Breaking up is hard to do. So went the song. But, whereas that might apply to love and relationships, it clearly is less so when it comes to politics.

The EU referendum debate has so far been … er … pathetic – the trading of unsubstantiated prophetic claims on both sides, accompanied by ‘selective’ representations of European history and the pursuit of personal vendettas by people who seemed – on other matters, at least – to be on the same side.

But, one aspect has, to my mind, not been adequately explored. It is quick and easy to break down institutions and relationships, but long and difficult to build them up. In recent memory, just witness the collapse of the USSR and the ground it prepared for Vladimir Putin, resurgent nationalism rooted in hurt pride, and a fascism that has fed similar tendencies in Eastern Europe and beyond. The winter of the Arab Spring should teach us something.

In this respect, consideration must be given to how Brexit might well fuel the disturbing nationalist fires in other parts of Europe and how further fragmentation of the EU might lead to new political associations over which we will have no control and even less influence. Remaining in the EU must raise questions about how the resentments, racism and romanticisms of some member states can be resisted with the sort of moral clarity and courage that gave rise to the post-war European project in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago a former Archbishop of Canterbury compared Brexit to Noah leading the people of Israel out of captivity in Egypt and to freedom in the Promised Land. (I kid you not: I was asked to comment on a draft.) Of course, where the case falls is that the exodus was followed by forty years – a generation of romanticists – in the desert and a good deal of violent ethnic cleansing thereafter. Promises of effortless and cost-free deliverance are usually fantasy, and those who do the promising know this very well.

So, whether one wishes to see the UK remain in the EU or leave it behind, promises of political or economic (to say nothing of diplomatic) nirvana should be placed on the ‘fantasy’ pile – or, as I prefer to think of it, the ‘lying’ pile. (As should the rhetoric that cites only the ‘costs’ to us of UK membership of the EU without asking once what we bring to the European consensus.)

This is pertinent because, as most of Europe looks on in bewilderment at the nature of our debate thus far, we are asking the British people to make a decision that will have both intended and unintended consequences for us. We simply cannot say whether Brexit will make travel and other conveniences less convenient – other EU countries might well help us to recall what membership granted by removing some of the conveniences we have rejected. We simply cannot pretend that the negotiations in which we will hope to engage will end up benefiting us in the way suggested – especially when we will be negotiating (among others) with those whom we have spent many words and gestures insulting and rejecting (either explicitly or implicitly) during this campaign.

The tragedy of the referendum campaign – to my mind, at least – is the appeal to purely national self-interest over against what we might bring to the common good. Democracy – claimed by some to be the primary victim of EU membership – means compromise in the interests of the common good, but only following debate and consensus. Do we really think democracy can be reduced to only being valid when everyone else agrees with us and we guarantee our own interests?

Clearly, remaining will bring challenges. Leaving will bring others. That is reality, and we can’t predict the future. But, we can weigh up the probabilities of each option and vote accordingly on 23 June.

Nevertheless, one thing that has struggled to get through this debate is that the easy conflation of the EU and Europe is less than helpful. The institution is not the same as the continent. The EU is a construct that can be reshaped and reimagined; the continent has seen a constantly changing shaping of cultures, nations and politico-economic allegiances. The question is: will remaining in the EU or leaving it be more likely to shape the continent for the better in the next century, or will it contribute to a disintegration and the unintended consequences this might bring?

After all, the history will only be written a century after the events – something of which we are acutely aware as we commemorate the catastrophe that turned into the First World War a hundred years ago.

(At least the Guardian – probably the only national newspaper that would entertain this – allowed an amusing dispute between Giles Fraser and Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch on whether the Reformation should push us to stay or go. I don’t see a distinctive theological line on the question that is not selective to some extent; but, history too easily becomes a commodity which we trade in the interests of our own arguments or preferences. Yet, more of that sort of intelligent exchange would be welcome – and certainly more enlightening than the hyperbolic lobbing of political grenades from the trenches.)


We left Erbil in the early hours of Friday morning and got back to the UK later that day. Flying into Istanbul in the morning sun, the city looked like it always does: beautiful, mysterious, calm. Looking out of the window I wondered what the future is for Turkey in general and this city in particular.

It is hard to imagine how any deal can be done between Turkey and the European Union on entry when Turkey falls so far short of standards in religious and media freedom (to cite just two problems). Recent tightening of the grip from Erdogan cannot have come as a surprise. Yet, despite the suicide bombing in Ankara last week and recent violence in Istanbul itself, it didn't occur to me that a bombing might take place there today. These conflicts are interconnected.

Who was it who said “travels narrows the mind”? OK, that wasn't the original. But, although travel broadens the mind to a wider world and the complexities within it, it can simultaneously narrow the mind by compelling the traveler to think that they have now understood it. There is a danger in me thinking I now have a 'take' on the situation in Iraq, both politically and in humanitarian terms, but this is bound to be confounded or complemented by the experience of others.

For example, we hear the story of how Yazidis were helped to escape from Sanjin Mountain by the Peshmerga. Giles Fraser referenced this in his article in the Guardian written during the visit. On our return we then hear other stories of not-so-noble actions by the Peshmerga, including the threat to shoot Yazidis who got in their way. The whole picture is neither simple nor comprehensible in consistent categories.

Five days in Iraq brought our group, organised and brilliantly led by Christian Aid, face to face with the political and the personal. Stories told by people sitting in front of you cannot be denied. The statistics and rhetoric of politicians cannot simply be dismissed because they are not rooted in the personal stories of individuals and families (although you do come away thinking that some politicians ought to get out more). If anything, the situation becomes more complex, more difficult to comprehend, than before.

In our five days we heard stories of horror and kindness, of cruelty and mercy, of despair and hope, of wishful optimism and hopeful realism. Yet, these stories were not the totality – they did not tell the whole story.

For example, the Syrian refugees we met were Sunni Muslim. So, where does their react meant by Daesh/ISIS fit into rhetoric about genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shias? It is clear that Daesh brutality is meted out against anyone, and not purely targeted against non-Muslims. Indeed, it is hard to see what is religious about Daesh at all. I think those analysts are right who say the world is hitting the wrong target by thinking Daesh has anything to do with religion at all, but everything to do with sadism and power.

The abiding preoccupation for my own mind in the light of this trip (and the return to the political rhetoric of the UK) is twofold: (a) can – or should – Iraq be held together as a single country, given the evaporation of trust between communities and the inequitable distribution of finance and resources between Baghdad and, for example, Erbil? (b) the need for humanitarian aid to be provided in considerably greater quantities even if the answer to the political question above is 'no'.

A much-repeated phrase used by a UK government official in Erbil at the beginning of our visit (when we were even more ignorant than we are now) was that the Iraqis “have to sort this out themselves”. That phrase has nagged me all week. Why is it their responsibility to sort out what they did not create? Why did that thinking not hold sway when outsiders were considering bombing the place to bits? And, in that context, why is the amount of money being spent on reconstruction and humanitarian assistance such a tiny fraction of what was spent on the military campaigns?

Yes, I know that the idea of people taking responsibility for their future – especially given that any future depends on trust, relationships, common vision, etc. – is important and, in this context, more cultural than political. But, Iraqis bereft of money, homes, work, education, social infrastructure and (in some cases) hope are now being told they hold their future in their hands. It doesn't quite wash. Look at the numbers: only 9% of humanitarian aid money promised by governments has been paid.

So, Philip Hammond (UK Foreign Secretary) had talks in Baghdad and Erbil on Thursday – we found out from his Twitter feed while there – and he is very positive about the UK's contribution. He might be right. But, the story looks different when listened to through the ears of those on the ground where political rhetoric can look a little imaginative.

The prism through which I now reflect on the experience in Iraq is more multifaceted than before I went. Any judgements must be coloured by humility and the knowledge that impressions are partial. However, the abiding question is one I and colleagues will need to pursue further now we are back home is this: what credibility does a policy off enabling people (Syrian refugees and Iraqi internally displaced people) to “return to their homes” when their homes no longer exist, when the social infrastructure (including health, education and society) has broken down, when communities can no longer trust each other, and when such unspeakable violence has been done not just to people, but to hope itself?

Mercy, hope and generosity are being seen in the sheer humanitarian care being taken of such vulnerable people and communities by religious bodies – we met UK Sikhs delivering aid to Muslims and Yazidis in Duhok – who do not discriminate in whom they help. We saw this particularly in a clinic run by a church in Erbil. But, reconciliation will be hard won when the common enemy of Daesh has been removed.


Three stories penetrate the work-ridden last few days.

Yesterday Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor and former political editor of the Sun had the nerve to accuse the Metropolitan Police of wasting time and resources on their investigation of criminality at the heart of News International. He described police tactics as treating suspected journalists like “members of an organised crime gang”. He objected to dawn raids and intrusive searches of journalists’ homes.

Forgive my naïveté, but why does he think the police are doing this at all? Would he or his newspaper have had any patience with police ignoring criminality on an industrial scale in some other area of society? Did he consider the handling of the MPs’ expenses scandal as a waste of time and money – a gross overreaction? Does he really think that investigations into corruption and criminality at the Sun is ‘disproportionate’?

I usually find Trevor Kavanagh interesting, but this has left me staggered. Is he so out of touch that he still doesn’t get the public outrage at this enormous corruption? The irony of his choice of words is that the need for expensive and thorough police investigation arises directly from crime that looks distinctly ‘organised’. Or is it just that it is OK for ordinary mortals to have their lives intruded upon, shredded and dumped – their reputations rubbished and their families disturbed – but somehow wrong for journalists to suffer the same treatment? I am boggled.

Richard Dawkins is at it again – although Giles Fraser rattled him on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning. As Dawkins mocked respondents to his poll who couldn’t name the first gospel, Fraser embarrassed him by exposing his inability to remember the full title of Darwin’s Origin of Species. His latest evangelistic campaign is just silly. In danger of confusing atheism with secularism (they are not the same), he perpetuates the pretence that he occupies neutral space whereas religious people are somewhere up the loaded loony scale. What makes him think that his world view is to be privileged above all others is still unclear. Anyway, his survey proves little – and certainly not what he thinks it proves.

Baroness Warsi has complained to the Pope about rampant and aggressive secularism that is marginalising religion in general and Christianity in particular in Britain today. Not having had time today to read all the reports of this, I remain unclear why she needs to tell the Pope what he already thinks. But, the question is really whether or not she is right. I just hope she doesn’t slip into the language of ‘persecution’.

The most interesting two responses I have seen to Dawkins and Warsi are by Giles Fraser and Julian Baggini. Rational atheist argument is fine and secularist campaigning acceptable. But, where does the mindless aggression come from? Why the irrational evangelism that doesn’t even pretend to be tolerant of any world view that differs from it’s own fundamentalism?

Yesterday was a bit worrying. During my sermon at a Confirmation service in Ilkley an elderly woman began to look unwell. As I came in to land she lost consciousness and, assisted by medics in the congregation, slid to the floor. She came round and was eventually taken off to hospital for a check up. When I got home I picked up my eighteen month old grandson, Ben, and he promptly vomited all over me and the kitchen floor. I began to think that if the service at the cathedral later went wrong, I’d begin to take it personally.

Anyway, last week saw some interesting stuff flying around the e-sphere:

1. A new magazine for Muslims has been produced, called Critical Muslim. I haven’t seen a copy and am not sure how its appearance on the scene has been received within the Muslim community, but it is an interesting development. Dr Philip Lewis’s appraisal is worth a look.

2. Nick Spencer did a great parody of the nonsense trotted out by some of the uncritical New Atheists – that religion is dangerous and divisive and should be confined to the dark corners of private entertainment. He starts from the idea that people claim that sport is a religion. It only gets funnier from there.

3. Giles Fraser hits the nail further on the head with an account of how Nietzsche contributed to his conversion to Christianity.

4. Will Hutton bangs the drum for language learning to be taken more seriously in the UK. I bang on about it often enough, but Hutton is better at pointing out that the philistines in government are unlikely to advocate a culture they themselves don’t ‘get’.

5. Leonard Cohen’s new album has been acquired and is being listened to to death. That voice has been lived in. We used to say that Cohen did ‘music to slit your wrists to’, but this caricature has always only exposed ignorance or illiteracy. He is funny, astute, ironic and wonderfully honest about being a complicated human being. My favourite lines from Old Ideas

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

This week?

I have just arrived in London ahead of the General Synod which meets here until Thursday. The key item on the agenda is the matter of how we move ahead with bishops who might turn out to be women. It’s no secret that the debate is somewhat fraught – after all, this is one of only two issues that the media have any concern for (the other one being sexuality). Lots of other good stuff that drives and characterises the Church of England’s work in parishes and dioceses won’t get a mention, but the ‘loud stuff’ must not be allowed to distract us from what we should be about on the ground.

The torment about female bishops looks something like this. The Church has agreed that there should be no bar to women being bishops. The debate is about what provision should be made for those who cannot accept this. Huge financial provision was made back in 1992 when the Synod agreed to ordain women as priests. Twenty years on there are those who think enough time and provision has been made already. Then, the question is if the Church should create a ‘safe place’ for those who cannot accept ministry from women or men who have ordained women (like me).

There are many who wish to hold the Church together and make space in the Big Tent for the range of voices and commitments, but don’t want to set up first and second-class bishops. The pastoral urge to hold everyone in is tempered by the pastoral wisdom that advocates (a) making a decision, (b) ending the uncertainty and muddle, and (c) allowing everyone concerned to move on. Clarity has to be better than eternal muddle.

But, it is the understanding of what counts as ‘pastoral’ and to whom ‘pastoral provision’ is made that lies at the heart of the heart-searching going on in the Synod this week. And that is why debate is impassioned: we take stuff seriously and are not indifferent either to the theological/ecclesiological issues or the pastoral/people implications and consequences of the decisions we make. However, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that some circles simply cannot be squared. I am not aware of anyone – of any persuasion – who is looking forward with unalloyed joy to this week’s debates.

Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur this evening might come as a welcome distraction…


Just for the record, I note the following:

1. On BBC Radio 4’s excellent ‘The Report’ programme, broadcast last night, I was introduced as having been a vicar in Southwark before moving to Bradford. Not true. I told them I had been Archdeacon of Lambeth for three years and then Bishop of Croydon for eight years.

2. In the same introduction to my contribution to the same programme it was said that I had kept in close touch with clergy at St Paul’s Cathedral – which was part of the theme of the programme (whcih was really about the Corporation of London). In fact, I had said I had been in touch with Giles Fraser on the day of his resignation announcement and that I had met Graeme Knowles several times in the past, but didn’t ‘know’ him. I had also said that the Cathedral Chapter was autonomous and that the Diocese of London was not the same as the Diocese of Southwark – and that my real connection with St Paul’s was having been consecrated there in May 2003.

3. During the chit-chat on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning I said that we can see toward Ilkley from our house in Bradford. Well, that’s true in the same sense that you can see towards the North Pole from where I live in Bradford. I meant to say Bingley – and the moors that lead over eventually to Ilkley. Locals who listened must have thought I am seriously geographically challenged.

Neither of those is a moan about the media! Although the first two need clearing up in case anyone connected with St Paul’s wonders what is going on that they don’t know about. It wasn’t me who said it, guv.

But, here’s a plug:

4. My daughter and son-in-law gave me a CD for my birthday which I listened to in the car today. Called simply Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, it is a brilliant, atmospheric recording of some great (almost primitive) rock and roll. It says on the back:

We took a year to record and mix this album in our back room. Over a period of time we collected a lot of ribbon microphones, tape recorders and ancient sound equipment and eventually built a workable studio inspired by Sun studios in Memphis and Chess studios in Chicago along with the makeshift chaos of Joe Meek’s studio in the Holloway Road in London. Our main objective was to capture the energy of our live gigs.

It is excellent, moody, raw – and I would never have come across if it hadn’t been given to me!

An explanation is not an excuse.

Let me repeat that: an explanation is not an excuse. So, what I am about to write is an explanation of why bishops have not been willing to comment in public on the events at St Paul’s Cathedral in the last couple of weeks. The structure of the Church of England is such that episodes like this current one are unsurprising. (But, two resignations is not exactly great.)

Before doing that, and in this context, I draw attention to a story behind the story. The Independent on Sunday concludes a report on St Paul’s with a list of bishops (who they speculatively think might one day move to Canterbury) and their non-response to journalists’ attempts to wrest a comment from them. Apparently, they were all away, unwilling to comment or not contactable. I seem to have been ‘away’. [See update below.]

I wasn’t. I was in bed with a chest infection and a total lack of a voice. In fact, Jerome Taylor – a fine journalist with the Independent – phoned me and I texted him back to say I couldn’t talk. I texted a comment on another question he asked me and I said I would be happy to discuss that matter with him when my voice returned. He came back to me with his own ‘take’ on the St Paul’s situation and agreed we’d talk again.

But, the real problem for journalists (and just about everybody else in the country, to say nothing of all the foreigners who keep asking me about it) is a fundamental lack of understanding of how the Church of England works. That is not a criticism of journalists; if anything, it is a criticism of people like me that we have not adequately explained ourselves.

Basically, it looks like this. The Church of England is not the Roman Catholic Church. We do not have a Pope. The 43 dioceses in England (I am leaving out the Diocese in Europe for obvious reasons) are autonomous and the diocesan bishop in each is the one who ‘orders’ (that is, brings order to) his diocese. The Archbishop of Canterbury is one of the diocesan bishops – a primus inter pares. No bishop has the right to interfere in the doings of another diocese. Given the fact that we never quite know the real story of what happens elsewhere, it is wise not to intrude in or comment on (a) what is not anyone else’s business or (b) what we don’t actually know about. In other words, if a story breaks about Bradford Cathedral, I don’t want any other bishops offering their opinion when they don’t know the detail and aren’t involved.

I hope that is clear. The business at St Paul’s is a matter for the Diocese of London.

Well, actually, it isn’t. A cathedral is autonomous and responsible for itself. This means that the Bishop of London has no direct remit in its affairs unless invited. Hence the hesitation (I imagine) on the Bishop’s part to comment on something for which he is not responsible. It is for the Cathedral itself to handle its affairs and it’s PR.

Now the problem will be obvious. Events at St Paul’s in the last couple of weeks have exposed the weakness. These events affect not only St Paul’s, but (clearly) the Diocese of London… and the rest of the Church of England. This crisis is not a parochial or diocesan matter, but has become a national story which affects the reputation of the whole Church of England. But, no one will comment because it is not our remit to do so. The Archbishop of Canterbury cannot – it is not his diocese and he has no jurisdiction in the Diocese of London. He is not a Pope.

And where does this leave us? A church that is internally and ecclesiologically coherent, but so structured as to appear incoherent to everybody else. In the modern media world it is mad that the Church of England does not have (or cannot work up) a common national communications or PR strategy. We keep trying – within the current polity – but the gap has been ruthlessly exposed by the situation at St Paul’s.

Having written the above explanation while in Cambridge and without wifi, I now see that the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury have spoken. The Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement which says:

The announcement today of the resignation of the Dean of St Paul’s, coming as it does in the wake of the resignation of Canon Giles Fraser last week, is very sad news. The events of the last couple of weeks have shown very clearly how decisions made in good faith by good people under unusual pressure can have utterly unforeseen and unwelcome consequences, and the clergy of St Paul’s deserve our understanding in these circumstances.

Graeme Knowles has been a very distinguished Dean of St Paul’s, who has done a great deal to strengthen the pastoral and intellectual life of the Cathedral and its involvement in the life of London. He will be much missed, and I wish him and Susan well in whatever lies ahead.

The urgent larger issues raised by the protesters at St Paul’s remain very much on the table and we need – as a Church and as society as a whole – to work to make sure that they are properly addressed.”

When I get the chance I will move on from St Paul’s to the issues that caused people to camp there in the first place. But, I will say (as the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s have said) that the questions raised by the protesters, the fundamental impatience with a system that rewards greed while the poor get poorer, need a much more coherent and intelligent response than they are getting so far. The fundamental questions about the unsustainability of the current system (who and what caused the current financial crisis?) need more urgent attention than they are currently getting from governments or the City. It is a crisis of credibility – on the day the ILO warns of social unrest following the likely world recession we now face. The current system isn’t exactly working, is it? Yet, the people running it do not seem to have alternatives to offer. That’s why the debate is urgent.

The attention needs to move away from questions about the propriety of camping on the highway and back on to what provoked such camps around the world.

And isn’t the Church well placed to ask those questions and push those debates? Er… it should be.

[Update 3 November: I have just been shown the print version of the Independent on Sunday piece. Not only do they get the quote wrong, but they also print a photograph of my predecessor who left office eighteen months ago or more.]

When every day is full of back-to-back meetings and events it is not easy either to keep up with what’s going on in the world or to write blog posts. Add to that a chest infection, the almost total loss of my voice and the fed up feeling that goes with it and blog silence becomes understandable. However, the cancellation of appointments today means that there is a bit of space for catching up.

Despite a certain pressure to do so, I have no intention of commenting on the on-going saga of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. There are two reasons: (a) it is someone else’s diocese and not my business, and (b) I don’t know enough detail to judge reality over against the assumptions, speculation and presumption flying around the ether. It is always amazing how confident some people can be about stuff they are not privy to. However strange the appearances may be, I still don’t know the detail and don’t intend to add my speculation to that of others.

However, there is one new fact on the ground: the resignation of Dr Giles Fraser as Canon Chancellor. This is bad news.

Some people love to hate Giles. He represents everything they hate about the Church not confirming their prejudices. But, whatever they think of him, they can’t ignore him.

Giles and I do not hold the same line on every issue. Why should we? (Why do some people find it so difficult to disagree or to allow disagreement? Being a grown-up means being able to own an opinion, argue for it, change your mind if so persuaded, but allow the integrity of the other. Giles is an adult who expects others to behave like adults. Perhaps that’s where the problems start?)

There is no one like Giles for naming the issue, arguing a case, listening to argument (and changing his mind), giving space to the opposing voice, setting up the conversations on the matters that matter, keeping the focus of the church on the world it is called to serve, asking the tough theological questions, commending consistency and not letting issues cloud relationships. In my experience over the last few years, he has been a great critical friend and one whose ‘let’s not pretend this spade is anything other than a bloody shovel’ approach has been refreshing, challenging, arresting and encouraging. I have debated with him, shared a platform with him and had beers with him. He has a great capacity for friendship – even with those who profoundly disagree with him.

I might not always agree with his conclusions, but Giles forces me back to the Bible and the ground of my own Christian faith. He is a formidable debater, a great lecturer, a brilliant communicator and (perversely) a Chelsea fan. (Apart from the Chelsea bit, of course) Giles is an honourable man of integrity. The Church needs prominent people who inspire, annoy and question – after all, the Gospels tell the story of one who wasn’t exactly a bland pacifier, don’t they?

When Giles went to St Paul’s I wondered how he would hold it all together. In describing his background, Stephen Bates helps us understand how Giles does, in fact, adapt. I wondered if his voice would really be allowed or if it would be compromised by the ‘establishment’ (whatever that is). It is a great credit to St Paul’s that Giles was given the freedom to develop conversations on the things that matter to real people and ask hard questions about the political and economic assumptions we make about the world. It is a great credit to Giles that he set up some excellent stuff at St Paul’s during his short time there.

The question now is how he might be enabled to continue to do this stuff outside St Paul’s.

The other question is how St Paul’s continues its good work in keeping these debates (on capitalism, justice, the financial system, etc) going, picking away at the uncomfortable sores and refusing to ditch the theological lens for something more comfortable.

It’s a pity the occupation outside St Paul’s couldn’t have been harnessed in order to ramp up that debate across the country. Those who think that by now the ‘story’ has relegated the ‘issue’ might be right.

I know they sound like a firm of solicitors, but it’s not law that they have in common.

Terry Eagleton wrote an excoriatingly incisive critique of AC Grayling’s decision to leave Birkbeck College in order to set up the New College of the Humanities. Eagleton questions the motives, values and consequences of the establishment of this college – which only rich kids will be able to access. Others suspect it might be a successful venture, but don’t address some of Eagleton’s questions (especially of the values underlying the move).

Giles Fraser has a go at atheistic humanism, stripping bare the pretensions of an assumed humanism that has amnesia with respect to its own roots and fails to follow through the logic of its own case. He cites Nietzsche and Foucault en route to his challenge:

Indeed, the new atheists simply duck the challenge made by atheistic anti-humanism, believing their expensive scientific toys can outflank the alleged conceptual weakness of their humanism. Thus they dismiss the significance of philosophy just as much as they have always done of theology – as if the two were fundamentally in cahoots. But this is nonsense. Nietzsche, Marx and Freud attacked Christianity with passionate ferocity.

Christian theology of the 20th century has spent much of its time wrestling with the consequences. Why won’t the new atheists do the same?

It’s a good question. I wonder of any answers will be forthcoming. Probably not from the New College of the Humanities which appears to be headed towards the sort of thing Grayling & co hate about (their often misguided perceptions of) faith schools: only addressing matters from a narrow perspective that conforms to a set of philosophical assumptions that have been previously agreed – and won’t admit inconvenient theologies or anti-humanist philosophies.

Or will we be surprised?

A staff away day (in my house, bizarrely) was followed late this afternoon by the Confirmation of Election of the new Bishop of Southwark at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside in London. The process (as I am discovering for myself) is rather byzantine, but it involves the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, a rank of lawyers in wigs and a lot of witnesses. The Archbishop of York was there, too.

I went from this event – full of wonderful old language and ceremony – to a place associated with old language and ceremony – St Paul’s Cathedral – for an hour and a half of clear language and no ceremony at all (other than getting past the doorman). From internal church stuff I moved to the stuff of the world outside.

‘Uncertain Minds: What an Agnostic Can Believe’ was the title of one of a series of discussions with interesting thinkers convened by St Paul’s Cathedral and the Guardian newspaper. It represents part of an attempt to create a constructive conversation about God and religion and is described by the Guardian’s Andrew Brown as “for those readers who prefer conversation to cage fighting”. Mark Vernon, one of the interlocutors with Professor Terry Eagleton this evening, describes the evening events as being “about belief and unbelief in an age of uncertainty. Our hope is to encourage a more sophisticated public discussion about religion between those on the inside and outside of faith.”

Of course, one of Eagleton’s contentions is that no one is ‘outside of faith’ and that even Richard Dawkins exercises faith every day: faith that his house will be there when he gets home or that his chair will support him, for example.

Eagleton gave a compressed account of a compressed lecture from matters raised in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution: reflections on the God Debate (commented on here). Aside from discussion of the tendency of people on all sides to demonise those with whom they disagree, discussion raomed across the difficulty of speaking of God without resorting to ‘evidence’, the nature of faith, the importance of the ‘body’, and the nature of language. En route we passed Marx, McCabe, MacIntyre, Aquinas, Aristotle, Plato and Giles Fraser.

The important thing about the event was that it was intelligent, thoughtful and respectful. It didn’t ultimately nail every aspect of the nature of reality, but it raised the discussion to a better and more reasonable level of engagement. Even ‘certainty’ got a philosophical boost: one of the funnier observations of an evening containing many funny observations was Eagleton’s that “liberalism is fearful of certainty” and – as if to demonstrate the point – that contemporary ‘yoof’ language reflects this. “It is 9 o’clock’ is far to certain; so now we say, ‘It’s… like… 9 o’clock’.

Eagleton repeated his demolition job on the aunt sallies set up by the New Atheists. The god Dawkins sets up in order to knock down is a god most of us don’t recognise as God. Dawkins’ god is a caricature of something that ought to be rejected by anyone with a shred of intelligence or decency. It just happens not to be the God most of us do believe in. As MacIntyre was said to have said:

The God rejected in the nineteenth century was the one invented in the seventeenth century.

It was useful also to be reminded of the importance of theology (and theological language) for politics. Whereas 1960s theology aligned (or even associated) theology with politics, theology cannot be reduced to the political: theology always has to critique the political. This leads the Marxist Eagleton to state that “the trouble with radical politics is that it isn’t radical enough – it doesn’t go to the roots”; politics needs a deeper critique from without.

The discussion of language was stimulating. Eagleton described the temptation of fundamentalists to ‘fetishise’ language – turning it into something fixed. Such fundamentalists, despite using the langauge of faith, actually lack faith; they just have certainties which deny the space for anything else.

This probably sounds a bit disconnected. However, these are just slices from a longer argument that I don’t have time to reproduce here. However, the video can be watched on the Guardian website shortly. The next one is a discussion between Giles Fraser and John Gray and it takes place on 7 March.

I have just seen the press notice for some new paper by ‘the religion and society think-tank’ Ekklesia on the BBC Thought for the Day debate. Basically it calls for ‘fairness’ in allocating slots to humanists and indeterminate ‘others’ on the grounds that “it would be entirely appropriate in a mixed-belief society to hear the values, beliefs and moral convictions of humanists and others – including the many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.” It goes on to assert that “both religious and non-religious listeners” are urging the BBC to change its ways, noting along the way that “Anglicans or those with direct links to Anglicanism still overwhelmingly dominate amongst those who contribute to TFTD.”

Ekklesia (which – unless I am mistaken –  is basically Jonathan Bartley and Simon Barrow) then asserts:

Religion does itself no favours by seeking maintain a privileged place in broadcasting. For many religions advantaging yourself against others goes against core teachings, which call for fairness and equality. There would be outrage if a BBC sports slot omitted to include coverage of several significant sports because they didn’t consider them ‘sporty’ enough. It is absurd that the exclusion of minor religions, humanists and others has continued unchallenged for so long.

It is difficult to know where to start with this – especially as the argument looks to have an element of personal pique to it: Jonathan Bartley was dropped from the Thought for the Day list and is clearly (and understandably) miffed. But let’s take it point by point:

bbc-logo1. As we pointed out in a debate last month, the argument is not about inclusiveness or ‘fairness’, but about distinctiveness. Appeals for fairness are usually empty and echo the cry of children in the school playground. TftD is a distinctive slot with presenters not doing yet another ‘opinion/comment’ piece, but interpreting the world from within their particular religious tradition. This is the only slot of its type through which this perspective might be gained.

2. I wholeheartedly agree that it is “entirely appropriate in a mixed-belief society to hear the values, beliefs and moral convictions of humanists and others – including the many who call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’.” But we do hear these (particularly of humanists) in just about every other programme which assumes that humanism is the obviously and self-evidently ‘true’ world view. Should Christians (or religious people) be arguing for at least a single religious voice in every edition of In our Time, Start the Week, etc.? The question is not about the validity of such voices being heard; rather, it is whether those voices are to be heard in a distinctive slot such as TftD.

3. Who are the other ‘religious listeners’ backing Ekklesia’s view? I know of Ekklesia, but not any other grouping. I’d be interested to know.

4. Ekklesia obviously has a problem with Anglicanism generally. But they fial to recognise the distinctive rationale of the Church of England which is not congregational and which is organised to serve everybody in every parish regardless of their faith (even humanists), creed and state. The churches might fail a million times in this vocation, but it is a unique vocation and does mean that bishops and clergy are seriously well connected to grassroots communities all over the country. So, maybe the Anglican contribution should be welcomed and not discarded so easily. (More could be said, but…)

5. The weird argument about sport would suggest that Ekklesia thinks Match of the Day should have cricket and rounders in it too. After all, that is about ‘fairness and equality’. And, anyway, when did it become assumed that every religion calls for ‘fairness and equality’? Christianity calls for lots of things (including self-sacrifice and not misrepresenting your neighbour’s case), but ‘fairness and equality’?! The elder brother of the Prodigal Son will have his ears pricked up here!

MicrophoneThis is superficial nonsense. I used to hold to a similar view to Ekklesia until I started to think about it and debate it. If TftD is to be broadened, it will need better arguments than these. Especially as – as was pointed out by Giles Fraser in our recent debate – there are humanists represented already: such as the Christians like Giles who contribute. How absurd it was (during that debate) to hear Erasmus cited as an example of the secular humanist tradition when he was, in fact, a Christian!