What is it about politicians that encourages them to make absurd pitches for power? During the EU Referendum campaign we saw ridiculous promises, based on dodgy assumptions, made with a confidence and certainty that defied reality. In the USA we see it in Donald Trump's campaign slogan: 'Make America great again.'

No definition of 'great'. No real definition of 'America' – by the time you've excluded all the people Donald doesn't like, it isn't clear who is left to enjoy the 'land of the free'.

Anyway, I am only thinking about this because on holiday earlier this month I read five books (including Elvis Costello, Tom Wright and Sam Wells), two of which haunt me: Tom Holland's 'Dynasty: the Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar' and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 'Romulus der Große'. I have already written very briefly about the first (brilliant book), but it is the latter that comes to mind just now in the context of Trump and other matters.

Not many Brits have heard of Dürrenmatt. A Swiss novelist and playwright, he describes 'Romulus der Große' as an “ungeschichtliche historische Komödie” (an unhistorical historic comedy). Written in 1950, it shows the demise of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, with the action taking place during the day of (and the day following) the Ides of March, 476. The Empire is about to collapse under the invasion of the greatly feared Germans and Romulus awaits its – and his – demise calmly. His family, ministers and courtiers try to force him to act decisively against the catastrophic and imminent Germanic invasion, but Romulus prefers to stay at home breeding domesticated chickens and doing nothing in response to the threat.

The ending is surprising and very civilised.

It is very clever, very funny, and needs to be rediscovered nearly seventy years after its initial production. Written in the aftermath of the German catastrophe of the twentieth century, it has much to say to us today in the aftermath of Iraq/Afghanistan, Brexit and America. Here are a few quotes (my translation as I only have the text in German):

Even the worst news sounds quite pleasant when spoken by someone who has rested well, has bathed and shaved, and has had a good meal.

It is not about the content of the language…

ZENO: “Now we must save our culture.” ROMULUS: “In what way is culture something that can be saved?”

Echoing elements of George Orwell's 1984, Romulus and Zeno (Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and escaped from Constantinople) come up with slogans they might use to counter the German invaders:

“For freedom and servitude!” “For slavery and justice!” “For caprice against barbarism!”

Rea, the daughter of Romulus, argues with her father that he must give everything to save the fatherland:

REA: “Our unconditional love for the Fatherland is what made Rome great.” ROMULUS: “But our love did not make Rome good.”

Which is where Trump comes in. Has greatness solely to do with power? Or success? Or self-protection? Where does “making America good” come in? Or the UK, for that matter?

I could quote other bits that resonate still, but that will do for now. Read the play – it isn't long. I have no idea if it is available in English, but the German is powerful even today. Under the humour and the satire there is a powerful punch.

 

The highlight of the annual Edinburgh International Television Festival is almost always the MacTaggart Memorial Lecture. The 2015 lecture was delivered by Armando Iannucci, (as far as I can see) the first 'creative' to have done so for over a decade apart from Kevin Spacey.

This matters. At a time when the BBC is under review – and anyone who cares about it ought to submit a response to the current survey here – Iannucci offers a spirited defence of its uniqueness. Which other country in the world would, as a matter of principle, argue for making its leading world brand a little bit worse by cutting bits off it? There is something peculiarly British about our willingness to pull down anything that has been built up.

So, the timely, important and entertaining lecture can be read here.

Interesting comment can be read here and here. The Sandford St Martin Trust (which I chair) has further links and some useful related material here.

Debate needs to be joined, particularly by those who wish to see the BBC developed and not diminished. And I say that as one who is constantly argues with and about the BBC, especially about religious illiteracy and a certain liberal myopia.

It is worth adding that suspicions about the ideological prejudices of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are, to my mind, premature. John Whittingdale's responsibility as chair of the Select Committee in the previous regime was precisely to be a Rottweiler and push the hard challenges. He did that well. Now is a different game. We'll see what emerges as the Charter renewal process proceeds.

When the phone hacking scandal erupted a national print journalist tweeted something like: “Go on, Nick, launch the feeding frenzy!” Because I have a very high view of journalism and the media – which often means that I think we deserve better – and have been critical of some journalism, it was assumed that I would be pleased by the attack on News International.

I wasn't. But, I did think that at least some journalists would now experience what some of their victims had been forced to endure. That feeling of helplessness and injustice you get when the wider narrative has run away from you and you are all getting tarred with the same brush. One corrupt journalist … and all journalists get slagged off for being corrupt or criminal or just hopeless.

Well, try being a priest!

Yet, when the media gets handled this way, somehow it is a gross injustice. My complaint all along is that some newspapers tear people's lives apart in pursuit of some 'public interest' headlines, then move on, leaving behind them a destruction for which they take no responsibility.

Well, Andy Coulson now faces prison. Rebekah Brookes has had her life and her affair with Andy Coulson exposed to the world – to say nothing of her husband's porn habits. Andy Coulson says he fought the courts to prevent his affair being made public in order to protect his young children? And where was such protectiveness when it was other people's children who deserved what they got because the parents were dodgy and deserved to be exposed and ridiculed? 'Public interest'?

So, when the phone hacking trials began I guess I should have been happy. But, I wasn't. If I object so strongly to ordinary people having their lives and reputations shredded by newspapers, how can I then be pleased when it happens even to those who have done the hypocritical wrecking? I can't. I have no respect for Andy Coulson or Rebekah Brookes and their (until now) unaccountable and destructive hypocrisy, but I still dislike a culture that revels in exposing them and their children to the horrors they have inflicted on others.

Andy Coulson should go to prison, but he is only the one they caught. Nothing really changes, though. People are still turned into commodities whose problems and inconsistencies are exploited and exposed for the entertainment of the public. The voyeuristic culture in which we are only able to feel better by belittling others has not changed – probably because this is not a media issue, but a human factor. And Coulson was taken into the heart of government without proper checking, so his demise inevitably has a public element to it – an accountability that demands public justice and recompense.

But, like all victims of media exploitation and deeply unattractive public voyeurism and judgmentalism, we cannot rejoice at the public humiliation of a husband and father whose life is shredded and whose children will pay a heavy price.

Justice may be done. But, I still feel tainted by the culture that loves to grind another person down, feeling morally superior in the process. Justice may be done, but I still feel grubby and sad.

 

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).

 

The General Synod of the Church of England is meeting for three days in London. Like many others, I approach such meetings with a mixture of serious anticipation and reluctant resignation. I might be unusual, but I usually need some prior wider preparatory thinking that sets the particular agenda in a constructive context.

So, I was belatedly reading some papers on the train this morning and found in them some useful stuff. Dr Isolde Karle presented a paper at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conference in Italy recently in which she addressed some of the challenges and perspectives arising from the role of the Church in a society differentiated by function (Kirche in der funktional differenzierten Gesellschaft: Herausforderungen und Perspektiven). Having examined the changes in society that have led to a diminution in influence on the part of the Church in the west, she differentiates between the dominance of status/order (up to the 18th century) and that of function/individualism thereafter. She looks at Luther (who wanted freedom from the – perceived – totalitarian claims of the Roman Catholic Church) and Schleiermacher (who wanted to free the church from the state) en route and summarises: “Religion war vor allem eine Sache der Ordnung, nicht der Überzeugung.”

Having stated that the church both gains and loses from the changes that now shape the modern world, she goes on to identify three 'dimensions of church life' that are significant for wider society:

  • Preservation of the Christian cultural memory
  • Church as an intermediary institution
  • Inclusion of the excluded.

Now, although these will take on slightly different complexions depending on the particular German or English contexts, they seem to me to offer a corrective to the common defensive misery or under confidence of the church in a changing world. Yes, there are other dimensions that could be identified, but these three matter enormously. Dr Karle is unapologetic in stating that this cultural memory cannot be taken for granted. “It is completely imaginable that one day the story of the Good Samaritan will no longer be known/understood. Solidarity with the powerless, deliberate care of the marginalised, of the sick and of people in need are not self-evident.” (Es ist aber durchaus vorstellbar, dass die Geschichte vom barmherzigen Samariter eines Tages nicht mehr verstanden wird. Die Solidarität mit den Schwächeren, die explizite Rücksichtnahme auf Ausgegrenzte, auf Kranke, auf Menschen in Not versteht sich nicht von selbst.)

The church is well placed to create the space in which other societal bodies can meet and thrive – hence the 'intermediary' role which the church exercises for the common good… on the basis of the vital rooting of our cultural memory in Christian theology and ethics.

In a functionally-differentiated world in which fragmentation is one consequence of societal change the church remains one of the few institutions that make space for all-comers regardless of background, status, qualification, wealth or ability.

OK, this is a rough summary of a longer and well-argued paper (that will be published next year). But, given that we will be debating women bishops (there's a surprise!) and 'intentional evangelism' (with the clear challenge of what this looks like among the poor and on our large urban estates where many churches are struggling to grow), Dr Isolde provides a background consideration of the cultural pool in which the church currently swims.

 

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.