I was amused to read today that people are declining to vote because they despise politicians. Or, to use the media wording: “Fury at MPs”.

The numbers of people reading newspapers is also plummeting year on year. I wonder if a similar reason might lie behind this phenomenon (as well as all the digital revolution, multi-platform access stuff). I rarely buy a newspaper now even though I believe in them and think journalism to be a necessary and important profession.

But, is it not remotely possible that we are just getting bored with the must-write-something-about-something pressure that sees a lazy pursuit of controversy where there is none, or the selective generation of a story that is misleading – or simply indicative of the prejudices of the opinion-holder who thinks we care what he/she thinks?

I intended to write this about today's Times treatment of the Archbishop of Canterbury's preaching. But, Archbishop Cranmer got there first and said it better than I could have done.

Just wondering.

I know this is a bit narky, but try substituting any other brand of human being for 'religious' or Archbishop of Canterbury' in the leader article quoted in my last post. For example, 'newspaper editor' – just for fun:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which this newspaper has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither the Editor's motivations nor his capabilities; as a journalist, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities the Editor is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make his newspaper relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at journalism, but such matters are a private affair, and editors – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics.

Silly, I know. But, I am sitting on a train and wondering if I should simply have done this instead of what I actually wrote a couple of days ago.

 

It is rare that a national newspaper editorial exposes its prejudices so clearly. And, tempting though it is to just smile grimly and let it pass, here goes (again).

Here is how the concluding judgements of Friday's Independent editorial on the Archbishop of Canterbury's involvement in politics went:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which his organisation has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither Archbishop Welby’s motivations nor his capabilities; as a former oil executive and a member of the mettlesome Commission on Banking Standards, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities – many of which were on display in yesterday’s gracious, candid response to the Wonga embarrassment – Archbishop Welby is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make the Church relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at religion, but such matters are a private affair, and spiritual leaders – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics. That bishops still sit in the House of Lords is an anachronism that makes a mockery of British democracy. If Archbishop Welby wishes the Church of England to support credit unions, it is his prerogative to act accordingly, but there his legitimacy ends.

The italics are mine. The patronising assumptions about private-public opinions are those of the anonymous author.

First, unlike newspaper editorial writers, the church does have a 'direct involvement' in the issues we bang on about – which is why we bang on about them. We have clergy and people in every community of the country and our intelligence about 'real lives' and the impact of policy on them is rooted and informed. We don't just stand at a distance and pontificate like… er… editorial writers? Since when was child poverty or welfare reform purely a 'political' issue and not a 'human' or 'social' issue? And who else should, on this basis, be kept muted: community leaders, journalists, rabbis, sportsmen, newspaper editors?

Secondly, when I last looked, all the above were unelected. Or is the Independent really suggesting that only elected politicians should have a voice in society and how it is run? Is it really suggesting that there is some neutral ground for a world view that is shared by non-religionists, but not by those who start from a religious world view? How did such nonsense get through the editorial desk? Oh, I see…

Thirdly, yes it is a swipe at religion. Religion is being singled out for silence. And on what basis? That it is a 'private affair'. It beggars belief that this old chestnut still pops up in rational minds. The division into 'private' and 'public' is artificial. On what basis is a politicians dogma to be accepted as relevant, but an Archbishop's as mere opinion? And, even if this were to be seen as remotely valid, why is one opinion to be privileged above another?

The final swipe at the church's involvement in the legislature exposes the real point of the piece – which is not about the validity of the Archbishop of Canterbury's role in using his office to speak about social ills, but about the matter of disestablishment. Well, write a leader comment about that, then, but don't mix it up with nonsense about private opinion, elected voices and ignorance about the church's engagement in the real world of our local communities.

(And I like the Independent. I thought it was a bit brighter than this.)

 

I had a bit of déjà-vu today. Meeting with an outside facilitator at the General Synod in small groups of around 20 reminded me of the indaba groups at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. And then, as now, people excluded from the conversations complained about 'secrecy' – clearly unable to distinguish between sinister scheming in the shadows and private conversations.

Sometimes people need to create the space in which to have a different sort of conversation than the ones normally conducted in public. When the General Synod comes to re-ignite the women bishops process, it clearly needs to begin in a different place from where it ended last November.

One of the problems for the Synod is that it is shaped by parliamentary models that are essentially adversarial, charging debates with a win-lose goal. This (a) means that parties establish and bolster their line before the debate and (b) leaves no room for individuals to change their mind on an issue in the course of an informed debate. It isn't a healthy way for the church to discern and shape its future.

The culture change requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Presidential Address yesterday clearly needs to begin here.

So, today we met in groups and explored the experiences of the failed process of the last twelve years (and last November in particular), asking what might be learned for the process going forward. In my group we were honest, frank, respectful and, I think, courageous in facing reality. It has been an intense, but helpful day in general. And at least we weren't asked to do role-play…

Behind the emotive questions about experience and perceptions, however, there lurks a really hard question: can this circle actually be squared? Is it possible for the church to have bishops who are bishops who are bishops – rather than some bishops (female) who are, however politely expressed, less episcopal than other bishops? Is it possible to discriminate and not discriminate at the same time? Can a yes be simultaneously a no?

In one sense, we live by paradoxes, and a way through this conundrum should be detectable. At the moment it is not clear where this way might be found. And some think it is now time to be clear and honest about what is possible, what is achievable, and what might be regrettably necessary. This is a debate between a vision of a clear church with clear lines and identities… and a fuzzy church that can live with inadequacy and mess.

The beauty of indaba and what we did today is simply that it offers the space in which honest conversation can happen and we don't have to be watching over our shoulders to see how what is ventured might be reported. I can't yet see how we can square the circles regarding women bishops; but, I do think November's shock and today's process have a chance of creating a refreshed culture in which the sensitive issues can be addressed with humility, generosity and greater clarity.

We will see in Monday's debate if any difference has been made. I hope so.

 

Does the Church of England need a revolution or, a somewhat slower process, reformation?

Last year the General Synod met under bad-tempered black clouds and constant heavy rain. This year we meet under blazing sun and constant complaints about the heat. Welcome to England.

The Synod began yesterday with mainly routine business interrupted only by the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s first Presidential Address. He looked the Synod – and its wider audience – in the eye and called for a revolution in what we preoccupy ourselves with, how we behave with one another, and what we prioritise under our ‘theologies’.

I wondered whether his repeated use of the word ‘revolution’ was a deliberate substitute for the more commonly referred-to ‘reformation’.

The church likes the idea of reformation. It takes generations. It also sounds nostalgic – taking us back to a time when things were simpler and the church more pure. Utter nonsense, of course.

In asking for a revolution, the Archbishop is stressing both urgency and realism. Not just in matters of sexuality does the church need to speed up, sharpen up and look up. He got huge applause yesterday – deserved for the boldness and clarity of his call. We will now see if his call has been heeded… or if it is business as usual with Synod parties demanding their own ‘rights’ over against those of others.

In my humble opinion, and as we go into small facilitated groups to address (again) the matter of how to allow for women bishops, we need a revolution in some things and reformation in others. Indeed, reformation might be the outcome of processes including the odd revolution.

We shall see.

I am writing this while waiting for the flight back from Bermuda to the UK. I came on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury to ordain the new Bishop of Bermuda, Nick Dill. The collective of 'Bishop Nicks' became confusing once or twice.

What have I learned this week?

1. The new Bishop of Bermuda is excellent, popular and clearly the right man at the right time in the right place.

2. The new Bishop of Bermuda faces challenges and opportunities that are unique to this small island in the Atlantic and very different from those I face in Bradford and England.

3. The clergy of Bermuda remind me of how it must have been being an original disciple of Jesus: thrown together in a small place with a mandate to love each other and serve together for the sake of the kingdom of God – with nowhere to hide when problems arise.

4. Bermudians are remarkably hospitable and welcoming to strangers like us. It has been a gift of a week for us, and we return to England refreshed, rested and ready for the challenges that await me even this week (and there are many).

5. When sailing with the excellent Governor of Bermuda and his wife and the wheel becomes disconnected from the rudder, the police are funny, professional and considerate in rafting us into port and getting us home on their high-speed launch. (A fantastic day out with wonderful hosts and, I hope, new friends.)

6. The UK government seems (from a distance) to be reacting to media agendas rather than setting a proactive and principled course in policy terms. 'Tax haven' headlines grab attention, but the implications are clearly more complex than they at first appear.

7. Bermuda is beautiful, the sea unbelievably lovely, the wildlife spectacular, the warmth lovely and the views unremittingly gorgeous.

8. The same social problems found in England are to be found in different form even on small Atlantic islands: gangs, murder and other stuff. This is because they are human issues and not everything is context-specific.

9. Sailing can be enjoyable.

10. God calls us to be faithful in and to the place where we are and not to romanticise the 'other'.

So, there we are. Now for the flight back, the Sandford St Martin Awards on Monday evening at Lambeth Palace, lots of meetings in Bradford, a whole-day deanery visit up north on Wednesday, and so on. And I am ready for it.

 

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.