Monogamy is not the first word that comes to mind when the name Leonard Cohen is heard. He was, to say the least, a bit of a lad.

I have just finished Sylvie Simmons' excellent and very readable biography of the great poet and musician. She quotes the Guardian's Robin Denselow describing Cohen's London gigs on his first European tour as being about “self-obsession, cynicism, non-communication; it is two strangers frantically making love in a shadowy hotel bedroom.” Perhaps this observation was more prescient than the critic knew at the time.

Leonard went through women like the London to Edinburgh train goes through stations. He was insatiable. And the tortuous process of writing, thinking and – eventually – performing accompanied his relationships with a self-referential singlemindedness that is both impressive and shocking. His approach to sex is as hard to admire as his stamina is hard to ignore.

But, as with many great artists, it is out of the flawed humanity, this wrestling with spirituality and sensuality, that their pips get squeezed and the fruit is pressed out.

Or is it?

What is clear with Leonard Cohen is that not once does he dissemble, lie or pretend to be what he is not. Selfish and self-interested he might be (although the way he fulfils his responsibilities towards his children is honourable and his generosity to friends and disadvantaged people – see the stuff about his gigs in mental institutions in Europe – remarkable), but he is not a hypocrite. His walking out on commitments to women seems to me to be deplorable, but none of his women seems to be surprised.

What I found moving about his 'pension restoration' world tour in 2008 was that here was a man of 75 who is now at peace with himself. Maybe, as George Melly once observed with evident relief and gratitude, age silences the torment of a rampant and enslaving libido. Cohen performs with humour, generosity, humility and wonderful skill – at ease with himself and the musicians who bring his music to life.

When I once expressed my admiration for Cohen in a blog post, I got a blasting response to the effect that he is simply a shameful louche. All I can say is: so was Mozart, but I haven't heard anyone suggest his liturgical settings should not be used in church.

Cohen comes over as a remarkable artist and a man whose suffering and searching has lasted a life time, leaving in his wake as many casualties as credits. But, I guess, like the older men in John 8, who, having demanded that the woman caught in adultery be stoned (and not in the sense that Cohen regularly got stoned), began to leave first, those of us who have lived longer recognise our own catalogue of failings and should be less swift to judge. Cohen, at least, is relentlessly honest.

So, now I am on to Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men' – another shocking exploration of the human condition and our easy acquaintance with avoidable cruelty. More anon.

 

I was at the BBC studios in MediaCity, Salford, this morning to take part in a radio discussion about immigration. Well, not about immigration itself, but the campaign currently being run by the Tory part of the government (their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are distinctly queasy about it) to show how hard they are regarding illegal immigrants.

Maybe it is a coincidence – and I know Godwin's Law might be invoked here – but yesterday was the anniversary of Zigeunernacht – the night of 2/3 August 1944 when the Gypsy Family Camp (The Zigeunerlager) at Auschwitz-Birkenau was ‘liquidated’. 2,897 men, women and children of Roma or Sinti origin were murdered in the gas chambers by the Nazis, their corpses being burned in pits. Of the 23,000 Gypsies imprisoned within the camp, it is estimated that around 20,000 were ultimately murdered.

Well, it all began with the corruption of language. That's how propaganda works. You change the associations and re-align semantics in order (often subliminally) to change perceptions and manipulate affections. So, yes, I have banged on about language many times before now – and, no, I am not suggesting that the government's current immigration campaign will inevitably lead to another holocaust. But, what I failed to get across coherently on the radio this morning is this:

  • We need a full, informed and intelligent public debate about immigration, and not the current polarised, nasty slanging match in which parties compete to be the 'hardest'.
  • We must distinguish between the 'issue' of immigration and the current campaign by the government. Immigration is a good thing and without it Britain would be stuffed. Our wealth has been created (for good and ill) by immigrants to this country in recent centuries.
  • It is a nasty little distraction to compensate for complete failure by governments to establish, monitor and run an effective immigration policy by targeting a few illegal immigrants with a crude campaign.
  • If effectiveness is important in evaluating any policy, then this one must surely be doomed. How many 'offenders' have turned themselves in so far? We are getting daily updates on numbers of 'immigration offenders' on the Home Office's twitter feed, so why not a daily update on the numbers of those handing themselves over?
  • Isn't it the great British addition to maintain that people are innocent until proven guilty? Then why are these people called 'immigration offenders' when they can only be 'suspected immigration offenders'? And how many of them are turning out to be people whose applications for asylum or right to remain are held up in the massive and endless backlog queues at the Home Office?
  • Net migration is not a problem. Yet, from time to time we hear that we are not getting enough immigrants to met the needs of our economy. Why are immigrants being targeted (and impugned as a financial and social burden) – and why is this being coupled with welfare costs or burdens on the NHS?

These are just some of the questions hanging around. The real issue, however, has to do with the motivation for this unpleasant political campaign. And it is political. It is a macho PR stunt that will achieve little, but cause real damage to language, culture and community. It relies on the sort of categorisation of 'sorts of people' that dehumanises them by association – thus rendering them subject to 'different' values of behaviour or treatment.

The point is that the campaign with the vans, the twitter feed and the selective picking on people at London stations (based on crude racial profiling – if you are not white, you are fair game for stopping and checking) contributes to a coarsening of perceptions about immigrants, regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. It increases fear on the part of immigrants, creates a culture of suspicion and 'anti-otherness', and achieves nothing of any positive purpose.

It all begins with the corruption of language and the confusion of issues. 'Illegal immigrants' morphs into 'immigrants' and the categorisation has begun.

Has any Home Office minister ever visited airport deportation centres and sat down with frightened people to listen to their human story? Aha! But, there's the rub: that would humanise the 'illegal immigrant' and make it harder to get rid of him/her.

If the government wants to address immigration, it should do so by sorting out a workable policy and ensure that those who do apply for asylum or a right to remain are treated humanely, efficiently and effectively – and, if appropriate, prevented from entering the country in the first place. To distract attention with displays of hardness has everything to do with political PR and little to do with reality – except for those whose reality is to be a victim of the campaign.

(And I haven't even started on a Christian theological anthropology of immigration…)

 

I arrived in Roanoke, Virginia, last night after a long couple of flights from Manchester. The Diocese of Bradford has a longstanding link with the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and I am here (with a couple of colleagues) for the ordination/consecration of the new bishop tomorrow. I came here for the first time in January 2012 to get to know the diocese and attend the annual Diocesan Council (equivalent to a diocesan synod in England). So, it is great to meet such wonderfully gracious and hospitable people again so soon.

Of course, this also offers a further opportunity not only to learn about The Episcopal Church (the Anglican Church in the USA), but also to look though its lens at the context I work in in England. If anything, the visit and all the encounters and conversations reinforce the lesson I learned at the Lambeth Conference back in 2008: a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop.

A bit obvious, you might say, but the common language we use can easily shape our assumption that the same words in the different contexts (and church polities) refer to the same thing. They don't.

For example, this morning I attended a media round-table discussion between the Presiding Bishop of TEC, the outgoing Bishop of SWVA and the bishop-elect. The discussion revolved around how the church is changing as society around changes. For example, depopulation of some areas – largely down to urbanisation – renders some churches too small to sustain stipendiary ministry and the local churches have to try to adapt accordingly. The role of the bishop here was successively described in terms of a 'pontifex' – a bridge builder and connector of people and places as together we discern the will and call of God. They talked about how to maintain presence as some places decline in population or the demographic becomes more impoverished financially.

And here lies the interesting bit – for me, at least.

When they speak of 'parish', an Englishman needs to hear 'church'. An English parish is geographical and demographic: every blade of grass in England grows in an Anglican parish and a vicar is the vicar of the parish, not the chaplain of a congregation. This means that the English parish demands church engagement with civic society, politics, local community and services, people of all faiths and none, and ecumenical obligation. That dynamic does not exist here in anything like the same way. Add to that the fact that the individual parish is responsible for appointing and paying the priest, and we see the discontinuity in the reality behind the common terminology. Hence, the Church of England's parish share system (by which parishes take common responsibility for mission and ministry across the diocese – the wealthier paying more and the poorer paying less) has no equivalent here. And this means that deploying clergy across a diocese is a very different exercise here from in Bradford.

Naturally, this has other consequences. The role of the bishop is not the same as the bishop of a diocese in England where the Church is 'by law established'. Put me and the Bishop of SWVA together with the Bishop of Khartoum in Sudan – our third mutual partner – and we discover that, as I crudely put it, a bishop is not a bishop is not a bishop. Context, history and polity directly shape understanding, ethos, relationship (of clergy to bishop and bishop to people) and practice.

This observation might seem to be what Monty Python calls “the bleeding obvious”. Yet, the obvious isn't always obvious until you look your counterpart in the eye, listen to the language she uses, and ask to what the terminology actually refers. This is an exercise in translation – of words and culture – and it is neither obvious, nor easy.

The media session was followed by a Eucharist for clergy and spouses in the diocese and this was followed by a wonderful lunch and a session for clergy with the Presiding Bishop. It has all been very stimulating. The following caused me to put pen to notebook paper:

  • Some people in the USA who do not buy into the environmental sustainability agenda are finding that expanding poverty is challenging their perception: especially the connection between food, the earth, climate change and migration and their impact.
  • 'Inclusion' has traditionally been used in the church to refer to whom 'we' might wish to include, whereas increasingly we are moving into a world in which 'we' will need to ask who will include us.
  • Clergy a responsible for pastoral discipline, catechetical teaching and associated sacramental provision; their leadership role brings these responsibilities with it and it must be taken seriously as well as creatively. How are 'parishioners' to learn about and understand their place and role in the wider community of the church and not just the local expression of it? Anglicans are – according to their basic ecclesiology – not congregationalists; but, if that is de facto the culture and polity of the TEC expression of the Anglican polity, what are the implications for the church's self-understanding (to say nothing of its mission)?

A final observation that I need to think further about. The Presiding Bishop was clear in a couple of contexts that the church must move to become less hierarchical and more connexional (in the sense of being horizontally networked rather than up-down managed/directed. She also suggested that this is “where the Spirit is leading us”. This echoes some of the discourse in the UK with Fresh Expressions and its assumptions about English societal trends (assumptions I still think are partly questionable). Yet, the bit that struck me was not whether or not this is where the Spirit is leading the church, but who is meant by 'us'.

England is not the USA (for reasons I mention above) and the English parochial system is still essentially 'communal' rather than 'associational'. In other words, 'place' matters to us. When other denominations close down and move out of some of the hard places, the Church of England cannot. Supported and often financed through the diocesan parish share system, presence and engagement are sustained for the sake of the local society and the church's commitment to worship, evangelism and service locally. Buildings are retained where this is sometimes costly and hard to do.

Clearly, all this is contingent on other commitments that are integral to and inherent in English Anglican ecclesiology (and, yes, I do realise that there is a certain apparent tautology in that phrase). The American dynamic and polity are different. This is not to say that the Church of England has it right over against the TEC model – or vice versa; it is to recognise that each brings its own questions, dilemmas and opportunities. However, it also makes clear that we are not comparing like with like – even when we use the same language to describe different phenomena.

We live in different worlds, but in the same world. And that is why such diocesan partnership links are so important not only to the Anglican Communion, but also to the wider Christian Church. When we look at the Episcopal Church in Sudan (ECS) through the lens of TEC or the C of E, or TEC through the lens of ECS and the C of E, or the C of E through the lens of TEC and ECS – especially where all three are held together in conversation and committed relationship – we learn (a) just how difficult translation is, (b) that the contingent challenges and opportunities are complex, and (c) that we need each other to provide those lenses without which we become easily and arrogantly self-justifying.

(I prepared for this visit by reading E.L. Doctorow's Civil War novel The March. Probably a bit tactless, really.)

 

Since returning from the big gig in Germany last week there hasn't been much time for blogging. Life is full and the days are demanding. But, Alex Ferguson has retired, so a new world beckons.

But, even this causes me a problem. David Moyes, Ferguson's successor as manager of Manchester United, is hugely impressive in every way – despite having spent over ten years with Everton. How can I now start dissing him just because he's going over to the Dark Side? I realise that there are more complex ethical issues, but this is a tough one for a Scousers like me.

Anyway, I haven't had time to recover from the exertions of the wonderful Kirchentag in Hamburg. Today, for example, I met with the police early in the morning. Then I went to a brilliant primary school and taught over 400 children a couple of songs in their assembly. Having toured the school with two children, I then went back into Bradford to be one of the speakers at the national launch of Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). Back to this in a minute, but just to complete the diary stuff… I took a couple of excellent education people to lunch before meeting a vicar at home, doing diocesan finances with the Chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance, having a diary session with my secretary, writing a piece for the June edition of the Bradford Diocesan News, then joining the Sikh Forum for wonderful hospitality at their big Vaisakhi celebration.

The big news, however, was the launch of CAASE. This body has been founded by various bodies such as the Islamic Society of Britain and Hope not Hate. They reined in the police, local councillors, community leaders and me. Despite problems of communication and association in the planning of today's event, it marked an important development. And why is this significant?

The grooming of young girls for sexual exploitation is appalling and news is constantly breaking about such shocking predatory criminality. This is a human problem and a male problem (principally). Yet, there is always a particular cultural context to every instance of such abuse. In West Yorkshire the pattern is broadly that online grooming is a white phenomenon, whilst street grooming is almost entirely the domain of Asian men. And here we need to sound a loud note of caution.

Much reporting of sex grooming is loose with the language. 'Asian' is a broad term and many Asians are fed up with being lumped in with criminal cultural behaviour from other parts of the continent. Secondly, to confuse religion (Islam) with ethnicity (Pakistani Kashmiri Mirpuri, for example) is not only a category error, but can lead to serious misrepresentation and misunderstanding. When using language in such circumstances we must be clear and precise.

My contribution was simply to commend the Asians and Muslims who have had the courage to grasp this difficult nettle. Demonstrating maturity and courage, bodies such as the Bradford Council for Mosques, the Bradford Muslim Women's Council and the Bradford Imams Forum have refused – against pressure from some who find it too hard to face the reality of such shameful criminality in their midst – to hide from their responsibility. When it comes to the particular forms of exploitation carried out by Asian men, then it is the Asian and Muslim communities that need to take the lead in addressing it.

This is not my line; rather, it is the line given to me by Asian Muslims. I will stand by them and support them, but they have to take the lead here. And they have recognised that if they don't shape how they handle this phenomenon, they will always be reacting defensively to the lead taken by those who wish to make political points out of the situation.

Yes, sexual grooming is not an 'Asian' issue; but, there is an Asian issue with grooming here in West Yorkshire and elsewhere. The particular must be addressed and not hidden behind the general. (Something the church knows a good deal about…)

Facing this challenge here in West Yorkshire requires mature and confident leadership – and we are seeing this emerge. It also raises challenges for patriarchy and the treatment of women by men generally. Cultural behaviours that diminish women must be challenged. In fact, we heard from a Muslim woman that although their girls are taught about spotting the seductions of potential exploitative approaches and relationships, the boys are not. Models of patriarchal mysogeny are perpetuated.

Here in Bradford there is a really encouraging waking up to the realities that need to be tackled here. This offers immense hope for the future and I end the day encouraged.

 

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

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Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

It seems that anyone can call himself a poet these days. Just put words together with some sort of vague rhyme and suddenly Milton's got a rival – Shakespeare's under style-threat.

Yet, poetry is more than this. It has to be worked at. Words have to be shaped and re-shaped in order to squeeze evocation from them, forge associations, echo emotion, pierce the predictable and let the light in through the cracks that secure our familiarities.

Bruce Cockburn always saw, however, that it is the poets who awaken imagination and do the stuff politicians can never do:

Male female slave or free / Peaceful or disorderly / Maybe you and he will not agree / But you need him to show you new ways to see.

Don't let the system fool you / All it wants to do is rule you / Pay attention to the poet / You need him and you know it

An old mate of mine has retired from being a vicar and now proclaims himself to be a poet. And I think he is. He sent me the draft of his first collection of poems and I liked them. So, I offered a strong endorsement… and was glad to do so. Paul Canon Harris has produced a book that repays re-reading because the poems themselves make you stop – make your imagination quietly fire up.

Best Before should not have a sell-by date.

Last week I interviewed fourteen ordinands prior to their ordination as priest (yesterday evening) or deacon (this morning) in Bradford Cathedral. Since Thursday they have been on retreat at the gorgeous Parcevall Hall.

One of the questions I asked them (apart from: “Why should we ordain you?”) was how they might summarise the gospel – or the biblical story – in a single sentence. It wasn't easy. But, I still remain convinced that if the church and its ministers are to communicate into a sound bite and visual culture, we must work harder at the words we use – especially when put on the spot by people who have no idea about Christian faith (even if they think they do).

One good one came after some discussion and is the sort of line that opens up, rather than shutting down, further inquisition: “You can't pin God down… but we did nail him.”

I still come back to something I once said on the radio when unexpectedly asked what was the point of the church. I simply blagged: “The job of the church is to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God.”

I am open to other creative suggestions! But the point is that we need to work hard at finding and shaping language, then using it repeatedly to see how it works and if it resonates.

In similar vein, I was watching a DVD of a film about the great Leonard Cohen – my daughter and son-in-law gave it to me recently. Towards the end Cohen said with a smile: “For many years I was known as a monk. I shaved my head and wore robes and got up very early. I hated everyone, but I acted generously and no one found me out.”

Discuss.

 

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