A great lunch with the Bundestagspräsident, a former Ministerpräsident of Rheinland-Pfalz and Thüringen (Bernhard Vogel), a French theologian and a Jewish academic – we discussed the NSA revelations, spying on Merkel, the Holocaust and other things – and then back to work.

Wo Sprache endet: Das Verhältnis von Literatur, Transzendenz und Politik was a paper delivered by Professor Dr Lydia Koelle (Bonn). I expected some sort of treatment similar to that by Rowan Williams in his book on 'Dostoyevsky: Language, Faith & Fiction', but what we got didn't seem to address the theme of the title. However, it led to a good question about the transference of 'trauma' from a generation of Germans who did not 'live' the Holocaust, but reads 'trauma' back into an experience that was not actually lived as a trauma by those who actually went through it. (I might be doing this session an injustice, but it was the post-lunch slot and we had wine with lunch…)

Zwischen Medialisierung, Religionskonflikt und Rückkehr der Figuration: Religion in der Kunst am Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts saw Dr Johannes Rauchenberger (Graz, Austria) illustrate how contemporary morally-challenging events are handled in art – for example, Razoume (?) on the recent Lampedusa migration deaths.

Ulrich Khuon, Intendant of the Deutsches Theater in Berlin, was really interesting about theatre and film as he addressed the theme Glaube, Welt und die Kunst des Spiels: Kino und Theater als Seismographen der Gegenwart. He began with Pasolini observing Jesus from a distance in his 'Gospel of St Matthew', then ranged widely around Friedrich Schiller, Mallick and Julian Barnes in relation to death, suffering and the human condition.

Zwischen Skandal und neuer Kunstreligion: Das zwiespältige Verhältnis von Künsten und Religion in der Öffentlichkeit, an exploration of how art provokes and challenges, saw Professor Dr Wolfgang Ullrich (Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung, Karlsruhe) tackle public responses to (a) Gerhard Richter's east window in Cologne Cathedral, and (b) Martin Kippenberger's 'Crucified Frog'. Both caused huge controversy: the former because it subverts both the architctural form and the received nature/purpose of stained-glass windows in churches, and the latter for obvious reasons. The window substitutes traditional biblical images with 11,500 four-inch 'pixels' cut from original antique glass in a total of 72 colours, dividing opinion between those (like the bishop) who hate it and those who say that “all the saints, all the parables, every thought, every idea, transcendence itself are all here in these windows”. Richter observed that the critical bishop had actually understood it: [it is] “gar nicht katholisch.”

Interestingly (and pertinently), the symposium has heard no reference in today's papers to music – a surprising omission. Mind you, there isn't time to cover everything…

I need dinner…

 

Yesterday's overarching theme was: Religion und Säkularität in der Moderne (Religion and secularism in the modern world). The theme of the second day of the symposium in Cadenabbia is: Religion im Spiegel der Öffentlichkeit. The contributions are very academic and intense – inevitable, given that the contributors are university academics.

The first paper this morning was given in English by Professor Gabriel Motzkin, Director of the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem, on the theme of Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen Fundamentalismus und Säkularismus. His starting point was that fundamentalism is possible only where there are texts – text-based communities then use other texts to discuss (and understand) the base text. Fundamentalism replaces the world/nature with a text, this differentiating it from secularism. Therefore, the conflict between fundamentalism and secularism has essentially to do with the possibility or admissability of authoritative texts. Motzkin went on to discuss how human beings “create God”, but concluded that secularists end up with more problems here than the fundamentalists who go beyond mere human agency in the world. This was fast and furious and the ensuing discussion was rich, but it rested on a contentious assumption about terminology and (as I questioned) a confusion between 'secularism'/'atheism' and 'fundamentalism'/'theism'.

The second paper, by Dr Ahmad Milad Karimi (lecturer at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster), addressed the theme: Die Suche nach Gott: Zwischen westlichem und islamischen Denken. This one was in German and I didn't follow some of the complexity of terminology or argument – again, I need the text. However, the key discussion was around problems of transcendence and immanence in a context in which there is a contested assumption about revelation and/or experience.

We then moved on to Gott als Chiffre in der modernen Welt (Professor Dr Traugott Jähnichen from the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum). He basically addressed the problems and legitimacy of 'God language' in political discourse, ranging from John Locke through the (failed) preamble Lisbon Treaty to the statement that we still haven't found a form of discourse that will compensate adequately for that represented by God-talk. Speech about God (which the church must not give away) (a) imposes limits to hubris, (b) owns up to fallibility and leads to the taking of responsibility, and (c) engenders humility.

Spiritualität ohne Gott saw Professor Dr Thomas Schärtl (Universität Augsburg) define – from a philosophical perspective – both 'spirituality' (“the way in which an individual sees/commits himself to the totality of existence within the framework of meaning”) and 'religion' (“how the finite stands in relation to eternity”). He went on to offer diagnostic elements for understanding what shapes spirituality, citing such phenomena as emancipation, immanentism, expansion of choices/options, and consumerism, before looking at Christian concepts such as sin, grace and salvation.

Thinking ahead to my paper tomorrow, I am concerned about two matters that impact on how we address these concerns in the world beyond the academic/conceptual: (a) the context in Europe of common philosophical assumptions about 'neutrality' in the public square, and (b) the need for translation in a pluralist society from the language of one worldview/praxis to those of others.

I need lunch…

 

I wonder if the Daily Mail has finally succeeded in opening the eyes of its apathetic readers to the true nature of its anthropology (that is, what they think is the intrinsic value or meaning of human beings in society).

The Miliband saga has intensified, with expressions of anger from some unlikely people.

What interests me most is how this feeds into a more general problem in the public discourse: the conscious and deliberate corruption of language. It is disingenuous of the Deputy Editor of the Mail to say in yesterday's Newsnight debate with Alastair Campbell that “headlines have to be read in conjunction with the text of the article” when the world and his wife knows (a) that headlines often mislead (deliberately?) and (b) that deliberate association goes beyond the literal text or juxtaposition.

Repeated use of simple phrases makes a powerful appeal to the subconscious that goes beyond the specific words. At the Conservative Party Conference this week the word 'hardworking' hung over and behind the stage on which speeches were made. The word dripped into the rhetoric of many speakers and commentators – as if we all understood what was meant by it and who was included in it. Or assumed to be included in it. Poor hardworking people (in multiple part-time and low-paid jobs and who are increasingly using foodbanks) are clearly not included.

Aren't stay-at-home parents 'hardworking'?

To go back to the Daily Mail furore for a moment: why was it illegitimate to recall the Daily Mail's antisemitism, support for fascism and affection for Adolf Hitler at the same time as deeming it (obviously) legitimate to quote from Ralph Miliband's teenage diary?

As I have argued many times on this blog, the corruption of language is deliberate and very dangerous. It is used to suggest and associate – working at a subliminal level and categorising people without always spelling out what is going on here and why. It is something George Orwell understood very well and articulated very clearly.

“Arbeit macht frei” is a simple and 'true' slogan, isn't it?

It has been remarked that my choice of reading material for a holiday is not 'happy'. The American Civil War, a biography of Leonard Cohen, and now a book about the systematic extermination of Jews in Poland in 1941-2. OK, I see the point.

However, that is just for starters. And the reason I am sitting with my books and iPad in a cafe (with wifi) by a lake while my wife and friends do something else is because I have a seriously dodgy shoulder awaiting treatment when I get back to Bradford.

Right, that's the explanations and excuses dealt with.

Anyway, we had a conversation over breakfast this morning about how individuals, communities or entire nations manage to collude in inhuman behaviour while then proving totally incapable of coming to terms with that behaviour later. Austria has never seriously addressed its complicity with Nazism and the Final Solution; Switzerland's neutrality during the Second World War allowed it the freedom to cover both heroism and quiet cruelty; Rwanda sought to blame the Belgians and the French for sowing the seeds of genocide only twenty years ago.

We were discussing how the ground for dreadful collective behaviour and individual complicity in it is laid by years of cultural and linguistic corruption. Turn Jews and Bolsheviks into categories of 'enemies' and it becomes easier to justify getting rid of them. Spend years referring to 'the other tribe' as “cockroaches” and stamping them out becomes reasonable as well as achievable.

This reminded me of something I heard years ago at Greenbelt. I think it was the great and late-lamented Mike Yaconelli who claimed that the most common cause of death of cattle on the great plains of the American mid-west was “being hit by a train”. Trains and railway tracks were hard to find in the vast expanses of empty land. And the cows didn't set out to find them in order to get flattened by the iron horse. They simply put their head down, nibbled the nearest bit of grass… then moved on to the next piece of grass… and then the next bit… until they had moved a very long way and found themselves nibbling grass in front of tons of moving metal.

They nibbled their way to destruction.

People don't set out to collude in genocide. They just keep their head down and their eyes narrowly focused. They attend to the immediate business to hand and don't look up to see the bigger picture. But, one day they find themselves in front of a train.

Which is how and why Ordinary Men end up doing extraordinarily terrible things to other people.

 

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.)

 

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