This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Call me biased, but this season has to be the best for football fans everywhere. I lived in Leicester for nine years in the 1990s, so am really pleased to see the Premier League tables looking a little bit upside-down. And I say that as a convinced Kloppite.

There is no shortage of aphorisms about sport in general and football in particular. But, and I feel this might be almost blasphemous, Bill Shankly was wrong when he claimed that football was more important than matters of life and death. Of course, in his day sport wasn't quite the big business it is today.

And perhaps that is where the challenge lies.

In the last few months we have seen a crisis in world athletics over doping. The high-earning tennis player Maria Sharapova has had to step back and has now lost a number of lucrative sponsorship deals. And now we see allegations – albeit strongly denied – about further doping in major sports, including Premiership football.

It seems to me that there are two problems here. The doping is one thing, but the real issue is the duping. I don't think anyone would disagree with the notion that to win by cheating – whatever form that cheating takes – is always a failure. Yet, the real problem is not what the Bible calls “the prospering of the wicked”, but, rather, the wickedness of those who prosper. It is the duping rather than the doping that causes the ultimate offence.

We teach our children not to lie or deceive – as moral goods in themselves – and that is surely right. But, then we and they end up watching their role models, particularly on the football pitch, diving and dying on the grass. So, we should surely be more concerned about character and integrity than lost sponsorship deals, and see sportsmen and women more embarrassed about shame than about illicit points gained or deals lost.

Now, I realise that there are other dimensions to this whole business. Sport is never simply about winning or losing. And I have a certain sympathy for those who take allowable drugs one day, only to find that what was legal then is now deemed illicit today. Again, if the moral complaint has to do only with inequity on the part of those competing, then what do we do about those imbalances and unfairnesses inherent to sport anyway? For example, leaving drugs aside, those individuals or teams with the most money at their disposal will always have the best support and resourcing – the rich are inevitably advantaged over those who are more poorly funded.

Well, one American sportsman once said that “sports do not build character; they reveal it.” No surprise then that in theological circles character ethics are de rigeur these days. Sport might want to take a look at some very old ethics for a not-so-new world? Character matters more than charisma or a cabinet of medals.


This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

Today has been designated 'Buy Nothing Day' in over sixty five countries. By now, of course, it might have spread even further afield.

I like the idea of 'Buy Nothing Day', not because I'm one of those miserable people who damn consumerism in a script written on an iPad while sitting in a warm room on comfortable furniture with music playing on the stereo and my smart phone buzzing. Every time I hear John Lennon's 'Imagine' – usually being highlighted for its encouragement to imagine no religion – I wonder how he ever got away with “imagine no possessions” written on a grand piano in an exclusive Central Park apartment.

Well, 'Buy Nothing Friday' is a reaction to what has become known as 'Black Friday' – a day of mass consumerism rooted in encouragement to greed as opposed to 'Good Friday' which roots us in self-denial and loss rather than self-fulfilment at all costs. Black Friday is a transatlantic import that many people hoped would die the death of British good taste and a sense of proportion; but, it seems to have taken hold in a culture whose consumerist monster can never be over-fed.

Well, apart from the obvious observation that for many of our poorest people Black Friday will come and go like Thirsty Thursday or Sad Sunday, we do seem to fall prey all too easily to the advertisers' siren seduction – that more stuff will make our lives more complete. We are more than the stuff we have. Shopping doesn't make us more human.

But, if I was going to indulge today, there's only one thing I would go for: Adele's long-awaited new album 25. I admire her for not allowing it to be dribbled out on music apps, and insisting on holding to the integrity of the album in the mode of its release.

But, the real reason is that her music doesn't just entertain – it stirs the soul and evokes some very human experiences.

Her last album gave a voice to the strangled emotions of love and loss and regret and wounding. She not only experienced “losing in love”, but lived with the pain of it. No cheap resolutions, no easy pretence that being dumped puts an end to love. And in her poetry she reminded me of the Psalmists of old: owning up to the agonies and fragilities of human experience – not something you necessarily get from buying a bigger telly or more clothes.

Like those Psalmists, we have to learn to live with what is actually happening in us and to us, and not simply try to wish it (or buy it) away. I guess whether we indulge in Black Friday or abstain on Buy Nothing Friday, there's something about Adele's lingering expressions of grief and joy that could still make it quite a good Friday.


This is the text of this morning's Thought for the day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

In a previous life I worked as a Russian linguist at GCHQ in Cheltenham. As everybody knows, this is an institution now under public scrutiny because of its power to hold enormous amounts of information about any and all of us, usually without us being remotely aware of it.

I don't know about you, but the mere mention of the word surveillance triggers memories of George Orwell's 1984 or the world of the KGB and Stasi. Surveillance can only be bad or sinister, can't it? But, here we hit on a fundamental problem at a time when serious concerns are being raised about the limits that should be imposed on surveillance agencies as to the nature and quantity of data they should be allowed – or required – to hold.

The basic conundrum here is that we live in a society that wants – nay, demands – total security from threat, injury or conflict at the same time as demanding total privacy from any sort of unwanted intrusion. But, this circle simply can't be squared. If we want security from threat – for example, from terrorists on our streets or snoopers in our computers – we must accept a certain loss of privacy. In a world of technological complexity – in which the sinister experts in the field do their plotting in the dark places most of us don't even know exist – there is no alternative but for those whose job it is to protect us to have access to data.

There are two problems here, it seems to me. First, it is inherent to the nature of intelligence that any data might potentially be useful, and, therefore, should be collected and stored. But, who discriminates between what is useful and what is not? And how? Secondly, in a society that wants protection, we also have obligations that then impinge on what we sometimes lazily think of as rights. That is in the nature of a society – that we accept curbs on rights in order to protect the common good.

This goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve have grasped for power, they discover they are transparent and hide. Like them, we don't want to be seen through. Perhaps that's because many don't trust those who do the seeing – even if, as in Eden, this transparency is supposed to set us free from fear.

I am one of those who thinks that intrusion by the State or large corporations should be minimal, that surveillance services should be watched, scrutinised and held to account, and that the benefit of doubt should always be given to the individual. But, I can't then complain if something goes wrong on the social field because of my demand for privacy. There is always a cost either way.

This balance of individual rights with societal obligations is difficult to achieve. It seems to me, however, that fundamental to our judgement on the boundaries of privacy is the recognition that we can't have it both ways.


The Church has got to face up to the reality of the world as it is lived.

So, Lord Carey has changed his mind about assisted dying by polarising ‘compassion’ and ‘doctrine’, and stating that the church had to come to terms with ‘lived realities’.

Set aside the fact that Lord Carey continues to do what his predecessor never did – keeps on queering his successors’ pitch and seems unable to let go – and we can focus on the nub of his argument. Millions of words are being poured into the media today, so I will put a sideways perspective I haven’t seen pursued in the debate so far today.

  • Who decides what constitutes ‘compassion’? Especially when we know from many terminally ill people that they might well have urged assistance in their dying at an early point in their process, whilst moving on as they came to terms with their prognosis to a different conclusion. Who decides what constitutes compassion and at what point it should be recognised?
  • When did doctrine become emptied of compassion? Doctrine is simply doctrine. But, there is a principle here: law (which is what this is about) cannot be made on the basis of subjective judgements based on emotion; law requires a dispassionate clarity about the ‘doctrine’ upon which the legislation – and ensuing praxis – can be founded. There is actually no way of deciding on such legislation without having some ‘doctrine’ – assumed or articulated – that legitimises or demands such a judgement. In my language, it is the fundamental anthropology that shapes this: what is a human being, why does a human being matter, and why does it matter that these questions are admitted and addressed before moving to emotion/compassion? History is littered with examples of law being established without a clear articulation of the anthropology that underlies it.
  • Lord Carey says his mind was changed by the Nicklinson case.But, ‘Locked-in Syndrome’ is not a terminal illness and should not, therefore, be covered by the arguments he makes. Isn’t this what we call a category error?
  • What is a ‘lived reality’ and why is it cut adrift from considerations of thinking about why we matter? When did philosophy become the opposite of humanity and divorced from the rest of life? And, if Lord Carey is consistent, will he now support other ‘lived realities’ and, for example, back gay marriage, legalisation of drugs, abortion on demand, and so on – all describable as ‘lived realities’?

While medicine progresses at a remarkable pace, our statutory framework remains trapped in an outdated past, badly out of kilter with the real needs of our society.

  • And to what else might that judgement apply? We clearly need a deeper debate and one that doesn’t assume that if you use judgement, you are, by definition, devoid of compassion.

Maybe the new “philosophical certainties” could do with being subjected to the “old” ones that have now “collapsed”?

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. In the studio were Dawn French, Henry Winkler and Gregory Porter. The text contains various song and book titles…

About twenty years ago I did an interview with a radio station in the Midlands about a book I'd recently published. I'd just explained that I'd written the book for a woman whose husband had died in very tragic circumstances when the DJ put on the next song: “Don't worry, be happy.” Now, if I'd known it was that easy, I wouldn't have bothered writing the book.

You can't just switch it on, can you? You can't demand happy days as if they are a right.

It's like when you're leaving someone and you say goodbye and then they say, “Be good.” And I always think, well I hadn't thought about not being until you mentioned it. But, that's what we are like, isn't it? My kids were like that, my grandchildren are like that, and… er… I think I'm like that. Tell me to do something and I immediately think of the alternatives.

A mate of mine once said to me: “You can't legislate for goodness.” And he was right. You can tell people how to be and what to do – and you can even make laws to try to keep them on the straight and narrow. But, you can't make them good.

In one sense, this shouldn't need saying. After all, we do know ourselves – and all of us know that, if we are honest, there's something tempting about ditching the good stuff from time to time and having a go at the dark side. Feeling good isn't actually enough – and experience tells us that we all love the odd illusion that let's us off the moral hook.

What I'm getting at is that we really need to go beyond an imitation of life – playing at being good – and learn to do the right thing. Doing right – being good – gradually changes us so that we become better at it. Or, at least, at being honest about the mess we usually make. It's about forming a character, not just ticking a moral box.

Or, as someone once sang, when love was king the rest followed on. Isn't that just a tiny bit marvellous?


I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…

Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.

This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?

I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.

So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?

When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.

In other words, things aren't simple.

I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.

The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?

I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.

Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.

There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.

The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.

For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.

The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.

Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.

Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).

Now, for the Dom…


Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)


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