Having published on the Reimagining Europe blog (with a good opening joke) a somewhat exasperated post about the political discourse around the EU Referendum in England, I went on to read the latest tract published by the William Temple Foundation and found it addressing – more eirenically than I did – some of the central issues that lie behind our limited discourse.

Written by Craig Colhoun, Director of the London School of Economics & Political Science (LSE), it is entitled Religion, Government and the Public Good. Commending the importance of imagination (imagining the world we wish to create), he identifies three problems for our contemporary political discourse, and they are pertinent to our current debates:

We live in an era that is shaped by three difficulties in being articulate. These are difficulties in saying things that we want to say but can’t quite get out, things that we know at some level but have trouble making explicit. Articulacy depends on language, on narratives, on the way we represent the world to ourselves. But we have trouble putting things properly in the focus of attention. We find it hard, I’d suggest first, to articulate a sense of purpose greater than instrumental self-interest. Second, to articulate a shared identity that is strong enough really to bind us to each other and at the same time capacious enough to recognise differences among us. And third, to articulate our relationship to history and the future, and thus to time beyond the most short-term, immediate and even ephemeral engagements.

Not a bad place to start. Or, to put it more pointedly, who is articulating a bigger vision for what the UK might become in the world of which we are inextricably a part – a vision that goes beyond mere self-interest or short-term utilitarian individualism?

Suggesting that the loss of a religious vocabulary has been harmful to our secular discourse – not primarily because it was religious, but because the imagination that fired it has not found articulation in any other vocabulary – he reflects on William Temple's social vision and invites us to constitute a new imagining of (and, therefore, commitment to) the world:

Religious traditions can be powerful shapers of such understanding. They influence how we understand not just God or angels or the power of prayer. They also influence how we understand moral obligation and social relationships. Religious imaginaries can make marriage more than merely a contract between two individuals because it is a sacrament and embedded in a community. They can impose a sharp differentiation between the sacred and the worldly. They can encourage a relationship of either stewardship or dominion in regard to the earth. This suggests why it is misleading to try to reduce religion to a set of propositions about the world that are either true or false. That misses the extent to which religious understandings, embedded in practice as well as thought, are constitutive of the world.

I doubt if Donald Trump will find his own social or economic assumptions reflected here. But, the questions Calhoun asks dig beneath some of the glib, shortsighted and purely instrumental (utilitarian) language that currently fires the passions of those arguing about our future in the European Union.

 

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The Church of England is investing a huge amount of time and energy into re-shaping its agenda. Not in order to bolster the institution, but in order to get us back (amid a million claims on attention) to our core vocation: to make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ; to grow disciples who pray into ministers who evangelise; to shape churches that give themselves away in serving their communities. Not simply growing churches for the sake of having big churches, but growing churches in all our communities – even and especially where it is tough.

I am working with lay and ordained Anglican disciples to shape a diocese that places worship, evangelism, nurture and service at the heart of our life. This will shape our priorities, how we raise and allocate our resources (of people, money and ‘stuff’), and how we shape and work our structures. We are attending seriously to growth, and to tackling the challenges of buildings, decline and discouragement. And I lead a team of bishops and other ministers – lay and ordained – who are determined, confident (in God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Church – and especially the Church of England -, and the contexts in which we live and serve), and sacrificial in their exercise of this ministry.

And we are only one of 42 dioceses in the Church of England that are doing this.

You would never believe any of this from the communique issued following the meeting in England this week of the primates of what is known as Gafcon. According to this group – which, despite statements to the contrary and consistent with behaviour that is inexplicable – the Church of England has abandoned the gospel of Jesus Christ and is “unfaithful”. It is probably worth noting that the key words in the rhetoric of this conservative evangelical constituency are “gospel” and “faithful”. What is actually meant is that if you do not fit their narrow description of what the “gospel” is and who might be described as “faithful”, then you are fair game for being dismissed. (Assumptions about the meaning of key words matters here.)

For a long time I have wondered if the Church of England ought not to be a little more robust in countering the misrepresentation and manipulation (of reality) that emanates from Gafcon. I am not alone. But, I have bowed to the wisdom of those who (rightly) assert that we shouldn’t counter bad behaviour with bad behaviour, and that we should trust that one day the truth will out. I am no longer so sure about the efficacy of such an eirenic response. I think we owe it to Anglicans in England and around the Communion to fight the corner and challenge the misrepresentation that is fed to other parts of the Anglican Communion. (I was once asked in Central Africa why one has to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. I was asked in another country why the Church of England no longer reads the Bible and denies Jesus Christ. I could go on. When asked where this stuff has come from, the answer is that this is what a bishop has told them.)

The Gafcon primates say:

We are uniting faithful Anglicans, growing in momentum, structured for the future, and committed to the Anglican Communion.

Which means what – especially when they claim ‘gospel values’ and speak and behave in ways that do not reflect values of honesty, integrity and humility? And on what basis is the bulk of the Church of England reported (within Gafcon circles) as being unfaithful? And who writes the stuff they put out? Who is directing whom – who is pulling whose strings? And what would be the response if I wrote off as “unfaithful” entire provinces of the Anglican Communion where there was evidence of corruption, love of power, financial unfaithfulness or other sins? Does the ninth Commandment still apply today, or only where convenient? Is sex the only ethical matter that matters, or does breaking the ninth Commandment get a look in?

The Gafcon primates get their information (and money) from somewhere. The ‘take’ on the Church of England reflects simply the perceptions of a few. I bet the wider picture is not represented. They insinuate that some clergy and churches (decidedly congregations and not parishes – and thereby lies another issue) feel marginalised or fearful – treated like ‘pariahs’ according to Gafcon – so cannot be identified. Really? How pathetic.

I was once at a meeting of evangelical bishops in England when three English Gafcon men came to meet us. They had stated that this was the case and that bishops were giving their clergy a hard time. We asked for evidence so we could consider it before we met. Bishop Tom Wright and I were just two who were outraged at the misinformation, misrepresentation and selective re-writing of history presented to us. When we began to challenge this, we were told that we shouldn’t get bogged down in the detail and could we move on. And they got away with it. I am not making this up.

The truth is that while all this nonsense goes on, the rest of the Church of England will continue to focus on being faithful to its gospel vocation and mission. We are doing it every day. We will not be distracted by people who selectively report, regularly misrepresent, manipulate truth and plough their own furrow. God bless them in their commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ; and God bless the rest of us in our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We continue to support our fellow Anglicans all over the world, many of whom tell us that they have no time for Gafcon. Some face dreadful challenges and we stand with them. Some face real persecution and we stand with them. The great power of the Anglican Communion lies in these relationships of mutual prayer, learning, fellowship, mission and support – and they cannot be bought to promote the power games of a few.

Today I confirmed a number of new Christians in an ordinary and faithful West Yorkshire parish.

 

In his book Culture and the Death of God Terry Eagleton quotes Voltaire being rude about the English. “They give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts,” he said. I guess his point was that the English are cool about religion, hating extremes and being wary of enthusiasm. It also suggests, though, that the English are concerned only with money, and that the greatest blasphemy is to lose it.

But, heard in today's world, it questions our basic values and what, essentially, we consider to be worth living and dying for – or, at least, what we consider worth allowing others to die for.

At the end of August I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in which I put a series of questions about British foreign policy in the Middle East and its coherence within a clear strategy for realising a thought-through vision. The letter caused a bit of a media storm when it was published in the Observer newspaper. The PM was – understandably – not pleased.

When I received a long, helpful and detailed response from David Cameron, he addressed some questions more clearly than others; but, it was certainly not a fob-off response. I replied to his letter recently and pressed certain points.

As I said at the time, my purpose in writing the letter was to articulate what I thought to be the focused questions that went to the heart of people's concerns about what was going on particularly (but not exclusively) in Syria and Northern Iraq. What, I asked, is the overarching vision that guides responses to the particular crises that keep exploding? In my response I explained that the reason for allowing the Observer to publish the letter was that too many people were writing to ministers and MPs with serious concerns about the plight of suffering people and simply getting no response – including the Archbishop of York. For weeks. My approach certainly got the debate out into the public and media and placed the question of coherence at the top of the agenda.

Or did it?

Parliament is being recalled on Friday in order to – and I quote the BBC news report I heard on the way to the airport this morning, prior to writing this post on the flight to Berlin – “endorse military attacks on Islamic State”. Not to debate and decide, but to endorse a decision already made.

Now, the morality of this decision will be for another discussion. What concerns me here is the strategic purpose of the decision. What I meant in my question about coherence and (ad hoc) reaction is this: how do we avoid foreign policy commitments that simply respond pragmatically to short-term stimuli whereby yesterday's friend (to whom we supplied arms and money) becomes my enemy and today's enemy becomes my reluctant friend simply because he happens – for now, at least – to be my new enemy's enemy?

Is the planned use of violence part of a coherent long-term plan, or a short-term pragmatic response to an immediate stimulus – which might cause problems down the line which haven't been thought through properly now? Killing terrorists is the easy bit.

One of the problems with our politics is that we don't allow space for doubt. Repeatedly stating that “our policy is clear” does not make that policy clear, any more than me repeatedly saying I am a banana makes me yellow. But, politicians aren't allowed to ask difficult questions publicly because (apparently) we, the electorate, want clarity and certainty. Not always helpful, is it? I, for one, would prefer honesty – and some clarity about what would be gained and lost by any particular policy, without the pretence that every policy has to be 100% clear and certain. And right.

So, what have I learned from recent correspondence? (a) If the overarching vision and strategy are clear and coherent, then I still can't see it. Perhaps that says more about my limited mind than it does about policy. (b) What is very clear, however, is that there is no intention to make any asylum provision for IS refugees beyond what is already open to people wanting to claim asylum in the UK. I suspect this is because the PM (but other leaders are not breaking ranks on this) sees electoral suicide in doing anything that feeds UKIP or associates such provision with toxic immigration contamination. The only way to get around this is for those – particularly Christians – who don't like this to bombard party leaders and MPs with very focused letters that demonstrate that not all voters are xenophobic. (c) Asylum provision should be made, but should not be a tool for encouraging the evacuation of Christians and other minorities from the Middle East where they have been for centuries and where their spiritual, social and cultural contribution must not be lost. The stakes are high.

Incidentally, the two unanswered questions put down in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Coventry regarding asylum were eventually answered on 15 September by Lord Wallace of Saltaire. They read as follows:

“There are no current plans to resettle those displaced from ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq. However, we are proud of the UK's record of offering protection to those genuinely in need, and the Government will of course continue to consider asylum claims, including from Iraqi nationals suffering religious persecution, under the normal rules.”

“The safety and security of the UK are our priority. An essential part of delivering this is knowing who is coming to the UK and carrying out all necessary checks in advance of their arrival. We therefore ensure that the necessary checks are undertaken before those accepted on the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Relocation scheme arrive in the UK. We have also been working with local partners, including local authorities, the police and healthcare sector, to ensure the safeguarding of individuals on the scheme when they arrive in the UK.”

Was Voltaire right in his assessment of the English? Discuss.

(And the reason it has taken me so long to post on this blog is simply that I have been working all hours for weeks – the creation of this new diocese is a little demanding at present – and haven't had the headspace or time to write. And, coincidentally, I am now in Berlin with the Meissen Commission, having spent time today in the Reichstag being hugely impressed with the approach and deep thinking of German political leaders.)

PS. Letters from anonymous people who don't have the courage to put their name and contact details on their communication will be disappointed that all their green ink was spilled in vain. I don't even read anonymous letters – they go straight in the bin.

 

This is the script of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio4's Today programme.

A month or two ago I had a coffee in London with a friend who has her own business coaching high-level executives. Her speciality is resilience – helping business leaders to hang on in there and develop a long-term perspective on decision-making in a competitive and challenging world. I asked her what her basic approach was and she spoke about such things as realism, recognition, forgiveness, resolution, and so on. Listening to her explain this dynamic, I thought the concepts all sounded very familiar. And when I asked where this language came from, she said it was standard HR vocabulary. She seemed a little surprised when I suggested that it was born several thousand years before HR was invented and is profoundly religious.

To speak of a leader facing reality, re-shaping their understanding and view of the world, then moving on in a new light with a clear resolve, is what Christians mean when they use the old-fashioned word 'repentance'.

The Greek word from which it is taken – metanoia – means, literally, 'change of mind'; that is, to use a different metaphor, that we allow the lens behind our eyes – the one through which we filter our experience of the world out there and why it is the way it is – to be re-ground … re-shaped so that we look and see and think and, then, live differently.

Of course, it is social death to use the word repentance unless shouting it out through a megaphone at Oxford Circus – which, I suppose, is evidence of social death, anyway.

But, the word – or, at least, the concept it encapsulates – lies at the heart of a crucial political conundrum that, although it has an immediate application, is as ancient as human life itself. It is the conflict between society's need for long-term political thinking and planning and people's demand for instant gratification. And the Internet has exacerbated this conflict because we have got used to instant information, quick decisions and what might be called 'now-ism'.

I said this isn't new. The prophets of the Old Testament, speaking in the eighth and sixth centuries BC, countered the prevailing longing for the security of quick military and economic alliances with warnings that such short-term thinking can lead to long-term problems. Populism doesn't always represent wisdom.

In a very brave sermon preached in the wake of Kristallnacht in November 1938 in Berlin, Helmut Gollwitzer stated: “Where repentance stops, inhumanity begins.” As relatively few others did, he looked beyond the events of that initial pogrom and saw where short-term compromise might lead. OK, it's a dramatic example. But, it does show that the need to be open to changing our mind and thinking in the long term is vital in every area of life, not just HR or politics.

 

I am all for fixed-term parliaments and knowing when the next general election will take place, but we had better learn from other countries that have had them for years how to handle them.

Discussion at the Church of England's House of Bishops meeting in York during the last couple of days made it abundantly clear that, if we didn't know it already, we have already embarked on a very long election campaign. Yes, this week sees some local elections and elections to the European Parliament, but these seem a little like shadow boxing for the real thing in 2015.

We know how paralysing election campaigns are for the business of running the country intelligently, so this prospect isn't a happy one. We face a year of posturing and snarling. But, what are the fundamental questions we – especially, but not exclusively, the churches – should be putting to our election candidates?

Well, call me posh, but anyone can ask questions about unemployment, housing, welfare, banking reform, foreign aid, foodbanks, poverty, health and other important matters. Who is going to ask the questions that dig beneath the assumptions behind the likely answers the politicians will give us? These are not merely academic.

For example, quiz a politician about welfare, immigration or housing, and s/he will declare the appropriate party's policy. But what anthropology underpins it? In other words, what does he or she assume about why human beings essentially matter? What is his or her understandings of human value – as it is this that should give rise to the policy, and not vice versa. Yes, the policy might betray the value/assumption, but it is the latter that gives birth to the former.

So, why not ask every candidate what they think a human person is and why that person matters? This simple question, if pursued quietly and politely, will indicate whether the candidate is able to articulate the (what I would call) theological anthropology that shapes their world view. The answer to the question will indicate how they might, if consistent, think about social order, the common good and the value of the political process or discourse.

Of course, if anyone suggests that people matter because they do (which is frighteningly common), this should be seriously and humorously questioned. You can't get an 'ought' from and 'is', and mere existence cannot confer inherent value without some un-argued for assumptions being smuggled in.

This could be fun. And revealing. Bring on the campaign.

 

One of these days I'll get back to posting about what's going on in the world. In the meantime, however, here is the script for this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2:

I've just been to Berlin for the weekend – and not for a stag do. I was actually there to preach in the Cathedral on Sunday.

Now, if you ever get the chance to go there, go in not as a tourist, but for a service and sit down and look up. At the edge of the huge dome is an inscription in gold and it says: “Be reconciled with God”. In German, obviously. It was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the one in charge when the world walked into war in 1914.

Now, I know I should have been concentrating on the service, but my mind got stuck on that inscription. During the last hundred years people have sat there and looked at those words – “Be reconciled to God” – and assumed they knew what they meant. But, what did they mean during World War One? Or the mad years that led to Hitler taking control in 1933? Or during the Nazi era of dehumanising violence? Or during the forty years of Communist dictatorship when God was officially squeezed out and ignored?

What I'm getting at here is that reconciliation with God is meaningless unless it is worked out in flesh and blood with other people. And the point about reconciliation is that – by definition – you only need to do it with people who are difficult. In other words, it's really hard to do. So, for example, you couldn't be reconciled to God in 1943 and ignore the cries of persecuted Jews, homosexuals or people with the wrong political views. Reconciliation with God must have demanded a refusal to be reconciled with inhumanity.

While they were breaking up the Beatles sang 'Come together', and made it sound easy. I'm not sure I have it in my power to reconcile warring countries or stop Nazis from genocide, but I can start where I am with those with whom I find myself in conflict.

Or, to put it differently, having looked up at the dome of the cathedral in Berlin and seen beautiful words, I must look around at the people around me and offer them what God offers me.

 

I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…

Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.

This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?

I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.

So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?

When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.

In other words, things aren't simple.

I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.

The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?

I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.

Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.

There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.

The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.

For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.

The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.

Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.

Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).

Now, for the Dom…