Still away on holiday, I get back to wifi-land and get pointed to an article in yesterday's Observer newspaper. It seems that language learning in England, rather than getting stronger, is melting like snow. And all that those responsible for UK universities can say in response is that this is the way the market works: supply and demand.

So, fewer children learn a foreign language. Fewer take examinations in a foreign language at GCSE and A Level. The number of universities offering degree courses in modern languages will have halved in just over a decade. And the UK is shamelessly unembarrassed about producing generations of people who speak only their own native language. This is shocking.

I bang on about this stuff frequently – just put “language” in the search on this blog to find them. Not because I think I think language learning should be privileged over other disciplines, but because, if access to all disciplines is through the medium of language, then language learning is hugely important.

I am about to go out, so here is the Observer's report from yesterday and here a comment piece from David Bellos. I would simply add the following at this point:

  • Not learning a foreign language deprives people of a whole dimension of culture: communication, arts, translation 'depth';
  • We ignore the Schmidt doctrine: that we can only understand our own culture if we look through the lens of another culture… and that means knowing something of the other's language;
  • Losing our linguists seriously disadvantages the UK economically and politically – we never know what they are really saying behind our backs;
  • We reveal ourselves to be culturally arrogant;

Add to this the following and you begin to see the problem:

  • Do we really believe that every discipline should simply be left to the market in shaping what sort of country we are and what sort of people we think we should be growing through our education system? Are we really that random? Are we really that culturally illiterate already?

Yes, I would say this, wouldn't I?

But, I have also just spent a week with great Swiss friends who easily move between several languages; go into any bar or restaurant in obscure little northern Italian villages and the local waitresses will move between languages without show or embarrassment.

We should be ashamed. More to the point, however, we should be deeply worried about where we are heading and why.

 

Going to university back in 1976 opened a new world to me. Never really having the confidence to read widely or expand my interests beyond finding intellectual endorsement for my evangelical faith, I was compelled to read books I had not previously encountered.

My German teacher – probably deeply irritated by me, my seriousness and my questions – had got me to read Dante's Inferno and, with a group of German Assistent/innen, to see a Bertolt Brecht play in Manchester. It was The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, a powerful parody of the rise of Hitler, and a play I would return to many times. But, that was probably as far as I went.

In my first year in Bradford, really wanting to concentrate on becoming a translator, I opted for a course on European Literature and Thought. This opened me up to writers such as Sigmund Freud, Guiseppe di Lampedusa, Arthur Koestler, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Günther Grass, and many others. The text that gripped me, however, was The Communist Manifesto of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

My knowledge of history was neither deep nor wide. It still isn't, but I am trying…

It did seem striking, though, that 1848 was a pivotal year in European and, therefore, world history. Among many other things – such as revolutions in parts of Europe (and the Enlightenment bedding in following more than half a century after the French Revolution) – various types of slavery were being both challenged and protected… and both on grounds of economics, property and a perverse anthropology.

Marx and Engels berated the commodification of human beings in the industrialising worlds of mass-production, challenging the right of a capitalist elite to protect its own interests by enslaving the proletariat – those who actually made the stuff despite being alienated from it – in meaningless work from which they derived no profit and yet which imprisoned them in soulless and degrading labour.

At the same time Abraham Lincoln (yes, I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Lincoln) made his first public political move against slavery in the United States, recognising that thus far “he had not delivered a single speech on the issue of slavery or initiated anything to promote the issue” (p.127). He subsequently drafted a proposal for the gradual emancipation of slaves in Washington DC. He eventually lost, remarking with pragmatic political realism: “Finding that I was abandoned by my former backers and having little personal influence, I dropped the matter knowing it was useless to prosecute the business at that time.” (P.129)

Slavery takes many forms and is always conditioned by the particular cultural, political and economic shape of particular societies. In the US it was the issue that was dividing the country and would lead to the bloodshed of the Civil War only a few years later. Yet, most proponents of slavery there argued in favour of their proprietorial economic rights to own and trade people as commodities. In Europe it looked different. But, in both contexts the economics and politics were undergirded by often unarticulated anthropologies – maybe theological anthropologies – that made assumptions about the nature of human beings whilst avoiding facing the consequences of those assumptions.

Now, this is not to read back into past times the wise hindsight of the present. It is, however, to recognise that if such battles were being fought on different continents – and I haven't space to get on to the British Empire – over the nature of what is means to be human, then progress made in some quarters has not diminished the continuing importance of the fundamental question even today.

The 'rights' culture we now inhabit is both positive and negative. It poses some of the right questions whilst running into the sand when it comes to taking seriously the consistency of implications – for example, in establishing which rights have priority when the rights of different people clash directly. It is a lawyer's dream. Yet, underlying this is the nagging question of why we think that people matter in the first place. If the ethical tenet of “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' holds water, then the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself demand any moral imperative. That is to say, the mere fact of human existence cannot of itself – clear of un-argued for assumptions about why – demand a particular crediting of human life with inherent value or significance. We simply import other assumptions in reaching a conclusion with which we have actually started.

1848 was a pivotal year. There must be a book somewhere that looks at that year synchronously across the globe, recognising the contingencies of political, economic and anthropological (and theological) thought and argument. If not, someone should write one. (If I had Internet access while writing this, I would google it and look cleverer than I am. But, I don't!)

What is clear, however, is that the same questions that racked people like Marx, Engels and Lincoln – although they could not be thought to share the same political ground – have not gone away. If you think they have, then ask a trafficked East European teenager who finds herself in the lands of the free traded for sex, money and power.

 

Reading about the American Civil War, Leonard Cohen and the corruption of civilisation in Hitler's Final Solution – a corruption that enabled 'ordinary men' to do inhuman things to other people – might not sound like happy holiday reading. But, it is good holiday reading and, given the space to think and not just move on to the next appointment, it brings into focus the themes addressed by Tom Wright in his newly-published 'Creation, Power and Truth'… which I have just read today.

Wright's thesis is that, if “postmodernity has been a necessary protest against modernist arrogance,… it has not provided us with an alternative worldview capable of sustaining a new way of being human in our late-modern Western world” (p.72). Earlier he suggests that “postmodernity seems within the providence of God to have the role of preaching the doctrine of the Fall to arrogant modernity” (p.68).

You have to read these lectures in order to get his essential drift, but he articulates something that haunts the other books I have been reading. Perhaps it is something like this: we have successfully removed concepts such as 'evil' from our worldview (apart from when we need to express horror at people-not-like-us such as paedophiles), then found ourselves unable to address the world as it is in anything like sustainable moral terms.

The Americans fought over many things in the Civil War, but two of them were (a) visions of how the individual relates to the state (and one state to another) and (b) whether some people are more human – or to be defined in terms other than economic value – than others (black slaves, for example). The myth of progress that was supposed to have lain bleeding in the trenches of Europe after the 'war to end all wars' survived, in the absence of any alternative narrative, and fed the technological and bureaucratic machine that created the extermination camps of the Nazis.

If postmodern reality is proving disappointing – particularly in not offering a moral vocabulary that carries any weight other than that of (what I might call) pragmatic convenience, then where might we look for a new narrative? Tom Wright invites us to look back in order to look forward – to the narrative of createdness (and all that this assumes), the freedom to “speak truth to power” (especially the power of the 'empire'), and the creative confidence to live in communities of active love that offer the world a different way.

Those who have already written off the Christian narrative – often by prejudice and/or without examining it – will not be convinced that Christianity has anything to say about anything, especially politics. Notwithstanding this, and the aggression with which this bizarre (and irrational) rejection is often articulated, Christians must develop the confidence in the good news of Jesus Christ which, as Pontius Pilate discovered in his personal encounter with him, is rooted in a fundamental affirmation of creation and the real world, a freedom and courage to question and confront the empire (the powers that be), and to inhabit the life-giving truth about human nature and the future of the world.

Otherwise, we must ask on what basis we bring to bear any moral judgement on the ubiquitous experiences of systematic cruelty, the dehumanising of 'the other', or the abuse of truth in the pursuit of power.

(And now I am moving on to Abraham Lincoln…)

 

I arrived in Roanoke, Virginia, last night after a long couple of flights from Manchester. The Diocese of Bradford has a longstanding link with the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and I am here (with a couple of colleagues) for the ordination/consecration of the new bishop tomorrow. I came here for the first time in January 2012 to get to know the diocese and attend the annual Diocesan Council (equivalent to a diocesan synod in England). So, it is great to meet such wonderfully gracious and hospitable people again so soon.

Of course, this also offers a further opportunity not only to learn about The Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the USA), but also to look though its lens at the context I work in in England. If anything, the visit and all the encounters and conversations reinforce the lesson I learned at the Lambeth Conference back in 2008: a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop.

A bit obvious, you might say, but the common language we use can easily shape our assumption that the same words in the different contexts (and church polities) refer to the same thing. They don't.

For example, this morning I attended a media round-table discussion between the Presiding Bishop of TEC, the outgoing Bishop of SWVA and the bishop-elect. The discussion revolved around how the church is changing as society around changes. For example, depopulation of some areas – largely down to urbanisation – renders some churches too small to sustain stipendiary ministry and the local churches have to try to adapt accordingly. The role of the bishop here was successively described in terms of a 'pontifex' – a bridge builder and connector of people and places as together we discern the will and call of God. They talked about how to maintain presence as some places decline in population or the demographic becomes more impoverished financially.

And here lies the interesting bit – for me, at least.

When they speak of 'parish', an Englishman needs to hear 'church'. An English parish is geographical and demographic: every blade of grass in England grows in an Anglican parish and a vicar is the vicar of the parish, not the chaplain of a congregation. This means that the English parish demands church engagement with civic society, politics, local community and services, people of all faiths and none, and ecumenical obligation. That dynamic does not exist here in anything like the same way. Add to that the fact that the individual parish is responsible for appointing and paying the priest, and we see the discontinuity in the reality behind the common terminology. Hence, the Church of England's parish share system (by which parishes take common responsibility for mission and ministry across the diocese – the wealthier paying more and the poorer paying less) has no equivalent here. And this means that deploying clergy across a diocese is a very different exercise here from in Bradford.

Naturally, this has other consequences. The role of the bishop is not the same as the bishop of a diocese in England where the Church is 'by law established'. Put me and the Bishop of SWVA together with the Bishop of Khartoum in Sudan – our third mutual partner – and we discover that, as I crudely put it, a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop. Context, history and polity directly shape understanding, ethos, relationship (of clergy to bishop and bishop to people) and practice.

This observation might seem to be what Monty Python calls “the bleeding obvious”. Yet, the obvious isn't always obvious until you look your counterpart in the eye, listen to the language she uses, and ask to what the terminology actually refers. This is an exercise in translation – of words and culture – and it is neither obvious, nor easy.

The media session was followed by a Eucharist for clergy and spouses in the diocese and this was followed by a wonderful lunch and a session for clergy with the Presiding Bishop. It has all been very stimulating. The following caused me to put pen to notebook paper:

  • Some people in the USA who do not buy into the environmental sustainability agenda are finding that expanding poverty is challenging their perception: especially the connection between food, the earth, climate change and migration and their impact.
  • 'Inclusion' has traditionally been used in the church to refer to whom 'we' might wish to include, whereas increasingly we are moving into a world in which 'we' will need to ask who will include us.
  • Clergy a responsible for pastoral discipline, catechetical teaching and associated sacramental provision; their leadership role brings these responsibilities with it and it must be taken seriously as well as creatively. How are 'parishioners' to learn about and understand their place and role in the wider community of the church and not just the local expression of it? Anglicans are – according to their basic ecclesiology – not congregationalists; but, if that is de facto the culture and polity of the TEC expression of the Anglican polity, what are the implications for the church's self-understanding (to say nothing of its mission)?

A final observation that I need to think further about. The Presiding Bishop was clear in a couple of contexts that the church must move to become less hierarchical and more connexional (in the sense of being horizontally networked rather than up-down managed/directed. She also suggested that this is “where the Spirit is leading us”. This echoes some of the discourse in the UK with Fresh Expressions and its assumptions about English societal trends (assumptions I still think are partly questionable). Yet, the bit that struck me was not whether or not this is where the Spirit is leading the church, but who is meant by 'us'.

England is not the USA (for reasons I mention above) and the English parochial system is still essentially 'communal' rather than 'associational'. In other words, 'place' matters to us. When other denominations close down and move out of some of the hard places, the Church of England cannot. Supported and often financed through the diocesan parish share system, presence and engagement are sustained for the sake of the local society and the church's commitment to worship, evangelism and service locally. Buildings are retained where this is sometimes costly and hard to do.

Clearly, all this is contingent on other commitments that are integral to and inherent in English Anglican ecclesiology (and, yes, I do realise that there is a certain apparent tautology in that phrase). The American dynamic and polity are different. This is not to say that the Church of England has it right over against the TEC model – or vice versa; it is to recognise that each brings its own questions, dilemmas and opportunities. However, it also makes clear that we are not comparing like with like – even when we use the same language to describe different phenomena.

We live in different worlds, but in the same world. And that is why such diocesan partnership links are so important not only to the Anglican Communion, but also to the wider Christian Church. When we look at the Episcopal Church in Sudan (ECS) through the lens of TEC or the C of E, or TEC through the lens of ECS and the C of E, or the C of E through the lens of TEC and ECS – especially where all three are held together in conversation and committed relationship – we learn (a) just how difficult translation is, (b) that the contingent challenges and opportunities are complex, and (c) that we need each other to provide those lenses without which we become easily and arrogantly self-justifying.

(I prepared for this visit by reading E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel The March. Probably a bit tactless, really.)

 

Since returning from the big gig in Germany last week there hasn't been much time for blogging. Life is full and the days are demanding. But, Alex Ferguson has retired, so a new world beckons.

But, even this causes me a problem. David Moyes, Ferguson's successor as manager of Manchester United, is hugely impressive in every way – despite having spent over ten years with Everton. How can I now start dissing him just because he's going over to the Dark Side? I realise that there are more complex ethical issues, but this is a tough one for a Scousers like me.

Anyway, I haven't had time to recover from the exertions of the wonderful Kirchentag in Hamburg. Today, for example, I met with the police early in the morning. Then I went to a brilliant primary school and taught over 400 children a couple of songs in their assembly. Having toured the school with two children, I then went back into Bradford to be one of the speakers at the national launch of Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). Back to this in a minute, but just to complete the diary stuff… I took a couple of excellent education people to lunch before meeting a vicar at home, doing diocesan finances with the Chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance, having a diary session with my secretary, writing a piece for the June edition of the Bradford Diocesan News, then joining the Sikh Forum for wonderful hospitality at their big Vaisakhi celebration.

The big news, however, was the launch of CAASE. This body has been founded by various bodies such as the Islamic Society of Britain and Hope not Hate. They reined in the police, local councillors, community leaders and me. Despite problems of communication and association in the planning of today's event, it marked an important development. And why is this significant?

The grooming of young girls for sexual exploitation is appalling and news is constantly breaking about such shocking predatory criminality. This is a human problem and a male problem (principally). Yet, there is always a particular cultural context to every instance of such abuse. In West Yorkshire the pattern is broadly that online grooming is a white phenomenon, whilst street grooming is almost entirely the domain of Asian men. And here we need to sound a loud note of caution.

Much reporting of sex grooming is loose with the language. 'Asian' is a broad term and many Asians are fed up with being lumped in with criminal cultural behaviour from other parts of the continent. Secondly, to confuse religion (Islam) with ethnicity (Pakistani Kashmiri Mirpuri, for example) is not only a category error, but can lead to serious misrepresentation and misunderstanding. When using language in such circumstances we must be clear and precise.

My contribution was simply to commend the Asians and Muslims who have had the courage to grasp this difficult nettle. Demonstrating maturity and courage, bodies such as the Bradford Council for Mosques, the Bradford Muslim Women's Council and the Bradford Imams Forum have refused – against pressure from some who find it too hard to face the reality of such shameful criminality in their midst – to hide from their responsibility. When it comes to the particular forms of exploitation carried out by Asian men, then it is the Asian and Muslim communities that need to take the lead in addressing it.

This is not my line; rather, it is the line given to me by Asian Muslims. I will stand by them and support them, but they have to take the lead here. And they have recognised that if they don't shape how they handle this phenomenon, they will always be reacting defensively to the lead taken by those who wish to make political points out of the situation.

Yes, sexual grooming is not an 'Asian' issue; but, there is an Asian issue with grooming here in West Yorkshire and elsewhere. The particular must be addressed and not hidden behind the general. (Something the church knows a good deal about…)

Facing this challenge here in West Yorkshire requires mature and confident leadership – and we are seeing this emerge. It also raises challenges for patriarchy and the treatment of women by men generally. Cultural behaviours that diminish women must be challenged. In fact, we heard from a Muslim woman that although their girls are taught about spotting the seductions of potential exploitative approaches and relationships, the boys are not. Models of patriarchal mysogeny are perpetuated.

Here in Bradford there is a really encouraging waking up to the realities that need to be tackled here. This offers immense hope for the future and I end the day encouraged.

 

Just a quickie as I haven’t had time to write anything deep (did I ever?) this last couple of weeks.

Funny old world. The Church of England gets it in the neck from politicians regarding women bishops and gay marriage. The Mother of Democracy makes space for people elected on a fraction of the electorate’s votes to threaten the Church that if we don’t change our polity they will do it for us. In other words, “we don’t like how your people voted, so change the system in such a way that they get it right next time – or we will force you to do it”.

Er… forgive me for being naive, but did any of these guys think through the implications of this ‘advice’? Or the assumptions behind it?

Did the Prime Minister not feel just a tinge of embarrassment in encouraging the Church of England to “get with the programme” (interesting choice of words…) when he had, for example, failed to reform the House of Lords (which the Church still thinks is needed) in Parliament? Pots, kettles, black. And how many u-turns has this government managed in the last couple of years? And they tell the Church how to get the right results by bending the systems?

Then we have a minister stand up in the House of Commons and state that the Church of England will be ‘banned’ (“It will be illegal…”) from allowing the celebration of gay marriages in church under the planned new legislation – without actually talking to us or alerting us first. OK, the established church finds itself in a conundrum about this and other ethical/cultural issues (and with a spread of opinions within the church) and some of the challenge has to do with stuff you simply can’t erase from reality (or law). So, the debate about the Church of England is OK. But, the minister referred to the Church in Wales in the same category – when it was disestablished 92 years ago. That’s 92 years ago.

So, we have politicians who are badly briefed, ignorant of the polity of the matters they are dealing with, change their minds every five minutes, put out ‘consultations’ at the same time as announcing that they “are determined to push this through”, make a false and factually erroneous distinction between ‘civil marriage’ and ‘religious marriage’ in their consultation paperwork, fail to think through the implications of their proposals, fail to provide evidence of anything other than ad hoc and reactive populist thinking in the proposals they announce prematurely, and then expect to be taken seriously.

I was asked by a radio interviewer this morning how the Church of England will respond to ‘the ban’ on performing gay marriage in church. I wasn’t being entirely facetious in replying that we had probably better wait a while as there might well be an announcement next week changing it all again. Confidence isn’t high.

To make it worse, BBC Question Time last night was embarrassing. Not for the Church for being out of touch or irrelevant or any of the other things levelled at it. No, embarrassing because none of the panellists seemed to be aware of their ignorance, ashamed of their lack of basic research or the least bit open to the remotest hint of a possibility that their confident opinions might be even questionable.

One of the charges against the church is that we are irrelevant and out of touch with contemporary values. This might be true. It is also true that the church always needs to check its hermeneutics against lived reality and have the humility to consider that it might be ‘reading wrong’. But, the principle that the church ought automatically to go along with whatever a particular contemporary culture thinks is ‘right’ or ‘obvious’ is such obvious nonsense that it is embarrassing to have to name it.

Let’s be dramatic – and remember we are talking principle here. What should the church have done when German society in the 1930s colluded with the nasties? How should the Russian church have re-shaped itself during the Communist years? Should the church in England simply let go of some unpopular values because they get widely ridiculed? Should a church’s theological anthropology simply be short-circuited in order to keep trouble away and ‘fit in’?

The Christian scriptures and tradition don’t sit easily with this line. The prophets weren’t popular in the sixth or eighth centuries BC when they saw through the short-term political and military alliances that would ultimately lead to chaos. When life was cheap they didn’t refrain from holding to the inherent value of human life, the common good and the need for justice. Jesus didn’t get nailed for being untrendy – but for daring to challenge the Zeitgeist. His followers weren’t encouraged to blend in to first century pagan culture.

Let’s be clear: it is the principle of automatic collusion with the Zeitgeist that has to be questioned. Drill down then to the issues themselves (gay marriage, etc) and at least the conversation can proceed with mutual respect. Simply writing off those who oppose gay marriage as homophobes without engaging with the fundamental value systems and world views that shape their journey to that conclusion is crass – as is the sneer from the other end that approving of gay relationships automatically writes off all Christian credentials and reduces them to brain-dead liberalism.

The church needs to listen very carefully to what society is saying – and be willing in all humility to contemplate that its tradition on any issue might need to be amended. Sexuality is the big one in this respect at present. But, wider society should not expect an authentically Christian church to simply reflect its surrounding culture or be cowed by sneering ridicule or political pressure.

For the record, the House of Bishops of the Church of England has commissioned work on sexuality (Pilling) and the outcome of this will inevitably have implications for other matters. No bishop is treating this lightly and we are fully aware of the impatience of many people for us to get on with it. But, we will work on it properly and will eventually come to some conclusions. Sneering or ridicule won’t force the issue – however much many of us would like to expedite it to a particular end.

Here is the text of the Lent Lecture I was asked to do on BBC Radio 4. It was broadcast on Wednesday 29 February and repeated on Sunday 4 March (twice).

Nearly three thousand years ago a wise man put into words what should be blindingly obvious: “Without a vision the people perish.” Of course, he didn’t know that this would be quoted for the next few millennia in worlds and contexts he couldn’t possibly have imagined. “Without a vision the people perish.” It encapsulates what many commentators and ordinary people have been trying to articulate in a world that has changed radically in the last three or four years.

First of all, the financial crisis in the capitalist world has led to radical questioning of what really matters to human society – and on what values such a society should be built. And while much anger and blame have been heaped onto the heads of bankers, their gambling acumen and their extravagant bonuses, the cost is increasingly being borne by the poor and the vulnerable. Ask anyone involved on the ground with homeless people, people being made homeless or those who live in fear of losing the little they have. It is a colder world today.

Whatever the causes of the crisis, however, many commentators think it has exposed the lack of a thought-through and commonly-owned consensus about what we want our society to look like. Questions of justice, equity and value have been raised and, as the Occupy movement has made inescapably clear, there is now a cohort of people who refuse to let business continue as normal without challenge and debate. People and institutions that would have ignored such challenges only a couple of years ago are now openly accepting the need for a recalibration of the relationship between labour and reward. So, the world has changed… for the time-being, at least.

So, who and what are we for? That’s the question that keeps raising its head behind all the practical debates. It’s not a new question, but it has often been submerged under an acceptance of the status quo when all seems to be going well and we don’t want to upset what is weirdly called ‘normality’. However, ‘normality’ was further disrupted during the summer of 2011.

At the beginning of August my wife and I flew out of London for a holiday with friends in the United States. Not long after we arrived there I got a phone call to say that there were riots in Croydon – the place where I had lived and been bishop until recently – and that our youngest son was holed up in his flat while the violence went on outside. Inevitably, then, we followed the news as, for many people in London, law broke down and the commentariat offered instant analyses of the causes.

Interpretation and judgement were instant – particularly in the media and from the mouths of those who can’t resist the seduction of a microphone. One of the characteristics of the ensuing analysis was the charge that English society has lost any sense of a collective narrative. And what does that mean? Quite simply, that we no longer know who we are, why we are here or what we are trying to become.

Now, that might sound a little philosophical and vague, but it actually poses a serious challenge to the way we live – and the way we understand our common life. “Without a vision the people perish” – or, as we might rephrase it, if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know where we are going.

Go back to the Old Testament and we find there a good illustration of this contemporary predicament. The Israelites had been liberated from oppressive exile in Egypt. They then wandered through the desert for forty years while a generation of nostalgia-merchants and moaners died off. Then, just before they entered into the land they believed they had been promised, they were given some stark and uncompromising warnings: when you settle and things begin to go well for you, you will forget that once you were slaves… and when you forget your story – your ‘narrative’ – you will begin to assume that all your wealth is down to your own efforts… and you will start treating other people as your slaves. If you lose the plot – literally – you will lose all that speaks to you of your identity. Life is not a game and people are not to be treated as pawns in the hands of those who assume the right to a personally comfortable life at the expense of others.

In fact, in order to ensure that the people didn’t lose touch with their founding narrative, they were to instigate annual festivals – rituals designed to remind them (in body, mind and spirit) of the story that was to drive them as they shaped their society. Some of these rituals involved, for example, leaving the crops at the edges of your field so that asylum-seekers and the dispossessed could have something to eat. Or, bringing the first (and best) 10% of your crop to the priest to whom you would then address a creed – not a simple statement of doctrine, but a story that roots you and your community. This creed would begin with the statement: “My father was a wandering Aramaean…”. In other words, the starting point of the story that defines us – that tells us who we are – is that we are transient, that we belong together, that we journey together with responsibility for one another. Or, to answer a different biblical question: yes, I am my brother’s keeper… and he is mine.

Now, what shocked many observers about the summer rioters’ 24 hour holiday from civilisation was the sense of disconnection from society – a rejection of any identification with what we might call ‘the rest of us’. No investment in belonging to or shaping or taking responsibility for the community in which they live. No sense of obligation towards anyone else – and no concept of belonging to a community of accountability.

Now, what would we say was the narrative that unconsciously drove these people? Every man for himself? The survival of the fittest? ‘Me first’ individualism? Or have they drunk too deeply of the wells of Hollywood in which the so-called ‘myth of redemptive violence’ is portrayed as self-evidently true and the only effective way of making sure no one gets one over on you?

I guess this brings us back to that question of narratives and vision. Just what sort of a society do we think we are creating? What sort of a community do we wish to become? What does our vision look like – or don’t we have a common vision towards which we are working?

Well, that’s where the debate begins for us. After all, we have to take responsibility for how we collectively and individually shape our vision and begin to earth it in the structures and stuff of social priorities. But, the need to question and challenge our world view is unavoidable if we take the biblical narrative with any degree of seriousness. God, we learn, is rather concerned about justice and whether or not the poor are fed.

Which is where Lent comes in. Lent offers the space for reflection on what really motivates and drives us – what are the values and core beliefs that shape how we see and how we live with ourselves and one another… how we love and hate… who we love and hate. In other words, we are invited to take the trouble to work out which (or whose) narrative we locate ourselves within.

One of the problems for many of us is our assumed familiarity with the gospels. But, rather than being comforted by them, if we read them properly, we find ourselves deeply challenged – especially by the habit of God’s people to lose the plot… forgetting their vocation to live and give their life in order that the world should see who God is and what he is about.

At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel we find Jesus returning from his baptism and testing in the desert and “proclaiming the good news of God” in the hill country of the north where he was from originally. This is summed up in four phrases: ” The time is now; God is present among you again; change the way you look at God, the world and us; now live differently in that world.” OK, that’s a paraphrase, but it illustrates the dynamic of what Jesus was trying to do and say. We could put it like this: “You have been praying for generations that God would be among you again – which you think he can’t be while the ‘unclean’ Roman occupying forces remain in your land. But, dare to think differently: what if the holy God broke his own rules and came into the contaminated space and contaminated it with hope and generosity and goodness? Just imagine. Can you dare to look differently at God, the world and us – even to seeing God being present in surprising, healing – even shocking ways? Or can you only spot God’s presence when everything is going well for you and all your problems have been resolved?

In fact, in the gospels we see this time and again. Before he launches out on his fatal mission of challenge, Jesus goes into the desert for forty days and nights to face hard questions: are you really willing to do this God’s way – even if it ends on a cross? Are you going to be driven by the desire for quick glory – or can you really defy the god of self-preservation and lay down your life for the sake of the world?

This was real, hard, deep soul-searching – drilling down to what really motivated Jesus… to what was the fertile soil from which the rest of his behaviour would grow.

Go to the end of Luke’s Gospel and we find the risen Jesus walking alongside a couple of bewildered and frightened disciples who couldn’t make any sense of Jesus having died – the Messiah wasn’t supposed to do that. Having told their version of the story – that didn’t add up – Jesus then re-tells it… enabling them to see God, the world and themselves differently – through a re-shaped lens, as it were.

And that’s the challenge for anyone or any community that thinks it takes God and his invitation seriously. Not only am I as an individual required to reflect the Christ whose name I bear, but also to help shape my community or society accordingly. The rest of the gospel narratives simply identify those who could or could not dare to change the way they looked at, saw, thought about and lived in God’s world.

So, the gospels drop on us the challenge faced by the first disciples of Jesus: to be changed and challenged as we walk with him from the shores of Galilee to a cross planted in the rubbish tip outside the city, through a grave and into a surprising future.

I guess Lent offers us the opportunity to question again the vision that fires us and to measure it against one that we think we know – that of Jesus. This is the vision that captivated me as a teenager in Liverpool and has never let me go. As a young man I saw it in purely individual terms – a personal discipleship aimed at spiritual growth and personal holiness. The problem was that I then read the rest of the Bible and couldn’t escape the insistent call to anyone who agrees to reflect the character of the God revealed there – that is, the call to give up one’s life for the sake of others.

The irony, of course, is that this was always the call of God’s people… but the temptation is always to get distracted by more comfortable – or less demanding narratives – and to lose the plot.

The great Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn wrote a beautiful song way back in 1976 called Lord of the Starfields in which he sets the ‘now’ against the larger backdrop of the whole created order of the universe. The refrain comes as a simple prayer,  encapsulating a vision for the here and now that is derived from a perception of eternity that shapes how we can be into the future: “Love that fires the sun keep me burning.”

It’s not a bad prayer for Lent, recalling us to a vision of generosity, self-giving and confident humility. Maybe even a vision that calls a broken society back from its immediate practical questions and poses a more fundamental challenge: for whom and for what are we here? And, if our society seems too complicated to begin to think about such a conversion, then I recall, that Jesus, in three short years, spent time with twelve people who never quite got it, and yet through them changed the world.

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.

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Location:Oxford

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 have just visited a small town in Pennsylvania called Intercourse. Its tourist blurb encourages us to ‘Slow down the hurry’. Er… OK…

Intercourse is in the heart of Amish country and that’s why we went there. Apart from the fact that the drive over there was beautiful, what you meet is a very strange juxtaposition of vastly different cultures.

The Amish wear particular clothing (the women a dress with white apron before marriage and a black one after marriage; the men wear white shirt and black trousers with braces (suspenders) and buttons – no zips are allowed). They refuse to use electricity and drive horse-drawn buggies instead of cars. Their refusal to move with the modern world comes from their religious tradition rooted in the 17th century.

They are visited and gawped at by tourists who romanticise the Amish lifestyle (as if it were simply yet another ‘lifestyle choice’ towards personal fulfilment) and locals who complain that the Amish don’t pay taxes, but use the roads, etc. So, buggy rides by strange-looking Amish are a tourist ‘must’, and the shops are full of Amish produce. And the tills are electronic.


Some of the visual contrasts are stark. For example, I didn’t spot any obese Amish, but they were being patronised by some very large non-Amish in very large vehicles. I would love to get inside the head of the Amish and know what the tourists look like to a people who work extremely hard, live a fairly simple life and try to keep themselves to themselves. How do they sustain their values and integrity when confronted every day by the rewards of affluence and consumption, then exploit that consumer thirst for the sake of their own economic well-being?

I think I brought to this a rather simplistic assumption that simple people would be purer than they perhaps actually are. It was odd to see a couple of Amish women get in a large vehicle and drive off. It was somehow odder to see young Amish people with plain, functional clothing and modern (expensive-looking – but what would I know?) trainers.

I like the idea of people retaining a culture that defies or implicitly challenges the values and priorities of the rest of the world. I admire the singular tenacity of a people who want as little distraction from their love of God, family, home and hard work, but engage as far as possible with that alien world around them. But I don’t want to collude in some of the romanticism I saw which holds up the Amish life as one of peaceful simplicity: working hundreds of acres with a horse-pulled plough might lead to peaceful sleep for the workers, but it wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a nice life.

However, I just wonder if the experience with the Amish has anything to say to how we approach Travellers in the UK – or any other cultures who see the world differently. Or does it really all come down to whether they pay taxes or not?


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Location:Philadelphia, USA