Before I went to Kazakhstan for the first time in 2003 I had little idea of its post-independence history. I knew it quite well (from a distance and in a bit of a weird way) as a Soviet republic, but after the collapse of the Soviet empire and its unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1991, I had lost track and lost interest.

So, 2003 was only twelve years after this massive change. I learned that Russia immediately cut off every economic or financial lifeline to the new Republic of Kazakhstan and left it – the dumping ground of the old USSR – as a polluted and poverty-stricken cast-off, ready to sink into oblivion. Twelve years later, however, the country was developing its economy, shaping its identity, carving out its place in the international political community, and building a confident new nation. Yes, there was also corruption and some very unsavoury things were happening in parallel to all this.

But, the common fact in every conversation about the country – with both old-hand politicians and young media people – was that the first five years were unutterably miserable. I was told by many people that “people starved and died in the street” – a combination of no work, no food, extreme cold and no shelter. The infrastructure had collapsed and had to be rebuilt bit by bit. President Nursultan Nazarbayev was acclaimed, even by serious opponents among my interlocutors, for holding to the discipline of getting a strong economy – the only way to build a long-term future for increased wealth, public services, education and business. The cost was consciously tolerated.

Now, why am I remembering this today – especially as I am in Basel on study leave and supposed to be reading theology? Well, this morning a letter was published in the Mirror newspaper, signed by 27 Church of England bishops. The letter drew attention to food poverty in England and called on the government to change its policies that are deemed to be driving people and families into destitution. (This letter follows the RC Archbishop of Westminster's condemnation of the effects of welfare reform as a 'disgrace' and its rebuttal by the Prime Minister in terms of moral purpose. I doubt if the timing is any more than coincidental.) Today the bishops are taking a bit of a bashing.

First, it has been suggested that if only 27 signed the letter, then 74 did not: draw your conclusions. Well, the 74 were probably not approached – not because there was selective ideological bias involved, but simply because in such cases only a number of bishops is usually approached for signature. I was not approached, but would have signed, had I been asked to do so. In similar cases where my signature has been added to a letter, most other bishops weren't approached. Many bishops aren't online most of the time, many are slow to respond to requests, and some refuse to sign anything on principle. No conspiracy here – and probably no fine strategic organisation – but, as usual, a bit random.

Secondly, when asked to sign such a letter you have to look at the general drift and not argue about every word – although I have refused to sign one or two open letters until certain assumptions were checked or details changed. However, agreeing every detail by disparate committee guarantees only that the letter will never be agreed or published. So, signature signals assent to the content whilst recognising that each individual might have preferred to have written it differently.

So, why write this now? And why the stuff about Kazakhstan?

Bishops have better things to do with their time than enter into ideological arguments that serve no purpose other than political point-scoring. To accuse signatory bishops of simplistic or malicious political bias is silly. Whatever their political views – and there is a range of opinion on welfare cuts and their effects – they are in touch with real people in every community of this country. So, when hearing government defences of the 'moral intent' of policies that directly affect the communities the churches and their clergy serve, they cannot remain silent about the realities on the ground. They might respect the moral intent – and even agree with it – whilst seeing the devastating consequences of that policy on the people we meet every day. The proliferation of food banks, coupled with the evidence that many, many poorly-paid working people are having to use them in order to feed their family, is a reality that poses a challenge to the moral effectiveness of the said policy.

Any why Kazakhstan? Well, I am NOT comparing post-independence Kazakhstan with England. The question that this raised in my own mind this morning, however, was whether the open recognition of Kazakh policy in the 1990s is preferable to the muddled attempts to add moral justification to an English policy that the government just don't want to admit is so brutal? Should the government just say clearly: we are determined to get people off welfare dependency and to reduce the tax burden of welfare, so we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal; they won't take responsibility until forced to do so.

Harsh? Yes, but honest. And at least we would know what we were dealing with. The churches would continue to care as best as possible – and without discrimination – for poor people. And bishops would continue to tell what they see and hear of the human cost of political ideology and question its moral basis from a Christian ethical perspective. And debate would rage on. But, at least it would be clear what was going on.


This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show. He has a Beatles theme running through the week, so I thought I'd start there…

Listening to all this Beatles stuff reminds me of a rather weird surprise I once had in the mountains of southern Kazakhstan. Having finished some meetings with world religious leaders in the city of Almaty, we were driven up into the Alatau Mountains for a posh dinner to recover. As we turned a corner and emerged from the forest into the restaurant car park we were confronted by a bronze statue of … er … the Beatles. I've got a photo of it somewhere. I wouldn't have been surprised to find Ghengiz Khan, but Ringo Starr was a bit of a shock.

What I think is remarkable about this is that the Beatles made the ordinary extraordinary. I grew up near Penny Lane – just an ordinary area where I went to get my hair cut or to see the doctor. But, wherever you go in the world now people know about Penny Lane and the blue suburban skies.

The trouble with the ordinary becoming extraordinary is that we build up an image that ceases to relate to reality – as if there is some golden aura of sacred specialness hovering around the bus shelter in the middle of the roundabout. But, it is never like that – despite the exclamations of tourists staring at the barber shop whenever I take people there.

The 'ordinary' is where most of us actually live. Life carries on and all the regular routines of daily business just grind on… without us ever thinking that the familiar lamppost down the road might become famous.

And, given that surveys keep telling us how young people in Britain dream of being famous – for the sake of being famous, presumably – a reminder that life is lived in the ordinary things might not be out of order. Jesus spoke of being faithful in the little things, if we want to be trusted with the big stuff – and he should know, cos the whole point of him being here was for God to become ordinary right where we are.

Imagine that! Or, should I say, “Amen to that!”? (Which, of course, means “Let it be”.)


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…)

One of the best bits in the film Lost in Translation is when Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson end up doing karaoke in a Tokyo bar. Bill Murray belts out Elvis Costello’s What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding? I love the film and I love that scene.

But it’s the song that’s running around the inside of my head just now. Driving to Manchester Airport en route to Kazakhstan for the fourth Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, I had Elvis (Costello) on CD and played that song four times so I could belt it out with him.

The Congress is also the fourth I will have attended – the first one being back in 2003 in Astana. We came back from that one with all sorts of questions and misgivings – particularly regarding some socio-political phenomena in Kazakhstan itself. I have continued to press those questions ever since, but on the basis that engagement is better than shouting from the sidelines. So, we have persisted in working with other religious leaders and their representatives from all over the world and been able to discuss all sorts of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be discussed through ordinary diplomacy.

This time we (I am leading a delegation of five from the Church of England) will address themes such as multiculturalism, the role of women, sustainable development and young people. In among these themes there will also be space to address other issues of import and concern. The important thing is to articulate such concerns in ways that will enable them to be heard. There is no value – other than the smug feeling it gives you – in saying things that don’t get heard… however ‘prophetic’ or true.

There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding; but they’re dead hard to work on unless we are satisfied with platitudes and sentimentalism.

Perhaps it isn’t entirely inappropriate that today is Pentecost in the Christian calendar. Before leaving for Manchester I confirmed some adults in a Keighley parish this morning and addressed a vast collection of Christians, passers-by and curious onlookers at a Pentecost celebration in Lister Park, near where we live in Bradford. It was loud, colourful and celebratory. But, it reminded me that Pentecost is not about creating a uniform church or a monochrome culture; rather, the key point about Pentecost (at least, as it was experienced by the ‘outsiders’) was that people from all over the place where enabled to hear the good news of Jesus Christ in ways they could both hear and understand.

The job of the church is to work hard at speaking different ‘languages’ to different people in order that the good news might be heard and understood by a vast diversity of people who don’t start from the same place. This is what makes communication interesting and challenging. But, if it seems to be God’s priority at Pentecost, maybe it should be ours, too.

It might even help create a little more peace, love and understanding if we start from where people actually are and speak a language they understand.

Which, I realise, is a statement of the bleeding obvious (as someone once said).


I have only known Washington through the epic series The West Wing. We spent a year watching it from the first episode to the last. Having visited Washington DC for the first time today, I will now have to watch it all again.

What struck me when we arrived this morning was the scale and beauty of the place. You can tell this city was designed to be the capital: symmetry around a central axis, but the most stable triangle holding together the Capitol (legislature), the White House (executive presidency) and the Supreme Court (judiciary) – which can all be seen at once from just to the south of the Washington Memorial. Look west and your eye is taken to the huge reminder of the fragility of the Union, the Lincoln Memorial.

Paris shows the hand of a single mind: Haussmann. Berlin pivots on its axis (from Unter den Linden through the Brandenburger Tor). If Hitler had had his way, both Berlin and Linz would have become enormous memorials to hubris and a monstrous ego. The only other place I have seen that shows such singular design is Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. Here, too, the man responsible for holding the country through the transition from Communism to free market Capitalism (and doing rather well out of it in more ways than one) has designed his capital on an axis that is breathtaking in its ambition.

Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to move the capital from the beautiful Almaty in the south (prone to earthquakes and too close to expansionist China) and build on what had originally been the village of Aqmola (Kazakh for ‘White grave’ – not the best name for a new capital city) and later became Tselinograd. Since the capital moved north some ten or fifteen years ago the President’s ambitious building programme has gradually and determinedly been realised. It isn’t pretty, and it’s pretty confused in terms of its mixture of styles – but it is symmetrical and grand and imposing.

However, the link between Astana (which actually means ‘capital city’ – not exactly imaginative) and Washington DC – to my mind, at least – is the ubiquity of a search for or assertion of identity. Astana has essentially three styles of modern architecture: Islamic, Soviet and (what I call) ‘Dubai’. It is as if this young country – of which so many of it’s young people are hugely proud, building a new future – is trying to decide who it is: the nomadic horse people of Genghis Khan, a peaceful Islamic (though in a rather ‘keep it quiet and unobtrusive’ sort of way), or a modern, confident Islamic buffer state between the fanatics down south (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan), the imperialists up north (Russia) and the expansionists to the right and down a bit (China). The architecture betrays the search for which origins will eventually define Kazakhstan’s identity: they will work out who they are and who they might become by where they decide they have come from.

What struck me about Washington was the emphasis on ‘greatness’, grandeur, self-justification (and I mean that neutrally, not pejoratively). And the ubiquity of conflict. Every memorial seems to speak of conflict won or lost. It seemed poignant to me as a visitor that the two most powerful memorials were those closest to the Lincoln Memorial – Korea and Vietnam – and both of those were lost. More to the point, tens of thousands of lives were lost – and it isn’t obvious to younger generations what the point of these wars was.

As I watched so many young people reflected in the stone and the engraved names of those lost and missing in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975, I was haunted by the enormity of the loss. Not only the Americans, but hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and others. It reminded me of when I visited the memorial to the fallen in the ten-year Soviet Afghan campaign (1979-89) in Astana and I saw the mothers still weeping at the sight of their sons’ names etched into the stone.

What was it all for?

I loved Washington. It is beautiful, confident, friendly (despite the snarly policewoman I asked for information – a mistake I won’t make again). The wide avenues are stunning. The vistas are breathtaking, the architecture pleasingly classical (mostly), the sense of space and pace relaxing. But I also found myself wondering what researchers will be making of it all in a thousand years. Will they be seeing the place as we do when we look at the ruins of Rome or Greece and wonder what happened?

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Washington DC, USA

Or enduring the living nightmare?

The phrase ‘living the dream’ belongs to the United States – the land of opportunity and optimism. Philadelphia is where it all began: the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the first Congress, the birth of American democracy. Those who signed knew they might be signing their death warrant – after all, this was an act of treachery against King and country. Blood was shed, lives torn apart, families shredded by people taking different sides on the matters of the day – matters considered to be life and death issues.

It isn’t great being a Brit while listening to the story of American independence. But, it is a salutary reminder that a new country needs a single narrative to give it meaning and direction. Now I understand why American rhetoric is always full of repeated mantras of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’, ‘justice’, ‘equality’, and so on. These were people who threw off the authority structures of monarchy and church, replacing them with representative democracy and a structural separation between church and state. You can see it in the architecture of Philadelphia: no dominant church spire or tower – City Hall is where all roads meet.

I think I knew this in my head – I have read alot about America and it’s cultures – but I hadn’t ‘felt’ it until coming here while England burns at a distance. This is a country that reads it’s own story alongside that of the exodus, the conquest of the Promised Land, the place of freedom won and self-made achievement lauded. (Of course, this leaves out the more uncomfortable prophetic injunctions of the Promised Land deal…)

I once did a lecture on ‘Space, place and pace’ (I know… tacky title) in which I explored how the three types of architecture in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, say something about that country’s search for identity, for a history that explains and legitimises who they now are, for a sense of place in a complex world in which Kazakhstan is a baby country. This search is integral to every person and every community: we can’t escape it. This week, however, it is the narrative of the USA that preoccupies my imagination.

If the Exodus and Conquest provide the ‘story’ (and evokes the ‘dream’) that shapes the self-understanding of the USA, what is the story that shapes England today (a ‘nightmare’?)?

There is something almost naive about the youthful enthusiasm of America when compared to the tired cynicism of England (and much of Europe). We have had too many wars, too many religious conflicts, too much pain and suffering, too much being let down by unfulfilled promises. It is surely not accidental that English humour is so self-deprecating, ironic, cynical. Or surprising that we love to be negative, ‘can’t do’, unadventurous, small-minded and unrealistic about our real place in the world? The Empire has long gone, but you wouldn’t believe it…

In his excellent book The English, Jeremy Paxman points out that to be Irish, Welsh or Scottish is also to be ‘Not English’… whereas it is meaningless for an Englishman to define himself as ‘not Scottish’. We don’t actually know who we are. My own family has Irish, Welsh, Manx, English… and probably French, German, Viking and (odds on) Genghis Khan.

This is what makes the English Defence league so ridiculous. What assumed ‘Englishness’ do they think they a defending? What is the story they think gives our history – and therefore our future – meaning?

The demise of Christendom in England has taken with it a shared narrative, reinforced in our language and symbols, our folk stories and sense of destiny. We now know what we were, but no longer know who are. Which means we cannot purposefully move into a shared understanding of our future. We have lost more than we ever thought mattered. And, like when the Soviet Empire collapsed, the framework disappeared and the was nothing to take it’s place; so corruption walked in and bought the place up. Didn’t Jesus once say something about clearing demons out and leaving a vacuum?

So, what are the narratives that people think will give us a future common ‘idea’? The churches have one – coloured by the freedom of service of a God who first served us. This narrative is rooted in the simple conviction that all human meaning and ethics begin with the nature of every person being in the ‘image of God’.

I am not hearing too many alternatives today. But I am reading Nigel Rooms’ new book, The Faith of the English (SPCK, 2011)…

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Philadelphia, USA

The President of Kyrgyzstan is refusing to resign despite the take-over of the country by the opposition. This might sound like a local skirmish a million miles form anywhere interesting, but this could turn out to be deeply significant. I write with a close knowledge of Kazakhstan and note that the British Ambassador in the region does the job for both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asia had all the potential for catastrophe. Among other factors, its infrastructure had been dominated by and run for the benefit of Moscow and the ethnic mix had been engineered by Moscow over 70 years to integrate European Russians in the Central Asian territories. The end of the USSR brought huge challenges to the region.

When Kazakhstan declared independence in 1991 it was cut adrift by Russia. Its economy, no longer subsidised by Moscow, fell apart and it had to invent new symbols of identity, currency, political and economic structures. Continuity was provided by the General Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party (Nursultan Nazarbayev) becoming the first President of the Republic and driving (ruthlessly) the changes needed to establish a new economy. Crucial to this was the ownership and exploitation of oil and gas.

However, Kazakhstan faced several other challenges: (a) it borders on China and there was/is a powerful fear of Chinese expansionism – hence the move of the capital city from Almaty in the south to Astana in the centre; (b) as a landlocked country, the need for access to the sea – necessitating the recovery of good relations with Turkey; (c) its location between the unstable and less developed other southern republics (including Kyrgyzstan and the bizarre Turkmenistan) and a growling Russian bear to the north and west (with Chechnya not far off).

Look at the map and you can see why Kazakhstan has worked hard to establish itself as a buffer between Europe and Asia, between China and Russia, and in distinction from its southern neighbours beyond whom are Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to the south. This is not insignificant territory for global security – as both the Chinese and the Russians know.

So, ructions in Kyrgyzstan send vibrations through the other republics and into the surrounding powerful nations with their potential for expansionism. It isn’t yet clear how the situation in Kyrgyzstan will develop – let alone resolve – but its importance might be greater than the ‘oddball country somewhere over there’ treatment by the western media might initially suggest.

The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, retires this week after 15 years in post. He will now devote his time to supporting Christians facing persecution in some tough parts of the world. I have no idea what this will actually mean from day to day – or how this will be funded and Michael and his family supported – but he has made a brave decision to move on at this point and enter an unknown world for the last five or ten years of his ‘paid’ ministry.

As I have said before, Michael Nazir-AliI heard Michael speak when I was a curate in Kendal in the late 1980s and was astonished at his fluency, intelligence and memory. He didn’t once appear to refer to a note or script, he quoted theologians and thinkers I have trouble even remembering, and dealt with questions with a gracious eloquence that didn’t expose how silly some of them were. Michael has never lost that amazing ability and has used it to great effect for the sake of the Gospel and the Church. Being on the receiving end of his eloquence and forensic analysis is not always comfortable (which is an understatement), but his passion and integrity are unquestionable.

In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph he gave his final interview before moving on. Predictably, the thrust of the reported interview highlights the perceived concerns of the Telegraph itself, focusing on the need for the Church of England to “do more to counter twin threats of secularism and radical Islam”. Apparently, he warned us that “traditional British society is under threat from the rise of aggressive secularism and radical Islam”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the interview itself – only the report of it. So, it isn’t clear what else Michael might have talked about in the interview. (Update 3 September: Martin Beckford has very helpfully written up the interview.)

I agree with Michael that “the Church of England, which is used to working with society, should speak up … to defend the country’s customs and institutions, most of which are based on Christian teaching”. But I do not agree with the bit I excluded from that quotation: “more often”.

The first question this begs is: who is the Church of England? Is it the bishops or the Archbishops’ Council or the clergy or…? The fact is that the Church of England – in its parochial clergy, its chaplaincies, its bishops, its synods, its reports, its bloggers, its representatives in the House of Lords, etc – is always ‘speaking up’ and questioning the drifts of society when they need to be questioned. But not everybody gets listened to as Michael does. I am constantly surprised to hear that the Archbishops of Canterbury or York have been silent on something when a cursory look at their speeches, sermons and writings tell a different story.

I regularly get asked why I have not ‘spoken out’ on something or other when I have preached, blogged and debated the matter openly. What is really meant is: ‘you weren’t reported as saying what I want to hear you say in my newspaper.’

The same can be said of : “I think it will need to be more visible and take more of a stand on moral and spiritual issues”. What would such a ‘stand’ look like? And which ‘moral and spiritual issues’ will be regarded as those most important for the Church to be heard on? We are accused of not ‘speaking out on moral issues’ when it has to do with sex or relationships, but not often when it is to do with climate change, banking/finance or media misrepresentation.

I think there’s a double jeopardy – on the one hand an aggressive secularism that seeks to undermine the traditional principles because it has its own project to foster. On the other is the extremist ideology of radical Islam, which moderate Muslims are also concerned about. This is why there must be a clear recognition of where Britain has come from, what the basis is for our society and how that can contribute to the common good.

Michael has been well-heard on these matters, but he is not and has not been alone in speaking on them – either at parochial, local, national or international level. (I raised questions about persecuted Christian – and other religious – minorities during the Congress of Leaders of World and Tradional Religions in Kazkahstan in July this year…) I hope he will continue to bring his unique perceptions and perspectives to bear on these and other issues, but I also hope that others will get heard when they do what he is asking for, but don’t have the same facility as he does for getting reported.