I came to London today to sit on a panel at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide annual conference in Westminster. Other panelists were Ruth Gledhill (Times Religion Correspondent), John Coles (New Wine) and Fiona Bruce (MP for Congleton), and it was chaired by Steve Clifford (General Director of the Evangelical Alliance). It was surprisingly good fun and stimulatingly lively.

My main point was to encourage greater confidence by religious people – Christians in particular – in occupying the space they have… and not to react to everything 'offensive' in victim mode. Ruth Gledhill articulately explained the role of journalists and editors, castigated religious people for not getting 'good news' stories into the press, and told them to use the clout they already have for raising concerns about issues of religious freedom. I concurred, noting that Christians need to look first in the mirror when moaning about failures to tell our stories – asking ourselves who is to blame for this. (Earlier Os Guinness had noted that the primary casualty of religious bad news was the failure of Christians to love one another in public.)

Of course, the other media angle is simply that religious groups often simply want to 'get their message over' – which is hopeless in the new world of social media in which 'interconnectivity' and 'interactivity' are the key features of discourse. We now engage in a conversation and not in a monologue. The message emerges from the conversation and its mode.

It is always a little difficult to deal briefly and concisely with complicated issues. However, I did describe the contemporary conflict of 'freedoms' as a 'crisis of liberalism': that once we claim equality and equal validity of any opinion (including the right to be offended, etc.), it becomes hard to deal with conflicts in rights/freedoms. We are left with having to establish hierarchies of value or rights, and this is problematic. In other words, if my freedom compromises your freedom, who judges which is to have priority – and against which criteria?

I also sat there recalling silently on the eve of Remembrance Day that more religious people died in non-religious conflicts in the twentieth century than in all previous nineteen centuries put together.

Anyway, I had to leave afterwards and missed the people who were to reflect on cases of religious persecution around the world. (Of course, we had agreed earlier that 'marginalization' and the 'religious illiteracy' of media people and politicians do not constitute 'persecution'.)

And my Fantasy League team is doing rubbish today…

Richard Littledale is a Baptist minister in Middlesex and has built a following on his blog, Twitter and through broadcasting on BBC Radio 2. Having published two books on ‘preaching’, his latest book goes back to the basics of good communication. Who Needs Words? takes the reader into the rich world of modern communications, addressing themes around ‘fundamentals’, ‘practice’ and ‘how to make progress’.

I wrote the Foreword to the book, so it might seem obvious that I would commend it. But, I do so because it is the sort of book to give confidence to those who feel a bit daunted by the plethora and complexity of modern communications media. It is intended to be a handbook, written from a Christian perspective, but offering good stuff to anyone interested in communicating better.

Richard offered a good example of how media interconnectivity works by heralding publication with weeks of tweeted quotations, blogged extracts and a wide range of tempting questions – making the book itself land on fertile ground. It’s good to practise what you preach!

Reading this has also opened my mind to wider questions of culture, theology, world view and communication. These questions never go away, but sometimes the stimulus peaks. I have just ordered (but, obviously, not yet read) the new book by Stanley Hauerwas entitled Learning to Speak Christian.

The review I read of it reminded me of Walter Brueggemann’s great book Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles. In it he reminds the Christian community, now ‘in exile’ in a strange post-Christendom land, of the need to keep alive the ‘language of home’. This itself echoes the cry of the exiles in Babylon (Psalm 137): ” How do we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” This isn’t just a plaintive snivelling by self-pitying losers; rather, it is the gut-wrenching soul-searching of a people for whom the evidence of their eyes and of their immediate experience denies all that they have believed about God, the world and meaning. Their understanding of history, the assumptions about their identity, even the language they use is called into question by their predicament.

The same question is a real one today. How does the Christian community keep its confidence and it’s language alive when both are threatened by a changed and changing culture? It is not enough to simply retreat into nostalgia or to bemoan current conditions; instead, we need to grapple intelligently and creatively with the roots of the Christian world view and learn to use a language that expresses what Brueggemann calls ‘newness after loss’.

The third book is one that uses words so well that it cuts across much of the mythologising, generalising and complexity of the world’s inter-religious coexistences and conflicts. The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold is subtitled Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. The book comprises 34 journalistic dispatches from Africa (Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia) and Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines). The research is detailed as well as academic and relational. She puts flesh and blood onto the histories of these conflicted countries and exposes why they are the way they are. She is both critical and generous in her judgements, seeking always to understand and interpret, not simply to judge or categorise.

Reviews were mixed because she leaves implicit what many would want to be made explicit; but that is, I think, a strong point of the narrative. Anyone involved in or interested in the modern world should read this excellent book. Contemporary conflicts (I am most interested in Sudan because of the diocesan link between Bradford and Northern Sudan) are explained and illustrated – and all in an accessible way. It is the most helpful and explanatory book on the subject that I have read for a long time.

In her Epilogue she says:

Religious strife where Christians and Muslims meet is real, and grim, but the long history of everyday encounter, of believers of different kinds shouldering all things together, even as they follow different faiths, is no less real. It follows that their lives bear witness to the coexistence of the two religions – and of the complicated bids for power inside them – more than to the conflicts between them.

This observation is one well illustrated also in William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain.

OK, it’s a tacky title from a tacky song. But, I was reminded of it during a fascinating cross-cultural session at the College of Bishops meeting in Oxford today.


Bishop Wolfgang Huber had made some great observations about the need for the church in an ‘aesthetic post-modern culture’ to find new ways of engaging people with Christian faith. In Peru all those being confirmed are required to memorise passages of the Bible, creeds and other texts. The Bishop’s point was that memorising might not be exactly trendy, but it is very effective.

It is the memorising that grabbed my attention.

Charles Wesley (or his brother…) once said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. His point was that if you put a good tune to something, it is easier to remember. Then he got on and wrote hundreds of hymns to memorable and easily singable tunes.

(This once led me to observe in a different context that if you sing rubbish, you believe rubbish. It caused me endless grief when taken out of context.)

Wolfgang Huber suggested that we ought to agree on a selection of texts that all Christians should be required to remember – to commit to memory. I agree with him.

We no longer require children to learn poetry or songs. After all, anything can be looked up immediately on the phone; so, why go to the effort of memorising songs or poetry?

Well, I am useless at it. The only poetry I can remember in full is from the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band (Neil Innes) and it helpfully reads:

“I am such a pedant,
I’ve got the brain of a dead ant,
All the imagination of a caravan site…
But I still love you…”

Not exactly Shakespeare, but it stuck.

I need to think further about the power of memorising texts that become part of you. Many people have experienced the power of repeated liturgy: prayer that eventually becomes so much part of you that it prays you.

Requiring candidates for Confirmation to memorise a creed or the Decalogue or the Beatitudes might seem demanding. But, the question is whether we are demanding enough of young Christians and whether or not the memorising of texts would be helpful in maturing them in the faith.

This is not the same thing as indoctrination. It is about creating the space in which people can reflect on what has become part of their ‘vocabulary’ – their mental and spiritual language.

I will take this to the Meissen Commission at the end of this week – of which more anon.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Oxford

There we were, thinking the Anglican Communion was all about conflict and tension, scrapping and bitching, and someone has to spoil it by telling a different story. Where’s consistency when you need it?

I am in Oxford for the annual meeting of all the bishops in the Church of England. It might surprise some, but what we see and hear here blows a mighty wind through some of the preconceptions we assume to be normal.

For example, Chad Gandiya, Bishop of Harare in Zimbabwe, describes movingly how his dispossessed and oppressed people are resiliently growing the church through heroic witness to Christ and a rejection of violent resistance to the Mugabe police state. The Anglican Church in Zimbabwe – a place where the rule of law is an idea soaked in fantasy – faces enormous struggles in the face of unjust and often violent state action; but, they refuse to bend to the pressure to deny Christ. Furthermore, they depend on the solidarity and prayer of Anglicans around the world: they know they are not alone and are not abandoned.


In this place of oppression Anglican Christians have no option but to focus on what matters and not be sidetracked by other stuff (matters that preoccupy those of us who do not have enough to do). And they know how to rejoice when the pressure is on. Their song won’t be silenced – and we sang it with them this morning.

Listening to Chad, whom I last met up with in Harare, I was conscious of the importance of the strong and unique links between the Diocese of Southwark and four dioceses in Zimbabwe (the fifth, Harare, is linked with the Diocese of Rochester). And although my new diocese, Bradford, is linked with dioceses in Northern Sudan, Zimbabwe is seared into my heart.

Chad was followed by the Bishop of Peru who described a very different context for Christian discipleship and ministry. The contrast was striking. South America is a different country (if you see what I mean) and the outworking of Christian faithfulness and witness is necessarily different. Working with very poor people, the Anglican Church there (and in other parts of the Southern Cone) is deeply rooted in soil that refuses to separate discipleship from social action and pastoral care.

Bishop Wolfgang Huber was the Protestant Bishop of Berlin-Brandenburg and Chair of the Council of the EKD until his retirement a couple of years ago. Since then he has been deeply involved in national ethics bodies, writing and lecturing, and doing public theology in and through the media. He was the inspiration behind the courageous launch of a decade of reform for the EKD which will culminate in 2017, the 500th anniversary of the birth of the Reformation in Wittenberg. This has meant a sometimes reluctant church facing the reality of a changing world and asking hard questions about form and substance.

The point I am making here is really simple. There is no such thing as ‘discipleship’ that isn’t worked out in a particular context. And the context dictates the shape and priorities of that discipleship. Which is why the realities of particular contexts often generates tensions with those whose context is different: Africa is not America is not Germany is not England.

Which brings us back to the point the Archbishop of Canterbury made, following the model of Jesus himself (compare Matthew 5 with Matthew 10): disciples are first learners (incompetent) who are called to take responsibility (growing competence) and create the space in which other people can then learn and grow and take responsibility and so on.

But, the learning demands the humility of listening and not imposing my own contextual complexion on those for whom this might not be immediately appropriate. In other words, we stand back and look and listen and learn about what it means to be the Christian Church in Zimbabwe or Peru or Germany or England. And what is revealed can be enlightening, challenging, disturbing and encouraging at the same time.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Oxford

Being out and about in parishes, deaneries, meetings with individual clergy and meeting with meetings, there isn’t much headspace or time for thinking or blogging.

So, being pointed to something that promises to be interesting and stimulating always helps.

Following last year’s BBC Radio 4 A History of the World in 100 Objects, there is now a project in Oxford called A History of Christianity in 15 Objects. I guess the discrepancy in the numbers is relevant only insofar as it reflects the respective budgets and commitment of employees to the task. The series is being run by a parish church (and just how imaginative is that?) in association with the Faculty of Theology at Oxford University. The series takes place on a Monday night and runs for the current academic year. All the talks are being streamed live, and there’s a shorter podcast version available too. There are some impressive speakers, too.

There is a short audio introduction here.

I was listening to Bruce Cockburn in the car while on my way to visit one of my clergy this morning. The first track on his last album, Small Source of Comfort, is called ‘The Iris of the World’ and one verse calls into question the ability of certain people to ‘get the disconnect’ between perception and reality.

I had just been musing on two pieces of news: (a) the refusal of some prominent atheists to debate publicly with William Lane Craig – not on personalities or assertions, but arguments and evidence, and (b) the furore over the mere suggestion that people considering abortions should be offered counselling before they go ahead with the termination. It reminded me of the response to the most detailed research into the nature of childhood – the Good Childhood report by the Children’s Society – when many commentators, unable to criticise the research, decided that the conclusions were inconvenient to their chosen values, choices or lifestyle and, therefore, rejected them.

The common denominator here is a prevalence in our society to start with conclusions and then try to find evidence to support them. In the absence of evidence, assertion will suffice. The problem here is that those doing the asserting are also the same people who constantly demand from everybody else ‘rational evidence’ for their position.

Take the first issue first. An fellow Oxford atheist philosopher, Dr Daniel Came, has written to Richard Dawkins accusing him of cowardice for refusing to debate with Professor William Lane Craig. Dawkins is not alone: Polly Toynbee and AC Grayling have also declined to debate and it is hard not to conclude that this unwillingness is born of fear rather than rationality. I am still waiting for a response to David Bentley Hart’s The Atheist Delusions and the substantive philosophical and historical refutation of the lazy and unargued-for assertions of the so-called New Atheists he offers. Is it fear that the evidence won’t back up the assertions that puts them off? If not, then what?

David Bentley Hart’s argument – backed up with copious historical analysis and evidence – is essentially that the pre-Christian world actually saw human life as expendable and cheap. What he terms ‘the Christian revolution’ brought about a ‘universal’ valuing of human life, of mercy and justice that did not hold sway beforehand. He then questions whether, in the post-Christendom world, the assumption of universal human niceness can honestly be held if the Christian worldview and associated praxis are removed. In other words, who says that the ‘neutral’ or natural default of human beings is to be nice to each other, to love justice and mercy, to protect the weak and vulnerable, etc? History would seem to demonstrate that such an assumption can not only not be taken for granted, but is actually called into question by the evidence.

Now, this comes to mind because we now live in a culture in which many people think it is OK to have abortion on demand as a sort of right (or routine method of birth control) and for life to be ended where there appears to be any suffering. In other words, we live in a culture which appears to wish to make decisions about the ethics of living and dying in isolation from a common understanding of the worldviews underlying such a position, or the implications of adopting it. Such discussion needs to go deeper and longer than a simple case-by-case judgement on the sentiments and sensibilities of personal circumstances as we go along.

I am not and have never been opposed to abortion per se. But, when you step back a bit and ask what our culture is shaping and on what philosophical basis the moves are being made, there must be cause for genuine concern. Abortion is not trivial; it is not like taking an aspirin for a headache.

That’s why I am wondering: why the outcry about the suggestion that people be asked to think before opting for an abortion? What’s the problem? Yes, there is a massive pastoral issue in supporting people – whatever decision they ultimately make. Yes, there are circumstances where such decisions are enormously complicated. Yes, the ethical responsibilities are not always clear. But, so are the deeper cultural questions that relate to what sort of a culture we are both losing and creating. Even if we don’t agree with the rationale behind the current proposals, that doesn’t let us off the hook of asking the question.

There is a question here for anyone interested in how cultures are shaped and what makes civilisations come and go. I am compelled to agree with David Bentley Hart – with his excoriating judgement on the post-Enlightenment twentieth century state’s proclivity for enormous and technologically organised violence – that we are in danger of glancing along the surface of time, making ad hoc decisions about life and death, but in the absence of any ‘deep’ analysis or rational thought about essential values. It cannot be taken for granted that, left alone and de-religionised (or de-christianised), human beings will ‘naturally’ tend towards goodness, kindness and mercy. Christianity was, in one sense, a response to the evidenced absence of such a corporate nature.

So, what is the philosophical case for assuming that we can do what we want to do simply because we can? And who is to decide what is, or is not, acceptable? And to whom?

I leave the country for less than 48 hours and interesting things happen back home. Coincidence?

I was in Germany to speak at the launch of a new initiative by the EKD aimed at getting clergy and their churches to make use of resources for reminding people of or nurturing them in the Christian faith. As here in England (and probably everywhere else), many people reject Christian faith when they are younger, but then never bring to it the questions an adult ought to have. Thus the faith of a child is still being rejected by an adult whose questioning might not have grown up with him or her.

In my parish experience this was often the case. Parents would ask about baptism for their child and, during a pastoral visit, would say that they don’t necesssarily know what it was they had left behind. Baptism preparation (lay-led and over three or four meetings in their own home) gave them the opportunity to look at Christian faith as an adult.

That is what Kurse zum Glauben is aimed at doing in Germany. The launch in Osnabrück was excellent, creative and involved lunchtime cabaret as well as a fantastic (Gospel) choir and food. I was the keynote speaker and still managed to get Liverpool and Bradford as well as Croydon into the occasion.

And while I was away? Andy Coulson resigned as David Cameron’s Director of Communications – something that was inevitable in the light of the phone-hacking haunting of his old employer. What I never understood about Coulson’s defence of his role in the News of the World phone hacking scandal was his contention that he knew nothing of what was going on. If that was so, he was an incompetent editor, boss and manager (which begs the question about why Cameron hired him); if not, then he was being economical with the truth. The truth is, he has done an excellent job for Cameron and will surely be missed – just as Ed Balls comes in (for Alan Johnson) to harrass George Osborne and a tough Communications Director is needed by the Tories.

The second thing that happened while I was away extolling the value and virtue of Kurse zum Glauben? Liverpool beat Wolves 3:0 away from home and Kenny Dalglish was spotted laughing. Mind you, Torres looked happy and the gloom over Liverpool appeared to thin out a little. Glorious. But there’s a long way to go from here.

Anyway, back to Croydon to continue the ‘ending’ while trying to get my head into what lies ahead in Bradford when we move north in April. It’s all giving me a headache and taking away the creative impetus for writing this blog. I’ll try to get more space soon.

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