This is the text of the article I was asked to write for this week's Radio Times. It was reported as a “lament”. It wasn't. I just thought it was quite funny.

Well, would you Adam and Eve it? Recently 3000 people took their clothes off, painted themselves blue and lay around the not-so-tropical city of Hull in varieties of heaps. All, of course, in the name of art.

 

Actually, I thought it was quite funny. I saw it on my phone while enjoying two days at the General Synod talking about sex. So, it seemed both timely and amusing.

 

What is it with nakedness at the moment. You can hardly turn the telly on without finding someone wanting to take their clothes off. I thought Big Brother was embarrassing, but clearly that was just the appetiser for Love Island, Naked Attraction, and Life Stripped Bare. At least the new paradise-building Eden (soon to arrive on Channel 4) has the islanders keep their clothes on – probably wise given the climate.

 

We'll come back to that in a minute. First, though, it might be worth knocking on the head one or two misapprehensions about religion, bodies and nakedness. The story in the Old Testament book of Genesis has Adam and Eve (man and woman) doing a naughty and then realising that they were naked. So, they run away and hide in the bushes in the garden. Which is reasonable.

 

But, the point of this is not that they were naked – that is, clothes-free; it is that they realised they were transparent… or, as we might put it, they knew they could be seen through. And this transparency was felt to be threatening rather than promising. So, they hid. And, funnily enough, it is God who comes looking for them (not the other way around) in order to find them and make sure they were OK for the future despite the mess they had got themselves into.

 

What is odd these days, however, is that some people seem to jump at any opportunity to get their kit off. Especially if there is a camera nearby. What is it that drives people to want to have not only their body, but also their character, habits and personality laid bare for an audience of voyeurs to criticise? What strange motivation lies deep within them that makes exhibitionism seem an attractive option?

 

I guess what lies behind these questions is the blurring of the lines between what used to be called the private and the public. Whereas society has developed conventions about what should be legitimately exposed and what should be kept private, it seems that contemporary society has binned these and invited the beautiful people to bare more than their souls in the name of the great god Entertainment.

 

Oh dear. That's wrong, isn't it? And now it’s not just the beautiful people. The telly is full of programmes about ugly people, people trying to cover up dodgy tattoos, operations that went wrong, weird people trying to make themselves attractive. And all in full public gaze. Why?

 

Maybe the ubiquity of social media has something to do with it? If breakfast used to be a matter of private interest, now the whole of Twitter needs to know what I eat. Obviously. The barriers are down, everything is open, nothing is hidden. Politicians and others in public life have their lives shredded by a prurient and ruthless media monster, insatiable in its appetite for flesh.

 

I am not sure this is entirely healthy. If the Internet has given our kids open access to all sorts of distorted views of what it is to be human – that beautiful and idealised bodies are to be valued above all else – then perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at some of the identity and self-esteem problems faced by them as they grow through adolescence towards adulthood.

 

In which case, Love Island lies at one extreme of exhibitionist fantasy, whereas at least the Hull nudists were just ordinary people with ordinary bodies in ordinary shapes and sizes.

 

Still, there must be some places where it still is right to shout, “Get yer kit on!”.

The key to surviving the General Synod of the Church of England is to have a book on the go that has nothing to do with church business. Or church.

I have just finished the excellent ‘A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney’ by Martin Gayford. Hockney spends a lot of time looking. Not just spotting something and drawing it, but looking. He describes how he looks for a very long time – hours and days – at, for example, a group of trees. The book ranges over time, space, colour, place, depth, and much besides. And it is beautifully illustrated.

The problem is that it provides a lens through which to look at and think through the business of the church as mediated through the General Synod. No escape there, then.

We began yesterday (after worship and a very odd choice of an unsingable hymn) with an address by the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil in Iraq. This was a powerful first-hand account of what is happening to Christians at the hands of Islamic State. The plight is dire and the plea for help is urgent.

It always jars to move from such a matter to the legislative business of the Church of England – even though that is basically what the General Synod is for. But, it rams home the fact that life has to carry on despite the mess of the world. We then ranged over a variety of matters before departing in the evening. Today is taken up with four reports aimed at reorienting the Church of England for the future, aimed at focusing our attention on our core vocation: making disciples (followers) of Jesus Christ and shaping the church at every level for its core mission.

It could be expressed like this: how does the church, in all its variety of context and reach, create the space in which different sorts of people can be invited to join us in following Jesus in the particular contexts in which we live, work, play, and give our lives? This involves worship, outreach, evangelism, pastoral care, nurture, learning, arguing together, and so on.

Of course, the bit of this that has hit the media radar is the so-called Green Report. The coincidence of its launch with the depressing news about HSBC’s tax evasion behaviour is … er … unfortunate. But, a half-rational mind would realise that, putting the easy target to one side (how can the church be advised on leadership by a banker?), the question of how to equip church leaders for the responsibilities they carry is an important one.

Someone in public life said to me yesterday that, although she had not read the Green Report, she only had to look at her vicar to realise that some training in professional conduct would be helpful – given that he had run down his congregation over the last few years. I guess many in our churches would like to see their clergy better trained for some of the ‘management of people and stuff’ responsibilities that running a parish demands.

So, we will no doubt pick holes in this report and others. But, we cannot simply hide behind cleverness and dismissive non-engagement with serious questions about how we train and equip leaders for what we are asking them to do. The Green Report should have been translated for its ultimate audience; it might even start from the wrong place and use the wrong language; the process of its genesis might well not be ideal; it might well make assumptions about the nature and exercise of leadership and the nature of the church. Fine. But, the criticisms still don’t address the question of how we do then invest in ensuring that church leaders in the future are better equipped to do what is expected of them.

When I was Bishop of Croydon I initiated a clergy leadership development programme and recruited an experienced colleague to create, develop and facilitate it. Some in the diocese were sceptical – about any suspicion of ‘management’. However, this programme involved peer cell groups of six clergy in their first post-curacy post, residential training, expert coaching, and so on. It was a heavy investment. But, it was an attempt to take clergy seriously and build their confidence in their own competence. It made a huge difference to morale, and feedback from parishes about their clergy made clear the impact that went wider than the development of the clergy themselves.

This is what the church is now looking to work on. It is not a substitute for inspiration, spiritual direction, theological development or all the other holy stuff of ministry. We need to ensure that the question Green poses is not avoided by dismissal of the Green response.

There is an excellent article by Ed Stourton in today's Sunday Telegraph about the importance of good media understanding of religion (and a strong reference to the Sandford St Martin Awards which I chair).

As I keep saying (I know, I know…), the need for journalists to understand religion has nothing to do with whether they believe any of it, but because you can't understand the world without it. This is a matter of intellectual wisdom, not of evangelism. If you don't take religion seriously, you are not taking the world seriously – its politics, economics, traditions or people.

And, if you want to see just how unintelligent we have become, look at the comment thread under Ed's article.

I noted recently how the BBC was getting a new Religion Correspondent at the same time as the Times was losing theirs. And look what happens…

I went to St Paul's Cathedral in London on Saturday to see the new Bill Viola video installation, Martyrs. Later I caught up with the newspaper coverage of the launch and was pleased to see how positive most of it was. But, then I got to the Times, from whom one expects.

The article hails the victory of the powers of culture over the reactionary forces of church after ten years of wrangling to get Viola's video piece into the cathedral. Typical – the church has to be dragged kicking and screaming into a brighter cultural age. Other non-specific references are made, but unattributed and without evidence.

The heavy hitters of Britain’s art world have been deployed in a decade-long battle to persuade St Paul’s Cathedral to accept a permanent video installation in its hallowed interior, it can be revealed.

The artist and his supporters, including the directors of Britain’s most prominent galleries, almost gave up their fight to persuade elements within the Church of England to allow the first ever moving image artwork to be permanently displayed in a British cathedral or church.

See that? “Battle”. “To accept”. “Revealed”. “Fight”.

Really? So how does the reviewer David Sanderson cope with the fact that the work was commissioned by the Cathedral in the first place?

Just asking…

The video is superb: powerfully moving and commanding. Just go and see it.

But, remember the story.

 

 

The headline doesn't sound too promising, does it? But, it brings together the last couple of days before I return to Bradford tomorrow for a week of work before having a scheduled holiday the following week.

Having finished Ben Quash's excellent Found Theology, I intended to just spend the last couple of days reading German frivolous stuff. But, I started on Imaginative Apologetics, edited by Andrew Davison instead and got hooked. Serendipitously, it hangs together very well with the Quash book, although written from a different perspective and toward a different end.

Imaginative Apologetics recognises that the current irrational obsession of the New Atheists with what they think of as 'pure reason' (as if it wasn't mediated by a person who brings to the task a tradition and unargued-for presuppositions about the world, the way it is, and why it is the way it is) and 'pure science' (see above) does not need to be responded to on its own redundant terms, but that the premises of the argument can be questioned. And, to cut a long argument short, people need to be appealed to at the level of imagination and emotion – finding a consistency with real lived experience … which is more (but never less than) than 'rational' – and the Christian tradition has a huge amount to offer in this respect.

In fact, Davison himself makes the case right at the outset for Christian confidence when he writes:

The Christian faith does not simply, or even mainly, propose a few additional facts about the world. Rather, belief in the Christian God invites a new way to understand everything. (p.xxv)

He also cursorily quotes Yale's Denys Turner's observation that “the best way to be an atheist is to avoid asking certain questions”. The purpose of this is not to dismiss atheism or atheists, but to ask robust questions about the assumptions and presuppositions that lie before and behind assertions about reality and the absence of God. There is material here for good debate, if the theistic case is accorded some credibility and not simply dismissed prior to consideration. As Alison Milbank puts it, the apologetic task of the Christian is not to appeal to pure reason (as if there could be such a thing), but “to awaken in the reader this feeling of homesickness for the truth”. (p.33)

Each essay is worth reading in itself and I don't intend to go through the whole book here. However, the appeal to art, literature and the imaginative life of a human person (as well as communities) chimes in very well with the case being argued theologically by Ben Quash in his book. In other words, take culture seriously; explore and appeal to the imagination that takes reason seriously; be confident about the role of the imagination in comprehending reality.

Having read this stuff in a cafe in Basel yesterday, I then moved on to the Kunstmuseum Basel. I particularly wanted to see the Hans Holbein painting of the dead Christ (referred to by Ben Quash in his book) and the impressive Impressionist collection. There is nothing quite like an art gallery to make me feel ignorant and illiterate. I look at paintings and know that I don't know how to read them – I don't know the language. I had intended to scan the bulk of the collections and stay for longer with the stuff I knew a little about from my reading, but I found I had paid to see the special exhibition of James Ensor: The Surprised Masks.

I had never heard of James Ensor. I realised I had come across several of his works (The Fall of the Rebel Angels and The Entry of Christ into Brussels on Mardi Gras, for example) but I knew nothing about him or his art. It was stunning. The paintings were interesting, but it was the ink drawings that grabbed me. They explore death, dying, mortality and humanity – but with the sort of humour that had me laughing as I looked at them. It reminded me a little of how I felt when I read Robert Crumb's cartoon version of The Book of Genesis.

The point here is that art goes beyond pure reason (but entirely reasonably) into the imagination in a way that digs at 'truth' and pushes our perceptions of what we assume to be 'reality'.

And this, bizarrely, is what takes me on to immigration. If coming to Switzerland helped me escape some of the sterile immigration debates in England, I quickly got plunged back into them. Recently a referendum narrowly backed the view that restrictions should be imposed on immigration into Switzerland. This caused a huge storm both here and in the wider European Union: decisions have consequences. The political fall-out has been interesting to read whilst actually here in Switzerland. And 'imagination' – in the perverse, but common sense of 'fantasy' – has come powerfully into play in the rhetoric around the issue.

The friend I am staying with is employed by the Swiss Reformed Church to engage in industrial and economic matters (Pfarramt für Industrie und Wirtschaft). He was invited by the local newspaper, the bz Basel, to attend last week's opening night of a performance of Max Frisch's Biedermann und die Brandstifter and to be interviewed by the newspaper afterwards. You really have to know the play, but the performance had a twist in that the stories – in their own words – of immigrants to Switzerland were told to a surprised audience. The interview appeared today and Martin (Dürr) has been getting very supportive messages all day. In the interview – which is amusing as well as intelligent – he sharply calls into question the rhetoric propagated by the right wing that mass immigration is threatening the Swiss way of life. The right wing press (in some cases owned by the leader of the right wing party, the SVP) fan the flames of fear whilst simultaneously offering themselves as the saviours of the nation. Martin put it like this (my translation):

We have to draw a line. For many years the SVP has succeeded in building fears and resentments. The play exposes the mechanisms behind this. I believe there are some very respectable people in the SVP. But, the element that has the say has managed for years to present itself as both victim and saviour. This is a fascinating achievement… They present themselves as victims of the foreign masters in Brussels and of the Left and the Greens and even the remaining left wing press. These are doing terrible things to us and our Swiss identity is being destroyed – say the SVP. At the same time they get up and announce: “Comrades, don't be afraid! We offer you the antidote to this. We are the only ones to really fight to keep the Switzerland that has existed since 1291.”

Sound familiar? Create the spectre – regardless of facts and reality – and then offer a solution to the fear that you have created. It is an interesting and powerful example of political apologetics. It works on the imagination by conjuring a fantasy and then calling it reality.

We are not alone…

 

This 'away-from-home-and-reading' bit of my sabbatical is coming to an end. I haven't read as much as I had wanted to, but there is also a life to be lived (and football to be watched).

Before finishing with a couple of funny German satirical books, I spent the last couple of days reading Ben Quash's Found Theology: History, Imagination and the Holy Spirit. I am very glad I did.

Last year I asked Ben to be (Honorary) Canon Theologian of Bradford Cathedral and he agreed. He is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Kings College London and was formerly Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse in the University of Cambridge. Last summer I asked Ben to address my clergy on the subject of 'change' – given all the uncertainties about the future of the diocese in the light of proposals to dissolve three dioceses and create a single new one for West Yorkshire & the Dales (which, as we know, is soon to be a reality). In the morning he presented some of the material that is now set out in this book. (In the afternoon we had Pastor Sebastian Feydt from the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, to talk about radical change and its effects – he had experienced the changes in Germany from GDR to FRG at every level, including how such change affects or shapes your theology.)

If Ben had told me beforehand that he would begin with a brief study of modal auxiliaries in English language, I would probably have advised against it on the grounds that … er … it doesn't sound very … er … likely to enthral the busy clergy mind. It was absolutely riveting. Since then, I have waited for the book and for the time to read it properly – even though some bits made me feel a bit dim and slow.

I am not going to attempt to review it here. Suffice to say that this beautifully written book ranges through language, translation, art, poetry, the naming of cats, Bible, text, hermeneutics, history, philosophy, christology and pneumatology. And, yes, that was 'the naming of cats'. I rarely read a 'theology' from cover to cover, but I did this one. Basically, he wants the reader to see that the Holy Spirit breathes through the space that engages our imagination (in its proper meanings), re-lighting the past and shaping the future. En route he has important things to say or suggest about how the church is to handle new phenomena in the light of a proper reading of and handling of scripture – something pertinent to current ethical debates in and beyond the church.

I quote the opening of the first chapter on 'Historical finding':

The theology advanced in this book understands ongoing history as a gift of the Holy Spirit, to relate us to God in Christ, and it is energetically opposed to models of doctrine that assume for it any sort of ahistorical completeness; that assume it to be a set of securely held propositions from which all necessary implications for Christian belief and practice can then be deduced in any time and place. (p.1)

 

A great lunch with the Bundestagspräsident, a former Ministerpräsident of Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (Bernhard Vogel), a French theologian and a Jewish academic – we discussed the NSA revelations, spying on Merkel, the Holocaust and other things – and then back to work.

Wo Sprache endet: Das Verhältnis von Literatur, Transzendenz und Politik was a paper delivered by Professor Dr Lydia Koelle (Bonn). I expected some sort of treatment similar to that by Rowan Williams in his book on 'Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', but what we got didn't seem to address the theme of the title. However, it led to a good question about the transference of 'trauma' from a generation of Germans who did not 'live' the Holocaust, but reads 'trauma' back into an experience that was not actually lived as a trauma by those who actually went through it. (I might be doing this session an injustice, but it was the post-lunch slot and we had wine with lunch…)

Zwischen Medialisierung, Religionskonflikt und Rückkehr der Figuration: Religion in der Kunst am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts saw Dr Johannes Rauchenberger (Graz, Austria) illustrate how contemporary morally-challenging events are handled in art – for example, Razoume (?) on the recent Lampedusa migration deaths.

Ulrich Khuon, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, was really interesting about theatre and film as he addressed the theme Glaube, Welt und die Kunst des Spiels: Kino und Theater als Seismographen der Gegenwart. He began with Pasolini observing Jesus from a distance in his 'Gospel of St Matthew', then ranged widely around Friedrich Schiller, Mallick and Julian Barnes in relation to death, suffering and the human condition.

Zwischen Skandal und neuer Kunstreligion: Das zwiespältige Verhältnis von Künsten und Religion in der Öffentlichkeit, an exploration of how art provokes and challenges, saw Professor Dr Wolfgang Ullrich (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) tackle public responses to (a) Gerhard Richter's east window in Cologne Cathedral, and (b) Martin Kippenberger's 'Crucified Frog'. Both caused huge controversy: the former because it subverts both the architctural form and the received nature/purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, and the latter for obvious reasons. The window substitutes traditional biblical images with 11,500 four-inch 'pixels' cut from original antique glass in a total of 72 colours, dividing opinion between those (like the bishop) who hate it and those who say that “all the saints, all the parables, every thought, every idea, transcendence itself are all here in these windows”. Richter observed that the critical bishop had actually understood it: [it is] “gar nicht katholisch.”

Interestingly (and pertinently), the symposium has heard no reference in today's papers to music – a surprising omission. Mind you, there isn't time to cover everything…

I need dinner…

 

I was tempted to call this post 'Let's do the Como-tion', but I resisted. Just. I bet you are glad.

I came on from Finland early Sunday morning and flew to Milan where I joined the Germans coming in from Berlin and we were driven to Villa La Collina in Cadenabbia, overlooking Lake Como. Having not slept a wink last night, I found the lectures and discussions today quite hard going. Even chatting at dinner was a strain.

This villa is the conference centre (Accademia) of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. Konrad Adenauer was the remarkable first Chancellor of Germany after the Second World War, taking up office in 1949. His Stiftung (foundation) does some really excellent work on the relation between society, religion, culture and politics (among other research and other themes). This one is titled: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung.

The first day (having arrived at 2pm, we started on the work at 3.30pm) tackled the theme: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. The first paper was by Professor Marcia Pally of New York University and she presented a paper (in English) on Covenant: Rebalancing the fractures and freedoms of Modernity. Basically, it was about the essential relatedness of human beings (although quoting Moltmann on 'relatedness' without reference to 'creation' is a bit weird) and the essential nature of relationality to human flourishing (my term).

The second paper was by Professor Dr Rolf Schieder (Humboldt-Universität, Berlin) and titled: Spiritualität und Glaube – und die Kirchen? Empirische Befunde in Europa. This was really a interesting survey of research into 'religion' (commitment and expression) and 'spirituality' in Europe – referencing the differences between neighbouring European countries in some surprising ways ('religious' getting a higher rating than 'spiritual' in Germany, but the opposite being the case in France). The ensuing discussion led to some difference of opinion about how optimistic we should be about the future of the church in Germany, given the cultural as well as 'spiritual' contribution it might make.

A long, sleepless and intense day ended with a superb paper given by the Speaker of the German Parliament (Bundestagspräsident), Professor Dr Norbert Lammert, on Kunst, Politik und Öffentlichkeit (Art, polotics and public space). He basically posed a fundamental question: how do you measure the soul of a society? He went on to consider truth, democracy, culture and the need for a [written] Constitution (which, of course, we do not have in the United Kingdom). He stated that culture is not an ornament of society, but is fundamental to society… and that although art has a claim on the State, the State has no claim on art or culture. The discussion was fascinating and detailed, but I was struggling to keep my concentration because of extreme tiredness… and will need to re-read the paper more slowly. (The paper will be published along with others in due course.)

Enough for now.