Well, it’s probably pushing it a bit to describe the current same-old-same-old game as feverish. The bandying around of numbers remains as tedious and pointless as ever – as we learned from the EU Referendum last June, nothing promised will matter for one second past the result being announced.

It is this sort of sense that sparked the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to publish a pastoral letter to the Church of England yesterday, rejecting both apathy and cynicism, and encouraging Christians in particular to be responsible citizens and vote. Many of us are experts at complaining endlessly about government, politics and politicians whilst not actually bothering to engage in the democratic process.

The text speaks for itself, so, for those wondering what it says, here it is:

The season of Easter invites us to celebrate and to renew our love of God and our love of neighbour, our trust and hope in God and in each other. In the midst of a frantic and sometimes fraught election campaign, our first obligation as Christians is to pray for those standing for office, and to continue to pray for those who are elected. We recognise the enormous responsibilities and the vast complexity of the issues that our political leaders face. We are constantly reminded of the personal costs and burdens carried by those in political life and by their families.

Our second obligation as Christians at these times is to set aside apathy and cynicism and to participate, and encourage others to do the same. At a practical level that could mean putting on a hustings event for candidates, volunteering for a candidate, or simply making sure to vote on Thursday 8th June. The Christian virtues of love, trust and hope should guide and judge our actions, as well as the actions and policies of all those who are seeking election to the House of Commons and to lead our country.

This election is being contested against the backdrop of deep and profound questions of identity. Opportunities to renew and reimagine our shared values as a country and a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only come around every few generations. We are in such a time.

Our Christian heritage, our current choices and our obligations to future generations and to God’s world will all play a shaping role. If our shared British values, that is, what life in Britain has taught us to appreciate most, what we see as fundamental to one another’s happiness and prosperity, and what we believe ourselves called as nation to stand for in the world – if these values are to carry the weight of where we now stand and the challenges ahead of us, they must have at their core, cohesion, courage and stability.

Cohesion is what holds us together. The United Kingdom, when at its best, has been represented by a sense not only of living for ourselves, but by a deeper concern for the weak, poor and marginalised, and for the common good. At home that includes education for all, the need for urgent and serious solutions to our housing challenges, the importance of creating communities as well as buildings, and a confident and flourishing health service that gives support to all – especially the vulnerable – not least at the beginning and end of life. Abroad it is seen in many ways, including the 0.7% aid commitment, properly applied in imaginative ways, standing up for those suffering persecution on grounds of faith, and our current leading on campaigns against slavery, trafficking, and sexual violence in conflicts.

Courage, which includes aspiration, competition and ambition, should guide us into trading agreements that, if they are effective and just, will also reduce the drivers for mass movements of peoples. We must affirm our capacity to be an outward looking and generous country, with distinctive contributions to peacebuilding, development, the environment and welcoming the stranger in need. Our economic and financial systems at home and abroad should aim to be engines of innovation, not simply traders for their own account. The need for a just economy is clear, but there is also the relatively new and influential area of ‘just finance’, and there are dangers of an economy over-reliant on debt, which risks crushing those who take on too much. Courage also demands a radical approach to education, so that the historic failures of technical training and the over-emphasis on purely academic subjects are rebalanced, growing productivity and tackling with vigour the exclusion of the poorest groups from future economic life.

Stability, an ancient and Benedictine virtue, is about living well with change. Stable communities will be skilled in reconciliation, resilient in setbacks and diligent in sustainability, particularly in relation to the environment. They will be ones in which we can be collectively a nation of ‘glad and generous hearts’. To our concern for housing, health and education as foundations for a good society, we add marriage, the family and the household as foundational communities, which should be nurtured and supported as such, not just for the benefit of their members, but as a blessing for the whole of society.

Contemporary politics needs to re-evaluate the importance of religious belief. The assumptions of secularism are not a reliable guide to the way the world works, nor will they enable us to understand the place of faith in other people’s lives. Parishes and Chaplaincies of the Church of England serve people of all faiths and none. Their contribution and that of other denominations and faiths to the well-being of the nation is immense – schools, food banks, social support, childcare among many others – and is freely offered. But the role of faith in society is not just measured in terms of service-delivery.

The new Parliament, if it is to take religious freedom seriously, must prioritise working with religious leaders, the media, and the educational profession to address the improvement of religious literacy. More immediately, if we aspire to a politics of maturity and generosity, then the religious faith of any election candidate should not be treated by opponents as a vulnerability to be exploited. We look forward to a media and political climate where all candidates can feel confident that they can be open about the impact of their faith on their vocation to public service.

Religious belief is the well-spring for the virtues and practices that make for good individuals, strong relationships and flourishing communities. In Britain, these embedded virtues are not unique to Christians, but they have their roots in the Christian history of our four nations. If treated as partners in the project of serving the country, the churches – and other faiths – have much to contribute to a deep understanding and outworking of the common good.

Political responses to the problems of religiously-motivated violence and extremism, at home and overseas, must also recognise that solutions will not be found simply in further secularisation of the public realm. Mainstream religious communities have a central role to play; whilst extremist narratives require compelling counter-narratives that have a strong theological and ideological foundation.

Cohesion, courage and stability are all needed in our response to the continuing national conversation about migration and refugees. Offering a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants is a vital expression of our common humanity, but it is not without cost and we should not be deaf to the legitimate concerns that have been expressed about the scale of population flows and the differential impact it has on different parts of society. The pressures of integration must be shared more equitably.

These deep virtues and practices – love, trust and hope, cohesion, courage and stability – are not the preserve of any one political party or worldview, but go to the heart of who we are as a country in all of its diversity. An election campaign, a Parliament and a Government that hold to these virtues give us a firm foundation on which to live well together, for the common good.

We keep in our prayers all those who are standing in this election and are deeply grateful for their commitment to public service. All of us as Christians, in holding fast to the vision of abundant life, should be open to the call to renounce cynicism, to engage prayerfully with the candidates and issues in this election and by doing so to participate together fully in the life of our communities.

In the Name of our Risen Lord,

+Justin Cantuar +Sentamu Eboracensis

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

Oh dear. Sometimes you get the feeling that a big row is unnecessary, that everyone wishes they could wind the clock back or just get out of it. The wearing of crosses in England is one of those matters. For some it is a non-issue, for others it is a matter of simple common sense, for others still it is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge.

Media reporting doesn’t help. Just as a nuanced comment about gay relationships (aspiring to the ‘virtues of marriage’ – got that?) leads to headlines proclaiming that the new Dean of St Paul’s ‘backs campaign for gay marriage’, so another game is set up to create/prove/illustrate (delete as appropriate) division between archbishops. What if there is no contradiction between their positions and this is just ‘story creation’?

The Archbishop of York rightly says that the wearing of jewellery is not a matter for government judgement. If the government wants to get involved in questions of what people wear, then I await with interest their rulings on the abolition of the burqa and the prohibition for Sikhs wearing their kirpan. This argument about someone wearing a small cross has got completely out of proportion: if jewellery is to be banned on a BA uniform, then all jewellery (including BA badges, presumably) should be banned – the ruling being based on the potential dangers in an emergency of loose or sharp jewellery. However, if it is the nature of the jewellery – in this case a cross – then that is a different matter and the argument should be one of principle about religious symbols. That this current argument has gone as far as European courts is ridiculous as it appears to most people to be a matter of simple common sense.

According to the Daily Telegraph the Archbishop of Canterbury said in Rome that “the cross had been stripped of its meaning as part of a tendency to manufacture religion. Taking as his text the account of Jesus driving the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem, he said the temple had become a ‘religion factory’ rather than a place of worship”:

I believe that during Lent one of the things we all have to face is to look at ourselves and ask how far we are involved in the religion factory… And the cross itself has become a religious decoration.

Er… isn’t that true? Is anyone seriously going to argue that the cross has become for vast numbers of people simply a piece of jewellery – a decoration devoid of any religious significance – or a sort of religious totem (or lucky charm) that substitutes for substantive faith or commitment?

The point is that both archbishops are telling the truth about the wearing of crosses. They are simply not engaged in the same argument. (It’s a bit like me saying the sky is blue, my mate saying it is covered in a layer of ozone, and the commentator saying we are bitterly divided.) Any contradiction – and they are both grown-ups, so they can differ if they wish to – is, in this instance spurious. The fact that some people are ‘angered’ by the archbishop’s comments is irrelevant: someone is always angered by whatever an archbishop says and we have all been told by journalists that we are ‘furious’, ‘angry’, ‘upset’ when all we have done is differed from a view. You’d think that all archbishops do is spend their day working out how to upset people by making outrageously sensible statements.

However, I still think it ridiculous that any government – especially a religiously illiterate one – should try to decide on questions about the wearing of a cross on clothing. This simply feeds suspicions of conspiracies against Christians. So far BA has never asked me to remove my pectoral cross when flying – and my pectoral cross is a good deal bigger than any little piece of jewellery.

I am not a fan of the Sun. I have never bought it and I never will. It partly goes back to Hillsborough and the utterly shameful – and never regretted – treatment of Liverpool fansafter 96 of them died. But, it goes deeper.

I was in Oxford last night and missed the Carling Cup Final – probably just as well, given the nerve-shredding result. However, I also missed the arguments in the Twittersphere about the Archbishop of York’s apparent endorsement of both the Sun and it’s new Sunday edition (which was launched yesterday).

In his article the Archbishop writes: “I know there will be those who will criticise me for writing in a newspaper which will be seen by many as filling the gap left by the News of the World. However I am always one for responding to change positively and embracing new beginnings – seeing the best in all people, especially in adversity.

Lent is not a time for pointing the finger at others. As Alexander Pope said: ‘To err is human, to forgive is divine.’ We should always remember that when we point the finger at other people, there are three other fingers pointing back at us! We should rejoice in new life, turning our back on what has gone before.”

Perfectly reasonable and I don’t question the Archbishop’s motive for writing his article and engaging with the paper in this way. His objection to the treatment of young people in the current market is strong and vital and I applaud it. I could not endorse the paper myself, not because I don’t applaud the attempt to bring jobs for journalists or new life out of the destructive awfulness of the phone-hacking (and related) scandals.

My problem is that people who ask for forgiveness as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their crimes need, for the sake of their own soul, to be ‘worked with’. Simply moving on is not a healthy option when (a) it helps the guilty avoid facing the reality and consequences of their crime, (b) it ignores the ongoing suffering or grievance of the victims of their crime, and (c) it has the potential to be a carefully worked con on the public.

It is important not to forget that News International not only allowed criminal behaviour to continue – with an arrogance that is still barely comprehensible – but also tried every way possible to intimidate and prevent investigation of its malpractices. Not only were the police corrupted and compromised, but also those attempting to get justice and transparency (Tom Watson MP, Nick Davies of the Guardian, etc) were repeatedly and deliberately maligned, subverted, misrepresented and fobbed off.

In other words, the same owners and business leaders who ran a company that sanctioned criminal and deeply unethical behaviour have not changed. Those who sanctioned every means of obstructing truth and justice only played the humility card when they knew they had been found out and had no other option. It is hard to see that there has been any sort of ‘repentance’ other than a fundamentally pragmatic bit of business management.

As always, I might be wrong and be missing something fundamental here. But, all my instincts lead me to take a different view from that of the Archbishop of York on this one.

Paradoxically the same outfit employs journalists at the top of their game. The contrast between the criminality at News International and the massive respect for Marie Colvin, killed last week in Syria, is stark and poignant.

However, the Sun did once get me to write a couple of hundred words about (if I remember rightly) some awful ‘search for a husband’ programme on the telly. They published a picture of my smiling face right next to the naked pneumatic breast of the said model, Jodie Marsh. It made me laugh and found itself pinned on the notice boards of various ‘friends’…

According to the commentariat the General Synod of the Church of England is obsessing about women bishops today. The twitter sphere is buzzing with it. A bit disappointing, then, that the day begins with a ‘debate’ about the plight of Christians in Nigeria. Or… about time we got some proportion into the significance of what preoccupies us (the Synod as well as the commentators)?

The new Bishop of Durham reported from a recent visit tomNigeria on behalf of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He described the situation of the church in northern Nigeria as “systematically, deliberately and progressively being eliminated”. He explored political, economic and religious developments there and reminded us of the complexity of such realities. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of “the threatened disintegration of a society under pressure from Boko Haram, one of the most extreme organisations in the world”.

The importance of this debate this morning is that it exemplifies again the vital nature of the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of York expressed the essential solidarity within the community – emphasising, as did others, that this is not just about us defending other Christians, but defending all people and minorities in Nigeria – by stating that whatever happens to ‘them’ happens to ‘us’. Hence, our prayers, support, advocacy and encouragement to politicians to use their weight in addressing this disastrous situation.

Several speakers in the debate related stories of how diocesan link relationships demonstrate their real value at times like this. Real people meet real people… on the ground… unalloyed by spin or selective reporting.

This is the heart of the Anglican Communion beating strongly: not about issues, but about fellowship in Christ, rooted in a common humanity under God, unafraid to speak truth to power.

Now back to women bishops…

The Archbishop of York preached at an ecumenical service in the Frauenkirche in Dresden this morning. This service marked the conclusion of the German celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Meissen Agreement in 1991 (obviously). It also marked the end of the Delegation Visit. We were in Meissen yesterday.

However, it wasn’t all about partying. We also had work to do and this time the theme was ‘visitation’ – which sounds unbelievably dull until you get into it. The basic question is: how do our churches provide for effective pastoral supervision and support of clergy and parishes? In both the Landeskirchen of the EKD and the dioceses of the Church of England part of the bishop’s role is to find a way of encouraging and challenging clergy and local parishes. The genius is in getting the balance right between the encouragement and the challenge.

The Germans contributing to this visit described a very thoroughly worked out approach to visitation, instigated by the bishop, but involving a team of people. Lots of paperwork is required before the team visits and meets with people involved in church and local life. Reports are written afterwards, with an emphasis on the local church identifying it’s priorities for the next five or ten years. It clearly involves a huge amount of time and resource.

This process was described at one point as ‘pulling the cupboard away from the wall and seeing where the spiders are hiding. The process leads to some clergy deciding their future ministry lies elsewhere; some parishes decide they need a change of minister. Most, however, find the whole process constructive, helpful, encouraging and challenging because it compels them to examine their corporate life and ‘own’ its future shape and direction.

In the Church of England ‘visitation’ is driven by the bishop and archdeacon. We try to minimise the bureaucracy and maximise the impact, but there is no single, simple way of doing it across the country.

The interesting point here, however, is not the specifics of how visitation is done in a particular Landeskirche or diocese, but, rather, how the exercise of thinking about it away from home – and seeing it through the eyes and experience of another culture – is immensely helpful. I might have been away from Bradford for four days, but the benefit for the Diocese of Bradford comes from the bishop thinking through how to shape the pastoral care, support, encouragement of and challenge to clergy and parishes from 2012 onwards. Amid the sheer busyness of normal life in Bradford it is hard to take a step back and think clearly; thinking with others in Dresden has been very useful and stimulating.

Basically, it looks like this. I have so far visited six out of the eight Deaneries in the Diocese of Bradford – the last two will follow before Christmas. Having by then met all the clergy and seen many of the churches and parishes, how do I best ensure from 2012 that I and my colleagues know the clergy and the contexts in which they work? What sort of achievable and manageable structure of regular visitation will help the clergy and parishes best whilst also keeping me up to speed with developments? How do I best support what is going on in the parishes?

Some see any such thinking about visitation as threatening. Indeed, we asked the Germans how these visitations are regarded by their clergy and churches: most welcome it because (a) it means they are being taken seriously, (b) it means they will get a reality check with the help of people who see from a different perspective, (c) it will force some strategic thinking, (d) it will raise confidence in the ability of the bishop to understand the realities of the particular parish’s life, and (e) it will ensure that accountability is taken seriously on all fronts.

But, some will see it as some sort of Ofsted inspection from hierarchy.

It seems to me that good management and supervision equals good pastoral care. Such visitations – however they are shaped – brings the benefit of an outside eye and must be essentially supportive. Which is the same principle as coming away and looking through the eyes of another group in order to better see and understand what is going on at home.

I referred in an earlier post to an excellent publication by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) entitled Faith in the Nation: Religion, identity and the public realm in Britain today. It was published last year and includes articles by leading religious leaders in the UK. In it Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor highlights the need for Christians (and other religious groups) to transcend their differences in order to counter the driving and intolerant forces of secular liberalism in Britain which proclaim as an absolute dogma that all views are acceptable in the public sphere except religious views.

sentamuThis has been picked up with some vigour by the Archbishop of York in yesterday’s Daily Mail. Responding to a couple of recent high-profile cases of apparent ‘victimisation’ of Christians, he goes to town on the dominant liberalism in Britain that, when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular, just doesn’t ‘get it’. Read the comments under Sentamu’s article on the website and you’ll see how many others do not even begin to understand that their own assumptions about religion are flawed.

One essential problem is that the liberal secularists assume that their own worldview is neutral, whereas that of religious people is somehow dangerously loaded. Sentamu counters with: ‘Asking someone to leave their belief in God at the door of their workplace is akin to asking them to remove their skin colour before coming into the office. Faith in God is not an add-on or optional extra. For me, my trust in God is part of my DNA; it is central to who I am and defines my place in the world. It informs my whole life, not just a weekly service on a Sunday. It is the failure to grasp this basic understanding of what it is to be a follower of Jesus Christ that lies at the heart of the problem …’

He then goes on to point out that ‘there is a deep irony at work here, and not simply because the first free schools and hospitals operating in this nation were run by the churches in our land. Those who display intolerance and ignorance, and would relegate the Christian faith to just another disposable lifestyle choice, argue that they operate in pursuit of policies based on the twin aims of ‘diversity and equality’. Yet in the minds of those charged with implementing such policies, ‘diversity’ apparently means every colour and creed except Christianity, the nominal religion of the white majority; and ‘equality’ seemingly excludes anyone, black or white, with a Christian belief in God.’

Sentamu then presses the question: ‘Of course, as a modern, forward-looking nation, we should be able to work and live together, black and white, male and female, without fear of harassment or indignity based on gender, ethnicity or disability. However, such policies also rightly point to the fact that neither should a person’s religion be the basis upon which they are subjected to any prejudice. Why then, while our children are encouraged to celebrate the religious festivals of all the major faiths, are there those in public office who seem to be ignorant of how this country’s established religion gave birth to this nation?’

This is an interesting point. During the attempt to produce a new European Constitution there was a battle over the removal from any script of any mention or acknowledgment of the Christian history of Europe. Yet Europe cannot be understood in any way without an intelligent understanding of its Christian history – for both good and ill.

I put this point to Richard Dawkins in a live TV discussion and he agreed, noting that you can’t understand art or literature without knowing the Bible or learning some theology and Christian history. Yet there are those who, seemingly for ideological reasons, cannot admit this for fear that to admit a history is to agree with what formed it. This is patently absurd. (And we saw a similar phenomenon recently on the publication of the Children’s Society report A Good Childhood when a number of commentators could not bear to draw the obvious conclusions from the evidence base on the grounds that to do so would mean them having to change their mind about their own prejudices in respect of morality, lifestyle, parenting, etc.. So much for ‘intelligent liberalism’ over against ‘illiberal religion’.)

parliamentProfessor Michael Kenny, in his excellent and helpful Conclusion to the IPPR publication, draws attention to the danger of regarding faiths as static phenomena rather than changing and mutating organisms. He says: ‘…there is a danger in open, mobile and dynamic societies that we promote and institutionalise too static and fixed an idea of national identity and culture. A more appropriate understanding of national identity in a society like Britain needs to allow room for a sense of the complex interweaving of indigenous and newer traditions and the establishment of important cultural hybrids that permit individuals to experience their sense of religiosity as nested within a broader sense of national belonging.’

He then goes on to observe that we must take a longer-term view of such healthy social developments: ‘Such an approach faces a major challenge from the rigid and dichotomous polarisation that afflicts debate about migration, citizenship and religion in Britain. In response to this frozen discourse, we need to reach beyond familiar orthodoxies about the need to separate faith and the public realm and lazy caricatures about the harms associated with religious practice. Such a shift of perspective is particularly overdue among political ‘progressives’, many of whom still take their bearings from the secularist ambition of removing religion from state and public square, and the unquestioned premise that religious belief is only ever a source of division within the body politic… There is an overwhelming need in the UK for consideration of which kind of model is now most appropriate as a template for the regulation of the secular public sphere, and for the development of law and policy in the context of religious diversification.’

Kenny then makes a statement that should be blindingly obvious, but lies at the heart of the frustration articulated by the Archbishop of York and others: ‘A faith-sensitive approach should not be regarded as necessarily a faith-sympathetic one.’ In other words, you don’t have to agree with a Christian worldview to acknowledge that it is no more loaded and no less neutral than that of the secular humanist.

Sentamu ends his piece with a bit of bluff-calling. Those who moan about the situation facing Christians such as the praying nurse and the emailing school secretary should put their body where their words are and re-engage with the worshipping communities we call local churches:

‘For the millions of people in this country who profess a trust in God, these recent stories represent not only an insult to their common sensibility but also a sign of a growing gap between the mindset of the governing and the governed. The requirement of common consent that underpins any operation of the democratic contract is being placed under strain by those who, with the best of motives, are making the worst of mistakes. My challenge, then, to the 72 per cent of this nation who marked themselves as ‘Christian’ in response to the census of 2001 is that if they wish to safeguard that same Christian tradition, they must renew their faith and become actively involved in their local church. For those who despair at the treatment meted out to these Christian women, the message is clear: wake up, Christian England!’