Today brought me from Rome to Blackburn via Croydon and emergency root canal treatment by my wonderful dentist. The travel also afforded me the space to think about the communications conference in Rome that ended last night. The last few days demonstrated to me again what a gift the Diocesan Communications people are to the Church: committed, creative, professional and open to learn. Some are compelled to reactive roles (firefighting – ‘naughty vicar’ stories, etc) when they should be given the space to be proactive in telling the good stories of God and the Church.

Rome september 2009 023The last few days in Rome have seen them engage with intelligence, curiosity and professional articulacy in meetings, debates, discussions and conversations with a variety of varied and various people. Whether with media professionals, professional academics, clergy or church communicators, they have made the most of every encounter and the conference proved to be excellent in every respect. It also raised serious questions which will need to be taken forward now we are back in Blighty.

At the department of Social Communications at the Salesian University yesterday, I asked a question that goes to the heart of the matter for us in Rome and at home. It went something like this:

Any genuine encounter between two parties must leave open the possibility that each might be changed by it or by the other. The dynamic has to be two-way. The same must surely be true of our theology – it shapes our experience, but must also be subject to re-shaping by our experience. How, then, does a ‘controlling’ and dogmatic church (such as that of the Vatican) engage in genuine discussion and conversation if it sees the media simply as a one-way vehicle for conveying the truth to the world?

The ensuing conversation was very interesting. The media, we were told, are not simply to be exploited by the Church, but should enable the Church to listen, understand and then respond to the world outside. Not just ‘talking at’, but ‘listening to’. And that is why the Dean of the Faculty described communication as ‘an act of love’.

Via a discussion of communication as conversation, it was noted that:

  • communication cannot be a separate (or free-standing) discipline, but must be the lens through which everything else is seen
  • there has been a massive shift in society from ‘mass media’ to ‘individual media’ – the shared and common experience of watching a TV soap opera (for example) giving way to isolated interaction with media via the individual’s computer screen
  • the need to grow media-competent young people in order that they can grow up as persons of integrity, able to critically analyse media and negotiate the world they are in
  • the need for clergy to be ‘animateurs’ and not just catechists
  • the need for the Church to forge the connection between media -competence and good citizenship
  • the need for the Church to listen to/for the voice of God in and through the world to which it pays attention.

These weren’t the only questions – and it would take too long to expound them all any further. But we did discover the frustration produced by trainee priests who engage in ‘conversation’ with culture and theology generally, but, when it comes to biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) simply say that ‘conversation’ doesn’t apply here because here we have ‘revelation’. Now, that rings a lot of bells. So, they will engage openly with everything else, but then close down the shutters when it comes to the Bible. This is the sort of impenetrable self-protection that emits a ‘don’t-blame-me-it’s-what-the-Bible-says’ disclaimer that releases the fearful from having to think.

Yet this was pointed out to us a number of times in relation to the Church’s understanding and exploitation of communication media: they exist to enable us to propagate our message. So, the Vatican website tells you stuff, but you can’t interact with it. The youth-oriented has a section called ‘Wikicath’ – but it isn’t a wiki bacause it can’t be fiddled with in any way.

Of course, none of this is unique to the Vatican. Similar questions need to be directed at the Church of England as well: just how do we understand the dynamic of our own communications functions? What is actually going on in our world? And is the messiness of the Anglican Communion precisely what happens if a Church takes the same risks Jesus did and gives the Gospel away to people who might twist, distort, half-remember or mis-remember what he was trying to tell them about himself, God, the world or us? Can the good news of Jesus Christ really be controlled by a Church institution without it being fossilised into a tool for the preservation of that institution and the elite who are served by it?

Or, to put it more provocatively, is the messiness of the Anglican Communion evidence of genuine risk-taking Christianity – compared with the controlled didacticism of a Church that cannot let go for fear of what might happen if the Gospel got out?

Change the names of the denominations, if you wish. But the questions won’t go away.

Rome 1 008You can’t avoid thinking about time when in Rome. It’s not just the buildings and the history – it’s the time you have to wait for a bus, too. I waited over 40 minutes one day for a bus that is supposed to come every ten minutes.

But, you stand in the Pantheon and look at Raphael’s tomb and contemplate the fact that hundreds of years after he painted we are still seeing his work … and perusing his tomb. At the root of much of his art is a consciousness of mortality.

We shall all die. So, we are accountable for how we live in the light of that mortality. As Heidegger put it, we are ‘beings towards death’.

Rome 3 005Today part of our group has gone to the Papal Audience – in the rain. Benedict is an old man and will not be here for too much longer (in the grand scheme of things). I had hoped to visit the tomb of John Paul II, but didn’t have the time when at St Peter’s the other day. The photo to the left is a list in St Peter’s of all the Popes. We come and go and people will come and stare at what we left behind.

The Tiber flows on and time passes by. Just as well God has a broader perspective than we do. Otherwise we’d take ourselves too seriously.

Rome 5 002This morning the conference group in Rome went to visit the SAT2000 media centre. Set up by the Bishops Conference (and paid and controlled by them), this company makes, broadcasts and distributes television and radio programmes across Italy. Now, this sort of outfit would normally get my hackles rising: paid for and controlled (in terms of agenda and direction) by the Roman Catholic Church does not sound to me like a recipe for independence and rational analysis of the world. But, that prejudice needs to be examined.

We questioned the controllers and presenters in some detail and they were open, frank and helpful in their engagement with us. The big question for British communications people is around how a religious establishment with a particular profile can have the credibility to speak to a sceptical world that doesn’t share its beliefs or assumptions. There is a common view that it is surely impossible – that only secularist assumptions or convictions about the world can be credible or independent (or even rational). This, of course, is twaddle of the first order.

SAT2000 is confident about the worldview it assumes and represents: that God is there; that God has created us to love and be loved; that deviation from the Creator’s way leads only to problems; and that those who hold to a Christian world view have something not only unique (in a descriptive sense) but also vital for all human beings. They then look at the world through this lens. This leads them to produce analyses of news, of news output across the media, of moral/ethical issues as they impact on public policy, and of cultural phenomena such as theatre, film, etc. In other words, no sphere of life is excluded from such a perspective and a religious media is not (stupidly) condemned only to address directly ‘religious’ affairs.

Rome 5 005This is because the business of any church is not primarily the church, but the world the church is called to serve. I think it was the great german preacher and theologian, Helmut Thielicke, who asked God to preserve the church and the world from ‘stupid Christian philistines’. The church’s agenda is the world in which we live and which we shape together.

So, SAT2000 produces radio and TV programmes that open up discussion and debate, bringing a unique critique to the world’s business and inviting audiences to question the assumptions they themselves bring to the analyses of the world that shape their thinking and critique.

This is good. I  might not agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s line on particular issues and I might not like the line propagated in some programming. But I like even less the aggressively arrogant secularist assumptions that a Christian (or, rather, theistic) world view is invalid whereas one that starts from a different (but not argued for) place is – rather conveniently – the only legitimate one. Surely we should be big enough to let people bring their perspectives to the table and then let them stand or fall in the market place of public scrutiny? To fear this is to doubt that our view will stand if scrutinised closely (described by someone today as ‘given a rigorous scrute’).

But I also discovered today that the word for a ‘remote control’ in Italian is ‘telecomando’. And I thought this sounded like someone who attacks people with a telly. Which reminded me of Richard Dawkins and the wonderful condensed parody of his new book The Greatest Show on Earth. A weird link, I know; but not half as weird as some of the links Dawkins makes.

Anyway, I had time to think about this while running round central Rome looking for Jane Bower’s (Director of Communications for Wakefield Diocese) lost passport. She’d left it in the church we were in earlier. It was still there. We were pleased. Sweaty, but pleased. Here she is:

Rome 5 006

Rome 3 013It was only a few years ago that I discovered the existence of a UK Ambassador to the Holy See. I hadn’t fully understood that the Vatican City was an independent state or that over 170 countries have ambassadors here. I think, like many of the group I am with, we had little understanding of why we have an ambassador here or what such a person might actually do.

Last night the current incumbent of the office, Francis Campbell, explained what the job involves and how the Vatican works. He had invited us to the rooftop of his Palazzo almost next door to Berlusconi’s little pad, the Quirinale. We were generously entertained and spent some time just staring at what the former Austrian Ambassador (who also happened to be there with his wife) said was the best view in the whole of Rome. Eventually we went downstairs and discussed just how the diplomats engage with the Vatican and other ambassadors.

Rome 3 012The benefit of an overview is that you cut out the unnecessary detail and go to the heart of the matter. Francis explained that the Holy See can be seen in two ways: as China or San Marino. The total population of Roman Catholics in the world accounts for around 20% of the world’s population (I think). So, this is a tiny city state with a huge reach and massive influence. yet it is still a tiny state covering only 1 square kilometre.

It is, therefore, vital that governments such as ours engage fully with such a state for the sake of the interests of the world. We discussed the Millennium Development Goals, climate change and other matters of political, economic and cultural importance. What became clear is the interdependence of the different states in working together to maximise influence in order to mobilise the strong in the interests of the weak (and everybody else).

Rome 3 011Look out over Rome and you see thousands of years of history. Times come and go – so do the characters, the scandals, the triumphs and the transient powers. So, it is incumbent on contemporary powers to do their bit with integrity, change the world where we can, but always keep it in perspective. One day groups may be looking out over our city and wondering at why we chose what we chose and did what we did.

Religion makes good people better and bad people worse.

Lombardi & HitchenThat was just one of the pearls of wisdom dropped into our consciousness during this opening full day of the Communications Conference in Rome. This is no holiday and we have finished the day with foot ache and brain strain. The programme looked like this (in brief): Vatican Radio (with Fr Federico Lombardi and Philippa Hitchen) followed by a visit to the Pontifical Council for Social Communication followed by lunch at a clergy hostel followed by presentations at the Pontificia Universita della Santa Croce (School of Church Communications) – HQ of Opus Dei to you – followed by Robert Mickens of the Tablet (on working as a journalist reporting on the Vatican) followed by a reception and great conversation with the British Ambassador to the Holy See, Francis Campbell.

Vatican Radio paintingWhat is fascinating is how this enormous institution (the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church) invests so heavily in its communications. This is clearly based in the conviction that the Church has a message to proclaim that it thinks is worth proclaiming. Conscious of some of the contradictions – even within the institution of the Church – between message and messengers, our speakers were clear that the Church does not have the right to muck up its message in order to make it more palatable to a relativisitic society. As Monsignor Paul Tighe put it:

The Church is to hand on a tradition, not invent a new Gospel that people might like … Our ‘product’ is not a message, but a person…

But, what is obvious is that this ancient institution puts huge resources into communicating – not just within itself – but with and for the sake of the wider world. New technologies have to be embraced and used, but we should never become mere followers of new media fashions; after all, these come and go. What was surprising, however, was the openness to risk and trying out new media. Again, Paul Tighe introduced us to the venture, which sounds corny, but is a good example of how new things can be tried out without too much fear of failure.

Rome 3 008Fr Lombardi had begun our day with a history and introduction to Vatican Radio, explaining how it was the first internationally-broadcasting radio station in the world. Established by Marconi in 1931, its launching was coloured by very rational fears about the role of radio in a growing totalitarian world where control of media could become an untrusted propaganda tool. This remains a concern today, but the Vatican’s decision to go with it anyway – allowing the Pope to communicate through the War years with his divided communities across the world – was not obvious.

The opportunities and dangers of emerging media and communications technologies were addressed in different ways by several of our contributors. What was funny was how the same challenges were addressed using different languages. Forexample, Paul Tighe spoke about risk and adventure and how new technologies can be embraced in ways that enable greater social connectedness; then his boss, Archbishop Celli, joined us and spoke of the dangers and problems of the new media world. I am not sure if this was a generation question, but the difference in perception merited further conversation.

All these contributors – Federico Lombardi, Philippa Hitchen, Paul Tighe and Archbishop Celli were articulate, generous, open and stimulating. They opened up lots of thinking about communications, media and technology (which often drives ethics instead of being constrained by ethical values) and led to some very valuable reflection on our common task as communicators of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The need for any institution to allow for learning and failure is apparent and the Vatican is no exception – as our contributors noted.

The other interesting element for me was the Vatican communicators’ understanding of the different Popes. John Paul II was a great pastor who became Pope when he was 60 years old; Benedict XVI was 80 and is a professor. The former was great with people – especially young people – and the media; the latter is shy, academic and basically a teacher. They had different personalities and strengths and the job of those around the Pope is to enable the best to be drawn out of him in the most appropriate way.

There is too much to think through from today. But this probably isn’t the place to rehearse it all. The challenges facing the Vatican are similar in some respects to those facing the Anglican Communion and Archbishop Celli was keen for our churches to consider together how we might better face them – especially in relation to social communication and use of new technologies. It was encouraging to hear that we are seen as one Christian Church with a common task in the world. Like post-modernism (we know what we are ‘post’, but we don’t know what we are ‘pre’), we don;t really know where the technology is taking us or what will come next in terms of social networking.

Anyway, Opus Dei promised us they don’t send albino monks to murder people (they don’t have monks anyway) and no helicopters exploded above us while we heard how they handled (in a media sense) the Da Vinci Code business. But the view from the top of their building is stunning – bettered only by the view from the Palazzo where the Ambassador entertained us.

Best quote of the day – from a Vatican media man? “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission…” I hope my clergy don’t learn that lesson.

Rome 3 013Rome 3 010

I managed to miss the opening session of the Communications Conference in Rome by missing a bus. How embarrassing is that? Anyway, I will simply say that I decided to stay back at the conference hotel in order that somebody would be here to welcome everyone when they arrive en masse. They’ll never believe me.

While looking at some notes I made at the Colisseum the other day, my mind (or what passes for a mind, at least) rambled back towards pedantry. I keep reading in guide books and other literature in this wonderful city phrases such as ‘the Middle Ages’ or ‘the early Middle Ages’ and I wondered what they were the middle of? Presumably, whoever first thought of them as the ‘middle’ must have thought of some ‘beginning’ and considered his ‘now’ to be the ‘end’.

I guess every generation thinks of itself as the ultimate – the end of history, as it were – because we never know what will come next. But, just as every generation has among it those who think it will be the last – just look at Christian groups who always think the world is about to end … but it doesn’t – every generation sees itself as the only one from which to measure the past.

Rome 3 001But, what if (for example) the 16th to the 21st centuries prove to be the ‘middle ages’ when seen from further down the line? Will future generations have to invent new language to describe which generation falls into which ‘age’? And how confusing will that be for the poor kids who have to learn history? It’ll be almost as bad as having to learn French politics … where all the parties seem to have the same names but in different orders and change them after every election they either win or lose.

I saw a plaque today that pointed to the ‘old’ something-or-other church and one that pointed to the ‘new’ church. The ‘new’ church was five hundred years old.

Funny old world.

Rome 2 026The Vatican Museums are brilliant, but deceptive. I don’t mean ‘deceptive’ in the sense that they are out to deceive you, of course. What I mean is that you get inside the building at the back of the Vatican City and a sign points to the Sistine Chapel (which was what I wanted to see). What it doesn’t really tell you is that you have to walk about ten miles through endless other galleries before you get to it. And once you are there, you are suffering from sensory overload – having had your eyes assaulted by classical riches on every surface of every room. It is wonderful, but overwhelming.

What struck me particularly on this journey (with aching feet) was the syncretism of so much of the religious art. I am sorry if this confirms my ignorance in the minds of the intelligentsia, but this stuff is not my forte. Biblical, Christian and classical mythological themes and characters are mixed up to such an extent that anyone coming to it cold could be forgiven for being somewhat confused.

The second striking thing (for me, at least) was the masculinity of the women in the Sistine Chapel frescoes. Everybody says Michelangelo ‘couldn’t do women’, but I hadn’t realised how true this is. It is as if he painted muscular blokes and then stuck odd-shaped breasts on their front. It is weird. Now, when I mentioned this to someone who knows more about such things than I do (which is not very hard…), he shrugged and suggested it was just one of those things – every genius has his weak spots. Well, I am not so sure. That is like suggesting that Mozart was a great musician, but that he could only read or write music in a few specific keys. It doesn’t add up.

I don’t go in for all the ‘da Vinci Code’ nonsense, but I am a bit perturbed by some aspects of what I saw in the Sistine Chapel.

  • Michelangelo could have painted women if he had wanted to: but he chose not to. Why?
  • Why is Satan showing us his bare bottom as he is being cast out of heaven?
  • And why does Adam have a belly-button?

I don’t want to push this too far, but the heart of the Vatican is full of naked flesh in very odd circumstances. And I wonder how that is dealt with theologically and ethically.

Rome 2 027

Perhaps the most shocking image for me was in the Constantine gallery – before getting to the Sistine Chapel. The ceiling has a powerful image of the shattered statue of the emperor lying in pieces on the floor while his place on the pedestal is taken by a crucified Christ. I understand this refers to the vision Constantine had prior to going into battle under the sign of the cross, but it left me disturbed for two reasons:

1. The power of God seen in Jesus Christ was not a simple substitute for political power as exercised by emperors and generals. The power of God in Christ is a scandal to the world of the military powermongers because it is apparently so weak: a man hanging on the gallows with his arms outstretched in welcome to whatever the world throws at him. This is an affront to power, not a substitute for it.

2. Yet it could also be seen as the ‘scandal of the cross’ standing in judgement over the broken transience of hubristic rulers.

It might be that I am confusing this crucified ‘Christ’ with the ‘Church’ here and not reading the ceiling properly. Whatever the case, there is something weird about the syncretism of the art overall and what some of it seems to be saying about God, the world and people.

The best way to see Rome is clearly to get up early and get out before the Germans have woken up. (We learned our lesson the other day when a million of them got on the same bus as us…) We got the bus over to the Colisseum yesterday morning and were amazed by the sheer scale of the place. It is immense and puts into perspective any pride in modern engineering. This was built – probably by slave labour – 2000 years ago and was obviously intended to last for ever.

Rome 2 007

The exhibition is certainly worth seeing before actually going into the place itself, but it also left me with a feeling of some disquiet. Classicists are about to discover just how ignorant I am when I explain why.

Most of the exhibition is a eulogy to the Emperor Vespasian who had the place built. I could find no reference to the labour force that put stone on stone and brick on brick. The civil magnanimity and democratic generosity of Vespasian were lauded at every turn, but there was only a casual reference to (a) his brutal suppression of Judea, (b) the siege and slaughter of Masada, (c) the brutality of Roman suppression of local uprisings across the empire and (d) the cruelty that was at the heart of executions.

What did become clear was that the pagan empire had little respect for human life per se. What it did have respect for was rank, status and particular notions of human value according to role in the state.

Rome 2 017It is sometimes trendy for people to dismiss the rise of Christianity as a form of cruel imperialism, but Christianity also cultivated the soil for great sacrifice, human value and great art – despite its terrible aberrations which can also be seen in the history of the Church in Rome. It is sometimes convenient to forget just how cheap life was in the pagan world.

The other thought that occurred to me was the fact that what are now called ‘back stories’ are always complicated. What I mean by this is simply that history is a mess of contradictions and inconvenient truths. Yesterday’s scandalous brutality becomes today’s intriguing curiosity. We read over centuries of oppression and cruelty as if it were somehow interesting but not quite real. We read of gladiators who fought and died in the service of entertainment; of people fed to animals in the service of entertainment; of people wiped out by disease and conflict; and we don’t relate to them as people with families and relationships. And we don’t stop long enough to ask where God was for them in the midst of their human lot.

Rome 2 016When Rome declined, was the hubris of its imperial golden age seen as a bit of an embarrassment – the transience of hubristic power? Is our contemporary valuing of the ancient imperial power simply a reflection of our contemporary hankering after power and hubris?

I love what I am seeing of Rome, but it also pushes me to think beyond (or beneath?) the camera-clicking sights and try to perceive the human stuff that was going on – in ordinary people’s lives and deaths.

Cliches weren’t invented in a day either. Like the elephant in the room, they usually take some time before they become embarrassing and merit the epithet of ‘cliche’. That Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, is evident after only a few hours in the place.

Rome 1 002I have never been to Rome before now. I am only here now because I am at a conference beginning on Sunday evening and thought it would be worth coming a couple of days early and doing some sightseeing before the work begins. And the conference will be work as it is focused on Continuing Professional Development for communications professionals in the church and involves a series of meetings which, in this heat, promise to be exhausting.

We met a friend yesterday evening and he took us for dinner in the Vatican behind St Peter’s. Everywhere you look history bears down on you. The Romans left their marks and every generation since them has made their presence known for future generations. It clearly never occurred to previous generations that something had value simply because it was ‘old’. The useless or the symbolically inappropriate simple made way for something more useful.

Rome 1 008So, now you see modern apartment blocks nestling next to huge 500 year old churches. The impression of my first view of Rome is simply that you can trace history in everything your eyes light upon. And that massive and powerful symbol of continuity and spiritual power (for good and ill) sits looking down on a city of amazing vibrancy, diversity and history.

Rome 1 004In England – and especially in our ‘old’ churches – history ended a hundred years ago. Try changing something in one of our churches in order to fit the building for worship and service in the modern world and the amenity societies come running out demanding that we retain them as museums. Surely a church ought to reflect in its physical changes the changes in the generations that have used it? But try telling that to some of the guardians of our ‘heritage’ who loathe any change and try to prevent anyone from interfering with their ‘wonderful example of such-and-such an Edwardian, Victorian/Georgian architect’s work’.

The parish where I was vicar for eight years had everything: Saxon foundations and a Saxon cross, mediaeval rood screen, Elizabethan monuments, a Victorian chancel, early 20th century pews, a late-20th century dais … and we drank out of an Elizabethan chalice. That sense of continuity with previous generations was really powerful.

I understand the need not to vandalise precious buildings, but sometimes it gets out of hand. Rome obviously wasn’t built in a day and nor were our own English churches. But Rome betrays the changes of the centuries and so should our English churches.