A quick link to the speech by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at this morning's opening session of the IPPFoRB conference at the Reichstag in Berlin. More will follow.

 

Following my post last night on the corrosive nature of promises (as opposed to conjectures or wish lists) that can't be made, by people who have no right or authority to make them and who are unaccountable for what happens when they remain unfulfilled, here is another link to the context in which I write.

The conference of the International Panel of Parliamentariians for Freedom of Religion and Belief (snappily known by its friends as IPPFoRB) ended last night in Berlin. Today we meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a one-day conference at the Bundestag.

Among the important themes that emerged among the sixty or so national parliaments represented here in sessions yesterday was the discrepancy in many countries between what is written in law and how that law is either implemented/applied or ignored. In many places it is a triumph just to get freedom of religion (among other freedoms – this isn't hierarchical) enshrined in writing. However, what matters is what then is done about it.

One eminent speaker made it dead simple: (a) make good laws; (b) repeal bad laws; (c) hold governments to account on what the law says and demands. Given that everyone here is a parliamentarian, this is clear, applicable and achievable. It doesn't guarantee success, but it clarifies the task.

What emerged from several parts of the world is the pressure under which freedom of religion and religious expression is coming. Attempts to exclude God/religious world views from the public square are not unique to the secular West, but the spurious assumptions behind them seem to have one thing in common: that secular humanism (for want of a better term) is neutral and occupies the neutral place in the public discourse. It is self-evidently true and is purely 'scientific' – that is to say, needs not to make its case for credibility because that case is obvious. The outcome – put briefly – is that liberalising societies demand the right for 'tolerance' unless asked to tolerate views that are inconvenient to its assumptions of what is tolerable. One delegate explained how attempts are being made in his country to shout down any expression of traditional family values or articulation of a conservative view of ethics that derives from religious commitment.

That is not – as the speaker emphasised – to argue the case for the rightness of his views, but, rather, to insist that these views must be allowable if his society is to be truly tolerant (an awful, lowest common denominator word).

So, enshrining rights in law is not enough. Making promises on the back of that law is not enough. It is the implementation of that law that counts, and it is the discourse surrounding debate about that implementation that demands intellectual as well as moral integrity.

 

I didn’t want to see news pictures of a soldier being murdered in Woolwich this week. I didn’t want to see film of violent brutality and, whilst being aware of the dilemma for news organisations and the moral questions about ‘facing reality’, was not sure that the coverage should have been so graphic. Try seeing it through the eyes of his family. It feels voyeuristic.

That said, however, while trying to flip over one photo in a newspaper, I noticed the road sign close to where the soldier’s body lay. It said: ‘signals timing changed’. Despite it referring to the traffic lights, it seemed perversely apposite.

Much of the reporting of this appalling crime rests on iconic images and language. This is what makes it so powerful: it creates associations in the mind of the viewer, not all of which might be healthy. Debate continues to rage over the radicalisation of young Muslim men in England – and a study of media articles between 2000-08 found only 2% framed Muslims positively. Just as newspapers’ use of ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of around 150,000 Germans in London for last night’s Champions League Final between Germany and Bayern Munich (that’s a little joke for the Germans), so do images of and language about Muslims shape the way we see them.

Yes, the Muslim communities in England face some challenges – including addressing the poisonous rhetoric of some powerful preachers. But, they will not be helped by the perpetuation of purely negative associations.

I was at the Meissen Delegation Visit in Leicester this last few days. This brought a group of German bishops and church leaders to engage with us on how we do interfaith work in a multicultural city like Leicester. (Curiously, the English delegation, which I did not choose, served up three bishops – Bradford, Woolwich and Pontefract – who all served their time in the Diocese of Leicester.) Events in Woolwich, coupled with the long-planned visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Meissen group, brought a brutal relevance to our discussions and debates. In our discussions with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, we found no ducking the hard questions, no hiding behind a victim mentality, and only a little hiding the particular behind the general. We met openness and generosity.

This has been playing on my mind while waiting for flights today. I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the SPD (German Socialist opposition party) celebrating its 150th anniversary in Leipzig last Thursday in the surprising presence of Angela Merkel. The party is struggling ahead of the forthcoming general election in September this year and the commentators suggest that the problem lies in the lack of a clear alternative narrative for Germany’s future in the light of the current economic and fiscal challenges across Europe. So, they look to the past – and it’s reassuring glories – in the absence of a vision that might drive them into creating a different future.

The SPD is not alone in this. It sometimes feels as if Europe is paralysed. The sterile and increasingly febrile debate about Europe in the UK offers no escape. If Europe needs a new narrative – one that relies less on the dynamics derived from twentieth century wars and seeks to create a new narrative that will fire up a new generation of people who see something worth building – then so does England. Muddling through crisis after crisis, reacting to the stimulus provided by a cacophony of voices, lurching between ideological intuitions, making statements about terrorism and ‘our way of life’ – none of this can replace the need for leadership that knows who we are, what we are about and where we are going. As Jeremy Paxman once pointed out in his book The English, we don’t know who we are and, so, cannot know who we want to become.

Reactions to Lee Rigby’s murder have demonstrated again that we have no guiding narrative any longer. As Philip Blond argued on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a culture that obsesses about rights without a fundamental (I use the word advisedly) or radical (again, I use the word advisedly) anthropology that knows why it thinks people matter will simply end up as a victim to the loudest or most powerful ideological competitor. It is the lack of such an anthropology that is the problem.

To cut a long argument short, England’s Christian amnesia has left us with just this problem. The church has not helped promote the memory (partly by complaining about all the wrong things), but it will not have to go far to recover its basic driving narrative and hold it out as one worth recovering for the future. Why? Because at least we know why people matter, why morality matters, why loving your neighbour is not a mere option for the romantic, why losing your life is the only way to gain it, why the common good is worth serving, why “no man is an island, entire of itself”, and why failure is not the end.

The signals timing keeps changing. I think we need to pay attention to how it is changing and what it is saying.

Struggling through a streaming cold and muzzy head to write a lecture for this coming Wednesday (on Being Confident in an Uncertain World), I was easily distracted by the glories of Twitter. I caught a link which, in the context of all the political upheavals going on around us, stood out. Die Zeit has the headline: Merkel öffnet für Hollande die Arme, nicht die Taschen (Merkel opens her arms to Hollande, but not her pockets).

It’s a weird world.

  • Greece votes against parties that think austerity is unavoidable, but offers no ideas for how the stringencies of economics can be aligned with desired social wellbeing.
  • It looks possible that Greece won’t be able to find a coherent coalition government at all.
  • Russia, against all protests, swears in a president who seems to assume power and the right to power. Ominously, he promises Russians some hard years ahead.
  • France elects a new Socialist president who might not be able to implement (economically or politically) what he has promised.
  • Germany welcomes the new French president to office, but won’t offer him the means to do what he has promised to do for France. (And Merkel has just had a bad election in Schleswig-Holstein, so all is not beautiful in her own garden either).

What is interesting about all these ructions in Europe (and bring into the mix all the other trouble spots across the planet) is the assumption on the part of whole populations that we have rights to certain ways of living or levels of affluence or provision – but rarely does anyone ask where those rights have come from. They are merely assumed. But, as ethicists know, you can’t get an ought from an is – that is to say, you cannot derive a moral imperative from the mere fact that something exists. So, what gives us the right to demand ‘rights’ in the first place?

Anyway, we’ll watch this space as everything changes in Europe and beyond. Putin is not the universally revered man he thinks he once was. Merkel stands firm, but the floor might potentially wobble beneath her feet. Hollande might find ‘reality’ harder to manipulate than he has suggested. And Greece? Er…

At least all is stable and fine at home in the UK, our glorious leaders steering us into a land of plenty. One day. Eventually. Maybe soon. Er…

Last Monday I left home early and drove through the most beautiful countryside up to the north of my diocese. The Yorkshire Dales are gorgeous anyway, but add in a massive dollop of snow blizzards, high winds and freezing temperatures, and you get a bit of a taste of wild life. I was there two days, visiting clergy and parishes, dropping into village schools, chatting with colleagues and loving the views (when you could see them). I remarked to a friend that, unlike in London (where I spent the last eleven years), here the weather is real: real driving sleet, real snow, real winds – the sort of weather that makes you realise you’re alive.

Well, I hesitate a little before loving this too much: Scotland is enduring enormous storms today. I was at Bradford University with my wife for a graduation ceremony and even inside the building we were aware of the hammering rain outside… when it began to drip through a light fitting on the stage inside.

And if the weather isn’t enough, Angela Merkel has begun the Euro-Summit with the claim that the euro has ‘lost credibility’. European leaders are aiming their weapons at David Cameron – who faces pressure from inside his own party as well. Trying to hold some middle ground might not be possible when the high winds start blowing across the small island we call home.

All this paints an inauspicious picture for those graduating from the university today. Many of them now have degrees in subjects I never knew existed. But, sitting in the Great Hall for the first time since I graduated from this same place thirty one years ago, the names of some of the degrees summed up the insecurity of the world in which we now live: lots to do with security, international justice, criminology, conflict resolution, etc. Many of the graduands came from parts of the world where conflict was real and not just the notional theme of some academic study.

This is not the best time to be emerging from the academy and looking for work. But, it will certainly stretch the creative ingenuity of those who want to make things happen.

This wild world comes together with the world of the church (believe it or not). The parishes I visited in the Yorkshire Dales this week are communities of real people who live, work and move in a world of transience, mortality and insecurity. Anyone close to the land cannot be a stranger to the contingency of living in a changing world. They can’t hide in the bubbles of imaginary security that can so easily be created in the glass towers where numbers on a screen cease to relate to anything real. I once argued with an economist that money doesn’t exist – that it is simply a system of values set in ratios agreed by some arbitrary conventions for mutual benefit; he thought this was a bit naive (and it might be). But, as we have seen in the last three years, economies that appeared sound simply collapsed like a deck of cards. Empires that appear invincible simply melt under pressure. Nothing stands still – and we forget our mortality at our peril.

I am dead proud of the clergy I met who get stuck in to their communities, often against the odds and with limited resources, sometimes with little confidence and too little reward. But they stay in the heart of communities, available to all, a visible reminder (with their congregations and church buildings) of that prophetic Christian refusal to go away – committed to accompanying people through their living and dying, enjoying and losing, celebrating and weeping. Like God at Christmas, they embody that gift that is freely offered, that looks vulnerable and sometimes weak, that opts into the real world, that names reality and embarrasses fantasy, and that cries hope for a future when the present seems to be closing wildly in.

The great German weekly newspaper Die Zeit leads this week with two articles placed side by side. The first has to do with the current problems between the governing coalition partners and the apparent lack of leadership from the Bundeskanzlerin, Angela Merkel; the second is about the hidden power of Google. At first I wondered why they had been put together on the front page, but then I began to understand.

There is a bit of a crisis in Germany over how the Schwarz-Gelb (conservative-liberal) coalition can hold together. They are arguing about everything and a crisis summit is about to take place. However, the real pressure is on Angela Merkel who has remained remarkably quiet and ‘absent’ in recent weeks while the arguments raged around her. It is her leadership style that is now in question.

Merkel’s ‘reserved’ style was welcome after Germany’s electorate had grown fed up of years of endless conflict and controversy. But, as the world around has changed in the last couple of years, this style of leadership has (according to some commentators) led to a vacuum in orientation or leadership of the governing class. What was appropriate in the last Great Coalition is proving inadequate in the new coalition in which the two small parties (CSU and FDP) are at odds with each other and are not being brought to book.

Furthermore, Merkel’s style was helpful in her other role as leader of her party, the CDU. She faces the same problem as David Cameron in the UK: how do you modernise a conservative party without alienating your reactionary core and still remain electable as a coherent party? Quietly-quietly served her well in the last government, but it is coming apart now.

Obviously more could be said about this, but I want to move on. Leadership is a tough matter at the best of times and any leader knows how fickle the ‘led’ can be: waving in support one minute and calling for your head the next. Short-term memories on the part of the electorate do not always lead to good policy-making by those in charge. But Merkel’s plight (which Die Zeit partly attributes to her hands-off approach to the detailed negotiations of the coalition terms) highlights a problem for good leadership anywhere: how to recognise that a different style is now needed and to gauge whether or not I am equipped to offer it.

I have written about this in relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury, so won’t repeat it here. But, leadership is a lonely business, especially when trying to lead at the same time as ‘read the runes’ of the wider mood.

And how does this connect with Google? Well, the article about Google articulates a widespread concern in Germany (Der Spiegel ran it as its cover story last week) that Google knows too much about us all and that this is dangerous. This debate has been running in the UK, too, but it is set against a historical backdrop in Germany that gives it a particular significance if not poignancy. (Interestingly, Spiegel is also suspicious about Google’s weak challenge to the Chinese…)

The link between the two articles (in my mind, at least) is this: how do leaders identify the really important issues that demand their attention? Helmut Schmidt has this week noted the return of the bonus culture amongst bankers and said that the seeds of the next financial crisis have been sown in thsi one because we understand more, but refuse to face the need for radical change. So, the financial crisis is up their with bankers’ bonuses. Then there are the economic and ecological challenges to our world and our societies. There is no end to the list of demanding ‘issues’ – and, as I have observed elsewhere, leaders are regarded as ‘leading’ only when they are shouting loudly what ‘I’ want to hear them say.

While Merkel and other government leaders (including in the UK) find all sorts of issues to concern them and dominate their agendas, there is one that seems to draw attention only from sections of the media and interest groups: the surveillance culture. Even the Church preoccupies itself with a limited list of ‘moral issues’ – sex is always at the top despite Jesus saying little about it; money is much lower down although Jesus said loads about it – while ignoring the tough ones that are more hidden.

Well, I want to stand with the editors of Die Zeit (whether they intended the link or not) and put a challenge to government (and other) leaders to take seriously developments in our surveillance society and put it higher up the list of ‘moral issues’ that demand attention. In the hands of a benign government there might be little to lose from being ‘watched’; but the potential for misuse of information is enormous even in such a society as ours.

So, how about some leadership in relation to the UK government’s will to retain email and mobile information, to collect and retain DNA samples from everybody imaginable, to photograph people in London over 300 times a day from ubiquitous cameras, and to retain as much information on everybody in as compact a manner as possible? Given the interconnectedness of the modern digital world and the propensity of human beings to misuse power in the interests of power, this is a debate that needs to be had now.

HuberWhere else would you find people queuing early in the morning to hear a Bible Study in a hall that seats in the region of 10,000 people? We turned up for Bishop Wolfgang Huber’s Bible study on Genesis 3 an hour before it started and joined the queue that was already enormous and very good-humoured. Huber (who retires as Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg-schlesiche-Oberlausitz and Chairman of the Council of the EKD later this year) is a brilliant communicator and the hour goes quickly – full of memorable phrases and passionate rhetoric. He also knows how to press the right buttons and he is constantly interrupted by applause. It felt a bit like a rally.

The most interesting parts of Huber’s address will need separate treatment later when I have read the text. But he made some intersting observations about power, responsibility and the human propensity to deny responsibility, shift it or blame someone else. Assuming that Genesis 3 asks ‘how we got to where we are as human beings?’, he also pointed out those parts of the ‘Eden’ narrative that easily get forgotten: that the serpent lied – Adam and Eve did not die – and that, despite everything, it was God who searched for Adam and Eve (not the other way round) and God who clothed them. Draw your own conclusions about what this says to a humanity that knows it is naked and can be seen through by the eyes of a God who is interested not only in exposing the badness, but caring for the consequences.

Angela MerkelHuber’s address was followed by a remarkable discussion between Angela Merkel (Bundeskanzlerin) and Prof. Dr. Timothy Garten Ash (Oxford). The theme concerned ‘freedom and responsibility’, but ranged over democracy, history and memory.

TGA asked whether the Germans had been able to build such a good and strong civil structure because it had had to deal with a difficult past: the Protestant Reformation, two World Wars and Nazism, then the DDR. He later observed that it is hard to hold on to two histories (FRG and GDR), but that the GDR would soon be forgotten: it was too short-lived and was artificial anyway. The discussion was interesting because Merkel (a daughter of the ‘manse’) is from East Germany and twenty years ago had a very different future ahead of her.

tgaI cannot do justice to the discussion as I had to leave after only forty minutes, but it was robust, informed, intelligent and really interesting. (TGA spoke very good German.) Is this why something like 7,000 people listened to Huber and Merkel, many of them sitting on cardboard boxes?

Enough for now. I am leading an ecumenical service this evening, but will return to say more about the Ratskeller, the 1908/09 exchanges and what it is that makes this event so unique.