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.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Oxford

The massive storm we have witnessed here in Philadelphia on the last day of our holiday is nothing compared to the storm of violence now raining down on Tripoli as the battle for freedom from Gaddafi’s rule enters it’s endgame. As with other similar struggles in the Middle East in the last six months, however, the question will soon move from ‘What do we want to be freed from?’ to ‘What have we been freed for?’

The distinction is important. It is easier to unite against a common enemy (or evil) than to unite for a common goal. It is easier (and more therapeutic) to pull down than it is to build up. Yet, we human beings seem to find it hard to learn the lessons of history that destruction is easier than construction.


Which is not to criticise the rebels in Libya – they have shown extraordinary courage, backed by NATO bombs, in challenging the regime’s brutality. A similar respect is due in Syria. But, the courage of the present will need to be re-energised and re-directed for building the post-conflict peace that lies ahead. If we are praying now, God knows we must pray even harder in the months and years to come – especially when our attention (and that of a hungry media) has moved on.

For the purposes of this post, however, the point is not primarily about uprisings; rather, it is about the distinction between ‘from’ and ‘for’. In fact, the thought was sparked by an excellent article by Bishop Tom Wright in today’s Spectator online magazine: http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/7174863/keep-the-faith.thtml.

Defending the Church of England against the uncritical media mantra of decline and extinction, he summarises the role of the Church as follows:

“It exists, in other words, to do and be for the world what Jesus had been for his contemporaries: to bring healing and hope, to rescue people trapped in their own folly and sin, to straighten out the distorted pictures of reality that every age manages to produce, and to enable people to live by, and in, God’s true reality. It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world: to see lives transformed by the gospel so that people can discover a new depth and resonance of what it means to be human, precisely by looking beyond themselves to God, to the beauties and glories of his creation, and to their neighbours, particularly those in need. The Church does this through liturgy and laughter; through music and drug-rehabilitation programmes; through prayer and protest marches; through preaching and campaigning; through soaking itself in the Bible and immersing itself in the needs of the world. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks (as many, including many critics, think he should). He sends in the meek; and by the time the world realises what’s going on, the meek have set up clinics and schools, taught people to read and to sing, and given them a hope, meaning and purpose which secular modernism (which gave us, after all, Passchendaele and Auschwitz as well as modern medicine and space travel) has failed to provide.”

I have offered a summary elsewhere as: “The Church is called to look and feel and sound like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. If we don’t, we are a fraud.”

But the key point in Tom’s piece (also picking up nicely on David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Atheist Delusions’, which I am reading here) is that “It exists not to rescue people from the world but to rescue them for the world”. A popular critique of the church is that it indulges itself in some otherworldly preoccupations while the real (material) world deals with the real business. Yet, the Incarnation itself is about God opting into the world and not exempting himself from it. You can’t get more material – or less superspiritual – than that.

Christians do not seek escape from the world and all it’s complexities, but commit consciously to engage with it in all it’s messy contradictoriness. It might not be comfortable, but neither was the cross.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

Massive catastrophes such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan not only remind the world of (a) the fragility of life, (b) the commonality of human lives and (c) the contingency of all life, but also render as insignificant luxuries many of the preoccupations that drive our energies. (They might also provide an attentiveness smokescreen behind which the unscrupulous will increase their violence while the world and its media are distracted – think ‘Gaddafi‘.)

Apparently, something significant is happening in the world this week as a handful of clergy and a few hundred lay people leave the Church of England and head for pseudo-Rome (otherwise known as the Ordinariate). Well, God bless them in their journey – as, presumably, he does those coming the other way. I read that 14 RC clergy have crossed the Tiber in the opposite direction, but that sounds odd – possibly because we don’t count the numbers coming our way. I can immediately think of half a dozen Anglican priests who were once Roman Catholic priests – in this one diocese – and countless other clergy who were once RC lay people. Spread that across the country and the picture looks interesting.

Interesting, maybe, but also irrelevant to most of the world. (Do the numbers really tell us anything at all? I don’t think so.) I have yet to read or hear anything about the Ordinariate that had anything to do with the big wide world; it seems that all the talk and all the preoccupation is with seeking a ‘pure’ church in which to do purely churchy things. I respect the conscience of those who have embarked on this journey (and those who are still struggling with the decision) and I pray that they will find in Rome a spiritual home. But, I also pray that they will be driven out of the churchy preoccupations and back into the world itself. It seems from the Bible that God sent his Son into the world for the sake of the world, not into the church for the sake of its purity. Isn’t that precisely the problem in the Gospels between those who got the point of it all and those who had to fit God and his ways into the systems their faith shaped for them?

In the meantime, we in the Church of England will just carry on our often flawed attempts to live out the Gospel, to be what was fulfilled in Jesus but was always the vocation of God’s people: to give and live our lives for the sake of the world and not for the sake of our own purity, power or security (however defined). As we pray for those going to Rome, I assume they will be praying for us in our faithful obedience to God’s call.

But, to go back a step, all of this is frippery in the context of the world’s needs. It is luxury. It seems to me today that these ‘conscience’ matters are a privilege for those whose lives are reasonably secure. And they don’t address the hard questions about God and human suffering in a contingent world. Which is of more concern to most people than how much lace the clergy wear in church.

Contrary to some Christian sentimentalism, the key feature of Christian doctine is that God opts INTO this contingent world and does not exempt himself from it. The earth is a living, moving, changing planet which would cease to exist if any of these characteristics stopped applying. Life depends on the movement and this movement must necessarily bring unpredictability, mutation, cataclysm and eruption. Which is why cancer and disaster and suffering are part of the deal of being human on this particular planet. It cannot be otherwise.

So, why do people assume God is absent when tragedy – either global or individual – strikes and strips away our securities? Why does ‘God’ depend on everything going right for us – as if he were a puppet bound to intervene whenever there is a threat to our happiness? And why do some Christian theologies collude with this (possibly narcissistic?) nonsense?

Without writing a book on the matter (which is probably what it requires), it seems that we need to toughen up a bit and be a little less prissy or precious about our individual comfort. I have no right to be spared cancer or hurricane.

In what has been called ‘the scandal of particularity’, God opts in to the world at a particular time and in a particular place and thereby suggests that faith can never be real if it takes us out of time and space and place. Faith cannot be a form of escapism or fantasy – as if we can invoke God to ‘make everything better’ for us. Rather, genuine Christian faith plunges us back into the world and all it can throw at us – without any hope of or desire for exemption. Christian hope is not derived from a fantasy of personal happiness or security, but rooted in the person of a God who doesn’t spare himself and drives the people who bear his name (and have been grasped by him) away from their own securities and into places of vulnerability. We are not called into the light, but to shed light in the dark places: the distinction matters.

There may be good reasons (and I use the word ‘reasons’ advisably) why communities shouldn’t live on tectonic faultlines or flood plains. But, they do and they suffer the consequences of doing so. The imperative for the rest of us is to get stuck in to helping those devastated communities to hear the faint echo of a melody that (a) puts flesh and blood onto the ‘idea’ of a common humanity (using all our human ingenuity to do so) and (b) whispers of promise that the violence does not have the last word.

I care about the fate of Liverpool Football Club, I love my music and books, I thrive on diversity of culture, I dread saying ‘farewell’ to the Croydon Episcopal Area and the Diocese of Southwark this very evening – but these all need to be kept in a broader perspective… one that recognises that Christian hope is rooted not in a desired set of circumstances, but in the person of God who has been here, seen it all and now has to see it all caricatured on a t-shirt.

My grandson is almost seven months old. He lives with his mum and dad in Liverpool. On the notice board in my office I have a big photo of him. He’s laughing all over his face… wearing his first Liverpool kit. No wonder he’s happy.

Does dressing him in a Liverpool kit mean that he is being brainwashed or indoctrinated by narrow-minded parents and grandparents? Well, if one line of argument is right, we should probably all be in court for ‘shaping’ the little lad and not allowing him to grow up and make up his own mind.

One of the bizarre things clergy often get told is that parents want their baby baptised, but that they don’t want the child to be brought up in the life of the Church because ‘we want him/her to make his/her own mind up’. Apparently, this applies to religion, but not to any other aspect of a child’s life. So, we can play a particular type of music, provide any nurture framework shaped by any worldview or set of values, dress the kiddies according to our taste and… and pretend that this is all neutral territory and value-free in any ‘indoctrination’ sense. But, when it comes to shaping a child’s world view (which issues in practice and habit), anything is OK provided it isn’t religious.

How have we got to a position where some people think (uncritically assume?) that there is some ‘neutral’ ground – which they occupy – over against the ‘loaded’ ground occupied by, for example, religious people?

There is no neutral, value-free territory. Every child is brought up according to some world view or value framework which is often not argued for.

What has brought this to mind is the rather odd view I heard on the radio this afternoon in the context of the latest fostering controversy. It was to the effect that people are free to believe whatever they want, provided they don’t do anything with it. In other words, ‘belief’ is a private opinion which can only be acted upon if it conforms to someone else’s assumed norms.

So, if you ‘believe’ that living according to the precepts of Jesus Christ is good or essential, you are supposed to keep your ‘belief’ in the realms of opinion. But, if you ‘believe’ that no negative  judgement should ever be made about any other practice or lifestyle, that is a ‘belief’ that can be given free rein. Is that not weird?

This is the real question behind some of the noisy debates occupying both airwaves and the digital world. Who decides what is ‘neutral’? And when did ‘belief’ get reduced to mere private opinion when inconvenient to those who consider themselves to be ‘neutral’?

These aren’t the only questions, but it seems to me that they are the ones most ignored.