I have been a little occupied recently. I legally became the Bishop of Leeds on Sunday in a legal ceremony (called Confirmation of Election) at York Minster. We did the legal preliminaries before the big event, then concluded during the service attended by nearly 3,000 people. This was the first event at which all parts of the new diocese came together to celebrate a new beginning – and it was, thanks to the wonderful Minster staff – a great event: four cathedral choirs, a brass ensemble, an excellent church worship band, visitors from home and abroad, and full of colour. My friend and German counterpart as co-Chair of the Meissen Commission, Bischof Professor Friedrich Weber, did a reading – as did Professor Michael Clarke, chair of the Dioceses Commission which kicked off the whole transformation business in the first place.

What didn't come over in the service was the enormous amount of sheer hard work put in to the transition towards the creation of the new diocese by an army of brilliant people. The closer you get to the detail of the processes we are going through and the more you realise just how complex and demanding the whole business is. I would want to pay tribute to the unseen shapers of the infrastructure upon which we shall build the new diocese, orientated by a fresh and creative articulation of our vision. Watch this space, but hats off to the 'workers'.

While all this has been occupying my mind and time, some big questions have arisen in the world around us. I haven't had time or space to follow all the detail, but, sitting on a train to London, the following questions come to mind:

1. What are the 'British values' that Michael Gove wants taught in our schools? In what way are they 'British'? Who decides what is a 'British value'? (As I keep proposing, 'Britishness' is something we keep creating and not merely something we inherit from a real or imagined glorious past.)

2. Who is driving strategy for the British Humanist Association? To ride on the back of the 'Trojan horse' to attack faith schools seems particularly inept and disingenuous when all the schools involved are state schools. Has someone missed something here – or is this just another case of prejudice leading to narrow propaganda?

3. When did 'diversity' become a virtue as opposed to a phenomenon? The word describes a reality, but it has become elevated to a virtue or value that has to be uncritically revered. As Mark Easton points out, one man's diversity is another woman's extremism. So, what are the limits of diversity, who sets them, and according to which criteria?

4. Does Ofsted retain any credibility? Either they were inept when they last did their work on these schools, or they are inept now. How are we to judge the judgements of any Ofsted inspections – a question asked well before the latest credibility crisis? (This is tied in with the question of centralisation and accountability: a political dogma that proclaims decentralisation and the virtue of the small state has somehow managed to remove local accountability and replace it with centralised accountability to the Secretary of State. And nobody laughed…)

5. Who allows Sepp Blatter to run world football as a personal fiefdom, refusing even to disclose his salary? And why does the rest of the footballing world collude in this travesty?

That's all.

 

I have been too busy with work to write anything useful or interesting for a week or so. Which means that the Church Mouse beat me to an indignant questioning of journalistic nonsense.

Apart from wondering why the British media are obsessed with looking for any negative story with which to pour cold water on the Olympics – and I am not referring to the debacle that is G4S – my attention was grabbed by the ridiculous stuff about creationists being allowed to become free schools. Just follow this:

The Guardian did a piece on 17 July which ran under this headline:

Creationist groups win Michael Gove’s approval to open free schools

The subtitle then ran: Education secretary backs three schools run by groups with creationist views, raising concerns about levels of scrutiny.

The article goes on a long way before any hint of an acknowledgement that each of the schools they cite has explicitly rejected what the article accuses them of. Inevitably, the British Humanist Association wades in, hitting a phantom, striking down a straw man. The Church Mouse got in quickly and his demolition of the piece – and the story itself – was re-posted on the Guardian website (with a very nice picture).

This morning I read Deborah Ross in the Independent. She is indignant about what she has heard! And she clearly hasn’t bothered to check the story, check the sources or think about reality.

This is what happens. A story gets published with a particular ‘take’ on it. Hysteria ensues as the commentariat pitches in – not on the question at issue, but on the ‘story’… which might or might not relate to reality. This has two consequences: (a) the subjects waste a load of time fighting fires they didn’t start… about stuff they have neither said nor done (which looks defensive), and (b) the commentators move on to the next ‘story’, blessing us with their mere opinions about stuff they clearly don’t know about it.

Am I being snide or defensive? Possibly. But, it has happened to me more than once. And no one is exempt from ‘being held to account’ – not least those who stand in judgement on everybody and everything else.

Still, we live to fight another day…

I was going to write something about the 2011 Census and the campaign by the British Humanist Association against the ‘religion’ question. But, then I got back to my office and read George Pitcher’s take on it – and he is funnier than I could be.

Read his blog post (‘The religion control freaks are telling you what to think for the 2011 Census’) and then the comments below. For contrast, have a look at Richard Littledale’s recent post.

He probably won’t thank me for it, but I’m with Pitcher.

Last night I took part in a debate on the admission of humanist contributors to BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day. Organised by the Churches Media Council, it was enjoyable, but also a little odd. I have to admit to having gone into the debate batting firmly on one side, but willing to be persuaded to the other. It was on the basis of sheer free-thinking rationality that I became more convinced of the wisdom and importance of opposing the motion.

Jonathan Wynne-Jones of the Telegraph was there and has reported on his blog.

Dr Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, proposed the motion in a generous, persuasive and articulate speech, but one that was based strongly on an appeal for ‘fairness and balance’. Ariane Sherine, comedienne and journalist (and the inspiration behind the brilliant agnostibus adverts), seconded the motion, but made the mistake of reading the humanist Thought for the Day she presented on Radio 4’s ipm some months ago.

Giles FraserGiles Fraser and I opposed the motion – Giles in his usual forceful style, distinguishing between the argument for ‘inclusion’ and that for ‘distinctiveness’ in respect of the TFTD slot. I just got heckled from the irrationalists at the back who didn’t help the proposers’ cause.

It was an interesting debate, but frustrating for two reasons. First, we couldn’t really engage in a proper discussion with each other about the arguments put (leaving either side open to misunderstanding). Secondly, the degree of sentimentality behind the proposers’ presentations made me (and, I think, Giles) feel that we couldn’t be too hard or robust in our engagement with them. Then, one contributor from the floor even cited Erasmus as a giant in the great tradition of European humanism without seeming to realise that he was a Christian – or that the original humanists were theists.

Ariane SherineThe point that I feel really lost it, however, was the language that assumed (a) that humanists are free thinkers (and, therefore, theists are not), (b) that Christians believe themselves to be more moral than atheists (a caricature based on a prejudice that does not stand up to scrutiny), and (c) that statistics can be used when convenient but are being misinterpreted when inconvenient.

Sherine bookMy regret following last night was only that the four of us couldn’t have had an intelligent conversation together about the matters raised. But it was a useful reminder that rationalists must be prepared for more rational debate on the basis of rational argument (and not sentiment) and Christians must check their own assumptions about where atheists/humanists are coming from.

WWYAMC book coverAnd I still think the agnostibus adverts were brilliant. And I have still commended Ariane Sherine’s new book for Christmas in my new book about Christmas (details to follow soon).