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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It was announced last week that the BBC is to shake up its commissioning briefs (so to speak).

According to reports, four of the BBC’s most senior commissioners will have their roles closed as part of a major overhaul of the factual division. The restructuring, which is being overseen by factual commissioning controller Emma Swain, is aimed at saving money and re-focusing the division ahead of the proposed closure of BBC3.

Basically, three-and-a-half head of commissioning roles will be removed and another created. This will result in the department having six commissioning heads, compared to eight-and-a-half currently.

The bit that interests me particularly is where this puts religion in the new scheme of things. One of the posts to go is that of Aaqil Ahmed, who currently combines being head of Religion & Ethics with being commissioning editor television.

The proposed three newly created head of commissioning roles will cover:

· Head of science, business, history and religion (specialist factual)
· Head of documentaries, current affairs and BBC3
· Head of specialist features and natural history

There will be consequences for other people involved in commissioning in the factual division.

This might all make perfect sense and be a rational and productive structural change within the BBC. But, in the absence of more detail, it also raises important questions:

Who will take overall responsibility in the BBC for the range, quantity and quality of the religious coverage? Or will this be left as a sort of “fill in” content?
How much, and what sort of, religious programming does the BBC expect of each of its tv networks?
3. Why is there no BBC news religion editor to complement the science, economics, business, political, financial, arts and sports editors?

This is not about special pleading by religious interest groups. At a time when it is impossible to understand the modern world – its politics, economics, military and humanitarian events – without understanding religion, why is religion not being prioritised as needing expert interpretation in the public and broadcast sphere? You don’t have to have a religious bone in your body to see the need for this sort of exploration and interpretation in the media. Whether personally religious or not, religion cannot be avoided by any serious observer as a serious factor in shaping – for good or ill – the actions and motivations of people and communities.

So, where will religion sit in the company of science, business and history? And who will be well-informed enough in all four of these areas to give adequate priority to each?

My questions arise from the limited information I have read. They should not be interpreted as suspicious or negative. But, the answers to these key questions will be interesting.

This is the text of a letter I have sent to the Prime Minister and which will be referenced in national media tomorrow.

Recognising the complexities of such matters and the difficult role of the Prime Minister in them, I wrote the letter as a constructive stimulus to discussion of the wider questions provoked by what is happening in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Attempting to fix the immediate will prove costly in every respect, if we don't have a long-term, overarching and holistic vision for what we – along with other governments, agencies and partners (such as the churches) – need to achieve. The lack of clarity about such a comprehensive and coherent vision is being commonly remarked upon, and my letter seeks concisely and respectfully to elicit some response to these serious questions.

 

Dear Prime Minister,

Iraq and IS

I am conscious of the speed at which events are moving in Iraq and Syria, and write recognising the complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges faced by the international community in responding to the crises in Syria and Iraq.

However, in common with many bishops and other correspondents here in the UK, I remain very concerned about the Government’s response to several issues. I write with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury to put these questions to you.

1. It appears that, in common with the United States and other partners, the UK is responding to events in a reactive way, and it is difficult to discern the strategic intentions behind this approach. Please can you tell me what is the overall strategy that holds together the UK Government’s response to both the humanitarian situation and what IS is actually doing in Syria and Iraq? Behind this question is the serious concern that we do not seem to have a coherent or comprehensive approach to Islamist extremism as it is developing across the globe. Islamic State, Boko Haram and other groups represent particular manifestations of a global phenomenon, and it is not clear what our broader global strategy is – particularly insofar as the military, political, economic and humanitarian demands interconnect. The Church internationally must be a primary partner in addressing this complexity.

2. The focus by both politicians and media on the plight of the Yezidis has been notable and admirable. However, there has been increasing silence about the plight of tens of thousands of Christians who have been displaced, driven from cities and homelands, and who face a bleak future. Despite appalling persecution, they seem to have fallen from consciousness, and I wonder why. Does your Government have a coherent response to the plight of these huge numbers of Christians whose plight appears to be less regarded than that of others? Or are we simply reacting to the loudest media voice at any particular time?

3. As yet, there appears to have been no response to pleas for asylum provision to be made for those Christians (and other minorities) needing sanctuary from Iraq in the UK. I recognise that we do not wish to encourage Christians or other displaced and suffering people to leave their homeland – the consequences for those cultures and nations would be extremely detrimental at every level – but for some of them this will be the only recourse. The French and German governments have already made provision, but there has so far been only silence from the UK Government. Therefore, I ask for a response to the question of whether there is any intention to offer asylum to Iraqi migrants (as part of a holistic strategy to addressing the challenges of Iraq)?

4. Following on from this, I note that the Bishop of Coventry tabled a series of questions to HM Government in the House of Lords on Monday 28 July. All but two were answered on Monday 11 August. The outstanding questions included the following: “The Lord Bishop of Coventry to ask Her Majesty’s Government what consideration they have given to resettling here in the UK a fair proportion of those displaced from ISIS controlled areas of Northern Iraq.” I would be grateful to know why this question has not so far been answered – something that causes me and colleagues some concern.

5. Underlying these concerns is the need for reassurance that a commitment to religious freedom will remain a priority for the Government, given the departure of ministers who championed this. Will the Foreign Secretary's Human Rights Advisory Panel continue under the new Foreign Secretary? Is this not the time to appoint an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom – which would demonstrate the Government’s serious commitment to developing an overarching strategy (backed by expertise) against Islamist extremism and violence?.

I look forward to your considered response to these pressing questions.

Yours sincerely,

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines (The Bishop of Leeds)

 

 

This the script for this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the eve of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day:

A rabbi once spoke about how, when memory becomes history, the history becomes a commodity over which people can fight. Memory is held by those people who witnessed or participated in the events themselves. But, as the generations of those who fought in the world wars of the twentieth century now begin to die out, the need to remember well becomes acute.

Well, seventy years ago this morning thousands of soldiers were marching towards the South Coast of England. The plans for the invasion of France had been developed in secret and the time for action had arrived. It is evident from many of the stories told by people involved that the day before the invasion was tense.

Soldiers walking towards the coast knew that something big was about to happen and the locals along the way sensed that this wasn’t just yet another exercise. Clearly, some soldiers suspected that they were going to their death and emptied their pockets of money and cigarettes, handing them to civilians with words such as, “I won’t have any use for these in the future.”

This is where real courage lies. Not just in the fighting when you get there and there is nothing else to do but go for it. The day before, as you walk towards the coast, knowing you might be walking to your death, and your imagination is running riot – that is courage. Picturing the people you might be leaving behind, yet keeping on going – that is courage.

At the root of this is a confrontation with mortality. If ever there were a group of people who were – in the words of the German philosopher Heidegger – ‘beings towards death’ – it was surely these men. Heidegger was making the point that the way we face our dying shapes the way we live our lives – being confronted with our mortality is actually the key that unlocks our freedom to live.

I guess that the soldiers marching south seven decades ago today had mixed feelings. Some would be recklessly longing for action, others would be filled with fear. Some would be looking ahead to what might come, others looking back to what might be lost for ever. But, the common experience was clearly the awareness of mortality.

At the root of Christian faith is this – I would say counter-cultural – starting recognition that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Everything else springs from that. Whether in our bed or in battle – not the only options, clearly – we shall one day die, and we need to come to terms with that reality.

Today we could do worse than imagine ourselves in the shoes of those soldiers. Thousands died on D-Day. But, the dust to which they returned still speaks of the life they lived – and why it was worth losing it.

One of the reasons I wanted to read Christopher Clark's epic book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 was its rampant popularity in Germany. Why, when Germany is keeping the 2014 centenary fairly low key, is a detailed history book such as this so popular there?

Well, one reason is that the book explains the complexity of events, relationships, myths, commitments and errors that led to the bloodbath, and makes it clear what Germany's role actually was. To put it really simply: how did Austria's need for revenge against Serbia for the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife turn into a wider conflict that killed millions and ended up with the blame being pinned solely on Germany. This is Clark's question, too. The Treaty of Versailles reads differently in the light of this treatment. Clark says:

We need to distinguish between the objective factors acting on the decision-makers and the stories they told themselves and each other about what they thought they were doing and why they were doing it. All the key actors in our story filtered the world through narratives that were built from pieces of experience glued together with fears, projections and interests masquerading as maxims. (p.558)

He then concludes:

… the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

The 'they' he refers to are the politicians. But, there are, of course, others. And of particular interest are the media. Newspapers were used by the political classes to propagate the myths the politicians wanted developed, and they also propagated the myths they themselves wanted to believe in – a greater Serbdom, the German monster, etc. Nothing new here, then. But, this reinforces a point I have made many times – one that irritates the hell out of some journalists – which is that the media do not only hold the powerful to account, but need to be held to account themselves because they are also a 'power'. Which is why the Daily Mail's myth-building about immigrants (for example) is not somehow neutral, but shapes myths that lead to preferences and actions that take on a self-justifying life of their own. (Clark refers at one point to how 'the public interest' actually means 'published interest'.)

The other element of Clark's book that disturbs is one I mentioned earlier: blame. In his narrative – which is so detailed it can give you a headache – it is clear that the essential conflict was between Serbia (which lied through its teeth and was supported in its fantasy by Russia) and Austria-Hungary. Caught between Russia and France, Germany had to sort out its own alignments and see where the alliance bloc axes might fall in the event of conflict between Serbia and the Habsburgs. Until very late on, the conflict was not about Germany, and Germany was trying not to get involved.

But, we need someone to blame. Germany got nailed with the whole shebang, which led to its own gnawing sense of injustice, which sowed the seeds of further conflict, which just shows that the only outcome worth going for is one of justice and not simply triumph. So, what happened to the guilt of the French, the Russians and the British? Or, which was where the whole thing began, of the Serbs?

There is much that could be said, but Clark's book is essential reading in 2014 as we begin to remember the events of 1914. Selective remembering in a way that simply accords with the particular myths we want to preserve (usually in order to address current realities) is tempting, but ultimately inadequate. If Europe's great powers, blinded by the assumed demands of their complex alliances, sleepwalked a world into its bloodiest war (using the latest technology to devise ever better ways of killing people – and laying waste to the Myth of Progress tied in with assumptions about the triumph of science… divorced, of course, from the base realities of human failure), shouldn't any commemoration do justice to the facts and be shaped around penitence?

Perhaps each act of commemoration should include politicians admitting their limitations and failings and asking for understanding and forgiveness from the people? Perhaps those who shape our worldview by their representation in the media should admit their place as 'powers' and myth-builders and confess to their limitations and weaknesses? And then the rest of us should ask forgiveness for believing the stuff that is poured upon us and for denying our responsibility to understand the interplay of politics, media and myth?

This isn't a gripe. It is a real concern arising from a reading of history that cannot but leave anyone with their brain engaged and conscience alive feeling disturbed. As I wrote in my last post, how does this bear on our understanding of Russia's resurgence and its machinations in the Crimea and other parts of its old empire?

These questions do not go away. The forms might change (1914 did not have television or the Internet), but the substance doesn't. Human beings are collective myth-builders and responsibility-deniers, shapers of events and re-shapers of the stories of those events. That is how we are. I guess I am asking that we just publicly admit it.

[Addendum: A crucial sentence got lost when I posted this earlier. It reads: “And religious leaders should renounce the 'God on our side' game that gives violence a rationale that cannot be justified.”]

Good grief. The debate about foodbanks continues in the UK media, sometimes getting distracted by stuff that misses the point.

OK, the Daily Mail has no alternative but to ridicule the bishops and bang its particular drum. The Times goes a bit weird by suggesting that the bishops are out of touch with their congregations who, according to a poll, are right behind the need for benefits reform. This raises two points: (a) our congregations are also pretty solidly behind reform of banking and tax fraud by the rich, but that is being missed; (b) bishops aren't there to parrot the views of parishioners, but to tell the truth regardless. There is plenty of debate within the church about such matters, but the bishops are not simply the mouthpiece of particular constituencies.

This has always been the vocation of church leaders. As the Germans found out in the 1930s and '40s, church leaders are there to describe reality and not to collude in whatever view the masses are led to believe.

But, this week's golden exclamation mark must go, once again, to the Independent. Are they employing five year olds to write their leader editorials? I had a go at a silly piece some months ago, and here they are again with the same old brain-dead nonsense. To think this stuff is crass, but to publish it as intellectually credible is unbelievable. I obviously wasted my words last time.

Try this from today's anonymous editorial:

If the facts are undeniable, though, the right of the Church to meddle in politics is absolutely not. Not only do religious leaders come by their public podia by dint of a historical influence at odds with modern secular democracy, but their claims of moral authority are also hardly as absolute as they seem. It is difficult for an archbishop’s remonstrances on the subject of the poor and hungry to be anything but the final moral word, and yet they are subject to the same limitations as any other political perspective… But anecdotal evidence metamorphosed into an unassailable moral position via an institution that no longer represents more than a tiny fraction of the population does more harm than good. David Cameron’s assessment is back to front. The bishops’ facts are fine. Their belief in a divine right to be heard is not.

Where to start?

1. Who does have a right to 'meddle in politics'? Unelected newspaper editors? Everyone but bishops? Muslims? Atheists? Every citizen has a right and a duty to meddle in politics. Can the Independent please expose and explain the assumptions (prejudices?) that underlie this repeated nonsense? Who else should be removed from public democratic debate?

2. Bishops do not come by their public podia by dint of historical influence. If the writer wants to bang on about bishops in the House of Lords, then let him/her say so and we can have that debate. But, this latest bash isn't about that and didn't emanate from bishops in Parliament. Does the editor really believe that bishops should simply keep quiet about anything in the public square? What does he/she think a bishop is? And, again, who else should be kept quiet in the public democratic debate? Or does 'secular democracy' really mean that only people with a non-religious world view should be privileged with access to that public square? And who said?

3. Can the writer show us where the bishops made any claim to 'absolute moral authority'? They told a story and argued a case. By all means, knock it down, if it not true or if the story is selective. But, where is the claim to absolute moral authority? This, again, simply amplifies the unarticulated and uncritical prejudice of the writer. A five year old would be embarrassed to still be trotting out this stuff.

4. 'Unassailable moral position'? Which century is the writer living in here?

5. Doesn't a democracy assume that even the tiniest group with the most hesitant voice has a right to be heard, a right to be involved and a right to be thought potentially right? Anyway, bishops do not represent a constituency as an MP represents his or hers. The independent might not like this – and obviously doesn't – but it will have to find a better intellectual ground for its prejudice than this spurious ex cathedra put down.

6. What 'more harm than good' does the writer actually think has happened here? Again, unexplained, unarticulated and worthy of an unelected, morally superior elite who can pass judgement without accountability.

7. When did the bishops assume a 'divine right to be heard'? This is a joke, right? Just journalese gone a bit too far? Surely?

Clearly, more dangerous than bishops telling a story and arguing a case in the public square – on the basis that they can articulate their case effectively (sometimes…) – is a 'neutral' newspaper arrogating to itself everything it will deny of citizens-with-a-religious-world-view. But, really, this is just a joke. The Independent should do better than this. It could start by owning up to its prejudices, subjecting them to informed debate, and identifying who it is who keeps writing this stuff.

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.

 

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