Sunday 31 July 2017

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury led the four hour service that inaugurated the new (39th) Province of Sudan. Packed, joyful, chaotic (in the best and most enjoyable sense), it also saw the wonderful Archbishop Ezekiel Kondo installed as the first Primate of the new province. There are loads of photos and videos on Twitter, but I simply post here a photo I took – possibly the worst ever taken of an Archbishop of Canterbury at work.

Although the Inauguration was the primary reason for coming to Sudan, we did a lot of other stuff. We started off staying with the UK Ambassador who, despite being an excellent ambassador, turns out disappointingly to be an Arsenal fan. However, he is a fluent Arabic speaker, so the odd weirdness is forgivable.

The four-day trip also saw us flying down to Kadugli in South Kordofan on Saturday after only two hours sleep. With a serious security accompaniment into town, we met with the Governor before engaging with religious leaders about the realities behind the rhetoric of religious harmony. Two things emerged: (a) Christians and Muslims really do live side by side here, despite the recent history of violence and civil war – which is not to do with religious identity, but with ethnic and political claims; (b) Sudan has been remarkably generous in welcoming refugees from South Sudan and (in Kadugli) from the Nuba Mountains regardless of religious identity. Discussions were frank and informative.

This set the tone for what followed. Having returned to Khartoum in the evening, we got some sleep ahead of the great Inauguration on Sunday which was attended by government and Muslim leaders.

Sunday, however, did not only see loud and lively worship (visually obscured by unrestrained media and security men). In the early evening a small group of us went to visit the President of Sudan. We spent just under an hour in respectful but frank conversation about Sudan, its international reputation, the challenges faced by Christian churches, and other matters. It was good-humoured, but open. The demolition of churches was just one of the issues addressed, but so was the challenge to Sudan of continuing US sanctions.

So far, so interesting. And the Archbishop demonstrated both stamina and diplomacy in a succession of demanding engagements. Even the celebration dinner at a Khartoum hotel meant talking relentlessly to a wide range of people. It was all hugely enjoyable.

So, today continued the rounds. A Sudan roundtable meeting this morning raised questions about how the new Province should be supported – and how that support should be prioritised and coordinated – by external partner dioceses and agencies. I had to leave with Archbishop Ezekiel after two hours as we had to join the Archbishop of Canterbury’s group at a series of meetings with government ministers.

At each of these meetings – with the Governor of Khartoum State, then the Foreign Minister, and finally with the Minister of Guidance and Endowment (religious affairs) – the Archbishop raised matters of concern alongside discussing wider political and economic issues. It was both wide-ranging and focused, and questions of religious discrimination, demolition of churches, freedom of religion, etc. were all discussed honestly and respectfully.

The trip basically concluded with a dinner laid on by the UK ambassador at his residence. A number of ambassadors and diplomats joined in a serious discussion about Sudan, its challenges and gifts, and its potential futures. A big question haunting most conversations during the trip emerged again: the need for the United States to lift sanctions against Sudan on 12 October. The UK Government supports this, believing the three-month extension from 12 July must be the last. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the economic cost (or political pressure) that dominated the discussion; rather, it was the potential loss of hope by ordinary Sudanese that would prove most damaging. Of course, it is easier to measure economic impact than psycho-social despair.

This probably doesn’t read as very exciting. I write it mainly in order to keep a record of it. But, I also need to demonstrate that the agenda of the Church runs wider than the issues it is normally associated with in the media. Poverty, reconciliation, economics and politics go to the heart of the Christian gospel, and there can be no abstract discussion of such matters without an intelligent, informed, questioning and serious engagement with the people involved – both the powerless and the powerful.

The Archbishop moves on to Uganda tomorrow morning. I return to the UK on Wednesday, flying out of Khartoum late tomorrow night.

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Well, we didn't see that one coming, did we? The Archbishop of Canterbury has had to rethink who he actually is. As was revealed in the Daily Telegraph last night, his father turns out not to be his biological father after all, and his real father was another man with an 'interesting' life.

The Archbishop has demonstrated once again why he is the right man for the job. Look at his statement. Not a shred of self-pity or any attempt to use this news for some politico-emotional gain. His identity is secure in being known and loved by God (and I had no idea this was coming when I did Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 yesterday morning and quoted the same Psalm) – in being “in Christ”. No excuses rooted in genetics – no loss of perspective, given the recognition that people have to deal with such news every day (and worse). His senses of humour and irony have not gone – his security as a person remains intact. His theology is big enough to cope with challenge.

It is also worth remarking that Charles Moore's handling of both the investigation and the reporting of the result have been a model of good journalism. There was no sensationalism and no prurience – just clear, sensitive and humane observation on response to reality. It is very impressive and clearly a model of how journalism can work in the public interest with the parties being observed.

But, it is unfortunate for the Prime Minister that this revelation has coincided with a torrid week for David Cameron and his family. The truth about his benefits from offshore investments has had to be dragged out of him. Today even he admits it could have been handled better. And the political hounds are in pursuit.

It is not hard to recognise the case against David Cameron in his apparent obfuscation while in a public office that has demanded transparency from others. And he would certainly not be surprised to see people like me adding to the pain.

But, I feel sympathy for him. He is a human being and he has a family. He has always known who his father is. And this week the human being has been in tension with the public being in a world in which there is little room (or sympathy) for both. How do you cope with trying to protect your memory of your own father when it is under attack – not for its own sake, but because of who the son is and what he does for a living?

Now, I realise that people will respond that he chose to be in office and has to take what goes with it. I get that completely. Then they will argue that hypocrisy is unacceptable in public office, and, again, I will agree (even if even those who complain about the hypocrisy of others ignore their own hypocrisies). Next they will claim that this is bigger than just one prime minister or one politician, and that this is just one obvious symptom of a deeper and wider systemic corruption – one inherent to the unjust world in which we live. And I will nod to that one, too. And, just to be clear, I think the whole “offshore tax avoidance or money laundering” thing is scandalous and wrong.

But, I also see a man trying to not have his dad rubbished in public in a way that dehumanises.

OK, David Cameron deserves the scrutiny and some criticism. But, let's not forget the man behind the office (even if we insist on reminding him and his government of the human faces and vulnerabilities subject to some of the ideological policies that shape their lives and relationships and memories).

The Archbishop of Canterbury now has to consider his shaping of the memory of two men: the one he thought was his father and the man who he now knows is his father. The Prime Minister has to hold on to the memory of his father while abstracting himself from that in order to do the moral politics his office demands. I sympathise with both men.

 

I know Dresden well. I know people in Dresden well. The devastation visited by Allied bombing on 13/14 February 1945 was horrendous. That is a phenomenological fact – apart from any moral consideration of the event.

It is shameful that a so-called free press, so often “defended” by the so-called “popular” press, sees fit to celebrate the freedoms gained by the sacrifice of so many 70 years ago by stooping to lies, misrepresentation, slander and brain-dead ideological nonsense. Is the Dail Mail going to have the courage and integrity – values demonstrated by those who sacrificed so much during World War Two – to apologise for the scandalous headline and story published a couple of days ago? There is no way that a half-thinking sentient being could read from the Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon in the Frauenkirche, Dresden, to a headline that accuses him of apologising to the Nazis.

There are no words adequate to describe the shamefulness of that front page. Is this the free press we fought a war to preserve?

And what was the Daily Mail's motivation in publishing this headline and story on the front page? What was its moral drive?

When can we expect the apology? Or will the absence of an apology be left to speak for itself?

Edited at 23.29hrs: a paragraph was missing from the version that I posted. I add it here:

“Read for yourself the Archbishop's speech in its context. Then read his subsequent blog post and the earlier statement. His sermon in the Frauenkirche today is here. Then tell me this wasn't just a nasty headline looking for a story.”

 

I am preaching in the Berliner Dom this evening in a Lent series of sermons under the general theme of 'Reformation and Politics'. I was given the theme: 'To whom does the city belong?' and prepared the text (in German) before being given the biblical text on whcih to base it. So, it will possibly be a little tangential…

Sitting in the Dom this morning I was struck again by the text engraved above the chancel steps: “Lasset Euch versöhnen mit Gott” – “Be reconciled to God”.

This – along with all other texts inside and outside the building – was chosen by Kaiser Wilhelm II. I wonder what he understood reconciliation with God to mean. What did he expect people to do when they read this text above a crucifix on the altar of this grand cathedral church?

I ask the question because the answer simply isn't obvious. We always filter our understandings (and the assumptions that generate them) through the worldview we inhabit and the experiences we enjoy or endure at a particular time, as part of a particular culture in the context of the particular period of history in which we live. In other words, the practical outworking of reconciliation with God – it can never be simply an individual pietistic act of the spirit – involves real other people in real places and at real times. It can never be disembodied.

So, as Germany found itself heading towards war in 1914, how was this text read by those who worshipped in the Dom? Or, again, during the Weimar Republic? Or, again, between 1933-45 when the Third Reich adopted a particular view of religion and Christian identity? Or, again, during the Communist dictatorship of the GDR between 1949-89? Was 'reconciliation with God' an act of conformity to a private piety, or an invitation to political and ethical rebellion… at inevitable personal cost?

When I stand in the pulpit this evening I will do so with the humility that comes from recognising the complexity of history and context. Even though I will preach in German, I cannot know how I will be 'heard' by a congregation whose historical associations and personal, social or familial memories are different from those such as mine that have been shaped by an island existence.

In other words, things aren't simple.

I am writing this with the Archbishop of Canterbury's references to gay marriage and the suffering of Christians in Africa in the background. Some ethical questions look clear and simple when seen from one clear perspective. However, look through different eyes and the clarity gets dulled by complexity. Some of us need not worry too much about what happens to Christians in Africa if the Archbishop of Canterbury expresses support for gay marriage (let's drop the 'equal' word as it isn't); the Archbishop has to worry. When there is a direct link between what one says and what happens to other people, words have to be chosen carefully and with a very big pause.

The problem here is that there are two evils: oppression of homosexuals (particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East) and oppression of Christians by those who will use gay identity or approval as sanction for brutality. Working out the ethics here is not simple: if one has an equal obligation to both – and a responsibility not to contribute to the victimisation of either – then how does one decide what to say to whom and when?

I am not writing this to defend the Archbishop or his critics. But, I am defending the complexity of his position. It is a heavy burden to bear knowing that if you say something in England it can lead directly (in practical terms, not in terms of moral causation) to the murder of innocent people in Pakistan or Nigeria. And simply saying that we should abandon the Anglican Communion does not address the dilemma.

Yesterday I got the tram out to Hohenschönhausen to visit the former Stasi prison where thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured and abused – first by the Soviet occupying forces from 1945, then from 1950 by the security ministry of the German Democratic Republic. It finally closed in 1990 and is now preserved as a national memorial to those who suffered under the Communist dictatorship.

There are too many stories to tell. And it feels somehow cheap to stand as a tourist in a cell where people were once interrogated or held in terrible conditions, often not knowing their crime and usually not knowing where they were or for how long they would be there.

The brilliant film The Lives of Others illustrates the soullessness of this oppressive GDR culture. Life was cheap. And just as the film brings home the power of oppression by relating the personal stories of individuals, so it is the stories that impress when you stand one of the interrogation cells at Hohenschönhausen. We can generalise about politics and the cruelties of governments. We can academically abstract from places like this a penetrating critique of Marxist-Leninist dehumanisation and corruption. We can make clever points about resistance – from a place where to do so costs me nothing. But, it is the stories that haunt.

For each individual incarcerated, humiliated and abused here, there were families, friends, lovers, communities affected, torn apart, corrupted and dehumanised. Relationships were distorted, trust was compromised and identity questioned. And for each individual damaged here, others were responsible by what they did or didn't say, by what they did or didn't do.

The story of someone who has suffered innocently is hard to hear, even if a hard ethical choice had to be made which led to that person's suffering. The phenomenon is as important as the ethical content.

Abuse of individuals and groups is absolutely wrong always. Oppression of minorities is always wrong – whatever the context. But the complexity of balancing rights and obligations in matters of life and death is not to be rendered simplistic by turning such conflicts of obligation into a form of competitive ethics.

Those who say that the Archbishop should be opposing all forms of oppression and proclaiming 'love for all' – as if he were doing the opposite – are right. But, how? If we can't agree with him, at least understand the dilemma (as I think Andrew Brown does here).

Now, for the Dom…

 

It is a bit odd to be in Germany at a Meissen Theological Conference while the General Synod meets in London – especially as both bodies seem to be addressing similar themes from different directions. This morning the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke plainly and clearly (and truthfully) about the urgent need for a culture change in the Church of England – from fear to love:

When the Church of England works well it is because love overcomes fear. When it works badly it is because fear overcomes love.

In one sense he is calling the bluff on pious theological sentiments that are not backed up by sacrificial acts of the will in choosing to live, speak and relate differently. Where 'difference' becomes a zero sum contest, it is only fear (of loss) that drives us.

Here in Arnoldshain we have been thinking this morning about reconciliation (as addressed by St Paul in the New Testament) in a stimulating paper by Professor Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Horn who teaches New Testament at the University of Mainz. This set the ground for two papers – one English and one German – about the difficult challenges of faith and patriotism from which Christians in our two countries cannot escape. However, this was not just some random excursion around academic themes, but, rather, was rooted in a real historical examination of Bishop George Bell and the role of the church in time of war.

Bishop Christopher Hill took us on a journey from English appropriations of German theological literature prior to 1914 through two world wars and beyond. Key to this was both the blindness of churches in Britain and Germany to the ethical demands of developing political, cultural and economic circumstances, and the shaping of their choices by the theologies that had shaped the lens through which they saw, expereinced and understood the world. Patriotism was both challenged and enjoined in ways that beg further questions. What is little understood and rarely noted is the efforts of German and English Christians in 1908 and 1909 to use their common fellowship and unity in Christ to confound the growing conflict between their countries. War mostly finished off such contacts, but could not kill off the relationships that were rooted not in nationalist priority, but in common Christian identity.

The hard question, of course, is how the church should determine its 'line' in the face of political or military crisis. This was taken up in a paper by Professor Dr Nils Ole Oermann from the University of Lüneburg. Following Bishop Bell through the war years – sometimes standing alone against both the political and public mood in refusing to demonise all Germans and opposing the 'obliteration bombing' of cities like Dresden – reveals a man of “impartiality and integrity”, both of which charateristics gave him the moral authority to command a respectful audience.

And this where the link to the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech comes in. On 9 February 1944 Bishop Bell prepared to make a difficult and unpopular speech in the House of Lords. Prior to the debate his friend Lord Woolton famously said to him: “George, there isn’t a soul in this house who doesn’t wish you wouldn’t make the speech you are going to make. You must know that. But I also want to tell you that there isn’t a soul who doesn’t know that the only reason why you make it, is because you believe it is your duty as a Christian priest.” The greatest respect was held in a context of complete disagreement.

Isn't that something to do with reconciliation? To respect the one from whom you differ – and to recognise the integrity that compels that disagreement to be expressed?

 

I know this is a bit narky, but try substituting any other brand of human being for 'religious' or Archbishop of Canterbury' in the leader article quoted in my last post. For example, 'newspaper editor' – just for fun:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which this newspaper has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither the Editor's motivations nor his capabilities; as a journalist, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities the Editor is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make his newspaper relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at journalism, but such matters are a private affair, and editors – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics.

Silly, I know. But, I am sitting on a train and wondering if I should simply have done this instead of what I actually wrote a couple of days ago.

 

It is rare that a national newspaper editorial exposes its prejudices so clearly. And, tempting though it is to just smile grimly and let it pass, here goes (again).

Here is how the concluding judgements of Friday's Independent editorial on the Archbishop of Canterbury's involvement in politics went:

While anxiety over child poverty is admirable, public pronouncements on purely political issues in which his organisation has no direct involvement are as unconstructive as they are inappropriate. The question is neither Archbishop Welby’s motivations nor his capabilities; as a former oil executive and a member of the mettlesome Commission on Banking Standards, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities – many of which were on display in yesterday’s gracious, candid response to the Wonga embarrassment – Archbishop Welby is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make the Church relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at religion, but such matters are a private affair, and spiritual leaders – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics. That bishops still sit in the House of Lords is an anachronism that makes a mockery of British democracy. If Archbishop Welby wishes the Church of England to support credit unions, it is his prerogative to act accordingly, but there his legitimacy ends.

The italics are mine. The patronising assumptions about private-public opinions are those of the anonymous author.

First, unlike newspaper editorial writers, the church does have a 'direct involvement' in the issues we bang on about – which is why we bang on about them. We have clergy and people in every community of the country and our intelligence about 'real lives' and the impact of policy on them is rooted and informed. We don't just stand at a distance and pontificate like… er… editorial writers? Since when was child poverty or welfare reform purely a 'political' issue and not a 'human' or 'social' issue? And who else should, on this basis, be kept muted: community leaders, journalists, rabbis, sportsmen, newspaper editors?

Secondly, when I last looked, all the above were unelected. Or is the Independent really suggesting that only elected politicians should have a voice in society and how it is run? Is it really suggesting that there is some neutral ground for a world view that is shared by non-religionists, but not by those who start from a religious world view? How did such nonsense get through the editorial desk? Oh, I see…

Thirdly, yes it is a swipe at religion. Religion is being singled out for silence. And on what basis? That it is a 'private affair'. It beggars belief that this old chestnut still pops up in rational minds. The division into 'private' and 'public' is artificial. On what basis is a politicians dogma to be accepted as relevant, but an Archbishop's as mere opinion? And, even if this were to be seen as remotely valid, why is one opinion to be privileged above another?

The final swipe at the church's involvement in the legislature exposes the real point of the piece – which is not about the validity of the Archbishop of Canterbury's role in using his office to speak about social ills, but about the matter of disestablishment. Well, write a leader comment about that, then, but don't mix it up with nonsense about private opinion, elected voices and ignorance about the church's engagement in the real world of our local communities.

(And I like the Independent. I thought it was a bit brighter than this.)