Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.

 

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Five days into August already and still haven’t got through a single one of the books lined up for the catch-up month. Oh well.

It could be this that is narking me; but, on the other hand, it might be that the world is going mad.

Three things for starters:

1. Apparently, the Minister for Local Government is going to write to the bishops of the Church of England today asking us to support longer Sunday trading hours. According to the Daily Telegraph, the letter will say:

The government has been determined to revive our nation’s high streets to ensure they remain the heartbeat of our communities for decades to come. High streets provide the social, cultural and essential services so many local people enjoy and rely on.

As the law stands, only the smallest shops are allowed to open for more than six hours on a Sunday, a law which came into force in 1994 after a long struggle by the business community.

The justification (according to news reports – we haven’t actually received the promised letter yet) is that this will limit supermarkets and revive the high street. The aim is noble – consider the action by dairy farmers yesterday: it costs them more to produce milk than they get when it is sold. But, this, once again, confirms that we have become a market society, driven by consumer economics, rather than a market economy, driven by the need for the economy to serve society. In other words, we now define our society in purely economic terms.

The alternative would be to restrict Sunday trading rather than expand it. This would restore to society the notion of a common sabbath and create space for common rest – the possibility for remembering who we are and why we are here. We are not born to shop.

A losing battle, maybe; but one worth scrapping over for the sake of questioning what sort of a society we wish to be, rather than simply (and unquestioningly) accepting the society we have become.

2. In a classic example of loaded reporting, the Guardian draws attention to consideration in Wales for re-shaping the teaching of Religious Education in schools. This is how the article begins:

For a long time, religious education has been about as unloved and neglected as a crumbling old church. Several people and organisations (some, admittedly, with a vested interest in its continuation) have warned in recent years that it has never been more needed, and this week it emerged that the Welsh government is considering an overhaul of the subject.

Huw Lewis, the Welsh government’s minister for education and skills told the Cardiff parliament that RE should be renamed, “[transforming] it into the religion, philosophy and ethics element of the curriculum – where there is an explicit commitment to allowing children to ponder ideas around ethics and citizenship”. He added: “We really need to allow young people the space and the time, within the school curriculum, to consider fundamental issues of faith and of citizenship and of the meaning of freedom.”

RE, long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects, has suffered over the years. A 2013 report by Ofsted found that more than half of schools were failing to teach the subject adequately

How many untested attestations does that contain? Staggering. How long is “a long time”? Where is the evidence that is has been unloved and neglected? Why compare it to a “crumbling old church” rather than a crumbling something else? Which organisations have a “vested interest in its continuation” – and why “admittedly”?

Is it not conceivable that the “vested interest” might be an intelligent argument or interest for the sake of the common good? Is it not remotely possible that, at a time when we need more religious education in order to understand the world and its people, we should be arguing for better teaching and learning rather than the dilution of it? Does “long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects” reflect simply the rather embarrassing prejudices of the journalist who wrote this stuff? Shouldn’t we expect better (of both RE teaching and journalism)?

If numbers fall because teaching is poor, then, surely, the answer is to improve the teaching and learning. As the media trust I chair keeps arguing in the sphere of broadcasting, we need more religious literacy in this conflicted world, not less. Popularity has little to do with it.

3. Giles Fraser redeems the Guardian by concisely putting his finger on a key question that is – understandably – annoying the government. Migration (inwards only) was a vexed matter during the general election. If media reporting is accurate, then immigration (and how to stop it) is a major concern for ordinary Middle Englanders, and politicians ignore it at their peril. Well, ‘majority opinion’ does not necessarily equate to ‘right opinion’. It is only a generation or two ago that German opinion was happy to see Jews and other minorities as sub-human and expendable.

Fraser recalls the difficult and embarrassing question Jesus put to people who probably didn’t like the implcit answer: “Who is my neighbour?” Those who have done RE in school will know that this follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also the title of the pastoral letter issued by the bishops of the Church of England ahead of the last election – which the government (then and now) deepy resented.

But, the question hangs in the air like a bad smell. Get beneath the rhetoric around immigration and we cannot avoid the fundamental challenge: what is our theological anthropology? In other words, what is a human being and why does he/she matter?

That is the question that underlies all the conflicted rhetoric about immigration.

The other question is one that will not go away: is there a strategy behind policy in this regard, or are we condemned to constantly respond to the latest and loudest voice or situation? And what is the anthropological assumption from which policy emerges? And isn’t it important that someone keeps asking the awkward questions about human significance when justifications for action seem only to be economic?

Sorry, that’s three questions.

A letter was published in the Daily Telegraph this morning, signed by fifty eminent people, in which they criticise the Prime Minister’s article of faith published in the Church Times last week.

The letter itself is fairly unremarkable – and certainly not a surprise – although why such people think it is worth all the energy, time and activity involved in getting such a number of signatures, still beats me.

The statistics cited are, of course, at variance to other published statistics (e.g. the 2011 Census), but that is in the nature of statistics and we draw to our defence those that suit our argument the best. So, I won’t waste time arguing with the numbers.

What is bizarre is the charge that the Prime Minister, by saying what he said, “fosters alienation and division in our society.” That ” this needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.” Good grief!

First, if politicians were to refrain from saying anything ‘divisive’, they would be silent. Any stated viewpoint or priority is by definition ‘divisive’ as there will always be people who strongly disagree. The use of potential ‘divisiveness’ as a charge against anything inconvenient is ridiculous. Presumably, the divisiveness caused by publishing this letter is to be excused?

Secondly, why should ‘secular humanism’ be prioritised above other world views or identities? There is no neutral territory – something is always being prioritised over other preferences. That is a fact of life. And if you want a purely relativistic world view to dominate (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to want), you can’t then decide to absolutise certain priorities or assumptions.

‘Fostering division’ is a phrase that should be dropped as a threat. Anyone can use it and, being a threat, of course, there is no evidence that it has or does.

So, the Daily Telegraph has dug into the old writings of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and discovered something deeply shocking.

It would appear that he has said and written things in the past – in different contexts, for different audiences and free of archiespiscopal ambitions – that he might now either hold to, reject, nuance or express differently.

What this means is that – perish the thought – he might have grown up and learned and thought and developed as he has matured.

Now, I know anyone in public life is not allowed to have been a child or to have grown or changed. I realise that my own archive of parish magazine articles, etc. might be found to contain expressions that might embarrass me now. This is what happens to human beings as they grow up.

The bizarre thing is that anyone thinks this is anything other than story-creation. The Archbishop might or might not hold to views held or expressed in the past. I have no idea, and he can speak for himself. But, the notion that he should now be entirely consistent with what he said or thought or wrote twenty, ten or five years ago is utter nonsense. It simply suggests that he should never have grown up.

What matters is what he thinks now. The journey there might also be interesting. But, the fact that he might have said things or thought things in the past matters little… except, of course, to those looking for contradictions.

I remember a fellow curate in the late 1980s rejecting the idea that Jesus might have had to learn or change his mind (we were talking about the episode in Matthew 15 with the Syro-Phoenecian woman). In the end, I asked if he was suggesting that somehow ‘learning’ was sinful… and he said it was – the logic being that Jesus was perfect and didn’t need to learn. Er…

 

Yesterday the Telegraph published an article I had written about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for Jesus. Not his personal spiritual quest, of course, but the hunt for someone to play the character of Jesus in the stadium tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. The response was interesting!

I was careful not to endorse the TV series or the tour, but thought it raised interesting questions for how alert Christians might engage with it creatively. Let’s just say some of the response wasn’t… er… creative. But, I stand by the points I made and the questions I raised. Sometimes the church is landed with a creative and imaginative opportunity to speak a common language with popular culture… and can’t see it. Well, here’s the latest opportunity and I hope people will see it.

The basic question it raises is simple: if you were looking for Jesus, what would you expect to find? A manipulable wimp in a white nightie? A ‘muscular Christian’ figure? Someone charismatic? Someone you might normally just pass on the street? And what prejudiced images do we filter our expectations through?

The question is pertinent not only because of Superstar, but I have just got home from an hour with a group of teenage lads in an RE class where they were exploring through Mark’s Gospel what discipleship is – what it means to commit to what you believe. They made strong points, asked good and penetrating questions, and made it a privilege to be there with them.

I actually spent four hours today (after a meeting with Bradford business leaders over breakfast) in this local Church of England secondary school. This is a school that makes a mockery of current ideologues’ obsession with simplistic measurements of achievement. Brilliant leadership in a building that isn’t helpful has still attracted excellent teaching staff. I loved being there (for the second time this year). Some of what I saw and heard was inspirational. I came away feeling very thoughtful and challenged, too.

The Church of England is constantly slagged off for cherrypicking the best students in the best areas. When people like me counter this with examples such as the school I visited today – and I have visited many, many others – which takes kids from its immediate catchment, including ‘challenging’ areas, we get dismissed. I seriously wonder if some commentators ever visit schools like this and open their eyes to what is demanded of teachers – such as that they should be surrogate parents, extended family, social workers, psychologists, counsellors, spiritual directors, friends, mentors, etc.

Not every school starts from the same point, but some are deemed to be ‘satsifactory’ in terms of certain markers when the starting points are ignored. No wonder that so many teachers and headteachers express the view that the (particularly Westminster) politicians ought to get out more and immerse themselves in these realities before setting policy.

Anyway, Superstar is intriguing. So is being grilled by teenage lads about what commitment really means.

The Daily Telegraph reports this morning a comment I made in a General Synod debate yesterday which I posted on last night. The Telegraph report says:

Christians should learn how to be a ‘minority’ from Muslims, bishop says.
Christians should learn from Muslims how to exist as a “minority” culture in British cities that are increasingly dominated by immigrant communities, a Church of England bishop has said.

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, the Bishop of Bradford, said some parishes in his diocese were 95% Muslim but that this should not be seen as “a problem”.
“This is a fantastic opportunity,” he told the General Synod, the Church of England’s national assembly, in York.
“It is a challenge, yes, but it’s an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a Christian community. We often ask Muslims to learn what it is to be a Muslim as a minority culture. Maybe we could benefit from learning some of the same lessons in some of our cities.”

His comments came as Church leaders at the assembly were warned that Britain’s increasingly diverse society could undermine the position of the Church of England as the “established” faith of the nation.”


The point he is an important one, but one that is open to misunderstanding. The screamers will now accuse me of selling out or giving up or conceding ground. My response is fairly simple: which bit of reality do you not understand?

The point is this. One of the major challenges facing Muslims in this country is how to be a minority community and faith. Islam assumes majority status, so the learning is not an easy exercise. Where Christians find themselves a minority presence in a parish here, it has to ask what sort of a community it should be, how it should shape its life, how it can best witness to Jesus Christ, what sort of language it needs to enable its voice to be heard and its life to be understood.

We could pretend that the situation didn’t exist. We might wish the situation were different. But that would simply be to ‘do a Daily Mail’ and live with a rather unpleasant fantasy. It is always better to live in the real world and embrace the questions and challenges we might otherwise ignore.

The point is, however, that Christians in such minority contexts (and we have some brilliantly committed examples in Bradford) have to ask fundamental questions others might be able or inclined to avoid: what is our gospel, how do we live/tell it, how do we witness to this faith, how do we order our church life (and for whose benefit), what language do we use, how committed are we… and to what?

It is not boring. It is demanding… and very exciting.

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Location:York