Finland is fantastic. This is my first visit this far north and I love it. The weather has been 'interesting' – the sun did emerge in Helsinki when we were leaving yesterday, but today it is back to the cloud and mist and wet – the sort we have become familiar with from all the Scandinavian crime series on the telly (The Killing, Borgen, etc.).

The main reason for being here was to speak at a seminar at the British Embassy yesterday – an annual event put on by the British-Finnish Society. We came to Tampere on Wednesday and during the following couple of days visited the Bishops of Tampere and Porvoo, met lots of clergy (who were wonderful and whose English was better than mine…) and learned loads about the country and its history.

For example (and call me ignorant), but I didn't know that Finland has two official languages – Finnish and Swedish. This, of course, opened up the history of the country – which isn't very long, but has involved a lot of violence and burning. This is a bit surprising given that the thing everyone tells you about the Finns is how quiet, thoughtful, honest and peaceful they are. (Maybe the problem has lain with belligerent neighbours.) I also learned that the Diocese of Porvoo is based on language rather than territory – all the Swedish-speaking Lutherans wherever in Finland they find themselves.

This, again, illustrates the gift of seeing through the eyes of a different culture with a different history and language. In West Yorkshire & the Dales (the new diocese that next Easter will replace the current Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefeld and Ripon & Leeds) there will be three cathedrals: Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield. For some people this represents an insuperably difficult problem: a diocese can only have one cathedral. Well, why? Tell that to the American dioceses that have no cathedral or to the Irish dioceses that have two or three. And does a diocese have to be territorial? Possibly, but not necessarily. We create 'tradition' as we go; we do not merely inherit it.

This ties in to the social media seminar at the British Embassy yesterday. Social media are changing the world: the way we think and relate and commune and live and communicate. This is a world we are shaping, but cannot control. We are at the beginning of a journey, not the end. It is a world being occupied by those who have an eclectic curiosity and a sense of adventure – which doesn't characterise everyone in the church…

Yesterday's seminar was really enjoyable and fascinating. The Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church is doing some really good stuff. The best thing is the humility social media engenders in the church here: no one is claiming to be getting everything right, but they are enjoying the journey and not afraid of getting it wrong… for the right reasons.

Anyway, today is a free day before I fly on tomorrow to Italy to do a paper for the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung at Cadenabbia at a symposium with Germans on issues to do with Europe, culture and religion. Hey ho.

 

Last week I interviewed fourteen ordinands prior to their ordination as priest (yesterday evening) or deacon (this morning) in Bradford Cathedral. Since Thursday they have been on retreat at the gorgeous Parcevall Hall.

One of the questions I asked them (apart from: “Why should we ordain you?”) was how they might summarise the gospel – or the biblical story – in a single sentence. It wasn't easy. But, I still remain convinced that if the church and its ministers are to communicate into a sound bite and visual culture, we must work harder at the words we use – especially when put on the spot by people who have no idea about Christian faith (even if they think they do).

One good one came after some discussion and is the sort of line that opens up, rather than shutting down, further inquisition: “You can't pin God down… but we did nail him.”

I still come back to something I once said on the radio when unexpectedly asked what was the point of the church. I simply blagged: “The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I am open to other creative suggestions! But the point is that we need to work hard at finding and shaping language, then using it repeatedly to see how it works and if it resonates.

In similar vein, I was watching a DVD of a film about the great Leonard Cohen – my daughter and son-in-law gave it to me recently. Towards the end Cohen said with a smile: “For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously and no one found me out.”

Discuss.

 

One of the challenges of listening through the ears of a different culture is trying to work out (a) what is being said, (b) how is it being said, (c) to whom is it being said, (d) why is it being said, and (e) what is being heard from what is being said.

Listening to a keynote speaker at a conference is always a welcome experience. For one thing, it means I am not having to do it. But, it offers an opportunity to think, to hear afresh and to learn. But, listening this morning, I realise that being the outsider makes me listen differently. I don’t know how people are hearing Angela Ifill’s address or whether she is scratching where the people are itching. I think she is. But, if she is, then the context, the audience and the challenges are not the same as those we face at home.

Inevitably I listen through my own ears and my point of reference is the context of the Church of England in the Diocese of Bradford. The issue of ‘welcome’ is pertinent everywhere, of course, as hospitality and generosity are key signs of God’s kingdom. But, I realised this morning that, despite the fact that I understand every word that was spoken and am familiar with every element of the presentation, I don’t know how this has been heard, understood and appropriated by the local audience for whom it was intended. I don’t know what ‘welcome’ might look like on the ground in the particular churches of this diocese.

So, nothing deep here. Just another fresh experience of how some questions have to be asked of any communication prior to knowing what the words mean – and what response they are intended to provoke.

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.

During an address to nearly 500 people a couple of weeks ago I spoke about curiosity as a key to the Kingdom of God. What I meant by this is that Christian discipleship (it seems to me) has to be driven by curiosity about Jesus and where he might be leading us. There are lots of reasons why I think this, but they are not the point of this post.

As an example of this I used the challenge of writing and presenting scripts on the radio, making particular reference to the stuff I have done on BBC Radio 2 for more than a decade and now, particularly, on the Chris Evans Show. Before giving this address (which is why this example came to mind during it) someone asked how you find something useful to say in the ‘fluff of the programme’. So, when I referred to it I described it something like this:

You have to grab the attention of the potential listeners ( so they don’t go to the loo or put the kettle on), tease their imagination with story or image, say something, then give a pay off back into the ‘fluff’.

You get around 320 words to do it with.

The further challenge is that you have no idea if or how Chris will pick up on what you have said or the basic theme. Of course, there is no reason why he should pick up on it at all. But, the great thing about doing his show is that Chris is bright, interested, creative and excellent at engaging. When writing a script, you have to be conscious of stimulating the curiosity or imagination of the host and his team as well as the audience. It means speaking a language that is interesting and comprehensible to this diverse range of humanity.

And that’s why it is good to do. It is also excellent discipline for people like me who can talk for England, preach for hours, and range wildly from subject to subject.

It is also why I like Twitter and text messaging. These force you to be concise, to express an idea with very few words, to communicate effectively in brief. It demands the skill that is exemplified by comedian Milton Jones in his wonderful new book of ‘10 Second Sermons‘.

In a former life I used to encourage preachers to write a radio script of 400 words. I remember one person complaining that you can’t actually say something in such a short space. I responded that if you can’t say something in brief, you don’t know what you are trying to say… and you shouldn’t dare to say it for 20-30 minutes. I still think that.

The enjoyable thing about doing the stuff with Chris Evans is that he will often respond in ways you didn’t expect. Always interesting, sometimes challenging, never boring. And always a privilege not to be taken for granted.

Now I’m off to a communications conference…

How do you tell a story in film in no more than three minutes and with a limit of six lines of ‘dialogue’?

Last summer Philips and director/producer Ridley Scott launched a global film-making competition called Tell It Your Way following its Cannes Lions
award-winning short-film project Parallel Lines. Entrants were given freedom of expression and could take up any theme they wanted. The following entry was a prize-winner, but all are worth looking at:

Like some of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation video shorts, these go to prove that you can tell alot with a little. Maybe preachers have something to learn about communication here – and that includes me.

It’s a bit weird being announced as the new bishop of a place. You get a day of full-on introductions to people and places, then come home and it’s as if nothing happened. As it will do for the next couple of months at least, life carries on – apart from answering hundreds of mostly positive emails, tweets and text messages, that is). And I’m still not sure if I’ll get out to Norbury this morning – the snow and ice are packed where I live in Croydon.

It’s a good parallel to the approach to Christmas itself. We read the Christmas stories as a great irruption into the life of the world – which in one sense it was; but, when you read the Gospels it is obvious that God came among us in Jesus in such a way that most of the world just didn’t notice. Life carried on: shepherds shepherding, kings plotting, babies being born and people running businesses. God comes into the ordinary where life just carries on. And it’s in the ordinary that God has a habit of sneaking up on us and surprising us – just when we thought it was safe to go out.

Another reason for musing on this is that some people clearly didn’t understand why we announced the new Bishop of Bradford at the National Media Museum rather than in a church or cathedral. I gather one or two of the photographers who covered the event were particularly bemused. Well, here’s why.

Context: Christmas is one week away. Christmas is about God coming into the heart of the world in all its messy complexity and contradiction. It is about God surprising his people by subverting their expectation: Messiah was supposed to come in clouds of glory to expel the oppressive Roman occupiers and restore his people’s freedom. instead, he comes as a baby and grows up to be one who challenges the expectation of a God whose sole job it is to solve human problems and make life OK for us. Read Mark 1 and Jesus himself asks people to dare to believe that God is present even while the problems persist (i.e. the blasphemous Roman occupation). This is God opting into the world’s messiness and not exempting himself from it.

Content: Christmas is the ultimate in communication. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’; the Word did not remain a good idea locked up beautifully in a place of worship. This is why the Church exists for the sake of the world and not vice versa. We see in Jesus who God is, what he is like and how he is. The photographers might prefer to visually reinforce the image (prejudice or stereotype?) of the bishop ‘doing church’, but we wanted to visually demonstrate that the church is placed right at the heart of the ‘world’ – the city or community – and is here to communicate something of who and how God is. We can’t be kept confined in our churches, however wonderful and important they might be.

The National Media Museum was ideal. First, it adjoins the tower block (Wardley House) where I spent several years studying modern languages at university in Bradford. Second, it overlooks the city and its townscape. Third, it focuses on communication – something that lies at the core of God’s activity and the Church’s vocation. Fourth, they were wonderfully welcoming and accommodating – as befits a place with great imagination and openness. Fifth, ordination didn’t enable me to bilocate; like Jesus, we have to be particular in being somewhere – which means we can’t be somewhere else. Later on, of course, we went to Skipton and had a welcome event in the church there (on a hill, overlooking the town and market, reminding us again that we always come out of church to face the reality and ordinariness of the world in which we are set.

Bradford Cathedral is clearly a much valued and respected place. The Dean is superb and I look forward very much to working with him and other excellent colleagues in building our worship life, creating communities of Christians who are open to the world, encouraging Christians to be confident about their Gospel being transformative, enabling churches to be places and communities of welcome and generosity, challenging where we become complacent and encouraging where we become downhearted. The Church needs to be built up – but as a means to a greater end and not simply as an end in itself.

I look forward with geat enthusiasm to getting to know at first hand the churches, parishes and people of the Diocese of Bradford. I also look forward to building good relations with the local media as we have a common vocation to tell stories and build a community. And I really look forward to spending time at the wonderful National Media Museum, reflecting on what we are here for and thinking about good communication of Good News.

I probably will have to find a better image than the one below (which provided the backdrop to the welcome event). I can feel a caption competition coming on…