One week on from the General Synod's vote on women bishops and the story has fallen off the radar of most of the media. The sound and fury has moved on – for the time being, at least – to the next batch of 'stories'.

Here in Vienna I have been asked by people from all faiths and from all over the globe about what happened. I have been rather surprised by the sympathy offered! It has also offered an opportunity to try to explain how the Church of England works – not easy in any language. But, even here it was a matter of curiosity rather than concern or passion. (Although two people from two different countries asked what credibility our politicians have when they couldn't manage to reform the House of Lords – i.e. themselves – and have questionable electoral democratic legitimacy… which I thought was interesting.)

The big story occupying the media mind now is the publication of the Leveson report on Thursday. As with the announcement of the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and with the General Synod's vote on women bishops, we can't imply wait for a fact to be revealed; no, we fill our time and energy with speculation, pre-judgement and attempts to head off outcomes that might just make us feel a bit wobbly. Patience is not a virtue valued by a 24 hour media monster hungry for any sort of feeding.

Well, I couldn't find any mention (in my cursory digital search of the UK media) of the good news that last night saw leading Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus from across the globe sitting together at the launch of a new International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. Religion is frequently portrayed as the source of a host of problems in the world; images of genuinely warm relations between religious leaders clearly isn't news. It doesn't fit the 'conflict narrative'.

Yet, last night was genuinely remarkable – even to veterans of the international interfaith circus. At the Hofburg we listened to sharp speeches by (among others) the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria; the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, the President of the Muslim World League, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Secretary General of the United Nations. They didn't duck the challenges and they mostly said something worth listening to.

It is easy to take for granted a warm handshake between a Saudi minister, a Chief Rabbi and a Cardinal, but just a few years ago such an image would have been unthinkable.

Now it isn't even worthy of a mention in the news.

I am not moaning about this – just pointing it out as a phenomenon. If anything, I guess I think we just ought to be a little more media literate – just as some of us wish the media were a little more religion literate. So, when Leveson reports on Thursday we should be a little cautious about the special pleading of the press when they find their integrity questioned and their trustworthiness doubted. The preemptive strikes are almost embarrassing – best satirised in Roy Greenslade's Guardian column today.

An intelligent debate about press freedom (and associated matters) would be really welcome. But, I am not holding my breath. Too much self-interest, too much self-protection, too much special pleading – not unique to the press, but powerful factors nonetheless.

Oh well. I'll just get back to good news stories about religious harmony and cooperation. This morning I had breakfast with a Jewish academic, a Muslim statesman and a Shinto priest. How weird is that?

Back to Blighty tomorrow.


Having got back from Kazakhstan last Friday and spent Saturday and Sunday with family, I am now (supposed to be) on holiday and am in Brussels. I’ll explain in the next post. However, lack of wifi in Kazakhstan mean that I couldn’t do the usual business of blogging as I went along. So, here’s the last of this batch.

The Congress ended with an ‘Appeal’ which will not be widely read in the West. It still assumes that people do what their faith leaders tell them to do – which is a misguided assumption. Nevertheless, the engagement with each other can produce conversations of value and forge relationships that can be of benefit more widely. The event also provides an excellent opportunity to speak face to face with government leaders about matters of international concern – and this is an opportunity I took in relation to Kazakhstan’s unnecessary and restrictive new Religious Law. I am now following this up with a letter which will set out concerns in detail.

Anyway, back to the Congress itself. I was unable to give a speech at a Panel Session on ‘youth’ as the organisers had arranged for me to be in three places at the same time. I cannot trilocate. So, one of my English colleagues stepped in and pretended to be me. I gather he did an excellent job at condensing our ideas into a coherent and stimulating contribution to proceedings. But, here is the bulk (minus the usual greeting stuff) of what I would have said – just for the record and to give an idea of how direct we can be in introducing ideas that aren’t earth-shattering in the UK, but might be challenging elsewhere. (The complaining I heard about new media and how young people need to be taken away from computers and educated to accept the authority of their elders helped me realise how hopelessly out of touch some religious leaders can be – wishing the world could be now as it used to be…)

… Young people are not ‘the future’, they are ‘the present’ – the ‘now’. I will come back to this later. However, before doing so, we need to recognise that the themes before us in this Congress run along the fault lines of our global societies in the early decades of the twenty first century.

Sustainable development poses a massive challenge to a world in which some people prosper at the expense of those who have little – assumptions about inevitable universal economic growth have been called into question by the financial crashes since 2008. But sustainable development assumes sustainable societies that are sustained by values that are themselves sustainable in the longer term.

When people from diverse cultures live alongside each other we refer to multiculturalism. Allowing cultures to thrive is a rich gift, but in Europe serious questions are being asked about whether a blind acceptance of multiculturalism as a virtue has hindered integration of communities in a common society.

In many parts of the world traditional understandings of the role of women are being questioned. The trafficking and abuse of women by men is a serious and appallingly common feature of our world. An uncomfortable fact of life is that while men talk and fight, women get on with keeping families together, raising children, making society work, making local economies work and shaping communities.

But all of this comes together when we take a look at the future of our young people. The world in which I grew up is not the same world my own children have grown into. And this means that my children – now aged 30, 28 and 24 – look at the world through a different lens. For example:

  • The nuclear threat of my childhood has been replaced by a profound concern for the environment, the creation, the tiny planet we all inhabit. Concern for the future of the planet, for sustainable development and for justice is a powerful and non-negotiable starting point for millions of young people.
  • This owes something to the development of ubiquitous media, and especially in the last few years, of social media. The world is now connected in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. You can go into an African or South American jungle and find people without roads and transport, but everyone seems to have a mobile phone and an email address. Go into a cafe in an obscure town in a developing country and young people are sitting at computer screens updating their Facebook status. Electronic media – in their mere infancy when I was already working as a professional linguist – have by now revolutionised the world, creating new and surprising ways for people to relate, converse and plan together.

However, even though there is a massive uptake of older people using new technologies and the Internet, these older generations (that is, my generation) tend to see such technologies as a means of communicating or working, but not, as millions of young people do, part of their natural DNA. Social media are integral ways of communicating and relating for millions of young people – something most of us, even if we are adept at electronic media, cannot comprehend. Our children obtain their worldview-shaping perceptions and information about the world from these new ways of communicating. The days when our young people only knew a limited number of people in, or just beyond, their immediate geographical habitat have now gone. Children have ‘friends’ across the globe in communities completely alien to their own. (And it is significant that whereas some governments used to try to shut down inconvenient voices during elections or times of social unrest by closing newspapers or broadcasters, now they aim to shut down Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets.)

These two phenomena are clearly connected. The world our children are growing into is considerably smaller than the one most of us grew up in. News is instant, information is infinitely accessible (although ‘information’ is not to be confused with ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowledge’ should not be mistaken for ‘wisdom’), and what happens in a small forest in the Amazon becomes a motivating challenge for people living in London or Bradford. To ignore the revolutionary power of social media is simply to bury our heads in the sand of wilful ignorance. Trying to pretend that the world continues to be what it has always been will not change the fact that these developments have changed the way in which our young people organise, buy in to politics and protest, view authority and power, and suspect institutions.

This provides a radical challenge to religious leaders – and to politicians who need better to understand the place and role of religion as a motivator of people and a shaper of cultural identity. In the western world morality has frequently become disconnected from questions of ‘truth’ and is shaped by mere pragmatism – a worrying development for many reasons. But, complaining about it will not change anything. It is the responsibility of my generation to learn to look though the eyes of our young people and understand why they see what they see in the way they see it.

Crucial to this is the place of schools and education. One of the challenges faced by children of some of our religious communities in Britain is that of ‘compartmentalisation’. This is where children are taught by their religious institutions or communities to see the world in one way, whilst then being taught a different approach in school. For example, a scientific account of evolution is worked with in the classroom, but a non-scientific ‘belief’ held in the mosque or church. Such compartmentalism cannot be sustained by people who grow up to realise that there is only one reality, that something is true because it is true and not because we would like to believe it is true.

Perhaps this is why some observers predict a collapse in religious commitment by many young people where their experience of the world is rejected by religious authorities that occupy a different reality. (And, just for the record, I see no contradiction between accounts of why the world is the way it is and how the world came to be the way it is; we must just be careful not to confuse ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions.)

The hearts and minds of our young people will no longer be won by appeals to authority or loyalty, but by capturing the imagination of people who take the world seriously. Too often fundamentalists thrive because they know how to appeal to these base commitments in young people who want to shape the world differently. They see our failures, our conflicts and fragmentations, and are not impressed.

So, in conclusion, I want – as a Christian leader, committed to the truth of God in Jesus Christ – to encourage us to take young people seriously… on their own terms, knowing that our refusal or inability to hear their voice or look though their eyes or hear through their ears will not change what they say, what they see or how they hear. Religion that is confident will embrace the challenges that our young people bring – not simply conceding every inch of ground, but taking seriously the critique of what is and the potential for what might become.

The Hebrew prophet spoke of young men dreaming dreams. That is a dangerous thing to encourage. But, if the prophet sees here through God’s eyes, then religious leaders might need to wake up to both the reality and the potential.


Here is the text of my address (minus the opening stuff and greetings from the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom I represent) to the opening plenary session of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in Astana on Wednesday 30 May. Please note that it wasn’t delivered in a vacuum, but in a particular context and for a particular audience. This means it was using particular language to be heard by a wide range of people and, for many of them, through interpreters.

The importance of inter-religious dialogue grows by the day and does not diminish. We live in a a world of considerable challenge and complexity, one in which the euphoria of immediate freedom from tyranny soon becomes tempered by the realism of having to create a new polity and a new social contract. The so-called Arab Spring has been observed with serious interest and concern in a Europe that now finds itself under enormous economic, financial, political and social pressure. Africa boils – conflict erupting along too many religious and cultural-historical fault lines. The world does not stand still. It is easier to break down the old than to build up something new.

Yet, under all this lies a question that is all-too-easily ignored. What is the world view that informs the value systems and priorities of those who wield power in our world? There is a common assumption that ‘my’ assumptions about the world and human meaning are somehow neutral, whereas the assumptions of others are somehow ‘loaded’. This so-called ‘myth of neutrality’ is hard to displace or challenge – especially when represented in western media that assume religion to be a problem (an aberration) and not part of the solution.

Christians believe that every human being is made in the image of God – the imago Dei. All other arguments inevitably come back to this fundamental point – one that questions any world view that allows persecution, violence, oppression or killing as legitimate ways of exercising power over others. Any concept of justice or human dignity must be rooted in something more real than some simplistic notion of ‘reality’; for Christians the demand for justice is rooted in and derived from this basic understanding of every person having been made uniquely in God’s image and, therefore, having infinite value.

The corollary of this, of course, is that every human being becomes accountable – not only to God who has created us, but also to others who bear the imago Dei and are, therefore, in relationship with each other. And it is this common humanity that underlies any further consideration of religious identity, historical grievance, perception of religious truth or exercise of power.

To return for a moment to what I called the ‘myth of neutrality’, we cannot simply claim that human beings matter simply because they exist. As we know, a fundamental tenet of ethics is that ‘you can’t get an ought from an is’. And it is here – where one of the world’s deepest fault lines lies – that religious leaders have a unique responsibility: to challenge the uncritical prejudices and assumptions that drive some of those value systems and behaviours in ways that dehumanise other people and dress ‘power’ in the colours of unattributable ‘rights’ or selfish ‘freedoms’.

In other words, what is it that enables me to say that human beings matter… and are mutually accountable for their individual and social behaviour? And, to press the point, on what foundation is my (or our) demand for justice and freedom built?

At this Congress we will be listening to many voices. It will be important to dig beneath the surface of what is being said… in order that we might understand why it is being said. After all, the first rule of communication is this: it is not what you think you are saying that matters; rather, it is what is heard that matters more. (We should note that we are suing the same words to mean very different things around this table – for example, we speak of the rights of women, but mean very different things. We need to see through the lens and hear through the ears of those unlike us…)

Religious leaders have a profound responsibility to go beyond the rhetoric of their own community and listen to that rhetoric through the ears of those who come from somewhere else and see through a different lens. Taking seriously the injunction in all our faith communities that we must not misrepresent each other (“Do not bear false witness against your neighbour”, as the ninth Commandment puts it), this responsibility extends to (a) interpreting each other within our own faith communities, (b) exercising authority in articulating and exemplifying a rooted commitment to mutual respect and generous love, and (c) standing on the fault lines between communities that find generosity too demanding and resort too quickly to conflict and alienation.

This is not merely notional. This is why it has to be earthed in consideration of what this means for mutual sustainable development on an overcrowded small planet, how different cultures (grown from diverse histories) should co-exist on this small planet (multiculturalism), how we are to challenge the abuse of women across our societies (and allow women to speak for themselves), and how (and on what anthropological or theological basis) we enable our young people to shape today’s world which will be the world their children will inherit.

As religious leaders from all over the world, we have a unique opportunity not only to speak and listen to each other – making our points and vindicating our presence here – but also to offer the world a model of how good leaders need constantly to be learning. We need to be open to challenge and scrutiny, seeking to understand better why people see God and the world in the way they do, curious about how the world looks when seen through the eyes of someone different. This is not about becoming bland or uncritical; rather, it demands serious engagement with each other and not mere polite rhetoric.

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this event – this complex conversation – and look forward to an informative, instructive and challenging Congress. I pray that we will return from here more strongly motivated to live differently, speak differently and lead differently in order that genuine peace might prevail and the image of God in every human being be taken seriously as a starting point for any rhetoric or behaviour.


The wifi was poor in Kazkahstan this week, so I was unable to post anything about the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. A packed programme and some substantial public and private conversations didn’t leave much time or mental space for writing anyway. But, what I intended to be the first post is this:

Sitting in the Pyramid at the heart of Astana, the astonishing capital city of Kazakhstan, it is hard to concentrate. There are fifty of us around the table, discussing a pile of issues related to faith and politics. Ironic, then, that although one of the panel sessions tomorrow is to address the role of women, only one woman sits at the top table. (We will also be addressing questions of ‘youth’ – without any young people! Extraordinary.)

Two things grabbed my attention: (a) male religious leaders spoke passionately about protecting the dignity and ‘family’ role of women without once letting a woman speak for herself, and (b) given the range and variety of headgear, we could have been at a hat competition. It is certainly colourful. The Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions brings together leaders and representatives of most of the world faiths: Christian (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran), Muslim (Iran, Saudi, India, Turkey, etc.), Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and so on. There are also a number of politicians from various parts of the world. It’s a mixed bag, but it’s also a colourful and somewhat random bag.

It is easy to sneer or take for granted a conference such as this. Where does all the talk get cashed out? What difference does it actually make on the ground? Who takes notice of religious leaders anyway – especially when they are elderly and fairly conservative? How do you get a common statement without it being a lowest common denominator expression of motherhood and apple pie?

Yet, a meeting of these people would never have happened twenty or thirty years ago. We take it for granted that religious leaders meet and speak together honestly. But, we easily forget that such conversations are relatively recent phenomena. To see the President of Kazakhstan sitting flanked by the Patriarch of Russia and the top man of the Muslim World League – who are flanked in turn by a Chief Rabbi from Israel and a Roman Catholic cardinal (I was a couple of places away…) – is still remarkable.

But, the questions still apply. It is well known that Kazakhstan’s international reputation for religious tolerance is currently threatened by the new Religious Law due to come into effect in October 2012. This new law is partly provoked by fears of extremism or terrorism, but is the wrong answer to the right question. It insists on a form of registration that would make it impossible for an Anglican Chaplaincy to be opened, for example. It also provides for any published materials to be vetted before distribution. It gets a bit more complicated than this, but you get theidea.

Look at the geography to understand the fear; but, extremists are not going to register under any restrictive law and this law will have two potential negative effects: (a) it won’t do what it is set up to do – control extremism – but will restrict the freedom of minority or small religious groups (especially Protestant groups such as Baptists and Lutherans), and (b) will compromise Kazakhstan’s hard-earned reputation for religious tolerance in a remarkably complex country.

Anyway, I am writing this during a Panel session on ‘multiculturalism’ while a Chinese speaker is passionately saying something very important, but without translation into English. There are other Panel sessions on ‘the role of women’ – which could get lively -, ‘youth’, and ‘sustainable development’ today and tomorrow. I did a plenary speech this morning (which I will post later) and will contribute to the session on ‘youth’ tomorrow. Before then I have to plant a tree (don’t ask) and have a big meal.

This conference can be frustrating – especially when speaker after speaker limits their speech to the blandly obvious (“it is good to talk…”) – but there are also some passionate, informed, challenging and controversial contributions. It isn’t boring.

However, as with most conferences, the real benefit comes from the networking and conversations in the margins. After all, it always comes down to relationships.

(Wifi is not available everywhere here and I can’t get pictures up yet. So, not much posting this week…)

I have just been to speak to representatives of many faiths who are all involved in education in Bradford. I was offered two themes to choose from, but addressed both of them (fairly superficially) ahead of a discussion time. The first theme related to ‘religious pluralism in the lives of young people in Bradford’, the second to ‘the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society’. The following is a bit of a nit-picky skeleton of the matters we addressed, but I began with the observation that some interfaith work at international level resembles a BT commercial: ‘It’s good to talk.’ Of course, what we mean is that it is good to talk (phenomenon) as long as we don’t talk about anything (content). Fear of ‘division’ drives an agenda of ‘least potential disagreement’. However, if there is no real discussion of difference, there can be no honest relationship anyway and the whole thing is really either a farce or a fraud.

First things first: ‘religious pluralism’ simply describes a fact, a reality, a phenomenon. It is not a virtue – something to be honoured and revered and never questioned. Different people live alongside and with each other, seeing the world and living in it in different ways. ‘Pluralism’ is the word that describes this. It is essentially neutral.

Therefore, we need to go on to distinguish between two sorts of questions: (a) those about truth and how claims for any world view of way of living actually stand up, and (b) given the acknowledged differences, how we then should live together in a single society or on a single planet. In relation to our children this means we need to grow a generation that experiences life within a particular understanding of its meaning, is informed about its own (and others’) world view and how it can be lived in and with, and is acquainted with the world view, lived experience and practices of others. This assumes that we give our children an informed reference point from which to look at the world and those who see it and live in it differently.

The problem here is that our children – I really mean those who do not belong to a strong faith community – are too often assumed to know Christianity and know where they stand as a base line from which to look outwards. They are more likely to be shaped by (a) the myth of neutrality – the assumption by many in the media and academia that a secular humanist world view is neutral (and therefore privileged in public discourse) while a religious one is a bit loony (and should be kept private); (b) a pride in ignorance or scepticism – see Richard Dawkins’ pride in never having read any theology (or philosophy?); (c) an assumption that materialism is a given and that salvation comes by having stuff; (d) an assumption that we can live in the ‘now’ and take no account of a future arising from the past that has shaped the present – because there is no inherent meaning to life anyway. See the studies of last year’s rioters and how some of them see the world.

This brought us to the role of faith schools in promoting a cohesive and just society. (I refer to a piece I wrote for the Guardian in July 2011 in whcih I draw a sharp distinction between ‘faith’ schools and ‘church’ schools as the Church of England understands them.) My main point here is that (a) ‘cohesion’ is one of those words that too often describes a lowest common denominator ‘absence of tension’ in a community – a bit like ‘peace being the absence of war’ or ‘a good football season being one in which Manchester United gets relegated; and (b) justice is inadequate as a goal for human beings in society.

Now, this latter point might well be contentious if misunderstood. Experience (and history) tells us that justice by itself can easily become just ice. Fragmentation and conflict in the Balkans came about precisely because communities could not let go of historic injustices – but they saw justice for themselves as the priority over against justice for their neighbour. I maintain that we need to teach our children (with a massive dose of actual hypocrisy) that justice needs to be transcended by mercy. Mercy goes further and is much harder than justice; it recognises the injustice and the pain and refuses to be consumed by them. Too often the demand for justice simply creates a vicious circle of just ice.

That’s a brief and unillustrated summary of my address which was aimed at stimulating discussion and debate in a particular context. However, it also falls in a context of wider concern: events in Sudan.

The Diocese of Bradford is linked with the Anglican dioceses of Sudan where communal violence is flaring up – not as an intellectual notion, but in the burning of Christian buildings, the destruction of books and Bibles, and attacks on people. Here’s a link to this week’s events and here is a statement by the World Council of Churches that goes to the heart of the matter.

Words spoken by politicians and, sometimes, religious leaders are taken up by those more inclined to violence as sanction for action. When such words burn in the wrong people’s hearts and minds, the burning of buildings, books and people follows. Some politicians and Muslim leaders in Sudan have expressed anger at the recent attacks; we need to hear this echoed not only in Sudan, but also by religious leaders around the world – and especially by those who sit around the table at conferences saying how good it is to talk.

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

There’s not alot of time for blogging these days because the days are all full. All good stuff, but full. There is loads I’d love to think and write about – Putin’s nomination for the Russian Presidency, the so sad suicide of Gary Speed, Syria, Egyptian elections, the Leveson hearings on phone hacking, and more besides. But, my head’s full of other stuff.
So, here’s some easily lifted material aimed at answering a question I was asked three times by non-church people in the last week: “What does a bishop actually do?”It is easy to give an answer that sounds either surreal or pious, but the reality is simply that it is very varied. At risk of attracting criticism for doing all the wrong things, having the wrong priorities or sounding pretentious, here’s a glimpse of my last week and the days ahead this week. (Every day begins with and is shaped by prayer.)

Last week began with two Confirmation services on Sunday. Each service lasts around an hour and a half. I get to the church between 30-45 minutes beforehand in order to prepare, talk through practicalities, attend to paperwork, meet the candidates, etc. After the service I stay behind to meet people and chat – often for an hour or more. I might have to drive an hour and a half each way (last Sunday was only fifteen minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the late afternoon. This means that one service can take between three and six hours in total – excluding preparation time.

Monday was the Bishop’s Staff Meeting. This happens once each month and involves the two Archdeacons, the Diocesan Secretary, the Dean of the cathedral, my chaplain, two ‘Bishop’s Officers’ (for part of the meeting). We begin at 8.30am, break for coffee at 10.30am followed by Communion, then we resume business. We finish around 3.30-4pm. I then went straight into a ‘safeguarding’ meeting for an hour and a half. I then drove into Bradford for an interfaith consultation and reception hosted by the Lord Mayor, organised by the Dean, facilitated by me. Over 100 people contributed to a very good event that encourages us to develop the engagement in 2012. I got home and dealt with correspondence and emails.

On Tuesday I drove to Wakefield for a non-agenda meeting of the three West Yorkshire diocesan bishops (Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds). I then had a pastoral meeting in my study followed by phone calls on a variety of matters. I then had my regular meeting with the Diocesan Secretary. She was followed by the Diocesan Youth Officer who briefed me on developments among children and young people in our churches and schools. When he left I also left to drive back to Wakefield for the first meeting of the so-called Preparation Group, comprising five members nominated by each of the Bishop’s Councils of the three West Yorkshire dioceses (proposed by the Dioceses Commission to be dissolved into a new single diocese). This first meeting was intended to agree the terms of reference, set out who would lead on which issues, what our work should look like in 2012. I got home after the two-hour meeting to attend to correspondence and emails.

I caught the 7.14am train from Shipley to London on Wednesday in order to chair the Meissen English Committee – the last one of this quinquennium – at Church House, Westminster. This finished early (11am – 2pm), so I fitted in three meetings with people at Church House before a briefing meeting with the Church of England’s excellent Rural Officer. This was follow by a pastoral meeting. I eventually checked in to the hotel in time to deal with phone calls and emails before meeting my youngest son for dinner – I hadn’t seen him since we moved up north. A late end to a great evening.

Thursday began with me doing Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s excellent Chris Evans Show. The script has to be written a day or two before (in order to go through compliance), so I’d fitted that in on Tuesday. I left the BBC and walked to Church House, Westminster, to chair the Sandford St Martin Trust meeting – which this week covered future development strategy, the 2012 Awards ceremony, finance & investments, routine business, and an invited guest from another media trust (who we embarrassingly kept waiting for an hour – he was gracious, but needn’t have been). I left as soon as the meeting ended in order to get the train back to Bradford to chair the Bishop’s Council (which included several important policy decisions) in the evening. I always work on the train, but was too tired to deal with correspondence and emails when I eventually got home.

Friday was my day off. I went through to my office to offload some work stuff and then bumbled around the house for the rest of the afternoon before going out to the Alhambra Theatre in the evening to see the Rambert Dance Company perform. (I had never in my life been to ballet or dance, but this was beautiful and brilliant.)

Saturday I was in Shipley for a training morning for churchwardens from across the diocese. I worked in my study all afternoon (clearing correspondence, preparing for the next day and the week ahead). In the evening we drove to York for dinner with the High Sherriff.

On Sunday I baptised and confirmed at Haworth (the Brontë church) before heading off to Liverpool to see Liverpool versus Manchester City at 4pm – with my elder son (who lives there) and one of my colleagues – my first time at Anfield for a match for over twenty years. Great atmosphere, OK result (1-1), excellent day. Back in the evening.

This morning I began a three-day visit to one of my deaneries – the seventh of eight deanery visits in the diocese, the last one (very rural) coming next week. I meet all the clergy individually and together, and will lead an open evening for all-comers tomorrow evening.

I will be back in London on Thursday for communications meetings and Friday for the Chris Evans Show on Radio 2 before catching the train back to Bradford.In the margins of all this are the phone calls, the crises, the correspondence and emails (of which there is an abundance and a variety). I try to respond to emails within 24 hours, letters as soon as they hit my desk, phone calls as soon as I can call back (if not available).

So, that’s it. Illustrative. I write it to give an idea, not to justify myself. I write it simply because people ask what we actually do. If it annoys you, ignore it.

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…

The Meissen Commission continued it’s work this morning with a review of last night’s interfaith seminar at the German Embassy.

This then led into a deeper discussion of how churches in Germany and England face the challenges and opportunities presented by a wider culture that can be characterised by both (a) multi faith and (b) ‘aesthetically postmodern’ (to use Wolfgang Huber’s phrase).

Part of this challenge stems from the assumptions of many in our societies (and particularly in the media) that religion is inherently problematic and that there is neutral space – and that the neutral space is occupied by the secular humanists. This assumes that if you took ‘religion’ out of people, they would then be secular and humanist and very nice and very humane. Of course, history begs to differ when it comes to evidence, but that is not the main point here.

I was reminded by a colleague here of Walter Brueggemann’s deceptively simple, but devastatingly accurate statement in his book ‘The Word Militant’ that “all reality is scripted”. In other words, there is no reality that is not accounted for outside of a ‘script’ – that is, a narrative according to which the account of reality makes sense and finds place. There is no neutral space. There is no neutral world view. It seems to me that every ‘script’ has to be subjected to testing, and that does not exclude any religious world view.

This arises when we begin to ask why so many Christians lack confidence in articulating a Christian world view in the public square. OK, it can be a rough environment; but, that’s never stopped us before. One of the questions here (and we have at least three serious academic heavyweights in three different disciplines among our number) revolves around how Christians can be helped to understand their faith, articulate it and allow it to be subjected to scrutiny. I noted (I think) Chesterton’s (but it might be CS Lewis) assertion that “if Christianity is true, then it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity”. Lose the fear. If it ain’t true, it ain’t worth living.

However, we live in a culture in which ‘truth’ is not asked about. Our pragmatic and relativistic culture asks if ‘it works for me’, not if it is ‘true’. And that is why people can believe several contradictory things at once and not be embarrassed. It’s also why we hear so often a view preceded by the phrase, ‘for me’… or ‘it is true for me’. Weird or what?

The concern of the Meissen Commission today was to explore how our churches can give real attention to apologetics and learning in building confidence in the Christian Church in a pluralistic society. I still find the phrase ‘confident humility’ appropriate in this context.

In order to earth some of this, we visited two parish churches in the East End of London, close to where we are staying at St Katherine’s Foundation in Limehouse. It is never good to do abstracted thinking without allowing it to be questioned or shaped by a particular context.

First we visited an evangelical church plant at St Paul’s, Shadwell – a predominantly younger church in the charismatic (Holy Trinity Brompton) camp. Around 300 people ‘belong’ to the church and the population is transient. The church finances itself and its staff and plants in other places from it’s own congregation. It is looking for ways of reaching out to the local Bangladeshi community, but already provides space for neighbours to meet each other (children and youth work, open fun days, etc.). They run menu of services (different cultural milieux) on a Sunday and see hospitality as a vital gift of the local church.

From there we went to St Mary, Cable Street, where we could smell the incense on entry. This is an Anglo-Catholic Church in the midst of a complex housing estate and it has a small congregation of committed people. Here the ministry is incarnational in the sense of being present and engaged in all aspects of the local community in the name of Christ, but not trying to grow the church ‘artificially’ from outside.

In very frank discussions with the clergy at both churches we heard different models of doing the same thing: churches being faithful to God’s call to worship, nurture, reach out and give away. And each has it’s own answer to how that faithfulness should be lived out: one is very well resourced (because of the generous giving of the people) and one is in need of generous support – because, on its model, it can’t grow in that parish into a large well-resourced church.

Te challenge to the Church is how to honour both approaches whilst ensuring that the weaker church is resourced for its particular ministry and outreach.

The Commission will be coming back to the dynamic of evangelisation, nurture, apologetics and learning in it’s future work – but this gives a taste of where we are heading.

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