This article was published today in the Yorkshire Post.

I remember 7 July 2005 very clearly.

I was in my office in Croydon when a friend phoned to say she couldn't meet me in London later because “London is closed”. She said the train from Leicester had been stopped at Peterborough and turned around. Passengers had been told that a power surge had shut the rail network.

It wasn't long before the shocking news began to drip through that in fact there had been four suicide bombings and the casualty numbers were going to be high. Within an hour all the buildings around the station had been evacuated and the station cordoned off. Fear of further attacks was palpable.

The next morning I was due to be at meetings in central London. There was a lot of questioning about whether it was safe to use public transport or venture into town at all. I was clear that (a) you can't let terrorists win by giving them what they want, and (b) life must carry on. So, I went.

Two weeks later there was a second attempted attack, but it failed. On a visit to Belmarsh Prison later that year I met the alleged terrorists and had a conversation with them about scriptures.

As we discovered very quickly, the bombers came from West Yorkshire; and questions began to be raised about what it was about this part of the world that made young people capable and willing to commit such atrocities. Of course, the religious motivation behind these murderous actions soon became the focus of media speculation and the satellite vans descended on Leeds and its environs.

The ten years since those appalling events have been both encouraging and discouraging.

Whatever the (often simplistic) public debates about radicalisation or ghettoisation in West Yorkshire, much significant positive work has gone on under the media radar. Relationships between Christians, Muslims, Jews and others have been worked at on the ground in order that they are strong and supportive when the crises come. When Muslims feel scapegoated by wider society in the wake of some Islamist atrocity somewhere else, it is often those of other faiths who maintain the friendship and keep the communications open. Although some local authorities are locked into a narrow conceptual preoccupation with 'community cohesion', they often facilitate and encourage serious initiatives that bring people together and break down barriers.

There are numerous examples of mutual care and compassion in our communities as well as honest debate and discussion about the hard issues: why some young people reject 'normality' and have their head and heart turned by exclusive and violent ideology; how doctrinal teaching can breed in young people the seeds of hatred; how the isolation of ghettoised communities can be countered and schools become places of encounter with difference.

The last decade has taught us that communities finding themselves under media scrutiny naturally turn in on themselves in preemptive self-defence. Muslims fear being scapegoated for the sins of the fanatics, and they resent the ignorance of outside commentators who find basic distinctions such as “ethnic” and “religious” too difficult to comprehend.

Clearly, radicalisation has its roots not just in religion, but in poverty, ideology and politics. (The Arab Spring turned into a nightmare ignited by responses to the chaos left behind by western invasions and occupations.) However, what has been particularly interesting about the western response to radicalisation and the cases of individuals and entire families disappearing to join so-called Islamic State is its bewilderment. We are told that we need to educate our Muslim young people better so that they know how appalling are life conditions under IS – that they will be subject to a brutal religious ideology that might involve them in violence and suffering. Of course, many of those who have left the relative comfort of 'home' in the UK are extremely well educated and fully cognisant of what they are heading off to. Education is not the issue. Information is not lacking. What perhaps is lacking is inspiration to see life and death here as in any way valuable or attractive.

I don't say this lightly, and I certainly don't say it in defence of Islamic maniacs who are prepared to do unspeakable things to innocent men, women and children. But, if we are to begin to understand what attracts then drives (mainly) young men and women to leave behind a life of humdrum security for a (perhaps short) life of action, we must ask this question: how do we offer our disillusioned young people an alternative world view and lifestyle that captures the imagination, fires up vision and inspires self-sacrifice (in a non-mortal sense)?

In one sense, none of this is new. Young people are always – and always have been – susceptible to alternative inspirations. But, our question in 2015 has to do with how we inspire young people to see value beyond celebrity and consumerism in a world short on vision and long on entertainment.

We need to continue to work in schools and places of worship to enable integration in a multicultural and multifaith and multiethnic society. We also face an urgent need to offer real opportunities to elements of this society who – rightly or wrongly – feel disenfranchised, disempowered and disillusioned. But, education won't do this alone; we need to inspire. And that is a much harder task.

 

This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

It's perhaps indicative of the original trauma itself that yesterday I got the shivers when I heard the A Level results were being published. I remember well – when I went with my dad to my old comprehensive school in Liverpool to get my results nearly forty years ago – the feeling of dread … the sense that the whole of the rest of my life depended on what would be revealed in the next ten minutes. Melodramatic? Maybe. But, I've never forgotten the experience.

Looking back, I think I saw education in rather narrow terms. Qualifications were a means of advancement – allowing me to move on to the next thing I wanted to do in life, which was to go to university. There was something functional about the whole thing: get qualifications in order to get the place in order to get the degree in order to get the job, and so on. And there are plenty of commentators today who would observe that this functionalism has become the be all and end all of education. Perhaps we should recover the German distinction between 'education' and 'training'.

Well, the whole process surely must be more than creating incarnated CVs. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome nearly two thousand years ago he stressed that we need to be transformed “by the renewing of our minds” – that is, to allow our world view, our assumptions about who we are and why we are here, about what matters and why, to be re-shaped over time. But, Paul refused to accept that this can be done apart from consideration of how we use our bodies and spirits – what we choose to worship and how we do our ethics.

Funnily enough, this is the understanding that gave rise to universities in the first place. Education was seen as the development of the character of a person in community, and not just a means of getting jobs to earn money. Not surprisingly, it was primarily about expanding the world of a student into a freedom to live universally – an opening up and not a closing down of perception and experience. And, contrary to some of today's dominant cultural worship of 'success', this approach assumes we have something to learn. It is rooted in the humility that knows how little we know, and how hard it is to change our minds.

Essentially, then, this suggests that we need to recover – at the heart of our assumptions about education – that education is a means to an end and not an end in itself: the end is the formation of character, and qualifications simply help us to measure how far that character is being shaped.

There are many homes in England today that burst with celebration or are quiet with uncertainty. It can only be hoped that all students will see their value going beyond results that only measure a little of what matters … and possibly say nothing about who they are as persons.

 

Aha! I see a thread developing here.

I am on sabbatical (study leave) and in Basel for a couple of weeks. Staying with good friends, I can't spend all day every day reading my books – so, I have managed one film (documentary about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), two football matches, lots of walking, browsing in bookshops, reading in cafes, meeting people, chatting with friends, visiting a radio studio (Basilisk), sleeping, and so on. I can hardly believe it.

I have already posted on three of the books I have read in my first few days: Ferdinand Schlingensiepen on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tom Wright on Virtue Reborn and Miroslav Volf on A Public Faith. Yesterday and today – in the margins of fun stuff – I read Stanley Hauerwas's Learning to Speak Christian. Like the others, he ranges through Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas and … er … Bonhoeffer, but also has a good go at Roman Catholic Social Teaching, Methodist theological ethics and other stuff en route.

Now, it is in an interesting collection of essays and sermons on broadly ethical themes. But, it is a little inconsistent in dynamic. Anyway, I don't want here to go deep into a critique or exploration of his views – I would have to be clever to do that; instead, I want to point to four things that struck me while reading the text today. And, I'm not joking, it isn't deep.

1. If I pay £25 for a paperback, I expect that a proofreader will have added punctuation, removed typos and questioned syntax. OK, I expect to have to translate from American into English (both in language, style and context), but, like reading Walter Brueggemann, I had to read half the sentences twice before I understood them. Apart from an odd use of words and phrasing, some sentences are just unnecessarily complicated. Where was the editor?

2. Constant references to Wittgenstein were helpful – especially where they explained Wittgenstein. But, every time I see or hear his name, I also see that photograph of him in the same primary school class as Adolf Hitler. Same education, different outcomes. Maybe education can't – in and of itself – save the world, after all.

3. Bonhoeffer, Wright, Volf and Hauerwas all have something to say about liturgy and the worship language/performance of the church. What struck me, however, was a question arising from a statement: the worship of the church asserts in the world a reality that the world does not see as being real – that the church will live now according to the way of the kingdom Jesus inaugurated; and every act of worship is, in one sense a defiant affirmation of humanity as it should be, of the world now as it one day shall be, of life itself as it should be. What would happen if every clergyperson/worship leader prepared for and led every liturgy with this sense of ultimate hope and defiance, deliberately conscious of doing something powerfully prophetic in the here and now of people's lives?

4. In one sense unrelated to the above, but in the fuss going on in England about bishops banging on about foodbanks and poverty (how dare they?), it has been pointed out that many or most people in the churches agree strongly with the need for welfare reform. Two questions: (a) who said they didn't – and who said that the complaining bishops don't agree with the need for reform (as opposed to noting the real effects of the particular reforms being made just now)? and (b) since when was it the job of bishops to 'reflect' the views of church members? Having just read about Bonhoeffer (again), where would this put Bishop George Bell? Or Bonhoeffer himself, for that matter, even though he wasn't a bishop? The German bishops largely colluded with the views and preferences of their 'members' during the 1920-40s. So, provide us with opinion polls, if you like, but they will not and should not mean that bishops simply go with the flow of popular opinion – even Christian popular opinion.

I conclude this insubstantial ramble with Hauerwas's comment on Catholic Social Teaching and Humanae Vitae in particular:

… the modern political state and economics reduce human activity to choices … that are best for 'me' but do not also lay bare the fact that these choices already subsume us into a worldview in which we must reject some of what makes us human. (p.249)

 

1. Why is my fantasy league team rubbish and getting worse?

2. Why did Education Minister Michael Gove recently accuse education in Bradford of having been appalling for decades when (a) education in Bradford had been run by a government agency for the last ten years, and (b) the failed Kings Academy in Bradford is a free school – independent of the local authority, set up by Gove and accountable only to him?

3. Why did the ECB cricket selectors still send Jonathan Trott to play the Ashes series in Australia when they knew he was suffering from 'stress-related' problems?

4. Did the ECB not learn anything from the Marcus Trescothick saga?

5. What qualifications does one need to chair the board of a bank?

6. Why are some commentators incapable of understanding the difference between (a) the Church of England “voting for women bishops” (which it did years ago) and (b) the General Synod of the Church of England voting on the form of legislation to actually make it happen?

7. When will the Daily Mail accuse Ed Miliband of being behind the enslavement of three Maoist women for thirty years in Brixton?

8. Why has George Osborne suddenly changed his mind on capping pay-day lenders?

9. Who is right about the deal with Iran on nuclear development?

10. Is there a better 'live' gig than Bob Dylan (in Blackpool… last Saturday?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It does, indeed.

Cutting services and access to things that make individuals and communities thrive runs the risk of saving money from one pocket while thereby ensuring that more will be paid out from the other pocket in order to address the consequences of the former.

I haven't been writing much lately. This is because I have been working morning, noon and night on other matters since returning from the Bermuda gig. These 'other matters' include: (a) following up observations on the need for excellent broadcasting that interprets the world and human experience through a religion-shaped lens; (b) convening a meeting of Muslim leaders to discuss serious questions arising around the sexual grooming phenomenon and its implications both locally and nationally (including challenging the elision ethnicity with religion); (c) spending a day in a rural deanery, discovering more about the effects of austerity and other pressures on rural communities and parishes; (d) attending a dinner aimed at raising awareness of the work of the Church Urban Fund in turning round the lives of troubled people; (e) convening a meeting between Christian leaders and civic leaders in Bradford, aiding mutual understanding of some of the remarkable work done under the radar in supporting people in tough communities; (f) visiting an excellent Cancer Support centre and hearing about the funding pressures on local charities; (g) meeting with a local councillor and the Child Poverty board in Bradford to discuss some of the heroic efforts to support children for whom austerity brings undeserved misery.

And all the time I was up to this stuff (these are just the highlights of a demanding couple of weeks) Bradford celebrated the nationally-televised Bollywood Carmen (capping some great and positive recent media coverage of the place) and faced a serious threat to the future of its National Media Museum.

Pic. BBC Radio Leeds

The cord that runs through all this has at least two threads: money and human need.

Wherever one stands on the government's welfare cuts, it is clear that the choice of what to cut is not neutral. Nor is it obvious. Billions can be magicked up to save the banks – whose culture seems not to have changed a great deal subsequently – but the poorest in our country must pay the highest price at every turn. Local authorities have had their budgets cut to the extent that, all the flesh having been cut away, there is only the bone to begin to hack into. Councillors have been in tears as they make decisions they know will damage children and families and vulnerable people.

Choices, as always, are rooted in ideological assumptions about who matters most in our society. It would be no different if another party were in power; but, it does no harm to state the truth about the ideological motives that always lie behind economic priorities.

Local evidence sees a huge increase in demand from food banks – including from the 'working poor'. We see increasing numbers of children and teenagers arriving at school in the morning without having eaten. Some schools are hiding the real costs of this because they feed their children from their base funding, thus reducing the funds available for 'education'. I discovered today that if an eligible student stays on in a school 6th form, he/she is eligible for free school meals; if he/she transfers to an FE college, this eligibility disappears – which clearly distorts access options and raises other questions. I also hadn't realised that whereas the benefits system is operated by the Department of Work and Pensions, the funding of free school meals to needy children is the responsibility of the Department for Education – which seems both odd and not-very-joined-up.

According to Investor Today child poverty costs the UK £29bn a year. In other words, what is saved on 'welfare' is paid out again in addressing the consequences of cuts on the very people affected. Is this not weird?

And this is where the threat to the future of the National Media Museum comes in.

Not only is this one of three national museums in the north of England (the Railway Museum in York and the Science Museum in Manchester being the other two), it also offers free access to people who are being deprived at every other turn, and stimulation/education in the vital areas of science, industry, communications and technology. The National Media Museum is unique; it is not a luxurious frippery riding on the back of a cultural surplus in the north of England. It is unique. It's loss would be a national cultural and educational loss, not just a loss to Bradford and its local economy.

This threat emphasises and fleshes out the growing north-south divide. Noting the growing economic divide, health inequalities and life expectancies between people living in the north and the south of England, the Archbishop of York has commented:

I was shocked to hear of the cuts that our museums are facing. It is simply incredible that we are now considering cutting back on funding which benefits the whole community – investment which not only helps to educate future generations, but which also gives them a sense of their cultural heritage and identity… We need to recognise that our cultural heritage is an important part of our country’s history. A country which forgets its heritage becomes senile.

Increasingly it seems there is a growing economic divide between the North and the South. Too often we are seeing communities across the North of England bearing the brunt of the economic downturn. We need to see a level playing field. Whether we are looking at transport investment, education, employment, health or about where our children and grandchildren learn about what made our cities the fantastic places they are today, we need to put wellbeing at the centre. Everyone deserves the opportunity to blossom and flourish, regardless of where they were born.

No wonder, then, that Bradford is campaigning hard to ensure the future of the National Media Museum here. This museum contributes £24m per annum to Bradford's economy, provides 103 full-time equivalent jobs, and generates Gross Value Added of around £3.7m. The city is the world's first UNESCO City of Film and a Producer City that makes science and technology the foundation of its future. Local businesses are committed to this development. Bradford contributes £8.3bn to the UK economy and this is expected to grow. It is also the youngest city in England outside London.

Is it remotely conceivable that serious consideration would be given to closing a London museum of national importance? Why, then, are northern museums considered an easier target?

This all hangs together. Ultimately the decisions taken will speak eloquently of our national communal priorities. These will betray our ideological as well as economic assumptions. And underneath it all will seethe a pile of questions about our anthropology, our fundamental philosophy of the common good, and the gap between our words of 'social solidarity' (for example, “we are all in it together”) and the reality we fear to face.

And, one way or another, it will cost us.

 

It is pretty pointless doing some naive political analysis when visiting some of the poorest schools in the world, containing some of the poorest children in the world. Analysis of causes does nothing to help the children standing in front of you at that moment.

This morning we visited the diocesan offices in Khartoum-Omdurman before being taken off to visit three schools. The first was a Catholic primary school in a former shanty town on the outskirts of the city. 480 children occupy an area little larger than the size of a football pitch penalty area. Arranged in 7 or 8 classes – and ranging in age from 7 to 18 – we went into tiny classrooms of up to 70 children. The only furniture apart from a blackboard was the metal benches on which the children sat squashed against each other.

How is anyone supposed to learn anything in conditions like this?

As we left each class the children sang for us. There was big optimism, but how well placed it is is a mystery. What was remarkable about the school was the commitment of the staff. Most of these children have been both displaced and traumatised by war – first in Darfur, later (and currently) in the Nuba Mountains. The staff includes graduates, who might get better-paid jobs elsewhere, giving up a year or two to volunteer to teach and care for these children. “They cannot give up on their own people…”

We moved on to another church-run primary school and its associated secondary school, now suffering because so many students have been forced to move to Southern Sudan. We heard an impassioned plea from a headmistress that we should pray for them and do what we could to make their plight known. No self-pity – just realism and hope and a determination to see this through.

Back at the diocesan offices we met women who organise and lead literacy courses for adults, mainly through the Mothers Union. These were impressive and determined women who taught us more about the predicament of being African rather than Arab in Sudan – especially in relation to jobs, security and dignity. I will say more on my return to England, once I have thought it through. What is clear, though, is that diocesan links such as that between Bradford and Sudan (and, in my earlier role, between Southwark and Zimbabwe) are hugely important – they build relationship, keep stories alive, make sure that no one is alone.

Like the convergence of the Blue and White Nile (see the photo), we flow together from different directions, but cannot then be separated as we move forwards together into an unknown world.

It also to be noted, however, that we have met nothing other than courtesy and welcome out on the streets, in the shops, and so on.

The learning continues.