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.

 

The newspapers variously report today on the debate in the House of Commons about foodbanks.

OK, make allowances for the natural party-political hype and journalistic attribution of motive to anyone with whom they disagree, but this still makes anyone with an eye on our future social stability worry. There might be very good reasons why Iain Duncan-Smith left the debate early and refused to speak in it; and there might be reasons why the government benches laughed while stories of poverty and serious hardship were being related from the benches opposite. I wasn't there, wasn't able to follow the debate (I have a day job), and am not in a position to judge.

However, the existence and proliferation of foodbanks should be a source of shame and shock, not an excuse to score political points. We shouldn't turn our horror at the impact and implications of austerity onto mocking IDS as he leaves the chamber early. This isn't about him; our focus should be on constantly holding before him and those with power the consequences of the value systems driving policy at present.

I wonder if anyone referenced Fr Timothy Radcliffe's recent Romero lecture. If not, they should have done. It should be read in full (despite the alarming number of typos). Poverty, especially as experienced by the young, will infect generations to come, and influence their identity/solidarity with wider society. When George Osborne asserts that “we are in it together,” there will be a generation of cynics who will wonder what the 'it' was.

… “forgive me for being vastly oversimplistic. The poor suffer violence in our society too. Everywhere food banks are opening because ever more people in Britain, the sixth richest country in the world, simply cannot afford to eat. Children arrive hungry at school every morning. Millions of people, especially the young, see no future, no hope. Cathy Corcoran from the Cardinal Hume Centre said to me: ‘If you are a long term street homeless person in the UK your life expectancy is mid- 40s max – if you have an intravenous drug issue on top then it comes down to the mid-30s.’ People disappeared from the streets of San Salvador because they were murdered by death squads. They disappear from our streets because they die. Our country is afflicted by a vast, hidden violence on the poorest. If we do not open our eyes to it and respond, then it will surely erupt and destroy our society before long.

Our blindness to this violence is not just due to ignorance. The way that we see the world filters out the dramas of their lives. The French anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu says that every society has a cognitive map which silences some people. They disappear into what he calls ‘social silences.’

This is for at least two reasons. In our world everything is quantified, measured, administered. David Graeber writes that it is ‘money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic’ which justifies ‘things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene.’ Of course statistics matter. I am a great fan of the admirable Office for National Statistics. It keeps politicians truthful. But if numbers shape our cognitive map, then the poor will disappear and we shall not register the violence that they endure.” (Fr Timothy Ratcliffe)

 

This is the text of my paper to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung symposium in Cadenabbia, Italy, on Religion in the Public Space on 29 October 2013.

Der Weg der Kirche von England gegenüber Unwissen und Distanz zu religiösem Glaube

Ich möchte mit einer Frage anfangen: Für wen ist die Kirche von England eigentlich da? Denn, wie Bob Dylan es formuliert: “The times they are a-changin'”. Und die Kirche existiert nicht primär für diejenigen, die jeden Sonntag an einem Gottesdienst teilnehmen, sondern für alle, die in England leben, ob sie gläubig sind oder nicht.

In England unterliegen wir nicht dem Irrtum, das Christentum sei tot. Es sind diejenigen Formen des Christentums und der Kirche, die im Britischen Empire entstanden und im 19. Jahrhundert exportiert wurden, die im 20. Jahrhundert anfingen dahinzusiechen, als Europa von Kriegen und Gewalt erschüttert wurde und Fragen laut wurden über Gott, die Geschichte und die Rolle (Bedeutung? )der Menschheit. Die bisherigen Überzeugungen über den Platz und die Rolle der Kirche in der Gesellschaft wurden in diesem Jahrhundert erschüttert, und zu Beginn des 21. Jahrhunderts sind Religion allgemein und das Christentum im besonderen leichte Beute für herablassende Ablehnung sowohl in der akademischen wie der populären Kultur.

Heutzutage müssen wir einfallsreich, selbstbewusst und fantasievoll sein, wenn wir den Ort und die Bedeutung des christlichen Glaubens für das persönliche und das öffentliche Leben beschreiben und dafür streiten wollen. Wir müssen Wege finden, das Evangelium von Jesus Christus so zu beschreiben – und als Zeugen dieses Evangeliums zu leben – die Menschen zur Kirche ziehen. Und wir müssen junge Christen ausbilden, die bislang keine Ahnung haben von der Bibel oder irgendeiner christlichen Geschichte. Mit anderen Worten: Die Kirche muss sich ihren Platz in der Gesellschaft verdienen und sie muss im öffentlichen Raum selbstbewusst agieren; die Kirche kann nicht davon ausgehen, einfach einen Platz in der Nation oder eine Stimme im öffentlichen Raum zu besitzen.

Diese Einsicht ist besonders wichtig in einer Zeit, in der der Säkularismus stärker wird – insbesondere in der Gestalt der aggressiven neuen Atheisten. Terry Eagleton (prominente britische Professor of Cultural Theory and English Literature) wirft den neuen Atheisten vor, einen billigen Atheismus zu betreiben – ohne die intellektuelle Anstrengung des Nachdenkens und Debattierens selbst zu leisten, sondern stattdessen auf dem Rücken anderer Leute wie (Professor) Richard Dawkins zu reiten, der, statt über einen Fall zu diskutieren, einfach eingängige Feststellungen trifft.

In England hat der Aufstieg des Säkularismus, begleitet von der modischen und oft vereinfachenden Missionierung durch die neuen Atheisten, eine Atmosphäre sowohl von Skepsis (die meiner Meinung nach ganz gesund ist) und Zynismus (der ungesund ist) geschaffen. Man könnte einiges sagen über die Art und Weise, wie diese Debatten in den Medien geführt werden, aber für meine Zwecke hier genügt es zu sagen, dass es zumindest einen sehr hilfreichen Effekt auf die Kirche hat: Christen müssen stärker nachdenken, sie müssen ihren Glauben kennen und ihn leben, sie müssen sich bewusst für ein Leben in der Kirche entscheiden (und nicht einfach hineingeboren werden) und müssen selbstbewusster sein als Christen in der großen weiten Welt. Religiöser Glauben darf sich genauso wenig in die geschützte Privatsphäre zurückziehen, wie die Säkularisten allein Anspruch auf den öffentlichen Raum erheben dürfen.

Dies ist der kulturelle Hintergrund, vor dem alles andere in England stattfindet. Eine Wissenschaftlerin, mit der ich neulich sprach, beklagte sich bitterlich über die Unwissenheit von Schülern und Studenten im Blick auf Religion allgemein und das Christentum im Besonderen. Wie soll man englische Geschichte, Kunst, Literatur, Poesie oder Musik verstehen, ohne ein paar grundlegende Geschichten der Bibel und ihre Sprache zu kennen? Es ist ein bisschen so, als wollte man die deutsche Politik und Geschichte verstehen, während man die Reformation oder die Rolle des Christentums in Europa ignoriert.

In England bezeichnen wir das als ‚religiöses Analphabetentum‘ und es ist vor allem in Bezug auf die Medien von Bedeutung. Die BBC hat inzwischen eine interne Fortbildung, mit der sie den Versuch macht, Journalisten und Moderatoren im Blick auf die Rolle der Religion in der Welt weiterzubilden. Es ist einfach unmöglich, den Irak, Afghanistan, Syrien, den 11. September, die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika – um nur ein paar zu nennen – ohne differentierte Kenntnis der Religion zu verstehen.

Vor zwei Wochen (am 17en Oktober) haben eine Medienfirma und der Theos Think Tank in London eine Initiative gestartet. Sie wollen regelmäßig kostenfreie Podcasts produzieren, die sich mit der sich wandelnden religiösen Landschaft Englands auseinandersetzen. In der entsprechenden Pressemitteilung heißt es:

“Der Kirchenbesuch ist in Großbritannien dramatisch zurückgegangen, nur noch 7 Prozent (der Bevölkerung) besuchen jede Woche einen Gottesdienst. Dennoch bezeichnet sich jeder Dritte derjenigen, die nie eine Kirche besuchen, als Christ, und mehr als jeder Dritte glaubt an eine höhere Macht. Weniger Menschen fühlen sich von organisierter Religion angezogen, aber mehr Menschen glauben an Engel – jeder Dritte tut das. Gleichzeitig erleben manche Glaubensgemeinschaften eine Blütezeit wie nie zuvor – von den schwarzen Pfingstkirchen bis zum Buddhismus. Dieses neue spirituelle Klima will „Things Unseen“ – Unsichtbare Dinge thematisieren, indem es zum Nachdenken anregende, intelligente Radiobeiträge als freie Downloads anbietet.

Unsichtbare Dinge will Themen anpacken, die im Blick auf das neue spirituelle Klima wirklich erstaunlich sind:

  • Grenzphänomene religiöser Erfahrung, wie etwa „Phantombesuche“ von Sterbenden. Ein Wissenschaftler sagt, dies ist nicht einfach nur der Stoff, aus dem schlechtes Nachtprogramm im Fernsehen gestrickt wird – aber wie passen solche Phänomene in die Weltsicht des Christentums und anderer Religionen?
  • Neue Dilemmata, wie zum Beispiel das ethische Minenfeld, das sich durch die Sozialen Medien in einer multi-religiösen Welt ergibt
  • Die spirituelle Dimension der sogenannten human interest stories – der Geschichten, die das Leben so schreibt. Diese spirituelle Dimension wird selten betrachtet – zum Beispiel die langfristigen spirituellen Folgen für diejenigen Familien, in denen ein Angehöriger vermisst und niemals gefunden wird.”

Dies fasst die Situation in England ganz gut zusammen und – wie ich vermute – auch die Situation in anderen europäischen Ländern, wenngleich sie dort vielleicht noch nicht so klar erkennbar ist. Die Art und Weise, wie religiöser Glaube zum Ausdruck gebracht wird, verändert sich rapide und organisierte Religion sieht sich vor ernsthafte Herausforderungen gestellt.

Der Aufstieg von Säkularismen – und ich spreche hier ganz bewusst im Plural – baut Druck aus zwei entgegengesetzten Richtungen auf: (a) durch den Versuch, alles zu marginalisieren, was mit christlichem Glauben oder seiner Ausdrucksweise zu tun hat – in der Annahme, dass jede religiöse Weltanschauung nur eine Privatangelegenheit ist, während das, was wir den ‚säkularen Humanismus‘ nennen können, das Vorrecht auf den öffentlichen Raum hat, und (b) durch Formen des Multikulturalismus, die die Religion auf eine Anzahl vergleichbarer Phänomene reduziert und relativiert – aber ohne deren Inhalte ernst zu nehmen.

Seit dem 11. September wird dies noch verstärkt durch die Annahme vieler Politiker und Medienleute, dass Religion die Ursache eines Problems anstatt die Quelle der Lösung ist – und dass religiöse Menschen daran gehindert werden müssen, sich gegenseitig zu bekämpfen, auch dort, wo es gar keine Anzeichen für einen Konflikt gibt.

Daraus resultiert, was wir oben als ‘religiöses Analphabetentum‘ bezeichnen. In der Kirche von England setzen wir uns auf verschiedenste Weise und auf unterschiedlichen Ebenen damit auseinander. (Wenn Menschen fragen: ‚Warum tut die Kirche nicht etwas, um…‘, dann frage ich meist, wer denn ihrer Meinung nach ‚die Kirche‘ ist. Ist es der Pastor? Oder die Ortsgemeinde? Oder die Diözese, die Landeskirche? Oder die landesweite Kirche? Oder die Generalsynode oder die Bischöfe? Denn die Kirche von England arbeitet auf all diesen Ebenen.)

Auf nationaler Ebene beschäftigt sich die Kirche von England zum Beispiel durch das House of Bishops, durch die (26) Bischöfe, die im House of Lords sitzen, durch den Ausschuss für Mission und öffentliche Angelegenheiten (Mission & Public Affairs Panel) in der Generalsynode und durch die Bildungsabteilung mit diesen Fragen, indem sie Richtlinien erarbeitet, Ressourcen zur Verfügung stellt und sich mit der Regierung, mit Politikern, Organisationen und anderen Gremien auseinandersetzt. Die Diözesen bieten Schulungen für die Geistlichen und die Laien an. Auf der Ebene der Ortsgemeinde (the parish) gibt es oft sehr kreatives Engagement in den Schulen und anderen lokalen Vereinen und Gemeinschaften. Bischöfe erheben die Stimme und engagieren sich in der öffentlichen Debatte, in akademischen Kreisen oder in den Medien – dazu werde ich gleich noch mehr sagen.

Ein konkretes Beispiel für diese Art der Auseinandersetzung mit den Gegebenheiten der modernen Gesellschaft ist die große Anzahl an Glaubenskursen, die auf lokaler Ebene von den christlichen Kirchen angeboten werden. Vom ‚Alpha‘- oder dem ‚Emmaus-Kurs‘ bis hin zu neuen Materialien unter dem Titel ‚Pilgrim/Pilger‘, die das House of Bishops herausgegeben hat, zielen all diese Initiativen darauf, Menschen dort zu begegnen, wo sie in ihrem Leben gerade sind und mit all den Fragen, die sie gerade haben. Die Tage des gelehrten Monologs sind weitgehend vorüber – jetzt leben wir in einer Welt des Gesprächs, in der die Kirche ihre Anwesenheit rechtfertigen, und für das Recht gehört zu werden, streiten muss.

Die Kirche von England lernt, den Menschen dort zu begegnen, wo sie tatsächlich sind (und nicht, wo wir wünschten, dass sie sein sollten) und sie lernt – und das ist vielleicht noch wichtiger – in Sprachen zu sprechen, die gehört und verstanden werden können. In den letzten zehn Jahren haben wir tausende Projekte entwickelt, die wir „fresh expressions of church“ nennen: neue, frische Gesichter oder Ausdrucksweisen der Kirche. Dazu zählen innovative Gemeindeformen in Clubs, Kneipen, in Privathäusern oder sogar in Firmen. Nach und nach ermutigt das die Anglikaner, immer neu darüber nachzudenken, wie man Menschen in ihren jeweiligen Lebenszusammenhängen erreichen kann.

Diese neue Experimentierfreude in Sachen christlicher Verkündigung ist vielleicht am deutlichsten sichtbar in der Art und Weise, wie wir mit den Medien umgehen – insbesondere mit den Sozialen Medien. Ich will anhand einiger persönlicher Beispiele zeigen, was das mit unserer Relevanz zu tun hat.

Ich bin einer der so genannten Medien-Bischöfe der Kirche von England. Das bedeutet nicht nur, dass ich mit Medienpolitik auf nationaler Ebene zu tun habe, ich bin auch Vorsitzender einer Mediengesellschaft und ich gehe selbst regelmäßig auf Sendung. Mein Interesse dabei liegt weniger bei den christlichen Medienunternehmen, die den ohnehin schon Überzeugten predigen, sondern eher bei der BBC und anderen unabhängigen Medienproduzenten. Jede Programmsparte verlangt dabei einen anderen kulturellen Bezugsrahmen und eine andere Art von Sprache. Wenn ich zum Beispiel ein Manuskript für eine Ansprache auf BBC Radio 4 schreibe, gehe ich von einer gebildeten Zuhörerschaft aus, die über Email oder Twitter auf das Gehörte reagieren. Wenn ich eine Morgenandacht für die Chris Evans Frühstücksshow auf BBC Radio 2 schreibe – was ich regelmäßig tue – muss ich eine andere Form wählen – immerhin hören dort wöchentlich 10 Millionen Menschen zu, die sich nicht ausgesucht haben, mir inmitten des schnellen und trendigen Programmes zuzuhören. Und wenn Elton John neben einem sitzt, sieht man das eigene Zwei-Minuten-Manuskript noch mal mit ganz anderen Augen.

Diese Art des Engagiert-Seins verlangt Einfallsreichtum und einen gewissen Abenteuergeist. Man muss die Aufmerksamkeit des Publikums packen, muss ihre Vorstellungskraft reizen mit einer Geschichte oder einem Bild, muss etwas Sinnvolles sagen, das in der Erinnerung hängen bleibt und muss einen Mehrwert für das Programm insgesamt liefern. Mit anderen Worten: Der Inhalt muss zum Medium passen, denn das Medium legt alles andere fest. Ist das nicht der Ort, wo die Kirche sein sollte?

Nun, dies führt uns zu einer weiteren Frage in Bezug auf das religiöse Analphabetentum (oder das religiöse Unwissen). Gemeinsam mit anderen setze ich mich dafür ein, dass die BBC die Religion insgesamt einen anderen Stellenwert einräumt, indem sie einen Chefredakteur für Religion einsetzt. Es gibt einen Chefredakteur für Wirtschaft, für Politik, für Sport und so weiter. Ihre Aufgabe ist es nicht, für ihr Themenfeld zu missionieren, sondern die Ereignisse in diesem Bereich zu interpretieren – oder die Ereignisse in der Welt zu interpretieren, wie sie sich durch die Brille ihres Bereiches darstellen. Wie war zum Beispiel nach dem 11. September die wirtschaftliche Sichtweise, wie sich die Welt nun darstellt oder interpretiert werden sollte? Genauso sollten wir davon ausgehen, dass die Menschen die Welt um sie herum nicht vollständig verstehen können ohne ein gewisses Verständnis dessen, wie Religion funktioniert und welche Auswirkungen sie auf das Weltgeschehen hat.

Diese Art der Auseinandersetzung können nur einige von uns führen. Die Stimme des Gemeindepfarrers vor Ort hätte hier kein Gewicht; anders als die der Bischöfe, die durch ihre Erfahrung und ihre Beschäftigung mit den Medien eine gewisse Autorität in diesen Fragen erlangt haben. Gleichzeitig bietet die Kirche auf nationaler und regionaler Ebene viele Kurse an, um Christinnen und Christen zu ermutigen und zu befähigen, in den Medien aktiv zu sein, besonders in den Sozialen Medien wie Twitter, Facebook und so weiter.

Das Entscheidende ist, das religiöse Analphabetentum in vielfältiger Weise anzugehen, dem jeweiligen Anlass und der Art des Diskurses angemessen – und die Kirche von England tut das.

Der Schlüssel dafür ist Einfallsreichtum und Vorstellungskraft. Die Kirche von England gibt sich nicht der Nostalgie hin, indem wir uns wünschen, die Welt wäre anders – oder davon träumen, wie schön sie einmal war. Stattdessen suchen und ermutigen wir kreative Wege der Begegnung mit den Menschen, dort, wo sie sich in ihrem täglichen Leben befinden. Ja, das bedeutet auch viele Debatten mit den so genannten Neo-Atheisten und anderen. Ja, das bedeutet auch, auf Diskussionen zu antworten wie selbst welche zu beginnen. Es bedeutet aber auch, die in Politik und Medien weitverbreitete Annahme zu hinterfragen, dass Religion Privatsache sei und auf das Privatleben beschränkt bleiben sollte, damit der öffentliche Raum frei bleibt für diejenigen, die ihre eigene Weltsicht (oder kulturelle Prägung) für neutral halten.

In England sehen wir uns einer sich rasant verändernden kulturellen Landschaft gegenüber, besonders im Blick auf den Multikulturalismus. In Bradford, wo ich lebe, sind 80 Prozent der Einwohner asiatisch-stämmige Muslime. Was heißt es, in einer solchen Gemeinde anglikanische Kirche zu sein? Diese Frage haben wir im September bei einer Konferenz behandelt, als die Meissen Kommission nach Bradford kam und wir untersucht haben, wie ‚Kirche‘ in einem solchen Kontext aussehen kann. Kern unseres anglikanischen Ansatzes ist ein Ausdruck, den wir für unsere Beziehungen mit Menschen anderer Religionen verwenden: Presence and Engagement Da-Sein und Engagement (Anwesenheit und Einsatz?)

Wir sind geographisch und territorial, wir sind physisch anwesend in unsere Gemeinde und bieten den Menschen um uns herum Raum und Beziehung. Der Ausdruck ‚Presence and Engagement‘ bringt den anglikanischen Ansatz auf den Punkt, wie wir unsere Aufgabe in England auf allen Ebenen sehen: Wir sind da und wir sind bereit, uns die Hände schmutzig zu machen.

Mir scheint, dass dies am besten – und am präzisesten – illustriert, wo sich die Kirche von England sieht (d.h. wie die Kirche von England ihre Rolle und ihre Aufgabe sieht) in einer Gesellschaft, in der Religion oft missverstanden, falsch dargestellt oder ignoriert wird. Es gibt schlimmere Orte…

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