What follows is the text of the Derek Hole lecture (in faith, society and ethics) I delivered at De Montfort University last night. It ends on the same question I posed in the St Wilfrid Lecture at Ripon Cathedral last year. It was merely coincidental that yesterday saw (a) the Prime Minister withdraw from negotiations with other party leaders on a framework for press accountability (post-Leveson) and (b) the arrest of four Mirror Group journalists for alleged phone hacking-related offences.

The big question still remains unanswered: why do those who own/run the press object to legislative underpinning of their regulation when they insist on it for everybody else?

Anyway, here’s the basic text:

The title ‘Faith in the Media’ is, of course, deliberately ambiguous. How the media represent and understand faith is a different matter from whether we should trust the media and the reality (or version of reality) they mediate to us. In this lecture I wish to address both questions, but in a discursive rather than purely analytical way. In doing so I am conscious of the limitations of time and scope, and so might well open up questions I then cannot address adequately here.

First, I will say something about who and what we mean when we speak of the ‘media’. Secondly, I will explore a little how the media work. Next, I will look at how the media handle faith and religion. And, finally, I will pose some ethical questions arising from our survey of media and faith.

Who are the ‘media’?

Did you hear about the Bradford Batman on Monday of last week? I was launching the new Dean of Bradford in the city centre before walking back to my car at the Cathedral. En route I was phoned by a freelance journalist who asked what I thought of the Bradford Batman. I am afraid I was correctly quoted in the Independent: “I think it was dead funny. But, look at the waistline and the tights – I don’t think he’s that fit.” He was later identified as a friend of the guy he’d handed in to police.

The fact that you heard about it isn’t very interesting in itself. It is just a story that is here one day and gone the next. Mere trivial entertainment and it didn’t exactly change the world. But, what is interesting is how you heard about it. I saw it on twitter. Others read about it in the local (or, subsequently, national) newspapers. Others saw it on websites as it flew through the internet’s synapses. Others saw it on the telly or heard about it on the radio.

In other words, the whole world now knows about the Bradford Batman… and they know it because of the media. Media are simply that: means of communicating information, data, opinion, image, analysis, etc. So, when we speak about the media at all, we are, in fact, speaking about the means of communication and not the content.

Yet, the media are not a ‘given’ in this world. Thirty years ago we would have heard the word ‘media’ and thought ‘radio, television and newspapers’. Now, however, some elements of print media – newspapers especially – are struggling to compete in a world of instant news, instant communication, free access to information via the Internet, and a lack of effective business models to enable such print media to survive. If they don’t make a profit as businesses, they must get cross-subsidised from other areas of the business’s operation or they cut back until they bleed to death.

Now, we might want to say “so what?” to this challenge. A good social Darwinian would just mouth ‘survival of the fittest’ and go back to his iPad. But, this change in the world has consequences that go beyond mere economic models and shape how we see the world and live in it. If you want to see what lies behind the events that gave rise to the Leveson Inquiry, you might well start here: to what extent does democracy require a properly-resourced independent press and what happens when profit becomes the ‘end’ instead of the mediation, analysis and comment on how the world is and who makes it that way?

In the context of the Leveson Inquiry we are all aware of the bad behaviour of some elements of the press. Among some of the dramatic and often shocking scenes from the inquiry, it was salutary to see Murdochs Junior and Senior brought back to face detailed questioning not only of practice, but of motive and of the nature of the ethical pool in which their media organs have been swimming. And just as goldfish do not usually analyse the nature of the water in their bowl, neither have some media operators ever critically analysed the ethical nature of the air that they breathe. So, Leveson dragged out an appalling record of (alleged) lying, duplicity, abuse of power, misrepresentation, deliberate defamation, corruption of public officials and police officers, implicit blackmail, criminality of a variety of types… and the constantly emerging picture still begs many questions – not only of those who perpetrated this culture, but also of those of us who fed it by buying the product, not challenging destructive media practices, not questioning the effects of such media behaviours, and feeding the monster by being easily entertained by other people’s destruction or humiliation.

Not many years ago Fleet Street dominated print media (a term that has only been invented recently) and newspapers at national, regional and local level enjoyed wide readerships. More importantly, they offered an intelligent scrutiny of political power – at the local level by having journalists dedicated to following local council debates and scrutinising the papers that fed those debates. Which is one simple way of illustrating that they played an important role in the democratic discourse, posing the questions the rest of us didn’t think of because we didn’t have the time to read all the paperwork. That’s just one example. Now, however, no newspaper (at any level) makes a profit, journalists do not have the time to do the work they used to do, and there are far fewer of them.

But, it isn’t the dominance of radio and television that has done this. Rather, it is the phenomenal sweep of the internet and mobile communications that has led to people dropping the buying of hard copy and obtaining their news and entertainment on their laptops, iPads or smartphones. And there’s probably no going back. Why? Because the digital revolution is so fast and deep that traditional print media cannot keep up. On Monday evening I was at a media reception at Lambeth Palace and the Guardian’s Andrew Brown described his profession as ‘dying’. Jerome Taylor, the excellent Independent journalist who was also there, tweeted on Tuesday the loss of a further 80 jobs at the Telegraph and pleaded: “Pay for the news!”

So, while many of us marvel at and enjoy the opportunities afforded by the new digital platforms, we are also aware of the cost – at many levels – of this radical change in the ways in which people engage with the media. For example, as Nick Davies points out repeatedly in his important and challenging book Flat Earth News, journalists are increasingly thin on the ground, have little time to get out of the office and away from the computer, can no longer provide the detailed scrutiny of power that served the interests of democratic accountability so well. PR – and it is reckoned that there are now more PR professionals and lobbyists than journalists – output finds its way into reportage unchecked – not because journalists are incompetent, but simply because there isn’t the money to pay for enough of them to do the job we have expected of them on behalf of the public interest and the common good. In other words, reduced professional journalism creates a democratic deficit that impacts on us all. If we won’t pay for it, we won’t get it, and there is a societal cost.

But, journalists cannot be paid with thin air or the gratitude of a loving public. Traditional media have increasingly tried to bolster their particular medium using traditional methods. Take, for example, your local newspaper. Like many people, you probably hate the fact that the front page is always headlined with murder, catastrophe, sexual deviancy, conflict or destructiveness of one sort or another. But, the editor will tell you that good news doesn’t sell; that bad news does. Somehow. It is the unusualness of an event that makes it newsworthy – a breach in a world that we assume should be both ordered and orderly. Let me illustrate briefly.

Several years ago, on my way to Guildford to preach at a service for the judges of the County of Surrey, I passed a newspaper billboard (for the Croydon Advertiser) that proclaimed: ‘Lollipop lady hit with stick’. From the pulpit I asked the judges which bit of this headline I was supposed to be shocked by: that it was a lollipop lady (not a man or a boy); that it was a lollipop lady (rather than an electrician or a lawyer); that she was hit (rather than poked or tickled); or that the hitting was done with a stick (rather than a fork or a wet lettuce)? The judges just laughed under their wigs – which wasn’t very helpful and didn’t answer my questions.

Anyway, the point is that newspapers try to address the decline in traditional newspaper consumption by trying to sell more newspapers – and they think that this might be achieved by having dramatic front pages rather than good news stories involving local puppies being loved by happy children. But, this solution doesn’t actually address the problem: the decline in sales is not related to the blandness of the product; it is because of the decline in usefulness or accessibility of the medium itself. Or, as Bill Clinton didn’t say, ‘It’s the platform, stupid’.

There are those observers, of course, who would say that the result of the economic and financial pressures, the vast reduction in the number of working journalists in various media, and the plurality of media outlets (you can get thousands of TV channels from satellite platforms) is a dumbing down of content. Even the news has to be presented in a way that entertains us. We can’t concentrate; so, we get brief, lowest-common-denominator infotainment – what some commentators think is just the latest way of anaesthetising us from the horrible and complex realities of the world. Neil Postman pointed to this in the great title he chose for his seminal book: Amusing Ourselves to Death.

The challenge for the media, then, is to discover the sorts of business plans that will allow for businesses to make a sufficient profit to enable them to employ professional journalists who have the competence, experience and conditions (time and scope) to dig into the stories that matter… in order to expose corruption, spread good news, interpret the world, shine new light on matters we thought we understood. At the moment traditional print media are surviving with massive financial losses, and by cross-subsidies from other branches of media businesses. All serious newspapers are shedding jobs.

The deficit for society is that we run the risk of diminishing the importance of reflective and critical thought that has had the time and concentration to do the detail that is necessary if power is to be held to account – especially at local level. If, as some exponents of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere maintain, everyone is a journalist today, then pity help us. Information can come at us from any part of the world – and that is good – but who has the time, expertise and accumulated wisdom to order it, scrutinise it, think about it and then present it accurately as ‘news’, argument or interpretation? Again, the social Darwinian will shrug and say it will all just sort itself out; but try telling that to the people and institutions that have been shredded in the process.

In the brave new world of social media, the two keywords are: interconnectivity and interactivity. If the Telegraph stitches me up, I have recourse via my blog, Twitter and other media to argue and tell the truth; I no longer have to rely on having a printed apology or a letter printed with the goodwill of the editor. In that sense the media have become more democratic – more open to everyone. But, as I have indicated, openness is no guarantee of accuracy, reasonableness, truthfulness or wisdom.

So, just as, for example, newspapers need other media in order to maintain a voice, so does any organisation or institution now need to avail itself of print, website, social media engagement and interconnected communication. But, the hard bit is that such engagement now demands interactivity: not preaching, but conversation; not propaganda, but attentive dialogue.

A couple of years ago I was in Rome for a communications conference with the Diocesan Communications Officers of the Church of England. During one session at a pontifical university we were introduced to a new web portal called pope2you.com. This was presented as the Vatican grasping the potential of emerging social media in order to connect with a new generation of young people. Except, of course, that it was still the Vatican telling people what to think and believe, rather than an invitation to a conversation that involved the Vatican listening to anyone else. They understood interconnectivity, but didn’t quite grasp the interactivity that characterises social media today.

And at this point we might digress into some thinking about how the media work and where ethics fit in.

Looking through an ethical lens at the media

Ethics has to do not only with how we behave, but also why we behave the way we behave. That is to say, when thinking about ethics we need to pay attention to the world view, the thinking and moral assumptions that drive the ways in which we live and choose and relate. So, any consideration of media ethics involves not only a questioning of the media – those who own, work, drive and create media content – but also the rest of us: that is, we who consume media output in any of a million ways. If journalists and media operators need to be subject to ethical scrutiny, so do those who consume their product. As Harold Nicolson observed, “We are all inclined to judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their acts.”

So, having surveyed very briefly and superficially the changing and challenging media scene, let’s move on to think about the ethics of all of us who create, own, run or consume the media products. I want to do this by first establishing a fundamental principle – fundamental, that is, to a Christian world view.

A Christian anthropology begins from the belief that every person is made in the imago Dei and is, therefore, infinitely valuable. Being so created, each person has freedom and responsibility… and is accountable to God and others who are also made in his image. We are to ‘cultivate the earth’ – that is develop and explore and grow the world – including technology. But, when we lose sight of the value of human being, we will quickly find that anything… eventually… goes. Every person, regardless of their particular compromises and failings, being made in the image of God, is to be respected.

Furthermore, every human being is redeemable. That is to say, it isn’t hard to find the muck of human life; but, do we believe that people can change? A Christian anthropology argues that people – made in the image of God – are redeemable. Therefore, how they behave or misbehave now is not the final word – something Dr Rowan Williams has a lot to say about (mainly in relation to language) in his marvellous book on Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction.

Thirdly, human society offers a context of mutual relational accountability. This means that those who wish to stand in judgement on others must, themselves, be accountable. In other words, no hypocrisy on any side.

Now, this is where, as they say, the rubber hits the Leveson road.

The phone hacking scandal is coloured with the deepest of ironies in that those editors and journalists who ‘lost their moral bearings’ have argued that they were only wanting to expose the truth about other people’s lives – that they have a responsibility to (and I quote) ‘hold power to account’. Yet, of course, they located ‘power’ somewhere else and assumed themselves to be the arbiters of truth, the guardians of integrity, the defenders of a moral world. Some journalists still maintain – without the hint of a smirk – that they and their organs have no power… that they simply expose, tell stories, shine a light, describe reality, and leave it up to the now-better-informed to make their own judgements and draw their own conclusions. This is wilful nonsense. Those who have the power to intimidate politicians, destroy reputations, relationships and lives, consider themselves immune from normal moral and legal accountability, are people who shape the world, create a discourse, and not only set agendas for public life, but also assume the right – nay, responsibility – to act as incontrovertible witness, judge and jury in a society they purport to merely observe.

So, I ask: Is it not deeply hypocritical that those who do the judging and exposing are not themselves subject to the same accountability? During the MPs expenses business I received an excoriatingly angry email from one of the journalists involved. I had said on my blog that I thought the newspaper should be sued for incitement to criminal activity – they paid money to get hold of what was confidential data. He argued that this exposure was in the public interest. I asked if we could see the expenses bills of newspaper editors – on the grounds that they also powerfully shape the public discourse and more. He wasn’t pleased. (And he wasn’t at the media reception at Lambeth Palace on Monday…)

This ignores the real power that elements of the media have exercised over other people. The fact that a fact about someone is true does not mean that everybody should know it. And something has gone badly wrong when people – flesh and blood human beings – are turned into commodities for other people’s entertainment and titillation at the hands of people who then deny any responsibility for the consequences of their actions on other people’s lives.

When people are misrepresented or misused – held to account by people who hitherto have considered themselves to be unaccountable or untouchable – they betray an empty denial of humanity or human value. And once we start doing that with one category of person, we won’t find it easy to stop the habit. Witness the News of the World. Or listen to Nick Davies – the Guardian journalist who, against all sorts of pressures and threats, doggedly pursued the phone hacking story until it could be hidden no longer: “I know a fair bit about sex and drugs and hypocrisy in Fleet Street: executives whose papers support the war against drugs while shoving cocaine up their nostrils in the office toilets; reporters who attack the sexual adventures of others while routinely dropping their own trousers at the first scent of a willing secretary.”

Journalists may counter that they report the world as disinterested observers. I put it to you that they are shapers of the world along with those about whom they report. There is no moral neutrality to be found here. Which is why I support the need for legislative back up of any new post-Leveson code.

Now, this brings us to a second ethical lens through which to look at the media in general and journalism in particular: representation of truth.

In 2007 I took a group of twenty clergy and lay people from the Croydon Episcopal Area to visit our link diocese of Central Zimbabwe. Times were tough: inflation was by then running at a mere 10,000% and unemployment was reckoned to be around 80%. There was no power, water was not getting pumped into Gweru, people were beginning to get hungry and ill. We were invited to meet the Governor of the Midlands Province – a nice man who welcomed us to his offices. He had invited some of his senior people, but also a journalist with the state-owned newspaper in Harare. Following a robust exchange during the meeting, this journalist cornered me afterwards and pursued his point… on camera. At one point I argued that a confident country with nothing to hide would not ban foreign journalists and then complain about (to their mind) misrepresentation from outside the borders. However, I made the mistake of adding that in a democratic country we all run the risk of being misquoted or misrepresented, but that we also have the opportunity to challenge and respond. This became the next day’s front page headline: ‘Bishop: it is all UK media lies’. Apparently, I had seen no problems in Zimbabwe – it was all UK media misrepresentation.

I spent nearly £400 on my mobile phone pre-empting the damage back in London with the Foreign Office, Lambeth Palace, Church House Westminster and the Diocese of Southwark. To make it worse, a couple of months later a glossy magazine called New African was paraded all over WH Smiths with a three page ‘interview’ with me in which I denied any problems in Zimbabwe. I had done no interview and had no contact with the magazine at all. But, if you google me, you will still get links to this story and there are still people who give me grief when they see it online. (Still, I also saw a headline that read: ‘Prophet drowns during baptism’ and that compensated for the grief. Lousy prophet…)

Now, ‘truth’ is a difficult concept when discussing the media anyway. After all, it is not only the people involved that are complex, but also the technology itself influences and sometimes shapes content. For example, an important news story – and you have to ask who decides what counts as ‘news’ – might get dropped on the television because there are no good pictures; which suggests that the content only matters if it fits a particular medium. Which, of course, is questionable.

So, let’s try to pull some of this together and illustrate what actually goes on here. The notion that the media – as they are collectively known – simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set is at the same time both true and nonsense.

It is utter nonsense because any story or programme or article is written for a purpose and in a particular context; furthermore, it is written or presented or edited in a particular way, with choices being made along the way about what stays in and what gets left out. And these choices are largely driven by unconscious assumptions about how the world is, why it is the way it is, and why anything matters in the first place. In other words, the worldviews of the editors or makers shape not only the material, but also how the material is presented.

For example, a few years ago there was a short series of programmes about the church in Britain today. Every reference to black Pentecostal churches was set against film of a packed congregation on a Sunday morning, everyone dancing and singing to a classy band. Every reference to mainline churches was accompanied by pictures of empty or derelict church buildings. Why not film in a large and growing church instead? Well, the answer is that the visuals were intended to reinforce a particular line.

And context? Well, don’t expect the Daily Mail to tell a good story about the EU or good immigrants – such stories just don’t serve the editorial end to which the stories are the means.

So, if that explains the ‘nonsense’, how on earth can it simultaneously be true to say that “the media simply reflect the reality of the world in which they are set”? Well, simply and rather obviously, because the uncritical assumptions that motivate editorial choice and shape understanding of the world and its events – that create meaning – are too often a reflection of that world and its dominant assumptions. And the way in which ‘faith’ or ‘religion’ is treated in the media – particularly broadcast and print media – too often betrays an ignorance about both faith as a motivating phenomenon and how faith works in shaping individuals and communities.

(I have long argued that RE in schools ought to include a compulsory component that deals with what worldviews are, how they are constructed, how they filter ‘reality’, and how they shape community. If the media betray ignorance of some basic tools for understanding how the world and its people operate, then this is not because media people are particularly thick, but because this prejudice-driven ignorance characterizes our society. And don’t get me started on politics.)

I make this point here because there is a rumour around that ‘the media’ are neutral and that certain views about the world and meaning are, therefore, also neutral. What I mean by this is that many in the media assume that a secular humanist assumption is neutral, whereas a religious world view is located somewhere up the loony scale where, being a problem, it needs to be confined to the realms of private opinion and not given space in the public discourse. Of course, this uncritically privileges the secular humanist worldview, but without any recognition that such privileging is the result of selective and uncritical thinking.

Now, I am not saying that all media representation of religion is negative; that, clearly, would be nonsense. And there are signs that broadcast programming, at least, is beginning to show evidence of more imaginative and adventurous coverage of religious themes. I chair the Sandford St Martin Trust and our remit is to promote excellence in religious broadcasting – actually, a rather narrow remit in a rapidly changing media world. Although we have seen a reduction by commissioning editors of programmes with religious or moral themes, this year the quality of such programming has been excellent.

Think, for example, of BBC2’s remarkable Goodbye to Canterbury on New Year’s Day in which the reputedly uncommunicative outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, effortlessly took his audience through history, geography, philosophy, theology, architecture, art, music, literature, languages, spirituality and poetry as he paid close attention to the building of Canterbury Cathedral – opening our eyes to how ancient stones and relics can become signposts in the modern world. And they say he couldn’t ‘do media’…

Or consider Tom Holland’s slightly repetitive and controversial exploration of the emergence of Islam in Channel 4’s Islam and Empire. What began as an attempt to make sense of the death-throes of antiquity ended up running an enquiring finger over the fault-line that reverberates through the contemporary world: between science and religion, between history and faith.

Or, finally, the guaranteed entertainment of watching Professor Richard Dawkins dig philosophical holes for himself as he enters discussion with people who have acquainted themselves with science, but who easily expose his ignorance of anything but science. BBC1’s Science v Religion, although assuming a conflict that most of us reject – on the grounds that science and religion address different questions – brought the erudite former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks into conversation with Dawkins, Baroness Susan Greenfield and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. Intelligent, searching, cultured. Mostly.

The point is that there are good examples of the media taking religion seriously. And part of the remit of the Sandford St Martin Trust is to encourage such programming, trying to persuade commissioning editors and programme makers that religion is fertile ground for good, interesting, entertaining subject matter.

Now, this matters today more than ever. Faith is not merely a worldview – a set of private beliefs that shouldn’t be given access to the public sphere because it will only cause trouble when it gets there. Faith is also about praxis – how people live their lives, shape their societies, order their priorities, work and play, build communities, and understand the value of how and where they live their lives. Faith is about stories of people and their communities, of living and dying, of love and loss, of triumph and defeat.

And some of us would go as far as to claim (which I haven’t got time to develop here) that even the atheists and secular humanists have worldviews that need examination and testing… on the grounds that even the fiercest rationalist lives to some extent by faith.

What I am arguing for here, however, is not simply that the media should learn to understand religion and faith and then privilege it with greater airtime, but that they should see religion as more than an irrational private belief system that is only interesting when it forms the backdrop for images of conflict. And what this reveals is the need for the media to be open to the need for intelligent interpretation of religion in the world. Hence, the argument put by Roger Bolton and others that the BBC, at least, should appoint a Religion Editor – just as they have a Politics Editor, Economics Editor, Arts Editor, Business Editor, Sports Editor, and so on. The role assumes the need for interpretation (not propagation) and we continue to press for this. This is not special pleading by religious numpties who want to protect Songs of Praise for ever, but a cultural argument raised by people who think intelligence matters. Much that goes on in the world cannot be understood at face value without an intelligent and informed understanding of the religious dimensions.

Well, that’s that, then, I guess. For society properly to be understood, we need media that take religion seriously and interpret the world in the light of it… as well as interpreting it in the light of world events.

So, we have identified briefly several ethical lenses through which to look at aspects of the media: how they handle the human person (and what this treatment betrays about our anthropological assumptions); truth and accurate representation; and utilitarian assumptions about people, stories and business.

And this leads me to suggest that people of faith need to shamelessly look at, report on, interpret, argue about, represent and question the world as they see it… but always in ways that fit the medium they wish to work in and communicate through. During the Bush Junior administration in the USA, Americans worked through some of the inarticulable dilemmas of private and public life through the characters and contexts of The West Wing – which might be deemed better ‘religious broadcasting’ than Songs of Praise.

The commodification of people for entertainment is pernicious and morally dodgy. Which imposes on all of us who consume media output a moral responsibility for what we consume, how we consume it and what we do with what it does to us. A brilliant illustration of commodification is to be found in Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s remarkable and moving 2006 film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). The Stasi used surveillance to intimidate, humiliate and control people in the German Democratic Republic. This film shows the consequences for particular people – including the intelligence officer who finds himself humanised – at enormous personal cost – by seeing the humanity behind the ‘cases’. Intrusion into the lives of others becomes unacceptable once you begin to see people as human beings and not simply objects for the entertainment or judgement of others.

If truth matters and is game for exposure in any circumstances, then this must apply consistently – even to those who do the exposing of others. With freedom goes responsibility; with responsibility goes accountability. And, I might say, human beings are to be the masters of their technologies, and not the other way around.

The phone hacking scandal has exposed the ease with which people can be snooped on, watched, followed and stalked. The electronic world means that privacy is rapidly becoming a fantasy when it comes to our engagement with media. Yes, whole new worlds of possibility are opening up – creating new communities, new ways of experiencing the world and relationships, new ways of learning before engaging, and so on. But, it is also a world in which the technology allows enormous power to those whose power needs to be checked. For, I would contest that we live in a world which has lost the capacity – or vocabulary – for ethical conversation (that is, conversation about ethics) on any other grounds than competence. A fundamental tenet of ethics is, as every teenager knows, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. In other words, the fact that something is – or is doable – does not imply a moral imperative: we can do it, therefore we may do it. Competence does not imply legitimacy.

In our rapidly changing media world technological competence presents new ethical dilemmas. If we can’t answer them all, we must at least be alert to their importance and not let them go by default. If we do, we might find ourselves in the brave new world lauded by James Murdoch in his 2009 James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival: “There is an inescapable conclusion that we must reach if we are to have a better society. The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”

Really? What anthropological assumptions underlie that assertion? Discuss.

Why are religious institutions apparently so inherently conservative and fearful of challenge or change?

 

Last night I delivered a lecture on ‘Questioning faith’ in the Faith and the City series at the University of Bradford. The lecture was followed by 45 minutes of questions and discussion. A lousy cold and sore throat didn’t help, but there was some interesting questioning and challenge.

 

Having set the scene from events during the last couple of weeks, I went on to acknowledge what is frustrating for some people: “Religion simply will not go away. Regardless of one’s personal world view and philosophical or religious convictions, religion as a phenomenon cannot be ignored. Which is why some of us keep banging on to the BBC that they need a Religion Editor as much as they need a Business, Economics or Sport Editor. In a world of fast news and instant communication, the need for understanding and interpretation of religion as a phenomenon, a motivator of individual and corporate behaviour, and a factor in both national and global political and economic events is greater than ever before.”

 

Having taken a pop at the ‘myth of neutrality’ that is prevalent among many observers who usually see religion as a problem rather than a solution, I went on to “challenge also the language of victimhood that too many religious people resort to when things don’t go their way. Religious people need to keep addressing the ignorance and motivation behind the myth-builders of ‘neutrality’ (and the consequences of all this stuff) with patience, confidence and better humour than we sometimes do.”

 

But the main thrust of my argument had to do with the challenge of change and how religious people and institutions address this.

 

One of the effects of the current atmosphere – in which some religious people feel under attack, marginalised or trivialised – is that religious communities then turn in on themselves. When, in the aftermath of 9/11, many western commentators and observers expected Muslims to try to hide their distinctiveness (for fear of attack, for example) and blend in to their environment, the wearing of distinctive Muslim clothing – especially among women – increased and intensified. When British Airways sacked a woman who insisted on wearing a cross over her uniform, many Christians started wearing a cross for the first time – as if they were fighting a battle or making a point. The real point here, however, is that religious communities and their behaviour and priorities were in fact being set not by themselves, but in reaction to the world outside.

 

Without copying the entire text here, I will just try to pick out the salient points.

 

1. Faith is not that reflex that kicks in when we don’t want to face the real world, but recoil into a defensive shell that circumscribes the world view that makes us feel we have place and meaning and significance. Faith is not credulity. Faith is not a vacuous clinging to a facile myth that helps us limp through life as if it were meaningful or worth living.

 

2. Faith involves two things: first, clarity about the object of that faith; secondly, the courage to go out from our fundamental starting point and see what’s out there. Faith might need courage and a teasing curiosity, but it cannot grow from fear. Faith is always curious, daring, open and adventurous – because it always assumes that not everything has yet been nailed. If every question has been answered unequivocally by our faith system, then faith is the wrong word to use to describe what we think we have. Faith assumes that there is more to know, further to go. (Which is why one of the great early Christian theologians and philosophers, Anselm, described theology – or language about God and language in the light of God – as ‘faith seeking understanding.’)

 

3. We now face ethical questions that are new and a provoked by technological innovations. Our ethical judgements cannot be made on the basis of “it’s obvious, innit” assumptions.

 

4. Christianity has change at its very core. Christians together should be marked not by victimhood or fear, but by a curious, fearless, adventurous, confident and humble openness to change and learn and grow. This will mean vigorous debate, dissension, testing and disagreement.

 

5. So, why is it so hard for the institutions of the Christian faith to change? (And this is actually merely illustrative – it applies to any and all religious institutions.) I think we can identify three reasons in particular: (a) institutions become inherently conservative, sometimes losing sight of their fundamental raison d’etre and confusing means – the institutional forms and structures – with ends – worship of God, for instance, or the transformation of people and communities; (b) the people who run institutions find accumulated power and status hard to give up; (c) institutions take on a life in which people invest and from which people cannot divest without feeling that they are leaving the community the institution is intended to create. Put bluntly, does leaving the Roman Catholic Church mean leaving God, Christianity, the Kingdom of God or heaven behind?

 

6. Religious institutions are healthy (both internally and externally) only when they develop the courage to be reflective and honest. Passion and fundamentalism might reinforce the sense of ‘rightness’ of particular individuals or communities, but they run the danger of leaving no space for self-criticism. Indeed, self-criticism within the community can be seen as a weakness, a loss or lack of faith – when, in fact, it is the very evidence of genuine faith. Fundamentalist communities lack faith in anything other than their own fear, small vision and self-righteousness.

 

7. An encouraging example of Muslim openness: the Muslim Institute has published the first edition of a journal called Critical Muslim. Published as a book-length quarterly magazine and website, it appears to be ambitious in presenting Muslim perspectives on major contemporary issues and ideas in the world. Most significantly, it intends to challenge ‘traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic versions of Islam’.

 

From outside Islam it is encouraging to see within the Muslim community the development of a self-critical, bold, engaging and questioning approach to what is going on in the world. This, it seems to me, is a shining example of how genuine faith compels religious people to be confident in and open to the reality of the world and the challenges it throws up for the way we see God, the world and us. In a world of serious dangers and injustices – with human suffering not the simple or sole preserve of what used to be called ‘third world countries’ – it is only a confident and self-critical, faithful approach that can take seriously the challenge of poverty, injustice, terror, economic imbalance, food imperialism, and so on.

 

8. Religious communities need to be bold enough to expose themselves to the critique of each other and not to be afraid of such questioning or challenge. This is not a sign of weakness, but of confidence and strength. It represents what I often call ‘a confident humility’. It occupies a space that creates a mutual accountability, a recognition that we are ‘in it together’… and with something unique to offer. It assumes that faithful and confidently humble self-critique can only come from a community that is not afraid of relationship beyond itself, is unafraid of the wider world, is hopeful about a common future, and is open to changing and being changed as ‘truth’ becomes clearer.

 

9. As Rowan Williams takes from Dostoyevsky, language is not neutral, human beings use language to close down or open up relationship, language is the key to and fundamental expression of freedom… and when we reach the end of ‘having something more to say’, we have constrained genuine freedom and closed down the possibility of development or coexistence.

 

Now, from this we might derive the imperative (for human flourishing in a good society) of human beings and human communities learning the languages of ‘the other’, not as a virtuous end in itself, or even an altruistic means of keeping a relationship going, (or even for knowing which beer to order on holiday), but as a non-negotiable and essential feature of human freedom and dignity. We have to be multilingual (in the sense of paying attention to and learning to understand what is both being said and what is being heard) in order to survive, but also in order to thrive and enable ‘the other’ to thrive in a way that guarantees mutual flourishing. In other words, language at the very least provides the space in which relationship and responsibility can grow.

 

As Helmut Schmidt has observed, learning the language of another people or another culture demands humility (the admission of ignorance and limited vision), careful listening (in order to hear what is really being said), playful experimentation (trying out sounds that feel strange), courage (not always being sure that we make sense, but speaking anyway), and the paying of attention (rather than the cursory hope that communication is happening if I just open my mouth and hope what comes out isn’t incomprehensible gibberish). Learning the language of an ‘other’ takes us beyond the norm according to which language is a mere defensive delineator of identity, and leads us into the unknown territory of relationship vulnerability.

 

What characterises interfaith dialogue is the importance of relationship and clarity of communication. Deep questioning of deep assumptions about God, the world and us can only be indulged if there is a relationship of mutual respect and trust. And such relationship-building takes time, a genuine and humble willingness to listen, and an ability on the part of all interlocutors to learn about themselves from the other. In one sense we are back to Helmut Schmidt: we need to dare to look at our own culture through the eyes of another, if we are to truly understand ourselves. This is not an easy task, but language is crucial to it.

 

Anyway, that’s the guts of the text – I have left out developmental stuff and all illustrations (which include Cain, Jacques Ellul, Lambeth Town Hall after 9/11, and some other stuff.

Following the US election marathon is always unnerving for Brits. Listening to some of the views of potential presidential candidates can be scary on this side of the Pond. But, aside from the strangely limited world view of some of the guys who clearly haven’t looked at an atlas recently, there is something more interesting and incomprehensible to many of us in Europe – something to do with religion (surprisingly).

 

According to news reports here, Rick Santorum thinks the ‘global warming’ warners have had too much space given to them. He seems to have the sort of understanding about science that makes not only Richard Dawkins shiver with incredulity. Add into the mix the whole fundamentalist view of creation and the Bible and the picture is complete. It’s also weird.

 

Let’s nail this one. If someone believes that (a) God is the creator of everything as it is and how it is, and (b) all truth is God’s truth, then why be afraid of whatever science might throw up? As someone once said (possibly CS Lewis, but I can’t remember while sitting in a Yorkshire Dales car park): “If Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it isn’t true because it is Christianity.” In other words, if you truly believe in God, there is nothing to be afraid of in scientific exploration – after all, and if you accept my logic, God must have known the truth about what is true and real anyway.

 

Sorry if all this sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious, but it clearly isn’t obvious to some people who think that (a) God needs to be defended and (b) the science has to be bent to our assumptions rather than our understanding be re-shaped by the science. What is there to fear – other than that the whole house of cards might collapse if one card is removed. Such a faith isn’t worth having anyway.

 

As Operation Noah will make clear later this week, global warming isn’t a knock-down issue by itself. Whatever conclusions you draw about this particular phenomenon (and the interpretation of the science that undergirds it), it still exposes a bizarre, utilitarian, short-term selfishness insofar as we think it OK to gradually turn the earth into some sort of mineral-drained Swiss cheese that one day will have little or nothing for future generations. What sort of theology sanctions such blind exploitation?

 

Which brings us back to the Santorums of this world. What is often called the ‘cultural mandate’ of Genesis 1 & 2 says more about the exploration of reality, materiality, spirituality and existentiality than it does about the exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term and selfish utilitarian expediency.

 

I guess this is where Richard Dawkins comes back into the picture. He is all over the news at the moment because of his attacks on religion in the last couple of weeks. (There is an interesting exchange between him and Will Hutton in today’s Observer newspaper.) My question is simply why Dawkins doesn’t take the best examples of religious expression rather than the worst when engaging in debate? This is a lesson that should go to the heart of tolerant liberal secularism: not misrepresenting your opponent’s case. Picking Christian loonies and ridiculing their credulity is not the best way to secure the sort of rational, respectful and intelligent debate he claims he wants. In fact, this is what annoys intelligent, rational Christians and other theists most about Dawkins and his polemical methodology.

 

This is something Christians have to learn in respect of Muslims, atheists, etc.: always measure yourself against the best of your opponent’s examples, not the worst. And, following the ninth Commandment, don’t misrepresent his case… or set up saw men simply in order to knock them down.

 

Will the debate improve? I don’t know. But there are lessons to be learned on all sides in how it should be pursued.

The phone hacking saga just gets more sordid by the day. Some informed commentators have claimed throughout that the trail won’t stop at News International – and now Hugh Grant has openly accused the Mail on Sunday of hacking his phone. Of course, as he admits, this might be speculative; but, if they didn’t get their information from his phone, where did they get it?

We don’t need to go on about this as the stories will just keep coming. But, we do need to remember that the people indulging in this criminal and (by any standards) unethical behaviour justified their activities on the spurious grounds that there was a ‘public interest’ in the stories that emanated from private communications. In other words, unethical means were supposed to be justified by ‘ethical’ ends. These guardians of the public morality exercised a total lack of morality in the pursuit of their trade. And in doing so, of course, they have brought into massive disrepute a profession that is vital to a free and democratic society. (The best response to this recently was Alan Rusbridger’s excellent Orwell Lecture.)

It is easy to forget that it wasn’t the other guardians of civil society and the rule of law – the police, lawyers or the self-regulating press itself – who rumbled this shameful story; it was a dogged journalist who epitomised the best in journalism – Nick Davies of the Guardian. Despite being fobbed off, threatened and deterred, he persisted until the story couldn’t be suppressed any longer.

The problem we now face is that journalism is diminishing at every level. Newspapers are in crisis and desperately trying to find new business models for the digital age. Local journalism involves a good deal of reproduction of local PR stuff – leaving aside the proper scrutiny of power (local government, for example) because sufficiently qualified specialist journalists can no longer be afforded or recruited. This represents a real democratic deficit. We need good journalists.

Which is where the contrasts come in.

This evening I helped convene a reception at City Hall in Bradford for members of the very many faith communities in Bradford. Welcomed and hosted by the Lord Mayor – a Muslim woman who is doing a superb job – we brought together over 100 people to have an honest conversation about how to work for the common good in Bradford. The Leader of the Council was also there, even announcing his atheism in a very good speech. In my address I differentiated between (a) interfaith conversations that addressed the ‘content’ of our faith (world view and practice) and (b) the question of how, despite our differences, we live together and serve the common good together. Loads of creative group work gave everyone a voice and substantial energy and goodwill were generated throughout the evening. We will now plan constructive engagement and cooperation for the whole of 2012.

And the ‘contrasts’?

Almost universal contempt for the media by people who spend their lives trying to live morally and not misrepresent those who are not like themselves or their community.

I made the point (during some feedback) that Bradford’s local newspaper The Telegraph and Argus is actually a very good media organ and that, in contrast to many others I have known all too well, is open to good news stories… if we can supply them and write them well. Yes, the front page has to grab the attention and no, fluffy bunny stories don’t do it – but, there is a genuine commitment to telling the stories that matter. And some of the journalists I know here should be proud of their profession.

The danger is that all journalism will be tarred with the News International brush. But, credit needs to be given where it is due and encouragement needs to be given to those whose job it is to scrutinise power and tell the truth.

Bradford gets a bad press. People who live here are simply fed up with TV companies doing ‘documentaries’ which tell a story already conceived before any evidence has been examined or any researcher even arrived at the station. You don’t have to be here long to hear the anger against those who constantly do the place down. But, as I have argued locally, it isn’t always wise to amplify the negative stories by complaining about them. Instead, we need to challenge the laziness of the sensationalists who can’t be bothered with complexity. And we need to find ways of facing our challenges and telling our stories ourselves.

This evening I heard time and time again – from a number of religious communities – the desire to have honest conversation about the challenges we face within our own communities and to reach those who currently do not participate in civil society. We want to serve the common good in Bradford together, to identify our allies in this task, to encourage each other to deal with reality, and to face down the nasties whose only interest is to create division where it doesn’t exist.

It is a privilege to be here and to be involved in such work. And it will be interesting to see how we best develop the initiatives we have begun. Media representation will be both encouraged and challenged – we don’t mind the truth, but we won’t stand for lazy misrepresentation. We are looking for examples of good journalism, both locally and nationally. Ethics matter.

This evening I finished a set of meetings with leaders of faith communities in Bradford – where such relationships matter enormously.

A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening as the guest of the Hindus at their newest mandir. Next I met the Council of Mosques. Then, accompanied as usual by my interfaith adviser, Dr Philip Lewis, and the Dean of Bradford, David Ison, we met the Sikhs.

These visits were not simply anodyne, bland meetings. They were not set up in order to tick certain boxes – or simply make me feel that I was doing something useful. They were arranged in order to establish open, clear and practical relationships between resident religious communities and the new Bishop of Bradford.

We were given wonderful hospitality in each case. We were briefly introduced to their worship and culture. We were shown great friendship and respect. And we also spoke frankly, honestly and clearly about our faith, their perceptions of the main issues facing their particular community, and how interfaith relationships can be further developed in Bradford for the common good.

In fact, this was the key point. Each community had its particular concerns about the situation facing its own people, but the major concern was about the good of Bradford as a whole, the whole of the community, the well-being of the city. And each one has great expectations of how the Bishop can influence things for the good of the people: economic, social, political. Common challenges relate to young people, cultural change, changing values and a need for economic regeneration. The common complaint is that the brightest young people are leaving in order to get work elsewhere.

We are going to meet twice each year: one ‘elder statesman’, one woman and one young person from each of the four or five religious communities. These conversations will also be open, frank and constructive. And I will repeat my visits to each community once each year.

This might not seem earth-shattering. But, it is based on the fact that relationship is essential if business is to be done effectively and people of faith are to positively influence the life of the city and district. I am trying to learn what already is… in order to work out where to go from here.

It’s not boring…

Following Morning prayer and breakfast, the College of Bishops meeting then breaks down into small groups for Lectio Divina – which is simply a way of engaging everyone in a reading of and reflection on a passage from the Bible. It is always fascinating and surprising to see who focuses on what in the same text. I always see differently because I am compelled to look through someone else’s eyes and listen to their perspective.

This morning’s reading was from John 12 and concluded with Jesus saying something that looks obviously intelligible until you dig into it. The particular bit says this:

“Jesus said to them, The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

I thought it interesting that Jesus says ‘walk’ and not ‘sit’. Time marches on, day follows night, and darkness has a habit of overtaking us when we simply sit still and enjoy where we are. But, that isn’t the point that really got to me.

What did Jesus mean by inviting us to ‘believe’ in the light. How do you ‘believe’ in the light? Either it is light or it isn’t. How do you not believe in what you can see?

Well, I think this simply fails to understand what is meant by the word ‘believe’.

Jesus’s mission statement summary in Mark 1:14-15 has four elements: (a) ‘The time is fulfilled’ – now is the time when God is among us again; (b) ‘the kingdom of God has come near’ – the presence and rule of God for which you have been praying for centuries is here now; (c) ‘repent’ – if you are to recognise the presence of God among you, you are going to have to change the way you look; (d) ‘believe in the good news’ – now commit yourself body, mind and spirit to what you now see.

Jesus’s audience could only see God’s return evidenced by the expulsion of the Romans and the resolution of their ‘problems’. Jesus asks them to see the presence of God in the midst of their problems, not just when everything is sorted out to their satisfaction. Jesus then says that those who can dare to look differently should now live accordingly. And that is what ‘believing in’ means: commit yourself – body, mind and spirit – to what you now see… which is the transforming presence of Jesus himself, shedding different light on where we are and where we are heading.

Thus, ‘believing’ is not about girding up your loins and summoning up all your credulity. ‘Faith’ is not (as one little girl is said to have said) about ‘believing what you know isn’t true’. It is not about giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It is not about pretending to see what we don’t see – on the grounds that we feel we ought to do so. It is about seeing the world as Jesus does – in the light he sheds – and then throwing ourselves into it.

Seen this way, believing has more to do with curiosity and a sense of adventure, and less to do with nailing down all the details. it is the starting point, not the destination.

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Location:Oxford

OK, it’s a tacky title from a tacky song. But, I was reminded of it during a fascinating cross-cultural session at the College of Bishops meeting in Oxford today.


Bishop Wolfgang Huber had made some great observations about the need for the church in an ‘aesthetic post-modern culture’ to find new ways of engaging people with Christian faith. In Peru all those being confirmed are required to memorise passages of the Bible, creeds and other texts. The Bishop’s point was that memorising might not be exactly trendy, but it is very effective.

It is the memorising that grabbed my attention.

Charles Wesley (or his brother…) once said that we learn our theology not from what we hear from the pulpit, but from what we sing. His point was that if you put a good tune to something, it is easier to remember. Then he got on and wrote hundreds of hymns to memorable and easily singable tunes.

(This once led me to observe in a different context that if you sing rubbish, you believe rubbish. It caused me endless grief when taken out of context.)

Wolfgang Huber suggested that we ought to agree on a selection of texts that all Christians should be required to remember – to commit to memory. I agree with him.

We no longer require children to learn poetry or songs. After all, anything can be looked up immediately on the phone; so, why go to the effort of memorising songs or poetry?

Well, I am useless at it. The only poetry I can remember in full is from the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band (Neil Innes) and it helpfully reads:

“I am such a pedant,
I’ve got the brain of a dead ant,
All the imagination of a caravan site…
But I still love you…”

Not exactly Shakespeare, but it stuck.

I need to think further about the power of memorising texts that become part of you. Many people have experienced the power of repeated liturgy: prayer that eventually becomes so much part of you that it prays you.

Requiring candidates for Confirmation to memorise a creed or the Decalogue or the Beatitudes might seem demanding. But, the question is whether we are demanding enough of young Christians and whether or not the memorising of texts would be helpful in maturing them in the faith.

This is not the same thing as indoctrination. It is about creating the space in which people can reflect on what has become part of their ‘vocabulary’ – their mental and spiritual language.

I will take this to the Meissen Commission at the end of this week – of which more anon.

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Location:Oxford