One of the partnership links enjoyed by the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is that developed over thirty years with the dioceses of Sudan. The Bisho of Khartoum and Archbishop-elect of Sudan, Ezekiel Kondo – a wonderful, wise and brave man – has issued a statement about the death sentence passed under Sharia law on a Christian woman who is pregnant with her second child.

It is important that politicians, religious leaders and leading Muslims at home and abroad raise their voice in protest against this barbaric and illegal judgement. In the meantime, here is the statement issued in Khartoum:

Re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and Death Sentence by Court in Sudan

Introduction:

On Thursday 15th. May 2014 in Haj-Yousif Court, Mariam Yahya was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for changing from being Muslim to Christian and for commiting adultery because she is married to a Christian man.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag was born from a Christian mother (Ethiopian Orthodox) and a Muslim father. Her father left them when she was age 6, and she was raised by her mother as a Christian. Mariam is married to a Sudanese/American Christian husband. Mariam was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity simply because her father was a Muslim. The fact is that Mariam has been a Christian since as she was brought up by her mother who has been a Christian. According to the report, Mariam, the husband and their son were all arrested because they had changed their religon, but then, the husband was released, Mariam is sentenced to death and 100 lashed for her adultery because she accepted to marry a Christian man. Their marriage is revoked. Now, Mariam and her son are in prison until she gives birth, then she will be excuted.

1. According to the above, Mariam has never been a Muslim since her birth. The fact that she was born from a Muslim father, this does not make her a Muslim in any way because she was brought up by her mother as a Christian.

2. The verdict reached by the court on Mariam is a clear and direct perscution on Christians and the Church in the Sudan.

3. The verdict on Mariam Yahya is a Human Right and Religious violation against Christians in the Sudan.

4. This sentence is even against Sudan Constitution 2005 Article 38 on Freedom of Creed and Worship. “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance, subject to requirements of the law and public order, no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not voluntarily consent”.

5. There is again another court case going on right now in Kalakla, Khartoum, of a young man who has been accused of being converting from Muslim to Christian according the Almeghar News Paper of today 21st May 2014. This young man may face the same fate as Mariam did.

Episcopal Church of Sudan Internal Province hereby condemns this court decision and requests the Ministry of Justice to review the case of MariamYahya and release her immediately. She is free to believe in religion of her choice. Episcopal Church of Sudan also requests the authorities in Kalakla to free the young man. The last judgment on the faith should be left to God alone.

The spirit of dialogue, coexistence and love that the President of the Republic called upon should be upheld.

The Most Revd. Ezekiel Kondo

Archbishop-elect and Bishop of Khartoum

21st May 2014

When the Apostle Paul rode on to the road to Damascus he clearly didn't expect to have his life abruptly interrupted and radically challenged. But, that is exactly what happened. And the challenge was radical because it didn't involve just nuancing his comfortable or convenient faith, but, rather, went to the roots of his worldview, his life, his meaning. As Andrew Davidon says in his introduction to the book Imaginative Apologetics:

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.

For Paul the challenge was so debilitating because it went to the heart of who and how God is, and put a question mark over the entirely of his life, his worldview, his understanding of why the world is the way it is.

This is significant for us. For the world Paul lived in two thousand years ago is similar to ours. Christianity was tiny and nascent. The world was multicultural and multifaith. And the totalitarian demands of the Roman Empire were not supposed to be challenged. Christianity was new and was decidedly weird. And Paul did not go looking for Christian faith: it came looking for him.

This is it: the Gospel draws us. We do not choose Jesus Christ; we respond to his invitation and call to us. We walk the path of discipleship out of obedience to his call. As I have said before: we are drawn by hope, not driven by fear. Jesus chose us.

This is what Paul discovered: Christian faith found him. And, like us, Paul set about growing and losing churches in a culture that was fundamentally hostile to the Christian innovation (known in the Empire as 'atheism').

But what lay at the heart of Paul's passion was simple: as he says in 1 Corinthians 11:23, “I received… I handed on”. He didn't possess and control his ministry; rather, he received and passed on. Yet, Paul also understood very clearly that he not only received a tradition, but, by being faithful to it, created a new tradition. This reminds me of the statement by the Archbishop of Dublin, Michael Jackson, that

Tradition is the church interpreting, not the church reminiscing.

Which immediately reflects on Sir Thomas More's maxim:

Tradition is not holding onto the ashes, but passing on the flame.

(A couple of years ago I visited the town of Intercourse , Pennsylvania, to see the Amish community. This living tradition – no electricity, no modernity – had been turned into a 'heritage' for voyeurs. You could ride in their horse-drawn buggies and enjoy the 'Amish experience'. This is not what the church should be about.)

As the Diocese of Bradford ends after 95 years – during which people had to be faithful to their generation- we are faced by this hard question: what is the tradition which we have received and which we must pass on? How do we do this faithfully? And how do we do so without losing sight of the point of it all – what the heart of the 'tradition' actually is?

Christians know themselves to be loved by God. That, in one sense, is the beginning and the end of the matter. But, this 'being loved' has to be handed on. That, essentially, is what the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is all about.

Rowan Williams writes about the Eucharistic community in his wonderful and essential new little book Being Christian. He shows how each Christian community that breaks bread and shares wine together is not doing an empty ritual; it is re-telling the Story that had created and shaped it and, by comprising people who have received the grace of God then are compelled to hand on the grace of God, it invites people in. Together they create a new community.

Whether churches in the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales are small or large, struggling or thriving, they should be consciously creating a new community of people who, grasped by the generosity of God, are unafraid to own what they have received… and hand it on.

This is basically what I said in the sermon at the Maundy Thursday Chrism Eucharist in Bradford Cathedral this morning when clergy and other ministers gathered to re-affirm their ordination vows and commit themselves to the call of God into an uncertain future.

 

Following on from Thursday's visit to Karl Barth's house and my sight of Barth's original handwritten draft of the 1934 Barmen Declaration, I wonder if such a document would be possible in a culture of privatised spirituality such as that assumed by many today to be both desirable and normal.

This isn't a disconnected question. I have spent the last couple of days – on and off – reading the lectures that form the first part of Rowan Williams' Faith in the Public Square. In these pieces he addresses questions of secularism (essentially instrumental/functional, one-dimensional and totalising). Seriously interesting, challenging and written with great lucidity, he goes to the heart of the matter in attesting that the 'public space' of contemporary culture is not in any meaningful sense neutral or free – a a point I keep labouring with less patience and less erudite articulacy than Rowan:

[Telling and enacting a story that is different from that propagated by the modern state] of course involves exposing the fact that the modern state does in fact tell a story: that is, that it is not the embodiment of a timeless rationality. … The main task [of the Church] is to create 'spaces' for an alternative story – to challenge the self-evidence of the narrative of secular modernity. (p.43)

In speaking of the 'market state' – the successor to the 'nation state' – he comes up with the marvellously succinct description of the consumer's role of the last thirty years as “isolated choosing machines in a market-shaped wilderness”. (p.74)

This cannot do justice to the arguments Rowan develops. I do wonder if the leader writers of the Independent newspaper (as well as others) have read these texts and formed any response to the arguments therein. I further wonder if any serious response has been made to Rowan's analysis since the book was published in 2012.

The final lecture in this section addresses the tendency nowadays for people to prefer 'spirituality' to 'religion', but questions the individualism and privatisation under the state that such language assumes. I remember reading a paper in which the writer urged the disbanding of organised churches and the assembling of like-minded 'liberals' who could associate together in the development of a new form of spirituality. I asked how such an atomised peer group would take responsibility for (and on what basis) caring for the poor, the unlovely and those who do not share their premises, and what power such a group would have to challenge injustice on grounds other than convenience or mere opinion/preference. I didn't get an answer.

Journalists used to tell me that Rowan Williams was to obtuse and difficult to read. I used to respond that they were just too lazy to persist – some things are complex and resist simplification. Reading these lectures, I have not changed my mind.

(And the question of the valid/essential role of religion in the public square is not one that Barth would have wasted a moment on, given the choices that had to be made in the face of the rise of Hitler and the criminal nature of 'public truth' in the Germany of the 1930s and '40s.)

Dr Peter Zocher & Prof Dr Martin Wallraff at Karl Barth's house in Basel

 

Good grief. The debate about foodbanks continues in the UK media, sometimes getting distracted by stuff that misses the point.

OK, the Daily Mail has no alternative but to ridicule the bishops and bang its particular drum. The Times goes a bit weird by suggesting that the bishops are out of touch with their congregations who, according to a poll, are right behind the need for benefits reform. This raises two points: (a) our congregations are also pretty solidly behind reform of banking and tax fraud by the rich, but that is being missed; (b) bishops aren't there to parrot the views of parishioners, but to tell the truth regardless. There is plenty of debate within the church about such matters, but the bishops are not simply the mouthpiece of particular constituencies.

This has always been the vocation of church leaders. As the Germans found out in the 1930s and '40s, church leaders are there to describe reality and not to collude in whatever view the masses are led to believe.

But, this week's golden exclamation mark must go, once again, to the Independent. Are they employing five year olds to write their leader editorials? I had a go at a silly piece some months ago, and here they are again with the same old brain-dead nonsense. To think this stuff is crass, but to publish it as intellectually credible is unbelievable. I obviously wasted my words last time.

Try this from today's anonymous editorial:

If the facts are undeniable, though, the right of the Church to meddle in politics is absolutely not. Not only do religious leaders come by their public podia by dint of a historical influence at odds with modern secular democracy, but their claims of moral authority are also hardly as absolute as they seem. It is difficult for an archbishop’s remonstrances on the subject of the poor and hungry to be anything but the final moral word, and yet they are subject to the same limitations as any other political perspective… But anecdotal evidence metamorphosed into an unassailable moral position via an institution that no longer represents more than a tiny fraction of the population does more harm than good. David Cameron’s assessment is back to front. The bishops’ facts are fine. Their belief in a divine right to be heard is not.

Where to start?

1. Who does have a right to 'meddle in politics'? Unelected newspaper editors? Everyone but bishops? Muslims? Atheists? Every citizen has a right and a duty to meddle in politics. Can the Independent please expose and explain the assumptions (prejudices?) that underlie this repeated nonsense? Who else should be removed from public democratic debate?

2. Bishops do not come by their public podia by dint of historical influence. If the writer wants to bang on about bishops in the House of Lords, then let him/her say so and we can have that debate. But, this latest bash isn't about that and didn't emanate from bishops in Parliament. Does the editor really believe that bishops should simply keep quiet about anything in the public square? What does he/she think a bishop is? And, again, who else should be kept quiet in the public democratic debate? Or does 'secular democracy' really mean that only people with a non-religious world view should be privileged with access to that public square? And who said?

3. Can the writer show us where the bishops made any claim to 'absolute moral authority'? They told a story and argued a case. By all means, knock it down, if it not true or if the story is selective. But, where is the claim to absolute moral authority? This, again, simply amplifies the unarticulated and uncritical prejudice of the writer. A five year old would be embarrassed to still be trotting out this stuff.

4. 'Unassailable moral position'? Which century is the writer living in here?

5. Doesn't a democracy assume that even the tiniest group with the most hesitant voice has a right to be heard, a right to be involved and a right to be thought potentially right? Anyway, bishops do not represent a constituency as an MP represents his or hers. The independent might not like this – and obviously doesn't – but it will have to find a better intellectual ground for its prejudice than this spurious ex cathedra put down.

6. What 'more harm than good' does the writer actually think has happened here? Again, unexplained, unarticulated and worthy of an unelected, morally superior elite who can pass judgement without accountability.

7. When did the bishops assume a 'divine right to be heard'? This is a joke, right? Just journalese gone a bit too far? Surely?

Clearly, more dangerous than bishops telling a story and arguing a case in the public square – on the basis that they can articulate their case effectively (sometimes…) – is a 'neutral' newspaper arrogating to itself everything it will deny of citizens-with-a-religious-world-view. But, really, this is just a joke. The Independent should do better than this. It could start by owning up to its prejudices, subjecting them to informed debate, and identifying who it is who keeps writing this stuff.

Before I went to Kazakhstan for the first time in 2003 I had little idea of its post-independence history. I knew it quite well (from a distance and in a bit of a weird way) as a Soviet republic, but after the collapse of the Soviet empire and its unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1991, I had lost track and lost interest.

So, 2003 was only twelve years after this massive change. I learned that Russia immediately cut off every economic or financial lifeline to the new Republic of Kazakhstan and left it – the dumping ground of the old USSR – as a polluted and poverty-stricken cast-off, ready to sink into oblivion. Twelve years later, however, the country was developing its economy, shaping its identity, carving out its place in the international political community, and building a confident new nation. Yes, there was also corruption and some very unsavoury things were happening in parallel to all this.

But, the common fact in every conversation about the country – with both old-hand politicians and young media people – was that the first five years were unutterably miserable. I was told by many people that “people starved and died in the street” – a combination of no work, no food, extreme cold and no shelter. The infrastructure had collapsed and had to be rebuilt bit by bit. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was acclaimed, even by serious opponents among my interlocutors, for holding to the discipline of getting a strong economy – the only way to build a long-term future for increased wealth, public services, education and business. The cost was consciously tolerated.

Now, why am I remembering this today – especially as I am in Basel on study leave and supposed to be reading theology? Well, this morning a letter was published in the Mirror newspaper, signed by 27 Church of England bishops. The letter drew attention to food poverty in England and called on the government to change its policies that are deemed to be driving people and families into destitution. (This letter follows the RC Archbishop of Westminster's condemnation of the effects of welfare reform as a 'disgrace' and its rebuttal by the Prime Minister in terms of moral purpose. I doubt if the timing is any more than coincidental.) Today the bishops are taking a bit of a bashing.

First, it has been suggested that if only 27 signed the letter, then 74 did not: draw your conclusions. Well, the 74 were probably not approached – not because there was selective ideological bias involved, but simply because in such cases only a number of bishops is usually approached for signature. I was not approached, but would have signed, had I been asked to do so. In similar cases where my signature has been added to a letter, most other bishops weren't approached. Many bishops aren't online most of the time, many are slow to respond to requests, and some refuse to sign anything on principle. No conspiracy here – and probably no fine strategic organisation – but, as usual, a bit random.

Secondly, when asked to sign such a letter you have to look at the general drift and not argue about every word – although I have refused to sign one or two open letters until certain assumptions were checked or details changed. However, agreeing every detail by disparate committee guarantees only that the letter will never be agreed or published. So, signature signals assent to the content whilst recognising that each individual might have preferred to have written it differently.

So, why write this now? And why the stuff about Kazakhstan?

Bishops have better things to do with their time than enter into ideological arguments that serve no purpose other than political point-scoring. To accuse signatory bishops of simplistic or malicious political bias is silly. Whatever their political views – and there is a range of opinion on welfare cuts and their effects – they are in touch with real people in every community of this country. So, when hearing government defences of the 'moral intent' of policies that directly affect the communities the churches and their clergy serve, they cannot remain silent about the realities on the ground. They might respect the moral intent – and even agree with it – whilst seeing the devastating consequences of that policy on the people we meet every day. The proliferation of food banks, coupled with the evidence that many, many poorly-paid working people are having to use them in order to feed their family, is a reality that poses a challenge to the moral effectiveness of the said policy.

Any why Kazakhstan? Well, I am NOT comparing post-independence Kazakhstan with England. The question that this raised in my own mind this morning, however, was whether the open recognition of Kazakh policy in the 1990s is preferable to the muddled attempts to add moral justification to an English policy that the government just don't want to admit is so brutal? Should the government just say clearly: we are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.

Harsh? Yes, but honest. And at least we would know what we were dealing with. The churches would continue to care as best as possible – and without discrimination – for poor people. And bishops would continue to tell what they see and hear of the human cost of political ideology and question its moral basis from a Christian ethical perspective. And debate would rage on. But, at least it would be clear what was going on.

 

Advent and Christmas are always a bit of a strain for clergy as they try to find new, fresh or creative ways of telling a traditional story. How do you help people who know the ending be surprised again by that with which they assume they are familiar? (And, for that matter, how do the clergy keep themselves fresh in the re-telling?)

As I found to my cost several years ago (when I published what I still think is a good and useful little book about Christmas, but which didn't sell because of the controversy it generated…), questioning people's perceptions is dangerous. Question the 'story' or vary a detail and you get a barrage of anger, complaint and abuse. OK, that's how we are as human beings who need a consistent narrative against which we shape our assumptions about life and the world.

But, it goes further than this. What if our assumptions are completely wrong, but we shape our society according to them?

We are constantly told that “the church is out of step with culture” – and this, clearly, is supposed to be a bad thing. Yet, the job of the church – its vocation, if you like – is not to reflect or mimic or 'baptise' the culture, but to hold a mirror up to it and question it. That is not the same as being negative towards it, but it is about engaging intelligently with the culture(s) with a confidence that transcends the immediate fashion or drift.

This is what lies at the heart of debates about sexuality. It sometimes feels as if the church is having the debates that wider society can't seem to articulate or frame. Yet, at the same time, the church has to have the questioning humility that is open to the possibility that wider culture might have something to teach a church culture that also finds it hard to question its own fundamental assumptions about God, the world and us.

What sparked this thinking was something I saw on Twitter this morning. It is a slide from an Ipsos MORI survey from 2011. It demonstrates just how wide is the gulf between reality and common perception amongst the great British public. Look at the slide:

And now ask what might be the implications for cultural drift, political decision-making and media reflection on the world (and what people think) of taking perceptions as unquestionably valid, true or accurate.

Now back to Advent and Christmas (and preparing for BBC Radio 2's Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding tomorrow).

 

One day in the life of the General Synod of the Church of England here in London.

  • Women bishops legislation in groups
  • The naming of dioceses
  • Presidential Address by the Archbishop of York
  • Church schools
  • Review of how the General Synod works

OK, there was also some other exciting stuff in between – legislative, mostly, but also lunch.

What holds all these seemingly disconnected agenda items together? Well, they fit into the mosaic of imaginative and prophetic life and work of the Church of England at every level.

Women bishops will come to be – we are simply trying to get the best legislative way of doing it, but are also learning to behave more maturely and Christianly as we do so. This matter brings in questions of justice, ethics, theology, ecclesiology, mission and order.

Until now an English diocese could only be named after a city. So, even though the new diocese in West Yorkshire & the Dales is based regionally, it has to be named after the Bishop's see: Leeds. In future it will be possible to name a diocese after its region – as it has been for ages in other parts of the Anglican Communion. So what? Well, the change (not welcomed by all) is permissive and demonstrates a concern to see from the outside what we are about on the inside. Not an enormous change, but perhaps significant.

The Archbishop of York delivered a powerful Presidential Address in which any hint of us being 'the Conservative Party at prayer' was declared dead and buried. The scandals of poverty, homelessness and the inequities between rich and poor were cited and statistically exposed – along with references to Jim Wallis, St Francis, Pope Francis and Gustavo Guttierez inter alia. As the Archbishop of Canterbury commented on Twitter, this was a “powerful address on shocking state of UK poverty. Statistically based, ethically clear, spiritually challenging”.

Church schools are contentious and often misrepresented. They are not faith schools. They aim to serve the communities in which they are set and they need to regain confidence in their ethos and remit. This debate was not about 'schools for the sake of the church', but, rather, about 'church for the sake of schools'. There were some impressively informed and wise contributions regarding education per se and the impact good education can have on the ground. In other words, theology provided the context for consideration of the common good, good education for all and the broader development of society for which good education is vital.

Anyone with experience of the General Synod knows that business could be done differently and, probably, better. But, the aim of this is not simply to order the mechanics of our business better (as an end in itself), but to enable us to get our business out there (as an end which is better enabled if the mechanics are clearer). In other words, this isn't about internal plumbing and yet more introspective navel-gazing; it is about enabling the church to be better focused on its real mission.

So, the agenda looks a bit bitty. But, it has to do with creating a mosaic of church life and witness that works at the levels of individual commitment, congregational focus, parochial service, diocesan priority, national prophetic speech. It is held together by the vocation of the church to be grasped by a prophetic imagination – being drawn by a vision of God's character and the vocation of God's people to live for the sake of the world in which we are put. It is prophetic because it dares to engage with uncomfortable truth and the messy unclarity of human life and society whilst demanding imagination of a world that does not yet exist.

 

So, the conference is almost over. The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung knows how to put on a good debate and the last few days have been very stimulating at lots of levels. As ever, some of the best conversations happen informally – over meals and so on – but follow on from the papers and questioning.

But, so what? Apart from the little I was able to contribute to a German perspective, what do I take back to England?

First, I need (and want) to re-visit Konrad Adenauer himself and will be looking for books at the airport this evening. He was a remarkable man.

Second, looking at the European context in which our various churches live, there are elements of modernity (and, indeed, post-modernity) that we need to explore in England, establishing a renewed confidence in the unique role and place of the church as the valuer of people, creators of space in the public discourse for faith and a content-rich Christian perspective, intelligent critics of art and culture, and relaxed locus of celebration – keeping alive the language of 'home' (to quote Brueggemann).

Third, the encouragement to look through the eyes and listen through the ears of people whose history, culture and context differs from mine – shining a different light on what I think is important and broadening the world.

Fourth, a need early next year (before I leave Bradford and my current post as Bishop) to think deeply and reflectively on the bigger picture gained here and to apply it to the potential for developping the church's mission in England in the changing world of the next couple of decades.

Fifth, a determination to improve my German.

Among other things, of course.

 

The final approach before the conference lands at lunchtime. This morning continues with yesterday's theme, looking at responses to societal and religious changes in Europe: Die Antwort der Religionsgemeinschaften auf die (gesellschaftliche) Pluralität.

The first paper is by Professorin Dr Isolde Karle from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum on Kirche in der späten Moderne: Herausforderungen und Perspektiven. Again, I need to read the text as she raced through it and I think I missed the odd bit. But, she noted the need for the church to shape societal change and not be associated simply with complaining about it. Culture is always in process of being shaped, including how its ethos impacts on individuals and wider society. The church is one of the losers in Modernity (in some respects), but it must also value what it maintains on behalf of others: for example, (a) keeping alive the language of corporate lament, celebration, praise, etc.; (b) a public value for people regardless of their economic value – care for the weak and poor not to be taken for granted in a society in which the basis for such care is sometimes assumed whilst being exercised consciously only by the church (which has a specific theological anthropology). Church can create the space in which people find belonging and value even when they don't 'belong' to the church itself – the place of a Volkskirche. Questions revolved around the difference between urban and rural (Stadt und Land) contexts, the place of 'belief' in all this church stuff (what does the church actually believe and how important is this 'belief' to its life or to our belonging to it?), and how decentralisation can encourage fresh expressions and a more relaxed approach to the messiness of church development.

The second paper, by Professor Dr Karl Gabriel (formerly of the Universität Münster) addressed Entweltlichung: Kleine Gemeinschaft(en) als Zukunft der Kirche? in seven theses. Basically, and having asked where the boundaries between church and world collide (among other things), he suggested that smaller groups within the church will increasingly need to be ecumenical in a decentralising church at local level. 'Elitist minoritism' must be challenged and cannot thrive in a pluralising context. But, the church's value is essentially to create and maintain space in which faith can thrive, develop and be secured. Questions arose about the difference – in nature and implications – between 'organisation' and 'institution', and how the (Roman Catholic) church has managed either to blend in (or disappear) in public spaces on the ground. The implications of an Anglican understanding of territory/parish (being there for the common good of all and not just for a church's own members) were explored – especially in the potential here for better ecumenical partnership. The top-down nature of the RC Church (and the papacy) was compared unfavourably with the Lutheran understanding that the organisation of the church does not assume the holiness of the people who run it!

The third input of this section came from Professor Dr Peter Heine (Strausberg) and took as its theme: Rückwirkungen westlichen Denkens auf islamische Theologie und Identität. This was really interesting as he told some surprising stories. Noting the constant criticism of Islamic theological approaches – that it has not begun to take seriously the historical-critical method – he cited a group of Shiite theologians in Iran who had read Karl Popper and wanted to establish the Islamic state along Popper's lines. Khameini had told Ahmadinejad that the greatest enemy of their theocratic system is… Jürgen Habermas! (The reason, explained later, was that 'democracy' does not translate into Arabic, but is only associated with Capitalism – and 'Habermas' breaks down as 'money-ism'. Bizarre.) Heine noted that Islamic scholars demonstrate a great interest in western theological and philosophical conversations, whereas western scholars either show little interest in Islamic theological conversations (and usually cannot even pronounce the names properly) and talk about them rather than talking with them. Too much to record and I didn't follow it all (again, what's new there?), but Heine covered a wide range of contexts and ideas.

The final morning of the symposium concluded with a conversation between the former Ministerpräsident of both Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (not at the same time, obviously) Professor Dr Bernhard Vogel, and Dr Daniel Deckers, Political Editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, on Zeitgenössische Öffentlichkeit: Glanz oder Elend der Religion?

That's it. A summary session and then it is over.

 

This Konrad Adenauer Stiftung symposium in Cadenabbia, Italy, began on Sunday by setting the scene for the main theme: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung. It did so by discussing Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. Day Two continued by examining Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit – looking at some of the challenges to religion in Europe and some of the cultural changes that lie behind them. Day Three focused on how several different religious communities are responding to religious pluralism: the Orthodox in East and South Eastern Europe, the Roman Catholic Church in France, and the Church of England in the light of increasing religious illiteracy. We concluded (prior to a boat trip across Lake Como in a thunder storm and visits to a couple of nice places) with a discussion about the future of religion in a pluralist Europe. Needless to say, the whole conference thus far has been intelligent, informed and fascinating. (Although, as usual, I feel like the dunce in the class…)

Professor Dr Radu Preda from the University of Babes-Bolyai in Romania did a superb analysis (in embarrassingly fluent German) of how the Orthodox churches have responded to the radical changes in East and South Eastern Europe: Die Situation der Orthodoxen Kirchen in den Transformationsländern Ost- und Südosteuropas. Acknowledging that Orthodoxy cannot speak with one voice – because of its national and ethnic ('tribal') polities – he went on to relate the church's mission in relation to territory and power. What is clear is that those churches that found freedom in the end of Communism have simply been so compromised by their allegiance to the 'new' political powers that they have lost their prophetic voice. The big challenges are (a) pluralism and (b) corruption.

This was followed by Professor Dr Henri Ménudier (Université de Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle) describing the situation in France with its particular and unique process (ideology?) of laïcité. Addressing the title of Proposer la foi: Das Angebot der Kirche in Frankreich, he described the challenging situation facing the church there (what's new?) before going on to suggest where the challenges are actually throwing up opportunities where the church is willing to be creative. Inevitably, celibacy, women priests and the Roman Catholic Church's sacramental response to divorced people (50% of marriages in France, apparently) must be up for grabs. Pluralism is a further challenge, and he surprised me by saying that there is little dialogue between Christians and Muslims in France. This led to a wide-ranging discussion of social and political debates in France.

It is never easy to follow good, informed and fluent speakers on any subject and in any circumstances. Following these guys didn't exactly fill my heart with overflowing gladness. But, I had been asked to do a paper on Der Weg der Kirche von England gegenüber Unwissen und Distanz zu religiösem Glauben. I will post the basic paper separately, but I offered a glimpse of how we in the Church of England try to engage creatively in a context of pluralism, religious illiteracy and media variability in respect of religion in general and the church in particular. As always, the real value came in the questioning and debate that followed the paper. The point relayed back to me by both theologians and journalists (there are several serious journalists here, including the Political Editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – and he is a really good bloke) was my comment that the church has always been a mess, is a mess, and always will be a mess…, so get used to it and relax a bit more.

After a heavy three days we spent the rest of the afternoon on Lake Como and continuing conversations into the evening. I know I am privileged to be here and to be invited to take part in conferences like this. I think, though, that such engagement feeds my mind and soul, represents the best Continuing Miniaterial Development that I cold ever do, and, at a time of great uncertainty about my own ministerial (episcopal) future, gives me the space to withdraw from the immediate pressures of the diocese and reflect on broader themes that shape how I see God, the church, the world and myself.

We conclude in the morning with further papers and discussion before headig for Milan and the long flights home to Bradford (via Munich and Manchester), but I probably will not get space to post before leaving.