Yesterday saw the return to planet earth of the Canadian commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield. During his time orbiting our little planet he has sent some extraordinary photographs of space, the ISS itself and the planet. I came across him on twitter and was hooked.

Looking down from a great height grants a new perspective to the viewer. Tied up in the detail of living in a big and complex city, it is easy to lose sight of the 'big picture' and the meaning of it all. I was only 10 when Apollo 8 took the first human beings out of earth's orbit and sped them around the moon and back. They became the first human beings ever to see the earth in its entirety from space – and their photographs became the most beautiful and iconic images ever seen. Looking back at the earth changed for ever the way we saw our life on and exploitation of the earth.

Chris Hadfield did something similar in that he gave access to the mystery of meaning by capturing views from a great height in such a way as to put the preoccupations of daily living into a larger context. He posted hundreds of mesmerising images on twitter and then did a David Bowie cover video before returning back to Kazakhstan in the Soyuz capsule. If he ever gives up being an astronaut, he clearly has a fantastic career ahead of him in media and communication.

There's nothing original in all of this. It just brings to my mind the words of the Psalmist who, looking at the starry sky at night, asked: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, who are we that you are mindful of us, human beings that you care for us?” (Psalm 8) Confronted by the mystery of the enormity and beauty of the cosmos, why do we think we even matter?

Well, there is a time and place for such contemplation and the writing of such poetry. But, look down again and we are caught up in the mystery of human fallibility and the limitless capacity of human beings to do appalling things to one another and to the planet. It is sometimes hard to hold onto the beauty in the face of the horror. Events in Syria easily blend into 'big stuff' that we cannot comprehend and so push to the back of our consciousness; feeling helpless, we filter it out – even reports of a rebel eating the heart of a government soldier.

Yet, here is the rub. That heart belonged to a person who is a brother, a son, a husband, a neighbour. The death and post-mortem abuse of this person changes for ever the lives of individuals and communities. Even in the context of the enormous cosmos, we still think that what happens to a unique person matters. Why?

This has been brought home to us in England most acutely by the stories of intentional, cruel, exploitative grooming of young girls by gangs of men. The trials in Oxford that concluded yesterday beg huge questions about a society that claims to be civilised whilst allowing such behaviour to continue for so long. And every individual girl or boy involved matters infinitely. It is hard – though vital – to hold onto the beauty and meaning of the universe and human life whilst staring human cruelty and exploitation in the eyes.

The best commentary I have read thus far is by the BBC's excellent Mark Easton. He puts his finger on the sensitive question of whether we just find it too hard to address some questions when 'community cohesion' or 'race' are involved. He is dead right. And just as racism is an evil to be exposed and rooted out, so is a refusal to name things for what they are. The element the media and politicians (in particular) need to pay attention to in these matters is language and category: the fact that someone is a Muslim does not mean that Islam is what drives him to abuse young girls or boys; the fact that someone is nominally (or tribally) Christian does not mean that it is Christianity that makes them behave atrociously. As I noted in an earlier post, ethnicity and religion should not be confused: they are not synonymous.

What lies under all this is an uncomfortable anthropological reality: the human propensity to commodify anything we can lay our hands on. We turn people into objects for exploitation, sale or entertainment (look at the tabloid media, for example); we turn the earth into a Swiss cheese, forgetting that the one thing not being made any more is land and what lies underneath it. Child sexual exploitation powerfully dehumanises both victims and perpetrators; the victims need to be defended and liberated, the perpetrators need to be held accountable and be reminded that moral accountability – integral to human being – demands justice. People are not commodities.

The great Bruce Cockburn puzzles over this stuff – the contrast and tension between the beauty of the cosmos and human being on the one hand and the inhumane bestiality of some human behaviour – when he writes:

Amid the rumours and the expectations and all the stories dreamt and lived

Amid the clangour and the dislocation and things to fear and to forgive

Don't forget about delight…

 

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The last week has been a bit … er … busy. But, that didn't stop the questions flying around my head.

1. How does the press manage (a) to have the brass neck and (b) not to laugh when telling the rest of us that they alone should be accountable only to themselves? Everyone else must be regulated, reported on, “held to account”, but the press must be completely “free” – to shred people's lives with impunity. Leveson's recommendations on statutory underpinning were made precisely because no one trusts bodies that want to run their own regulation. The point of regulation is that it should be independent – and self-selecting bodies don't fit that bill.

2. Would Leveson create a Soviet scenario? Don't be ridiculous. Comparisons with Pravda are utter nonsense and the newspaper industry knows it. If any of these guys had ever read Pravda, they would know that like is not being compared with like.

3. Will the Archbishop of Canterbury ring the changes in and for the Church of England? Who knows? He needs the space to recover from the last couple of days and then get down to business. Tough call, but he will be backed by his bishops as the brown stuff is poured on him.

4. Whose agenda is running when the BBC report his sermon at Canterbury Cathedral yesterday and remark at the beginning that he didn't mention women bishops or gay marriage and conclude by saying that he won't be able to escape these issues for long? Remarkable! If he had referred to these issues, the church would have been accused of being obsessed with gender and sex; he didn't, so we are accused of running away from them for a day. It isn't the church that is obsessed with these issues to the exclusion of all else, is it?

5. Why did I sell my best fantasy league players and get stuck with the ones that get injured or earn me no points? Never, ever, take me on as a football manager.

What a way to go out?

Dr Rowan Williams celebrates his first day of freedom from office with a brilliant documentary journey through Canterbury Cathedral: Goodbye to Canterbury. The BBC at its best and Rowan at his best: brilliant, poetic, articulate, fascinating, stimulating, educative, erudite, clear.

I still maintain – as I have consistently – that the 'Rowan is too hard to understand' narrative was mostly an excuse by lazy commentators who couldn't be bothered to work at thinking.

In this programme – written and presented by Rowan himself – he proves himself to be an adept communicator and media operator. How embarrassing for so many to have written him off so easily.

In this wonderful programme we have poetry, art, history, music, aesthetics, theology, philosophy, drama, beauty, honesty, storytelling, ecclesiology, evangelism, rhetoric, social analysis, realism, education, communication, interpretive clarity, personal reflection, politics, economics, explanation, and more besides.

Perhaps Rowan might be persuaded to do more of this now he has left office?

There is something about English culture that is self-destructive. We are expert at missing the point and getting proportion wrong. The BBC is one of the most respected news organisation in the world, but we just love pulling it down. And some of those gleefully doing the demolition are precisely those who couldn’t command respect if it was nailed to them.

So, George Entwistle falls on his sword after only 54 days in the top job. Maybe, for pragmatic reasons, he was wise to go. But, it must be obvious that anyone coming into what he had dumped on him was going to struggle to keep the show going – especially as a major part of his brief was to oversee substantial change in the way the BBC is run. Almost every voice today combines horror at Newsnight‘s disastrous editorial choices (something to do with removing the top editor recently?) with total respect for a good, competent and honourable man.

So, what good has been done by his resignation? And do we really think that the rolling of further heads will do anything to resolve the problems and strengthen BBC editorial processes – rather than simply create further lacunae in both structure and confidence?

Of course, all this is put into context by today’s acts of remembrance. The narrative against which we measure our honourability as a society is a mixed one of conflict and peace, success and failure. No one can look back honestly at British history without recognising both glory and dishonour – violence runs through it like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. If we didn’t have Remembrance Day, we would have to invent it – because we need to step back at least one day each year and remember our story, how we came to be where we are, and the cost (in every respect) of getting here.

In Bradford this morning we stood around the Cenotaph under cloudless blue skies and watched in silence as the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan came forward and placed wreaths and crosses against photographs of their young men. The poignancy of that kiss transferred from a mother’s lips to the face of a son who will never grow old or weary. It was almost too much. These aren’t just names etched into stone or bronze; these are too immediate, too present in their absence.

Getting these events right is not easy. How do we remember the fallen and those who sacrificed so much so long ago… whilst avoiding any romanticism, blind patriotism, escapist fantasy or fictionalising of history? We did it through prayers of sorrow and recognition, pledges of commitment to peace and human flourishing, statements of reconciliation and mutuality. Easily spoken, hard to do.

The point for me in all this (which is why I am recording it here for the sake of my own memory) is that reconciliation can only come from a courageously honest recognition of the messed-up-ness of human life and history. I served on the intelligence side of the Falklands War in 1982 and still have memories of the moral ambiguities involved in that. But, the narrative I (as a Christian) am held to is one that calls us to give up our life in order that the world might see who and how God is – lived out in the flesh and blood of those who bear his name (and, therefore, his character). It is shaped like a cross.

The BBC will survive because there are enough sensible people around who take a long-term view and see the detail of the current aberration only in the context of the enormous canvas of good the BBC does and is. And Remembrance Day will also drag our consciousness away from romanticism and escapism into the brutally real facing up to what human beings do to each other in the complicated name of ‘power’.

Some years ago, when we were camping in Normandy, I took my then young (and younger) son to visit a huge World War One cemetery. We both sat in silence before the enormity of death laid out over silent acres. It isn’t good poetry, but this is what I wrote on a scrap of paper while sitting on the wall:

A field of white stones

and simple crosses

with wishful words

and solemn epitaphs.

Known unto God means

we hadn’t a clue who he was.

Just another mangled inconnu

in a field of bloody might-have-beens.

Rest in peace sounds like an apology

for the hostility and brutality

of his untimely death.

I did not know him,

nor do I know those who miss him,

who still, half a world away,

miss the sound of his voice

and hear the agony of his eternal silence.

But I, also an inconnu, a nobody,

whisper an apology at his space,

and pray silently

for never again

and not for mine.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest Caliban retorts to Prospero:

You taught me language, and my profit on ‘t
Is I know how to curse. (Act 1, Scene 2: 437-438)

What is it about us that seems hell-bent on turning anything good into something bad? Words are wonderful, but they can be used to kill. Science progresses with techniques for curing and healing, but the same technology gets diverted into ways of killing ever more efficiently. Why? What is wrong with us?

Well, none of this is new if you are remotely familiar with any Christian theology… or basic human experience. But, in relation to current news stories, I make two rather simply observations: first re the Jimmy Savile horror story, and second re racism in football.

Various churches have had to pay heavily for allowing the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable people over decades. Quite right, too. Yet there has been a hint of a suspicion in some quarters that those doing the gloating about the nasty churches might one day need to defend themselves and their own institutions on similar terms. No schadenfreude here – just a fear that the problems experienced in the churches have less to do with the churches’ theology and more to do with common human propensities.

The BBC is now under scrutiny and certain newspapers scream at the BBC in judgement – seemingly oblivious to the moral questions hanging over their own treatment of vulnerable people. The BBC faces serious scrutiny and it clearly needs it. For Savile to have been able to exploit its culture for so many decades raises serious questions that must be (and will be) addressed.

But, those pointing the fingers now might need to be a little cautious in their judgements. They might be next. For the basic truth about all this stuff is that human beings have a tendency to turn goodness into badness, to exploit weakness and power, to put self-preservation before truth, and to pervert what began beautiful.

This applies to the banks, businesses that pay no taxes, media organs that treat people like commodities for the entertainment of others, clergy who abuse trust and abase the ‘good news’ they are supposed to represent. As we keep having to remind those who uncritically (and sometimes mindlessly) accuse religion for all the world’s ills, the worst abuses of human life in the twentieth century came from anti-religionists such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. These are human problems, not just problems to be nailed to people we don’t like.

In other words, this stuff goes right back to being human and not just part way to what humans say motivates them.

This is another reason why people like me get fed up with accusations that Christians are escapists, whilst humanists are people who ‘take responsibility’ for themselves. Christianity is rooted firmly in this world, in facing reality and taking direct responsibility for the whole shebang. The cross of calvary involves God and us looking the sad reality of the human condition in the eye and naming it for what it is. No romantic escapism; no fantasising that if we just tried harder everything would be OK; no wishful thinking about ‘myths of progress’ that seem somehow to end up lying in pools of other people’s blood dripping from the altar of someone else’s tribal ego.

Francis Spufford calls this “the human propensity to fuck things up” (HPtFtU). The Bible calls it ‘sin’. Take your pick, but the former spells out what the latter means after we have drained it of all the negative associations piled onto it as the shorthand that means all Christians are miserable self-haters. No, we are lovers whose experience cries out for some explanation, if not excuse. Read Spufford’s wonderful Unapologetic to see how he deals with this universal feature of human being. (And read Stephen Cherry for a reflection on the book.)

This is where the racism stuff comes in. I am writing this while Liverpool are giving away a two-goal lead against Everton – football being the game that houses racism (leaving match fixing to cricket, doping to cycling and competitive-dadness to Monopoly). Yes, we must do all we can to expose racism wherever it comes to light. Yes, we must legislate against behaviours and language that represent a curse within our society, blighting lives and scarring all of us with sheer nastiness. But, no, we shouldn’t be surprised that these things go on and will not be eradicated by all our best efforts.

As I once said to a neighbour in a General Synod debate on something or other: it is easy to win a vote – but winning the vote does not mean we have won the hearts and minds.

Unless HPtFtU is taken seriously – and the alternative is escapism, romanticism, fantasy, wishful thinking, etc – we will continue to bow at the altar of the sort of relativism that we see in our press: assuming that the best guide to moral goodness is merely that we know we are better than [insert chosen ‘monsters’]. (Which, of course, means that we might be well down the moral pecking order, but at least we are not as low as…)

Ferdinand (not Rio or Anton) bleats to Prospero in The Tempest:

I warrant you sir;
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardour of my liver.

Says it all, really.

(And, Christianity doesn’t stop at realism or diagnosing the problem of the human condition; it offers a response that takes the human condition seriously. Start with Easter…)

We should expect better, but sometimes you just have to despair.

A link to a BBC website this morning led me to the following quote by the Editor of the Church of England Newspaper (sic):

Editor of the Church of England Newspaper, Colin Blakely, said dioceses across the country were facing serious problems that were partly due to declining church attendance. He said: “With such a massive drop in the number of people going [and] the number of people who are giving to the church – that’s going to affect all sorts of things.” Three dioceses had already been merged in the north of England because of declining revenues, he said.

This little organ really should change its name as it is not the ‘Newspaper of the Church of England’. That aside, and allowing for the possibility that the editor has been either misunderstood or misinterpreted, what he says is decontextualised nonsense and the last bit a downright lie.

First, projections to 2057 assume nothing happens between now and then – that you can draw a straight line from now until then. Just take a moment to reflect on that.

Second, that numbers affect money, and that this “affects all sorts of things” is such a bland truism that it beggars belief it was even said.

Third, and most seriously, three dioceses in the north of England have not been merged and finance is not the driving factor in proposals to merge three dioceses. In fact, finance rarely comes into it. It is about a pile of other stuff – like better support of clergy and parishes, more flexibility of development of clergy, etc. – and not about money. None of the three dioceses has financial alarm bells ringing.

So, my question is: is the quoted editor going to demand a retraction?

This lazy reportage, in which disconnected factors are linked together, owes everything to the inability of some journalists to avoid squeezing everything into a single assumed narrative: that church is defined by ’emptying pews’ and everything we do is aimed at stopping people leaving or saving money.

It’s enough to make you weep.

Oh no! The Archbishop of Canterbury has lost his inhibitions, thrown caution to the wind, and – in a massive scoop for the media – has slagged off the government in a book to come out after he has left office in 2013. It must be his considered revenge, mustn’t it?

Even the BBC website has him “dismiss[ing] David Cameron’s ‘big society’ initiative as ‘aspirational waffle'”.

The story broke with the Observer claiming to “have obtained” the book. Just how clever is that?

Has it occurred to any of these guys that the book is a collection of speeches and writings already given over the last few years? In other words, the scripts are all public anyway and have been for some time. The headline story about Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ was, I think, delivered before the last election.

So, why is this now puffed up into a sensation story? Why is it presented as if it was anything new? Why did any editor think this could possibly be a ‘story’ unless it was misleadingly represented as ‘new’?

Or, just like (a) when the riots hit England last year and we were constantly asked why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, and (b) when St Paul’s Cathedral steps were Occupied and we were constantly aksed why the Archbishop of Canterbury was making no comments, why did no journalist go back to their previous ‘scandal’ story and recall that the Archbishop of Canterbury had actually spoken very loudly about all these matters in articles and speeches – not least the New Statesman editorial that politicians and journalists castigated him for?

Is such amnesia deliberate? Or is there some other explanation?

[Note on 25 June: I notice that John Bingham got the story right in the Telegraph.]