This is the script for this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme:

Yesterday I went to a church near Huddersfield to dedicate a new font. Not, I hasten to add, a fancy new printing typeface, but the place where Christians are baptised in water into the life of the church.

The point about a font – in this case a stone bowl resting on wood and glass – is that it has to contain water. This one had only had a dry run, and when we put water into it, it dripped straight through the bottom onto the floor. The plug didn’t fit, apparently.

But, it did offer a vivid image of the people who will be baptised in it. If the font leaks, then so do we. Something we can’t hide from this week – Holy Week – as Christians walk with Jesus and his friends from Jerusalem towards a place of execution called Calvary.

This journey has not been comfortable for anyone. The friends of Jesus protest undying allegiance one minute, then run away the next. They want some of what they think will be the glory, only to melt when the heat is turned up. In other words, they turn out not to be as big or strong as they had thought themselves to be. Peter, the man who would deny even knowing Jesus when confronted by a young girl in the garden, takes his name from Petros – the rock – yet he turns out to be more porous limestone than impenetrable granite.

Now, for Christians this is no big deal. Almost every service in an Anglican Church begins with us all putting our hands up and admitting – publicly and corporately – that we have messed up. Yet, this isn’t some group therapy session – nor is it any sort of bah humbug nonsense. Rather, it’s a recognition of what every human being knows: we fail and we fall. And there’s no point pretending otherwise. It isn’t about being maudlin; it’s about facing the truth about ourselves as people, then moving on with resolve, but without illusion.

The point of this is simple. It sometimes seems as if we have created a culture of perfection in which any sort of failure is to be instantly damned. Even worse, it lays us all open to charges of hypocrisy – easier to spot in other people than to admit in ourselves, of course. Or, as Jesus famously asked: “Who, without sin, is going to throw the first stone?”

Hypocrisy is not attractive. But, it is the sort of charge that should only be levelled by those who have first faced up to it themselves. Motes and beams come especially to mind here.

All of this seems particularly apposite and poignant when we witness the frailty and hubris of people in the news – particularly as we learn more about the hidden life of a German airline pilot. Perfection is the art of the arrogant; the rest of us are left, like the font, leaking unsurprised humility.

There’s a lyric buzzing round my head these days and I can’t shake it off. It comes from a song by the brilliant Bruce Cockburn and expresses the fragile wonder that comes from living on the edge – something Cockburn returns to again and again. In this case he muses about the fragile vulnerability of human existence – life that could be snuffed out in a second because we are all mortal – and introduces a violent and striking image. In the last verse of Lovers in a dangerous time (originally on the Stealing Fire album of 1984) he sings:

stealingfireWhen you’re lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you’re made to feel as if your love’s a crime —
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight —
Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight
When you’re lovers in a dangerous time

I think it’s buzzing round my head because of some of the other stuff buzzing round the ether in the last few days.

How, for instance, do we react to the sheer lies and shameless disinformation about the propagated about the NHS on the other side of the Atlantic – and revealed today to be backed by a number of Tory MPs? Should we simply let it go on the grounds that ‘truth will out’ eventually? Or should we just offer David Cameron sympathy for having been unfortunate enough to end up leading the Tories in the first place and get off his back?

In the starkly arresting image introduced by the pacifist Cockburn in this song written in the context of 1980s Central America (remember the Contras and all that?), we are exhorted not to lie back and think of our own comfort, but to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight. It’s a tough and uncomfortable image. But it is also what the Old Testament prophets did and it’s what ultimately got Jesus nailed to a cross.

So, I guess there’s no way out. Where injustice rules or mortality (and its consequences) are ignored, we have no option but to keep kicking until the daylight seeps out.

A different take on a similar theme would, of course, be Michelangelo’s famous block of stone. He looked at it and saw an angel waiting to emerge from it. Unfortunately, it took an awful lot of sweat and angst to chip away at the stone till the angel ’emerged’.

On a more trivial matter, we might as well stop kicking at Chelsea. The new Premier League football season finished yesterday where it left off in May with Chelsea being given enough extra time to score their lucky winning goal. Do they use voodoo or something else to get these favours? (But, at least Everton’s 1-6 defeat to Arsenal was indisputable… and I am writing this before Liverpool kick off their season against Spurs, just in case…)

Anyway, here’s a live version of Lovers in a dangerous time, sung with Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies at a 9/11 benefit concert.

earth_mainYesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury delivered a lecture on climate change. Not for the first time did he speak in strong language and with a seriously prophetic edge about the world’s most pressing crisis.

I was scanning the response this evening after a full day of meetings and immediately before I go to bed and then disappear on holiday for a few days in the early hours of tomorrow morning. What I note about some responses is the remarkably easy way his critics elide from one issue into another (unrelated) issue and do so with a straight face.

rowan-williams2Take, for example, the following: The Archbishop of Canterbury critiques the issue of climate change and addresses the ethics involved. He is deemed by some to treat unjustly homosexuals in the Anglican Communion, being accused of ‘appeasement’ of those who call themselves ‘conservative’. Some ‘conservatives’ on sexual issues are also right-winger Americans who deny climate change. The fact that some people who agree with the Archbishop on one issue but disagree with him on another undermines his credibility in speaking powerfully about climate change. Then, for good measure, throw in the  added charge that his call for attention to be paid to minorities lacks credibility because one particular minority feels victimised by the way he is handling a wider issue and you’ve hit the jackpot.

Isn’t the silliness of these links obvious? To delegitimise what he says about climate change on the grounds that he pays attention to some people on a completely different issue itself lacks credibility – whatever position (so to speak) you take on the sexual stuff.

john_lennon_portraitI remember writing about my admiration for John Lennon. Unlike the Archbishop, he was a total hypocrite, but it didn’t stop him speaking out. Sadly, it also didn’t stop him writing nonsense like ‘Imagine no  possessions’ on an expensive grand piano in an expensive New York apartment; but hypocrisy in one area does not necessarily negate the truth of what is said in another.

Perhaps we ought to grow up a bit and learn not to make easy associations where they don’t exist. (And, in case it matters, I equally deplore the funding antics of those conservatives who are playing a dirty game ‘in the name of the Lord’. Trouble is, however, I also deplore the antics of single-issue campaigners who can only see one issue in everything.)

Now, I need my few days break…

I spent a couple of hours on the train this afternoon and it gave me time to catch up with what the newspapers are saying about Jade Goody. The kindness is evident in most of what I read – and the recognition that she wasn’t able to be anything other than ‘in your face’. You could never accuse her of being a hypocrite.

leonard-cohenThis reminded me of some lines in a Leonard Cohen poem from 1996 called Better. He writes:

better than poetry

is my poetry

which refers

to everything

that is beautiful and

dignified, but is

neither of these itself

 

There are people who shine a (not always welcome) light on the world and place question marks about what we think is ‘normal’. This is the task of the poet. But it is also what I think has happened and is happening through the Jade Goody phenomenon: her transparent imperfection and other people’s treatment of her exposes the snobbery and prejudice we would rather not admit to. Stephen Fry on Twitter called her something like ‘Princess Diana from the wrong side of the tracks’ and he was right: much of the judgment piled on her during her notoriety phases appears to have been rooted in a sneering looking down the nose at someone ‘not like us’.

 

Cohen recognises that most of us are imperfect at how we express our lives as well as our art, but it is still the same beauty to which we point.

 

I just wonder what the atheist commentators actually mean when they say ‘Jade is at peace’. Genuine question.

 

I have been out all day today and got home just in time to be annoyed by a programme on the telly. It was called The Legacy of Jade and shamelessly preempted her death with a pointless examination of the juicy bits of her life. It seemed to say that her search for fame justified any intrusion into her life now. It was tacky, mawkish and oozed mock serious sympathy as a weak rationale for broadcasting it. It said nothing.

aljolson_walkoffameBut it did raise the question (again) about the value of ‘celebrity’ and the cost of fame. Tomorrow I am preaching at St Bride’s Church in Fleet Street at the annual Bridewell service. The reading is from Ecclesiasticus 44:1-15 (‘Let us now praise famous men…’) and I will be quoting from Goethe (‘The deed is all, the glory naught.’) and Tacitus (‘The desire for fame is the last thing to be put aside, even by the wise.’). Fame of itself is a vacuous pursuit and those who crave it for its own sake are more to be pitied than reviled.

The interesting thing about the passage from Ecclesiasticus is that it reminds me immediately of Hebrews 11 which (for the uninitiated) lists the ‘heroes of the faith’. Famous names such as Abraham, Moses, Samson, Rahab and David make their grand appearance and are lauded for their faith. But, look just a bit deeper at these characters and we find that one tried several times to pass his wife off as his sister so the local king could have his wicked way with her and spare the husband (Abraham); one was a murderer who ran away from the scene of his crime (Moses); another was easily seduced into sex and a bad haircut (Samson); another was a prostitute who is not recorded as having given up the day job (Rahab); and the other was a king who fancied his neighbour’s wife, got her pregnant and made sure the husband got killed in battle (David). Er… right. Very noble and very straightforward.

rigaud-samsonWhat characterises these people (and loads of others in the Bible) is their ambiguities and God’s ‘use’ of them despite it all. When we sanitise them, we deny the power of what the biblical narrative is trying to tell us. For these people their fame is fundamentally to do with their lack of illusions about themselves and the realism that enables them to live useful lives with (and for ) God despite all the dodgy stuff they get up to.

This, again, is why my heroes include people like Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer: never afraid to change their mind, wrestling with the tough life-and-death moral/ethical/theological dilemmas that demand a committed response without absolute certainty of their rightness.

Fame is a silly and superficial thing to be pursued as a life-goal. To be famous for being human and humane is neither silly nor superficial.

Back in July 2007, following the furore over her spat with Shilpa Shetty in the Big Brother house, Jade Goody had  a miscarriage at 12 weeks. Subsequently she told Closer magazine: “After the miscarriage I did ask: ‘Why is all this happening?’ I thought it was God’s punishment for something I’d done… This year it’s been one thing after another. But after losing the baby I thought I’d never recover.” A statement went out from the Church of England in my name, aimed at questioning Jade’s dubious theology, but primarily as a pastoral response to a vulnerable woman.

jade-goody-1Today the newspapers are full of reports that Jade Goody now has only months to live. She intends to ‘wed before she’s dead’ as the Star delicately puts it. Her cancer is now terminal and she is sorting out her affairs in order to provide for her two young sons.

When the report of my response to her 2007 remarks hit the news websites I had a quick look to see how people were commenting. I am not easily shocked, but I could hardly believe the cruel, nasty vindictiveness of some of what I read. One I remember clearly suggesting to Jade that she and the world would be better off if she was dead. Because of her apparent publicity seeking, she was deserving of no sympathy, no kindness and no respect.

Assuming the people who typed such bilious stuff at the time are human and have some degree of sensitivity, I wonder what they feel about their earlier remarks now.

Jade Goody did not have the best start in life. She escaped the poverty (understood in more than one sense) of her childhood and adolescence when, against the odds, she won Big Brother. I wonder if she was ready emotionally and psychologically for the onslaught on her life that this would now permit. She entered a different world – the focus of thousands of camera lenses and the subject matter for a million commentators whose job in life was to tear apart the life of anyone who dared to ‘succeed’ at anything. No doubt she also courted the attention, but that in itself doesn’t justify the abuse (born of jealousy?) directed at her.

This morning’s headlines made me want to scream. The same tabloids which make their money and garner their readership from repeated exposure of people like Jade Goody now make her dying into a spectator sport. The audience can sit there smugly pouring judgement on her and attempting a mock ‘sympathy’ aimed only at selling more papers through celebrity grief. It seems we can now be encouraged to watch the change in her appearance and join in the soap opera of her demise – a sort of spectator sport that needs no justification. It stinks.

It seems sometimes that the tabloid editors are the new priesthood. They pour moral judgement on whichever victim takes their fancy, shredding their life and then moving on – all under the pretence that they are merely ‘reporting’ real life. They readily accuse politicians and clergy of hypocrisy, searching out the inconsistencies between word and action. Yet, these same people stand under nobody’s judgement, vulnerable to no charge of hypocrisy should their own private life contradict the judgemental preaching of their ‘news’paper. An untouchable priesthood behaves with reckless insensitivity, evokes all sorts of vile cruelty from the readership and then launches campaigns complaining about the nature of modern Britain with its crime, lack of respect and loss of moral compass. And the irony is lost on them.

Tabloid journalists have a tough task. They have to convey sometimes complex ideas or phenomena in short sentences with a limited vocabulary in a style that millions of people will read and absorb quickly. This is much harder (I suspect) than writing for the Times or Guardian where argument is expected and intelligence assumed. So, I admire those who manage this task and I offer no reproach for the skill they develop. My problem is with the editorial policies that drive the sort of ‘story’ they are required to follow.

Jade Goody has only months to live. I hope that Christians at the very least and others also will re-learn the power and value of kindness. One day her boys will grow up to read what has been written and said about their mother and we will wonder why they might grow up to be cynical or angry about the inhumanity they encounter.

I hope that people will pray for her and them. I hope people will consider what it might feel like to be on the receiving end of the sneering opprobrium targeted at Goody. I even dare to hope that people will consider what it would be like for their own children if they had – even by their own fault and invitation – been subjected to the public attention and shredding that has been levelled at Jade Goody.

Is there a chance that people might dare to be kind and generous?

Yesterday morning I took the train into London for a series of meetings. Before chairing the second of the day – the excellent Sandford St Martin Trust (www.sandfordawards.org.uk/), I nipped out to the local Pret to get some breakfast. The other bloke at the counter when I was buying my coffee and croissant turned to me, noticed my clerical collar and asked me if I was from the Church of England. I said I was – and he promptly began to throw verbal abuse at me. I found it quite amusing and just let him get on with it, although I was annoyed when he started to get aggressive with the guy behind the counter.

When I got back to my meeting I had a quick look at the newspaper reports of an interview with the BBC legend that is Sir David Attenborough. He told of how much hate mail he gets from Christians who don’t like what he says about nature and science and evolution. It says something that the linking of the words ‘hate mail’ and ‘Christian’ in the same sentence does not any longer cause surprise.

Just before my book Finding Faith was published last October, an article based loosely around it appeared in the Sunday Telegraph. I wasn’t really prepared for all the mad people (mostly from the USA) who sent me abusive emails informing me that I would deservedly burn for ever in hell for saying something they didn’t agree with about the Bible. (I didn’t agree with it either – but, then, I hadn’t actually said it…) They stopped short of telling me the temperature of the fires I would endure, but only just. All of this was accompanied by lots of biblical references and quotations. I deleted most, but responded to one or two.

None of this worried me personally. But what did disturb me was the fact that some people must have such really sad lives to be so vitriolic and abusively hateful in the articulation of their faith. Maybe the instant nature of email makes people send things off before the filter of love, sanity or rational diplomacy has had a chance to kick in. Or, maybe, some people can only know that they are right by vilifying those they think are wrong.

Whatever the truth behind this sort of hate mail, it still beggars belief that those who bear the name of the crucified and raised Christ should not see the contradiction of using language that is so objectionable and violent.

Anyway, as no doubt David Attenborough has also found, the ‘delete’ button always bears the promise of catharsis as the offensive vitriol disappears into electronic Purgatory where – I think I am technically right in saying – it sort of hangs around somewhere on my hard disk: forgotten, but not gone.

Mark B thinks I am too generous to Polly Toynbee whom he writes off as ‘just another rich secular leftist (in a rather crowded field) – like Marghanita Laski but without her brains – who loves the sound of her own voice and blows hot and blows cold, oblivious of her own inconsistency: Polly puts the kettle on for her beloved Tony Blair, then takes it off again, delares her love for Gordo, then it’s off again, on again – la donna e mobile!’ He then delights in her ‘hypocrisy’ being skewered on the telly. Well, thanks, Mark. The trouble is that I can’t see either you or me escaping from some charge of hypocrisy or blindness to our own inconsistencies.

I agree that Polly Tonybee is exasperating when she gets onto religion, but her writing on Labour’s ‘New Deal’ and the ways in which some policies follow the laws of unintended consequences has been both compassionate and passionate as well as provocative. The problem is, however, that she seems to do this from an analytical distance. And she is not alone in working in a profession that happily skewers  people ontheir hypocrisies whilst maintaining immune from the same sort of consistency. When was the last time a newspaper editor (responsible for the public humiliation of other people) resigned in shame over their own hypocrisy? And yet they adopt the role of a sort of new priesthood: moderating public morality and claiming a sort of righteous neutrality for themselves. It stinks. But they only get away with it becasue the reading public keeps allowing them to do so.

It could be argued that the media, constantly looking for novelty in order to keep the audience awake, foster precisely what the Archbishop of Canterbury was exposing and embarrassing in his Christmas Day sermon. He set about debunking the fantasy that there is some ‘saviour’ or system out there that will sort out the world’s problems and make everything alright. I began my working life in a divided Europe working for the British Government as a Russian linguist, paying very close attention to the Soviet Empire that proposed just such a totalitarian system. And history repeatedly demonstrates that such hopes are indeed fantasies: the ‘golden age’ cannot be reclaimed because it never existed in the first place. Augustus, Hitler, Stalin and many others have offered total solutions. We are now asking our politicians to come up with the panacaea for the global economy. Barack Obama comes into office in three weeks’ time with a weight of unsustainable expectation on his shoulders.

We should grow up and realise that we create our history now as we make decisions in the small things of life for which we are responsible. Growing up means losing our fantasies, not fostering them and then humiliating the people who don’t fulfil them on our behalf.

Rowan spoke of ‘signs of salvation; not a magical restoration of the golden age, but the stubborn insistence that there is another order, another reality, at work in the midst of moral and political chaos’ – that is, the God who took flesh and transformed the world’s possibilities from unimaginably small beginnings by asking people to try it his way.

This thinking needs to be applied also to the Christian world itself where there is a constant yearning for the ‘thing’ that will sort everything out and solve all our problems. Billy Graham was followed by John Wimber who was followed by the Torronto Blessing which was followed by Willow Creek and now we have a proliferation of panacaeas for evangelism, revival, etc. In the Church of England there are those who suggest that if only everyone could buy into New Wine, Spring Harvest, Reform, Anglican Mainstream, etc. (choose which one most closely aligns with your own prejudices or confirms your own convictions), the Church would grow and revival would come. It is fantasy.

It seems to me that history teaches us (and, funnily enough, so does the Bible) that we need to develop a ‘godly’ perspective on time, responsibility and accountability – recognising the relativity of much of what we do. In my old church in Rothley I used to baptise in a Norman font (1000+ years old), drink wine from an Elizabethan chalice (400+ years old) and look at a plaque bearing the names of every vicar of Rothley from the eleventh century – to say nothing of the Saxon cross in the churchyard. God’s witness continues down the ages by people being faithful to their bit of the story and living real lives in a real world of injustice and joy and handing on the task to successive generations. This perspective produces inevitably a bit of humility when we consider our successes and achievements.

In my book ‘Finding Faith’ I praise John Lennon for being a hypocrite of enormous proportions. He never let his hypocrisy stop him saying what he thought was true. Mark might be right about Polly Toynbee, but I recognise my own limitations  and inconsistencies and – whilst wishing she’d grow up a bit in some areas – still want to affirm her right to say what she does. But I would also hope that she might consider the possibility that her irrational anti-religious prejudices might need to be rationally re-visited.

So, I won’t sneer at her. I will jeer at her nonsenses and anyone who castigates the hypocrisy of others while ignoring their own. And I’ll cheer the Archbishop of Canterbury and those who, despite being sneered at by people like Polly Toynbee, still manage to articulate the real questions and expose the superficiality of our collective thinking.