Turkey is not nice just now. And Nice is not how it sounds to English ears.

This is not facetious. The terrorist atrocity in Nice last night and the military coup in Turkey tonight are phenomena that should not surprise us. Look back in history and things constantly change. We just happen to find the latest revolution in world affairs the most frightening.

Which is not to minimise what is going on. It is simp,y to recognise that terror is always there. That regimes are regularly challenged or overthrown.

But, it is also to recognise that, notwithstanding the rejection of this by the Brexiters in recent weeks, the post-war peace in Europe is not to be taken for granted. Civilisation is fragile. Democracy is thin. What takes decades or centuries to build up can be demolished in minutes.

I tweeted earlier that we should not be driven by fear, but drawn by hope. For Christians this means not guaranteeing circumstances of comfort or convenience, but, whatever our circumstances, living now in the light of a hope that comes to us from the future: resurrection and new creation.

To be drawn by hope is simply to live now in the light of what is to come, and not to be fearful. This is not fantasy or wishful thinking. It is a deliberate choice to dance to a different tune – to march to a different beat. And it means not being afraid.

 

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I once lived in Paris. I worked for a telecommunications company near the Eifel Tower, doing a variety of jobs in translation, teaching and accounts.

I loved Paris. I would walk miles across the city, just looking and listening and watching and absorbing. I also went busking on my days off, except when I was writing a dissertation in German on some educational/legal issue. Back in the late 1970s it was a city of vibrant optimism, of cultural positivity and cosmopolitan joie de vivre. Problems in the banlieus were already recognised, although recent years have seen an explosion in the racial frustration that was incipient then. It remains to be seen if Friday's violence was planned and perpetrated from outside France or by 'insiders who see themselves as outsiders'.

Paris is now a city in mourning and France a country in fear. And if this mourning is shared across Europe, so should the fear. Paris will clearly not be the last of such atrocities.

But, I feel uneasy. Such violence is an everyday occurrence in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Last week suicide bombers caused death and mayhem in Beirut. Yet, we just read over it and move on. European cities apparently matter more; European lives are apparently more valuable.

The second cause of unease revolves around the liberal values that France embodies with its liberté, egalité, fraternité. Recently an archbishop in Erbil, Iraq, warned the West that the violence being poured onto his people would eventually find its way to Europe. He then went on to say the unsayable: that we might have to compromise some of our liberal values in order to counter the real challenge to our world and our freedom. He was ignored.

The next few months will see some focus on just how far we take this seriously. We want to be free from surveillance, but then want to be fully protected from killers who organise on encrypted social media. It's a tough call, but we can't have everything. So, how much of our freedom are we willing to sacrifice in order to secure greater protection? This is where one piece of rubber will hit one slab of road.

In the meantime, the avalanche of comment, analysis and judgement will gather pace. It is astonishing how, in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Paris, when little or nothing was known about what was being done by whom, the Internet was alive with words that could not be other than ignorant. Twitter was unbelievable: ignorance and confidence make for a terrible combination. And, of course, as facts become known over the next few days, the original judgements simply get forgotten as the narrative gets re-shaped with equal confidence. It is depressing to watch the utter lack of discipline – the one thing words demand.

Enough said.

In the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales we put out a simple and practical statement:

The slaughter in Paris on Friday is shocking and horrifying.

Cathedrals and churches have been actively using social media to offer their support and bring people together in prayer. Some are opening up and offering a space for local people to come together, to reflect, to show solidarity with the victims, maybe to light a candle and to pray. These are simple ways of opening a space for our neighbourhoods at a time of heightened anxiety.

United with others in grief and hope, we hold onto God's promise that perfect love casts out fear. Standing together, we must work hard to ensure that fear does not drive our communities apart.

 

There isn’t much time for writing this blog at the moment. Life is full on, and my priorities lie elsewhere. One day I will get back to it properly.

The last post was the script of the Thought for the Day, broadcast just a couple of hours before Islamist maniacs went on a killing rampage in Paris. Naturally, I got a barrage of criticism and abuse via various media. Most of this was embarrassingly ridiculous, but not worth responding to in the heated hours (or, indeed, days) following the outrage in France. Charles Moore had a go in the Telegraph, but I decided not to respond – after all, the commentariat opines without cost and without ever dirtying their hands in the real stuff some of us live with every day. I can handle being accused of “weedy niceness” – but it is interesting that the people who went out onto the streets of Paris that night were, in fact, “dancing to a different tune” and not responding with some far-right driven anti-Islamic reflex.

What we have seen since then was predictable (though not sayable at the time). Questions have been asked about the meaning(s) of “Je suis Charlie” and whether this might be somewhat naive as well as well-intentioned emotion. Unlike most commentators, I used to read Charlie Hebdo. I gave up in my twenties because it was more puerile than satirical. Easy targets do not equate to justified targets. And, as someone observed last week, the freedom to offend does not equate to an obligation to offend.

Giles Fraser has now clearly written what I wanted to write (although I would almost certainly have done so less eloquently in response to the criticism I got): the French secularism being lauded in the popular response to the massacre in Paris is not noble and is not what is understood by ‘secularism’ elsewhere. It is one thing to deprivilege religion in the public square; it is something else entirely to be anti-religion to the point of wanting to wipe it out. The myth of neutrality is just that: the public square is either open to all – including religion – or it privileges those who believe that it is open to all except religions. Neutral it is not. Charlie Hebdo was not brave to target powerless people, and it will be interesting to see if it still survives in a year’s time once the myths and emotions have moved on (as they will).

So, as the commentariat now discovers the courage to question the response to the Paris events, I can only judge that it was probably wise to be too busy to blog. And France will have to do some deeper thinking about what it really means by ‘liberté, égalité et fraternité’ and how it includes Muslims – a debate that was informing French novels fifty years ago and questions that have not been addressed since then because of the veil of ‘laïcité’.

On the other hand, the church lives every day with diverse communities, hearing how world events impact on the local. We don’t just do “weedy niceness” from behind a laptop screen; we engage every day in our parishes with all-comers. And we go wider. In the last week in my diocese we have engaged with Sudan (where the church is working hard at living with Islam), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tanzania. We look through multiple lenses. And we get our hands dirty in the complexity of these contexts – a far cry from merely sounding off on a laptop screen. These relationships take hard work and a long time; they cannot be created in crisis.

I would love to ask what – practically – the commentariat would advocate should happen now. It is easy to comment and diagnose and pontificate and ‘reflect’. But, what do they suggest we then should actually do? Should all Muslims be deported, or all mosques shut? Should we close the doors to all Muslim immigration? If so, what do they suggest we should do with those left behind who suffer the injustice? And so on. What do the clever commentators propose we should actually do?

One of my parishes held a very imaginative and appropriate service last week to honour journalists and the price they pay for telling their stories. The service was titled: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. But, the question I finish on is this: what do we do when the pen becomes a sword? Too often people distinguish between ‘word’ and ‘action’. Words are action – they are performative and they have consequences. There is no neutrality.

This Konrad Adenauer Stiftung symposium in Cadenabbia, Italy, began on Sunday by setting the scene for the main theme: Der öffentliche Raum in Europa und seine religiös kulturelle Prägung. It did so by discussing Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne. Day Two continued by examining Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit – looking at some of the challenges to religion in Europe and some of the cultural changes that lie behind them. Day Three focused on how several different religious communities are responding to religious pluralism: the Orthodox in East and South Eastern Europe, the Roman Catholic Church in France, and the Church of England in the light of increasing religious illiteracy. We concluded (prior to a boat trip across Lake Como in a thunder storm and visits to a couple of nice places) with a discussion about the future of religion in a pluralist Europe. Needless to say, the whole conference thus far has been intelligent, informed and fascinating. (Although, as usual, I feel like the dunce in the class…)

Professor Dr Radu Preda from the University of Babes-Bolyai in Romania did a superb analysis (in embarrassingly fluent German) of how the Orthodox churches have responded to the radical changes in East and South Eastern Europe: Die Situation der Orthodoxen Kirchen in den Transformationsländern Ost- und Südosteuropas. Acknowledging that Orthodoxy cannot speak with one voice – because of its national and ethnic ('tribal') polities – he went on to relate the church's mission in relation to territory and power. What is clear is that those churches that found freedom in the end of Communism have simply been so compromised by their allegiance to the 'new' political powers that they have lost their prophetic voice. The big challenges are (a) pluralism and (b) corruption.

This was followed by Professor Dr Henri Ménudier (Université de Paris 3 – Sorbonne Nouvelle) describing the situation in France with its particular and unique process (ideology?) of laïcité. Addressing the title of Proposer la foi: Das Angebot der Kirche in Frankreich, he described the challenging situation facing the church there (what's new?) before going on to suggest where the challenges are actually throwing up opportunities where the church is willing to be creative. Inevitably, celibacy, women priests and the Roman Catholic Church's sacramental response to divorced people (50% of marriages in France, apparently) must be up for grabs. Pluralism is a further challenge, and he surprised me by saying that there is little dialogue between Christians and Muslims in France. This led to a wide-ranging discussion of social and political debates in France.

It is never easy to follow good, informed and fluent speakers on any subject and in any circumstances. Following these guys didn't exactly fill my heart with overflowing gladness. But, I had been asked to do a paper on Der Weg der Kirche von England gegenüber Unwissen und Distanz zu religiösem Glauben. I will post the basic paper separately, but I offered a glimpse of how we in the Church of England try to engage creatively in a context of pluralism, religious illiteracy and media variability in respect of religion in general and the church in particular. As always, the real value came in the questioning and debate that followed the paper. The point relayed back to me by both theologians and journalists (there are several serious journalists here, including the Political Editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – and he is a really good bloke) was my comment that the church has always been a mess, is a mess, and always will be a mess…, so get used to it and relax a bit more.

After a heavy three days we spent the rest of the afternoon on Lake Como and continuing conversations into the evening. I know I am privileged to be here and to be invited to take part in conferences like this. I think, though, that such engagement feeds my mind and soul, represents the best Continuing Miniaterial Development that I cold ever do, and, at a time of great uncertainty about my own ministerial (episcopal) future, gives me the space to withdraw from the immediate pressures of the diocese and reflect on broader themes that shape how I see God, the church, the world and myself.

We conclude in the morning with further papers and discussion before headig for Milan and the long flights home to Bradford (via Munich and Manchester), but I probably will not get space to post before leaving.

 

Struggling through a streaming cold and muzzy head to write a lecture for this coming Wednesday (on Being Confident in an Uncertain World), I was easily distracted by the glories of Twitter. I caught a link which, in the context of all the political upheavals going on around us, stood out. Die Zeit has the headline: Merkel öffnet für Hollande die Arme, nicht die Taschen (Merkel opens her arms to Hollande, but not her pockets).

It’s a weird world.

  • Greece votes against parties that think austerity is unavoidable, but offers no ideas for how the stringencies of economics can be aligned with desired social wellbeing.
  • It looks possible that Greece won’t be able to find a coherent coalition government at all.
  • Russia, against all protests, swears in a president who seems to assume power and the right to power. Ominously, he promises Russians some hard years ahead.
  • France elects a new Socialist president who might not be able to implement (economically or politically) what he has promised.
  • Germany welcomes the new French president to office, but won’t offer him the means to do what he has promised to do for France. (And Merkel has just had a bad election in Schleswig-Holstein, so all is not beautiful in her own garden either).

What is interesting about all these ructions in Europe (and bring into the mix all the other trouble spots across the planet) is the assumption on the part of whole populations that we have rights to certain ways of living or levels of affluence or provision – but rarely does anyone ask where those rights have come from. They are merely assumed. But, as ethicists know, you can’t get an ought from an is – that is to say, you cannot derive a moral imperative from the mere fact that something exists. So, what gives us the right to demand ‘rights’ in the first place?

Anyway, we’ll watch this space as everything changes in Europe and beyond. Putin is not the universally revered man he thinks he once was. Merkel stands firm, but the floor might potentially wobble beneath her feet. Hollande might find ‘reality’ harder to manipulate than he has suggested. And Greece? Er…

At least all is stable and fine at home in the UK, our glorious leaders steering us into a land of plenty. One day. Eventually. Maybe soon. Er…

There is a lot of talk about Anglicans becoming Roman Catholic, but we rarely talk about those who cross the Tiber in the opposite direction.

In December 2006 I was in Paris, having been invited to preach at St George’s Church there. A few weeks before I went I was asked to confirm a young Frenchman called Régis Blain during the service. Since then we have kept in touch from time to time. Recently we were in email contact and I invited him to write something brief about why he decided to become an Anglican in France – several people here were intrigued, especially after Régis created a page for Common Worship on Facebook. This is what he wrote (in the form of a letter to the most famous Englishman to have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years) – I thought it was an interesting ‘take’ on things I don’t often refer to:

A letter to Mr. Blair : a new French Anglican writes to a new British Roman-Catholic

Recently, Bishop Nick Baines, who confirmed me at the Anglican St Georges Church in Paris in December 2006,  told me that some of his colleagues were ‘intrigued’ by the fact that a French citizen would choose to be Anglican. I’d like to explain how this is possible by writing an imaginary letter to the former Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair.

Mr. Blair,

You are British Citizen and you have an Anglican background. You decided to become Roman Catholic 3 years ago. It’s your right and I respect it. I ‘m a French Citizen with a cultural Roman Catholic background, and I decided to become Anglican from the Church of England 4 years ago.  It’s my right too. 

Guardian journalist Andrew Brown reported (June 22,2007):

For the last decade at least he has made it plain that he prefers Catholic services, and perhaps Catholic priests, to Anglican ones.

I myself prefer William Temple, the ‘Anglican Churchill’ (who was in Normandy  in June 1944) or the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams to all the Popes of Rome (except John XXIII). I had the chance to meet different priests from the Episcopalian Church and the Church of England here in Paris, in the US and in Turkey and I find I like them perhaps better than the Roman-Catholics priests. 

I have to confess that I praise you for your honesty and consistency in becoming Roman Catholic. I become sceptical when the ‘extremes’ want to change the spiritual and liturgical history of the Church of England. I have always thought: if you are deeply evangelical, why don’t you join a true Protestant community? If you  feel more Catholic than everything, why don’t you join the Roman Catholic Church? There is no problem in the end.

So you did right and I’m sure I did right too.

I like the diversity of the Anglican Communion – from all the countries – and I do recognize that everybody can be ‘high’ or ‘low’ church. But people like me, and former Roman Catholics who were looking for freedom of thought and worship, have joined the Anglican Communion. I think we are strongly opposed to any form of intolerant orthodoxy (sorry for the pleonasm), but at the same time we need tradition, history, honesty and also freedom. 

I like also in your former church what it has taken from Catholicism, Protestantism and Latitudinarism. Therefore it seems to me that the Church of England is a proof of historical consensus and wisdom,  a moral and spiritual space for everybody, a pact between the community, the church and the state.

Anglicanism represents also, for those who know history, the memory of refuge in the 16 and 17th centuries. Some French pastors and lay people were integrated within the Church of England during this time. I guess you know this fact. For example, today the  old Huguenot Church Eglise du St Esprit in New York City belongs to the Episcopalian Church. To this day there is still a Huguenot Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral.

What I like above all about the Anglican Church is its modesty and tolerance.  Like Mr David Cameron, I don’t have any ‘direct line’ to God and I need – I guess like you and him – a priest and a prayer book.

I know there are good places for worship and good priests within the Roman Catholic Church. But in my case after attending so many services and talking to so many priests and pastors, I could not find better representatives of Christ than Anglican priests and in particular those I met from the Church of England.

From my perspective, the diversity, tolerance and creativity of my church offer the best means to win the fight for an updated and renewed Christianity, far from extremes and anomie. I also hope that all Anglicans, Catholics and Protestants can work together to keep the churches open and full and not open bars or galleries in them. We will try to keep honest in our thinking and behaviour as imperfect Christians with varying degrees of faith.

My wish is that your compatriots could really appreciate the religious patrimony they have and I’m sure you do.

Yours sincerely,

Régis Blain (France)