This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Loving your neighbour as yourself is harder than it sounds. But, I would argue, it is also much more interesting than it seems. For example, it assumes that we might need to get to know our neighbour, and, at least, try to look through their eyes.

If travel does broaden the mind, then holidays such as this weekend when many Brits are enjoying a break abroad, surely open up the opportunity to look, listen and learn differently. And this is where we hit the problem: language.

Almost all Brits abroad will expect the natives to understand and speak English. And, to our embarrassment, they probably will. And they will pride themselves on their polyglottal skills.

Language learning in Britain continues to decline. According to statistics reported in newspapers last week, the numbers studying languages at school and university are falling fast. Some voices claim that this really doesn’t matter – that we can pick up a bit of German or Spanish later in life … if and when we need it.

Except that a language is not a commodity that can be simply picked off the shelf when convenient or expedient. To learn a language is more than to wield a tool; rather, it is to inhabit the world that language shapes.

At the age of 91 the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote that we can’t understand our own culture unless we look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do this we need to know language. In fact, he suggested learning two. For most Europeans this isn’t a problem; they constantly cross borders and entertain foreigners. Communication matters beyond mere functionality.

Not so here. It seems to me that political language in the UK has been coloured by the assumption that anything has value only in so far as it fulfils an economic end. Accordingly, we too easily regard language learning as a waste of time unless it leads to high-earning job in the future. But, I remember a German businessman in a hotel explaining to a monoglot British counterpart that although their negotiations were done in English the English couldn’t understand what was being said behind their backs – and that this put the Brits at a disadvantage. No response.

And this is why it is vital that children and young people learn other languages – at least in order to open their minds to different ways of seeing, thinking and interpreting the world. If loving your neighbour assumes knowing your neighbour, then learning the odd language opens up a world of wonders.

And let it be said at times of international insecurity, stress and fear: there is never a more important time to listen through the ears and look through the eyes of my neighbour – if only to see ourselves as we are seen.

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Still away on holiday, I get back to wifi-land and get pointed to an article in yesterday's Observer newspaper. It seems that language learning in England, rather than getting stronger, is melting like snow. And all that those responsible for UK universities can say in response is that this is the way the market works: supply and demand.

So, fewer children learn a foreign language. Fewer take examinations in a foreign language at GCSE and A Level. The number of universities offering degree courses in modern languages will have halved in just over a decade. And the UK is shamelessly unembarrassed about producing generations of people who speak only their own native language. This is shocking.

I bang on about this stuff frequently – just put “language” in the search on this blog to find them. Not because I think I think language learning should be privileged over other disciplines, but because, if access to all disciplines is through the medium of language, then language learning is hugely important.

I am about to go out, so here is the Observer's report from yesterday and here a comment piece from David Bellos. I would simply add the following at this point:

  • Not learning a foreign language deprives people of a whole dimension of culture: communication, arts, translation 'depth';
  • We ignore the Schmidt doctrine: that we can only understand our own culture if we look through the lens of another culture… and that means knowing something of the other's language;
  • Losing our linguists seriously disadvantages the UK economically and politically – we never know what they are really saying behind our backs;
  • We reveal ourselves to be culturally arrogant;

Add to this the following and you begin to see the problem:

  • Do we really believe that every discipline should simply be left to the market in shaping what sort of country we are and what sort of people we think we should be growing through our education system? Are we really that random? Are we really that culturally illiterate already?

Yes, I would say this, wouldn't I?

But, I have also just spent a week with great Swiss friends who easily move between several languages; go into any bar or restaurant in obscure little northern Italian villages and the local waitresses will move between languages without show or embarrassment.

We should be ashamed. More to the point, however, we should be deeply worried about where we are heading and why.

 

All has been quiet on the blogging front – again. No loss of interest, but just life being full and a lack of conviction that I have anything useful to say about anything. I might have commented on Mark Thompson's appointment in the USA or developments in Syria or the usual preoccupations of the Church of England or Robin van Persie's move to Manchester United or Bruce Cockburn's gig coming up in Selby on 6 September or several other matters. Even the post-Olympics funny stuff might have got a look in if I could have been bothered. I thought of reviewing a book I was sent over a year ago, but, having read it, a review would have been unkind, so I decided not to do it.

Feeble-hearted, I know.

But, then, last weekend our house got burgled and the culprit (who has been very clearly caught on CCTV) nicked my computer and my car. So far neither have been found. So, the first week of holiday has been taken up with police and the sheer hassle of trying to recover data. I'll come back later to the conundrum that really takes the pip.

Anyway, the burglary and it's associated inconveniences account for the 'loss' element of the title. The local newspaper did a piece in which I apparently 'condemned' as 'sick' the burglar. Just for the record: I didn't condemn anyone; I only said I 'felt sick' when I saw what had happened. But, the paper does a good job exposing such crimes.

So, before leaving home today for a break away (in a place where I am assured there is very poor mobile reception and no Internet connection… a bit like a planet without air), I noticed Samira Ahmed's Guardian article about the learning of German in the light of yesterday's A Level results. She highlights the very concerns I have been banging on about here for the last few years – that language learning (not 'teaching' – that's a different matter) in England is so poor and given such a low priority that our young people will eventually find themselves culturally impoverished, professionally disadvantaged and intellectually weakened by their monolingualism. As Ahmed points out, we Brits are missing a trick with German and Germany – but we will only really notice the cost in twenty or thirty years time.

So, here I am. In Liverpool watching our two year old grandson grow before my eyes. He and his mum are coming on holiday with us. And when we get back at the end of next week we will see Liverpool hammer Manchester City at Anfield before heading home. The new season begins, my fantasy league team is ready, optimism is high. And holiday will see me get stuck into four Patrick Gale novels before I tackle Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies.

And my query? My iPad was synced to my computer. The computer has been stolen. If I now try to sync my iPad to my new computer, it will only do it by erasing anything on the iPad that isn't on iCloud or wasn't bought from iTunes. Is it possible to sync what I have on my iPad onto my new computer (iMac) – so that I won't lose my apps, downloaded music and everything in iBooks? Or am I stuffed?

Yesterday was a bit worrying. During my sermon at a Confirmation service in Ilkley an elderly woman began to look unwell. As I came in to land she lost consciousness and, assisted by medics in the congregation, slid to the floor. She came round and was eventually taken off to hospital for a check up. When I got home I picked up my eighteen month old grandson, Ben, and he promptly vomited all over me and the kitchen floor. I began to think that if the service at the cathedral later went wrong, I’d begin to take it personally.

Anyway, last week saw some interesting stuff flying around the e-sphere:

1. A new magazine for Muslims has been produced, called Critical Muslim. I haven’t seen a copy and am not sure how its appearance on the scene has been received within the Muslim community, but it is an interesting development. Dr Philip Lewis’s appraisal is worth a look.

2. Nick Spencer did a great parody of the nonsense trotted out by some of the uncritical New Atheists – that religion is dangerous and divisive and should be confined to the dark corners of private entertainment. He starts from the idea that people claim that sport is a religion. It only gets funnier from there.

3. Giles Fraser hits the nail further on the head with an account of how Nietzsche contributed to his conversion to Christianity.

4. Will Hutton bangs the drum for language learning to be taken more seriously in the UK. I bang on about it often enough, but Hutton is better at pointing out that the philistines in government are unlikely to advocate a culture they themselves don’t ‘get’.

5. Leonard Cohen’s new album has been acquired and is being listened to to death. That voice has been lived in. We used to say that Cohen did ‘music to slit your wrists to’, but this caricature has always only exposed ignorance or illiteracy. He is funny, astute, ironic and wonderfully honest about being a complicated human being. My favourite lines from Old Ideas

Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began

This week?

I have just arrived in London ahead of the General Synod which meets here until Thursday. The key item on the agenda is the matter of how we move ahead with bishops who might turn out to be women. It’s no secret that the debate is somewhat fraught – after all, this is one of only two issues that the media have any concern for (the other one being sexuality). Lots of other good stuff that drives and characterises the Church of England’s work in parishes and dioceses won’t get a mention, but the ‘loud stuff’ must not be allowed to distract us from what we should be about on the ground.

The torment about female bishops looks something like this. The Church has agreed that there should be no bar to women being bishops. The debate is about what provision should be made for those who cannot accept this. Huge financial provision was made back in 1992 when the Synod agreed to ordain women as priests. Twenty years on there are those who think enough time and provision has been made already. Then, the question is if the Church should create a ‘safe place’ for those who cannot accept ministry from women or men who have ordained women (like me).

There are many who wish to hold the Church together and make space in the Big Tent for the range of voices and commitments, but don’t want to set up first and second-class bishops. The pastoral urge to hold everyone in is tempered by the pastoral wisdom that advocates (a) making a decision, (b) ending the uncertainty and muddle, and (c) allowing everyone concerned to move on. Clarity has to be better than eternal muddle.

But, it is the understanding of what counts as ‘pastoral’ and to whom ‘pastoral provision’ is made that lies at the heart of the heart-searching going on in the Synod this week. And that is why debate is impassioned: we take stuff seriously and are not indifferent either to the theological/ecclesiological issues or the pastoral/people implications and consequences of the decisions we make. However, if it wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now that some circles simply cannot be squared. I am not aware of anyone – of any persuasion – who is looking forward with unalloyed joy to this week’s debates.

Liverpool beating Tottenham Hotspur this evening might come as a welcome distraction…

 

I know I bang on a bit about the linguistic incompetence of the English, but toady I read something on the train to London that pushed all my prejudice buttons.

In today’s Guardian Jonathan Freedland has a good go at the (usually untested) arguments for the massive pay differentials in some of our businesses. The usual rationale has something to do with the assumption that our ‘best’ talent would go abroad if we brought what the boss of Barclays called the ‘compensation’ levels down to something that resembled ‘earnings’. In other words, we would be left with second-division executives who lack the ambition or the hunger to up sticks and emigrate.

He responds to this by recognising that rare skills can legitimately demand rare salaries – but also that the skills of those who earn huge amounts are not exactly rare.

?… Our objection to telephone-number salaries goes deeper. What it comes down to is desert – a notion so deeply ingrained that, yes, even a seven-year-old can grasp it: the belief that people should deserve the rewards they get.

… Most people have long accepted that there will be a differential in pay that, in the hoary example, the brain surgeon will earn more than the dustman. People understand that some skills are rare and therefore command a greater premium. They even accept that this can result in extreme outcomes, with the likes of Wayne Rooney trousering £250,000 a week. But none of that logic applies to the current state of corporate pay.

Rooney is truly a one in a hundred million talent; there might be just two dozen people in the world who could match his skills. But with all due respect to Bob Stack, that is not true of him. Nor can it possibly be true of the 2,800 staff in 27 UK-based banks who, according to the Financial Services Authority, received more than £1m each in 2009. Whatever these people are able to do, it’s clearly not rare.

Ah, comes the reply, but these are the cream of the international crop, among the very best bankers in the world. The commission report blows a hole in that tired argument, revealing there’s hardly any cross-border poaching of corporate talent. Not many of our monolingual high earners could work abroad and even fewer would want to. They like it here and do not have to be paid lottery jackpot money to stay.

Notice the (almost) aside? ‘Monolingual’ high earners? We consistently underestimate the economic cost of our linguistic incompetence – to say nothing of the cultural and experiential deficit.

So, those are the buttons Freedland pressed for me: critique of the absurd and unjustifiable differentials, a sideswipe at our linguistic incompetence, and some myth-busting about the ‘market’.

And beneath all the fun a serious question about how we value people, what they do, why it matters, and how we need to recover some connection between work and reward.

Twenty years isn’t a long time in the grand sweep of history. Which makes it remarkable that agreements made in a very different world only two decades ago can have had such an impact on how countries and churches relate to each other.

In the mid-1980s Germany was divided and the Cold War was quietly defrosting in Europe. The German Church was also separated by the Berlin Wall and the role of the church in East and West looked very different. The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the GDR and proposed a living connection between the Church of England, the EKD (in West Germany) and the Federation of the Evangelical Churches in the German Democratic Republic.

The result was the Meissen Agreement – written in 1988 and signed at Westminster Abbey in 1991. It was written in a divided Europe and was signed in a different world.

Twenty years later this agreement has formed the basis of most of the Church of England’s European ecumenical developments and paved the way for the multi-national Porvoo process. The Meissen Agreement has led to very effective diocesan and parish links, exchange of people, thinking and expertise, and the establishment of theological, ecclesiological, ethical and other conversations between the churches.

The Meissen Commission meets each September alternately in Germany and England. The national committees meet three times per year in their own country. Added to this are other exchanges, visits and engagements with particular members of the Commission. I have chaired the English Committee for the last five years; the German co-chair is Professor Friedrich Weber, Bishop of Braunschweig and an Ecumenical Canon of Blackburn Cathedral.

In the last five years we have done a good deal of work on (and thinking about) interfaith experience, education (religious, historical and linguistic), and have agitated about the disastrous state of language teaching/learning in England. We have shared experience of church reform, fresh expressions and evangelism in a rapidly changing world. The next five years will see some continuity, but also one or two new points of focus.

The reason for writing this today is simple. This afternoon the Commission began the celebration of it’s twentieth anniversary with a seminar and reception at the German Embassy in London. The German Ambassador is a brilliant man and he hosted not only the seminars on the Meissen Library in Durham and expert reflections on interfaith work in our two countries, but also a very generous reception with nearly 70 guests. It was such a good evening and demonstrated the genuine friendships that have grown between our countries and churches. Bishop Weber reminded us that our parents were enemies – now we are friends.


Work will continue in Limehouse on Friday and Saturday (with visits to see how two churches in the East End are engaging with the Christian Gospel in a multi- faith and multicultural environment). On Sunday I will be preaching at a morning service at the Christuskirche in Knightsbridge (in English, fortunately) before we go to Westminster Abbey for a celebration Evensong at which Bishop Weber will preach. The Commission will conclude it’s work and celebrations on Sunday night and Monday morning. A new Commission will then be appointed for the next five years and I will continue as the English co-chair. There will be some change in the membership of the English Committee – three of the five members will retire this time.

But Meissen, not widely known about in England, is a very significant ecumenical relationship. It is living, is not bureaucratic, and is rooted in real relationships of respect, mutual learning and active friendship.

And it compels me and us to keep banging on about the dire situation in England vis-a-vis language learning. We are impoverished as well as incapacitated by our inability to understand (let alone speak) the languages of others.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:London

… isn’t what it sounds like.

Last night we went into London to meet old friends from university days. It was the thirtieth anniversray of my graduation and a few of us from the University of Bradford Modern Languages department got together for a curry. We got plates and forks and serviettes – which is totally different from what we used to get in the great Bradford curry houses of our youth. But, then again, we are older and more sophisticated now…

What was surprising was how everyone was still recognisable after all these years. Voices and mannerisms are the same. Haircuts have changed – or, in my case, disappeared. But it was funny to realise that the people I thought were über-confident at university were actually wracked with the same insecurities as me. People I thought were the life and soul of the student party also experienced loneliness and all the other stuff that makes us human.

What was really nice, though, was coming away thinking what nice and interesting people they are and how the evening was simply too short to catch up on thirty years.

What was funny was the reminiscences and memories, particularly of times spent working in industry in various parts of Germany and France. And that’s where the title comes in. While I was languishing in isolation and depression in one part of Germany (and, later, Paris), they all seem to have been meeting up and living it up in Munich. I can’t remember now what the story was about dancing in Dachau ( a suburb of Munich) – other than that it would make a great title for a novel – but it was great fun catching up and re-living the past.

While they were dancing in Dachau, I think I was probably reading a book and feeling miserable in Schwäbisch Gmünd. They got the better deal, I think.