the notorious distraction.

Here’s the text (which appeared under the title Why I am an E-vangelist – not a title I chose…):

Over a cup of tea, a woman in the garden of a church in Surrey asked me a question that nearly made me choke. Where was my chauffeur? She was clearly surprised to find that the world has moved on, that (most) bishops don’t live in huge palaces and that we usually drive ourselves to wherever we’re going. I dread to think how she would cope with some of the more radical social changes in British society in the past six decades.

For example, the demise of deference. There was a time when bishops and clergy were given automatic respect because of the offices they held. No longer. Respect has to be earned, and people feel free to argue with whatever you dare to say about anything. There are no longer any protective pedestals from which to preach, and dialogue is replacing monologue as the dominant medium of communication. Get out of the safety of the church and it’s a jungle out there. 

Yes, there are still people around who will listen uncritically to whatever they hear from a pulpit – especially if it ticks the “right” boxes and confirms their view of God, the world and us. There are Christians around who mourn the passing of the old world and fear the loss of a privileged place for Christian culture in the public square. I don’t mourn the passing of deference, but I do think that what has taken its place isn’t very impressive. Richard Dawkins isn’t alone in excelling in one field – such as biology – while being awful in another – such as “thinking”. Some commentators have a shockingly misplaced confidence in demolishing religious straw men that even I don’t believe in.

This is evident also in the blogosphere. I have been blogging since the end of 2008 – normally five times a week and I have had more than 5,000 views a day – but I am still amazed that so many people engage online with the things that interest me. When I started blogging, I decided that it was pointless to play it safe or simply propagate the usual stuff to the usual suspects. A number of bishops blog, but mainly for their church audience. I wanted to be “out there”, engaging in public debates about the world, politics, the arts, the media, ethics and theology.

My starting point is an insatiable curiosity about the world and about people, and why both are the way they are. At the heart of Christianity is the understanding that God has opted in to the world and not exempted himself from it: that Christian living means engaging at every level with and for that world. This means I’ve had to grow a thick skin. The glory and agony of blogging – which I see as the first word in a conversation, not the final word of judgement – is that anyone is free to argue with me, question me, ridicule me or be abusive. But what I have found is that my own thinking is changed by the light other contributors throw on a subject. The holes in my own perceptions are exposed as my prejudices and ideologies become open to scrutiny. That has got to be a good thing.

It’s an interesting exercise. I don’t know most of the people who comment on my blog – some I hope never to know, others I might like to befriend. But, whether they are critical or complimentary, they make me think. And I don’t regard it as a bad thing for any leader to think openly, change his mind when appropriate, apologise when he gets it wrong (in substance or in tone), or to be unafraid to be thought inadequate. We live in a culture in which politicians and others feel compelled to appear watertight in their consistency and always incontrovertibly “right”, but I think there is a place for a different model of “learning leadership”. Christian leaders should be unafraid to offer an alternative model of what I often call a “confident humility”.

An area of challenge relates to the atheists in the blogosphere, particularly those who represent perfectly what their prejudices tell them is the preserve of religious people: fundamentalism and an unswayable confidence in their own unargued-for assumptions about the world and human meaning.

This frequently leads to clashes, but the robustness of these is – if not always enlightening – usually entertaining. The blogosphere isn’t for the fainthearted. But what’s the point in simply talking to those who agree with you, when you could be arguing your way to a better understanding of God, the world and people (as well as yourself ) “out there” in the rough new world of instant media?

I think Christian faith is big enough to stand confidently in the public square. The worst they can do is crucify us. But then, Easter tells me even that isn’t the end of the story.

Every now and then (about twice a day) I think about giving up blogging. I think it is the enormity of it all and the capacity to get it wrong or say silly things that then stick with you for ever. I sometimes wonder if it is worth all the effort.

But then something comes along that gives new energy and renewed vision: the Pope tells us to do it. The Telegraph reports the Pope’s latest message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications on Saturday and quotes him as saying:

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audio-visual resources – images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites – which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelisation and catechesis.

Church Mouse picks up on this and comments:

…the Catholic Church seems to be getting the web and new media in a way that the Anglican Church hasn’t yet, and in his speech yesterday, the Pope was spot on.  You can engage with the Pope on Facebook, on your iPhone and the Vatican has a pretty natty website.

Oh dear. Several points to bear in mind once you have read the message itself through the link above:

1. The Pope didn’t actually write his message; I’ve got a shrewd idea who did and he works in the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. So, all the ‘he’s 82 and he can manage it, so why can’t we?’ stuff is a bit off the wall.

2. The Church of England is accessible on phones and web – that’s how I access its stuff most of the time. No, we don’t have the variety or range of access that the Vatican has, but neither do we have the cash to do it. (And, though this is screamingly obvious, the Vatican heads a multilingual but monolithic worldwide Communion – the Anglican Communion has a different (provincial) ecclesiology and a different approach to resourcing its work.)

But, the real point it this: naive (but understandable) appreciation of the Vatican’s operation ignores some pretty significant features which I reported on directly from Rome back in September 2009. (Go to the link and then read back for a few days to get the full picture.)

Vatican Radio (for example) has a budget of 23 million Euros: no one could tell us who set the budget, according to which criteria it was agreed and where it ultimately came from. The total communications budget for the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, but try getting that sort of operation through a General Synod containing (lay) people with views on accountability…

Secondly, what came out of our discussions in Rome was that however flash and wonderful the Vatican’s webby stuff might look, it is a one-way operation. The Church propagates, tells, informs and instructs: it does not need to discuss or debate. Indeed, when I specifically asked about the impact of ‘social engagement using new media’ – that is to say, how such engagement changes the relationship and sometimes means that the interlocutors change their mind as they learn to see from a different perspective – I was told that this is a way of getting people to then join a real community ‘where we can tell them the truth’.

Now, I am not criticising the Vatican for this approach. It is entirely consistent with its understanding of itself as a church (or, more precisely, the Church). It puts on a good show when it comes to communication, but that communication is intended to be one-way only. This became clear at a meeting at the Salesian University back in September which exposed a gap between the aspiration and the reality of Vatican communications.

Look at the wonderful Pope2you site aimed at young people, for example. I have just had a quick look at it and noticed a significant difference from when it was introduced to us in Rome: Wikicath has gone. The single defining characteristic of a ‘wiki’ is that it can be amended, edited, supplemented etc in ‘democratic’ fashion. You couldn’t do that with Wikicath – and now it seems to have disappeared.

I thought the whole point of new media was that it allowed for conversation, engagement and mutual learning. That is, basically, why I started blogging – and I have learned a lot in just over a year.

But, if we are going to romanticise the Vatican’s very impressive and hugely resourced operation, then we must first recognise the theology and ecclesiology that dictate its missiology and communications principles. Secondly, if we are going to compare this with the Church of England (or, even, the Anglican Communion), we have to ask who will provide the financial resources, who will set the priorities, who will dictate the boundaries of engagement and what will be the fundamental purpose of it all.

Incidentally, the connection between communications, Gospel and world is rooted in the priests. When reading such messages as the Pope’s latest, ask if lay people have any role other than to learn ‘the truth’ from the priests – who are the ones who really matter. The Anglican way?

I’ll probably keep blogging – for a while at least.

Cranmerbannerround

I was moved this morning to read Archbishop Cranmer‘s latest post. Having been blogging for ten months now, I have been giving some thought to why I do it and what possible value it might have. I don’t know what has caused Cranmer’s worrying melancholy, but his willingness to express it seems to me to point up something really important.

When you blog you create a community. Belonging to a community brings with it obligations and accountabilities. This means that Cranmer (whoever he or she is) explains himself to his community – and they have responded with generous affection and respect.

Cranmer attacked me pretty angrily last week and it didn’t make easy reading – not just the content, but the tone. But, he did me and us a service by strongly addressing the matters he did (and the conversation went on beyond his initial response and my later response to his criticism). My dislike for the aggressively ‘anti’ tone of his posts does not matter. But I guess writing the stuff he does probably comes at some personal cost.

But, it is this that makes blogging worthwhile: the blogger starts a conversation – sometimes by going over the top a bit on a particular issue – and then learns (along with other readers/contributors) as the conversation proceeds. Blogging is useless in a static world in which people refuse to learn or grow.

I was doing a session on ‘Blogging and Tweeting’ with some clergy the other day. Yes, I know: the other bishops teach stuff like doctrine, Greek, theology… They soar like eagles – and I sound like a budgie. But, during the session we addressed the fact that new media such as blogging have to be interactive. They thrive on ‘conversation’ – with writers offering not the final word on some issue, but the first word. I think this is why I would still want to use the term ‘a confident humility’ to describe how blogging can contribute to a wider conversation: you put your point of view, but then listen to what follows and learn from it. In my own case, I rarely emerge from a particular thread at exactly the same place where I began.

The ‘community’ which Cranmer has created is not just a virtual one – disembodied and ‘unreal’. It is populated by real people who see beyond the ‘fiction’ of Cranmer’s identity to love and respect the person. I wish him/her well. I just wish the anonymity wasn’t the barrier it is.