This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day, hastily re-written in the light of this morning’s news of an attack on Muslims coming out of a mosque in London.

The disturbing news from London this morning in which Muslims leaving a mosque have been directly attacked shows that violence can strike at any time and anywhere, and we think especially of those who suffer today.

But, it comes after a weekend of remarkable events that demonstrate the unity of diverse communities. Not only the deeply compassionate response of ordinary people to the plight of those caught up in the Grenfell Tower fire, but also the Great Get Together. Thousands of people have got together in local communities not just to remember and honour Jo Cox, the MP killed a year ago here in West Yorkshire, but to demonstrate that difference does not necessarily mean division.

All this raises questions that not everybody feels comfortable addressing. Such as to how an emphasis on commonality enables us to be honest about the differences between us? Or, conversely, whether praise of diversity inadvertently closes down honest discussion about what makes us distinctive.

I spent a decade working in global interfaith conferences in places like Kazakhstan and Turkey. They sometimes reminded me of that old BT commercial that ended with, “It’s good to talk”. I sometimes wanted to add “… as long as you don’t talk about anything.” It sometimes felt like the root political assumption underlying them was that all religions are basically the same – we just have different diets and dress sense. So, we should ignore these superficial differences in order to become the same and safe. I constantly had to do the unpopular thing and insist that if we didn’t recognise the differences, then we were being neither honest nor realistic, and the enterprise would not hold up when put under pressure.

But, as events in London last night suggest, coming together and talking are only the beginning – not an end. These things are complex.
When Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons that we have more in common than that which divides us, she was surely right. But, the genius of what her husband Brendan has done (in focusing on that commonality and compassion) lies in creating space for relationships to be made within which our differences can then be explored honestly.

In other words, we need both – common ground and vibrant diversity. What is often called ‘the common good’ actually creates space for difference to be expressed and lived with, and within agreed limits.

As the prophet Jeremiah recognised when urging exiled people to pray for the welfare of the city where they lived, a mature society is one in which difference can be owned whilst the common good is built up. But, this has to begin with getting and being together in a recognised and respectful common humanity – a responsibility for all. This has to characterise our response today.

Last Saturday a group of blokes drove up from London to Bradford, entered mosques, confronted whomsoever they could find, and tried to intimidate Muslims. I was phoned yesterday to let me know what happened. It was reported in the Independent newspaper.

Apparently, this is a group – calling themselves Britain First – that splintered from the British National Party – presumably because the BNP had gone soft. In the perverse mindset of such groups, they think they can intimidate their way to a different world – a fantasy world. They sensitively called their action a 'Christian crusade' and tried to exchange Qurans for Bibles in the mosques.

They are not Christian. They do not represent any sort of Christian church.

They also entertain fantasies about 'Britishness'. Britishness is not only what we inherit – it is what we create.

Coincidentally, I am reading a book of sermons preached by German pastors in the 1930s in the shadow of Hitler. For these brave men (and they are all men) the elision of the Christian gospel into 'race and blood' nationalism was the point where they knew they had to part company with the political leadership of the country. 'Seeking the welfare of the city' and committing oneself to the mutual obligations of citizenship are essential for Christians whose theology has to be rooted in the self-giving love of God in Christ. There is no place for 'race and blood' nationalism here. In fact, most of the pages of the Old Testament (particularly the prophets of the eighth and sixth centuries BC) actually warn about just this – and against taking the character of God for granted when the narrow appropriation of his favour propels people to perpetrate injustice and institutionalise cruelty.

A Christian must seek to create a just and good society for all in Britain. We can never claim 'Britain first' – especially when such a claim is exercised with intimidation, dodgy theology and stupidity. Statements by this Britain First group promise further action in Bradford. It won't work, they are not welcome, and they need to actually read the Bible they wish to leave behind them.

Bradford's response to initiatives like this is to shrug wearily, not rise to the bait, and to continue the excellent work of honest relationship in the city. I wonder who will be next.


Whenever there is an atrocity committed against Christians elsewhere in the world I get asked what we are doing about it here. The insinuation is that we appease Muslims, but ignore the plight of Christians being persecuted or victimised in Muslim-majority countries.

The quick answer is that loads of stuff goes on under the radar at national, international and diplomatic level. Anglican Communion partnership links mean that dioceses and bishops here are intimately connected to those places where Christians suffer. Relationships are often strong and communication good. However, such situations often mean that 'we' are wise enough not to salve our own consciences by making proclamations that make us feel better but do nothing to help the sufferers. Public silence does not equate to inactivity or inertia.

The latest atrocity was in Pakistan and the Archbishop of Canterbury was strong in his observations on events there. I also raised questions in a post the other day. But, what do we do on the ground, as it were?

In Bradford the President of the Council for Mosques called a meeting the day after the suicide bombing in Peshawar and a common statement by Muslim and Christian leaders was agreed. A joint appeal was launched at the same time in order to provide both symbolic and practical support to the Christian community that was attacked. The statement reads as follows:

Unfortunately attacks on places of worship of both Muslims and Christians alike are becoming more frequent. In recognition of this, Christian and Muslim leaders are encouraging all to join in prayer and supporting a joint appeal through mosques and churches across the city to raise funds to support the victims of this most recent atrocity.

We invite faith leaders of mosques and churches to support this worthwhile initiative through prayers and by raising funds for the appeal.

Bradford Cathedral, with my encouragement and at my instigation, is to hold a silent prayer vigil this coming Sunday evening from 6.30-8.30pm and Muslim representatives will be present. The vigil will be introduced by the Dean of Bradford and Dr Philip Lewis (Interfaith Advisor to the Bishop of Bradford). (I will be in the north of the diocese that evening in a rural parish.) Furthermore, a place of prayer will be established within the Cathedral for those Christian victims of such violence and other minorities who are subject to violence on account of their faith. This place will remain until Remembrance Day.

While writing this I have received information about a serious outbreak of civil violence in Khartoum, Sudan, and continued violence against civilians (mainly African and Christian in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions of Sudan. These are our brothers and sisters and we know many of them by name. So far the appeal in my name to support displaced people in these areas has raised well over £100,000 in eighteen months. There is more to be done.

But, perhaps this illustrates what partnership means and how we respond in Bradford to events that appear as news headlines.

I didn’t want to see news pictures of a soldier being murdered in Woolwich this week. I didn’t want to see film of violent brutality and, whilst being aware of the dilemma for news organisations and the moral questions about ‘facing reality’, was not sure that the coverage should have been so graphic. Try seeing it through the eyes of his family. It feels voyeuristic.

That said, however, while trying to flip over one photo in a newspaper, I noticed the road sign close to where the soldier’s body lay. It said: ‘signals timing changed’. Despite it referring to the traffic lights, it seemed perversely apposite.

Much of the reporting of this appalling crime rests on iconic images and language. This is what makes it so powerful: it creates associations in the mind of the viewer, not all of which might be healthy. Debate continues to rage over the radicalisation of young Muslim men in England – and a study of media articles between 2000-08 found only 2% framed Muslims positively. Just as newspapers’ use of ‘invasion’ to describe the arrival of around 150,000 Germans in London for last night’s Champions League Final between Germany and Bayern Munich (that’s a little joke for the Germans), so do images of and language about Muslims shape the way we see them.

Yes, the Muslim communities in England face some challenges – including addressing the poisonous rhetoric of some powerful preachers. But, they will not be helped by the perpetuation of purely negative associations.

I was at the Meissen Delegation Visit in Leicester this last few days. This brought a group of German bishops and church leaders to engage with us on how we do interfaith work in a multicultural city like Leicester. (Curiously, the English delegation, which I did not choose, served up three bishops – Bradford, Woolwich and Pontefract – who all served their time in the Diocese of Leicester.) Events in Woolwich, coupled with the long-planned visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Meissen group, brought a brutal relevance to our discussions and debates. In our discussions with Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, we found no ducking the hard questions, no hiding behind a victim mentality, and only a little hiding the particular behind the general. We met openness and generosity.

This has been playing on my mind while waiting for flights today. I read a piece in the Wall Street Journal about the SPD (German Socialist opposition party) celebrating its 150th anniversary in Leipzig last Thursday in the surprising presence of Angela Merkel. The party is struggling ahead of the forthcoming general election in September this year and the commentators suggest that the problem lies in the lack of a clear alternative narrative for Germany’s future in the light of the current economic and fiscal challenges across Europe. So, they look to the past – and it’s reassuring glories – in the absence of a vision that might drive them into creating a different future.

The SPD is not alone in this. It sometimes feels as if Europe is paralysed. The sterile and increasingly febrile debate about Europe in the UK offers no escape. If Europe needs a new narrative – one that relies less on the dynamics derived from twentieth century wars and seeks to create a new narrative that will fire up a new generation of people who see something worth building – then so does England. Muddling through crisis after crisis, reacting to the stimulus provided by a cacophony of voices, lurching between ideological intuitions, making statements about terrorism and ‘our way of life’ – none of this can replace the need for leadership that knows who we are, what we are about and where we are going. As Jeremy Paxman once pointed out in his book The English, we don’t know who we are and, so, cannot know who we want to become.

Reactions to Lee Rigby’s murder have demonstrated again that we have no guiding narrative any longer. As Philip Blond argued on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a culture that obsesses about rights without a fundamental (I use the word advisedly) or radical (again, I use the word advisedly) anthropology that knows why it thinks people matter will simply end up as a victim to the loudest or most powerful ideological competitor. It is the lack of such an anthropology that is the problem.

To cut a long argument short, England’s Christian amnesia has left us with just this problem. The church has not helped promote the memory (partly by complaining about all the wrong things), but it will not have to go far to recover its basic driving narrative and hold it out as one worth recovering for the future. Why? Because at least we know why people matter, why morality matters, why loving your neighbour is not a mere option for the romantic, why losing your life is the only way to gain it, why the common good is worth serving, why “no man is an island, entire of itself”, and why failure is not the end.

The signals timing keeps changing. I think we need to pay attention to how it is changing and what it is saying.

I am in Leicester from yesterday until Saturday night leading a Meissen Delegation Visit. The EKD is focusing this year on 'tolerance' and interfaith issues, so we have a group of English and Germans learning about (and experiencing) interfaith co-existence in an English city.

Very pertinent that we arrived here as the murder of a soldier in Woolwich continues to shock. Yesterday we introduced the Germans to the 'Leicester story' – with quite a lot about Richard III – and ended the day in a Sikh gurdwara.

Today we will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of the EKD at the St Philip's Centre in Evington – a centre setting the pace for faiths working together (not just talking) in this complex city.

It is purely coincidental that we set the theme of the Meissen Delegation Visit a year or two back and we were only able to tie in the Archbishop of Canterbury once he had been appointed and agreed it. The murder in Woolwich changed the context in so far as the Christian response to it and to the fears of the Muslim community are concerned. Our primary concern has to be for the victim, his family and friends, those serving in our armed forces who do the will of our political leaders, and the community who witnessed these shocking events in Woolwich – the desecration of 'home space'.

But, Muslims have responded with unequivocal outrage to this murder. Yes, there is a fear of copy-cat behaviour on the part of other unhinged fanatics; and yes, there will be some who perversely see such brutality as justifiable in the name of some bizarre jihad. But, the response of Muslims has been immediate and straight – and this needs to be strongly encouraged.

Several newspapers this morning are urging Muslim leaders to be more proactive in addressing hate-preaching and the radicalisation of Muslim young people. They are being exhorted to take more responsibility for addressing some of the serious issues in their own communities. And that is OK. The question, however, is whether the rest of us will encourage them practically as they face this task, standing alongside them in these difficult and challenging circumstances.

The coincidence of the Woolwich murder with this Meissen Delegation Visit sadly adds an immediate emphasis to looking at what we are doing in the field of interfaith work in England – our response offering a cases study in how the English church responds to the immediate in the context of our long-term commitment to the common good.

The rest of today will help us look at both English and German interfaith perspectives. No hard questions will be ducked and the talking will, as always, be generous and straight.


This evening I finished a set of meetings with leaders of faith communities in Bradford – where such relationships matter enormously.

A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening as the guest of the Hindus at their newest mandir. Next I met the Council of Mosques. Then, accompanied as usual by my interfaith adviser, Dr Philip Lewis, and the Dean of Bradford, David Ison, we met the Sikhs.

These visits were not simply anodyne, bland meetings. They were not set up in order to tick certain boxes – or simply make me feel that I was doing something useful. They were arranged in order to establish open, clear and practical relationships between resident religious communities and the new Bishop of Bradford.

We were given wonderful hospitality in each case. We were briefly introduced to their worship and culture. We were shown great friendship and respect. And we also spoke frankly, honestly and clearly about our faith, their perceptions of the main issues facing their particular community, and how interfaith relationships can be further developed in Bradford for the common good.

In fact, this was the key point. Each community had its particular concerns about the situation facing its own people, but the major concern was about the good of Bradford as a whole, the whole of the community, the well-being of the city. And each one has great expectations of how the Bishop can influence things for the good of the people: economic, social, political. Common challenges relate to young people, cultural change, changing values and a need for economic regeneration. The common complaint is that the brightest young people are leaving in order to get work elsewhere.

We are going to meet twice each year: one ‘elder statesman’, one woman and one young person from each of the four or five religious communities. These conversations will also be open, frank and constructive. And I will repeat my visits to each community once each year.

This might not seem earth-shattering. But, it is based on the fact that relationship is essential if business is to be done effectively and people of faith are to positively influence the life of the city and district. I am trying to learn what already is… in order to work out where to go from here.

It’s not boring…

Following a report in the Daily Telegraph last week, I posted an explanatory blog here in which I tried to clarify matters. Judging by the rather eclectic responses, it obviously didn’t work. Several responses – apart from being somewhat patronising – seem still to be responding to the Telegraph headline which was not only wrong, but bore no relation to what I actually said and believe. However, it seems to suit some people to assume the headline is accurate and not to bother going further. (I have given up complaining about sub-editors not reading the articles for which they provide – often arresting but misleading – headlines.) So, here goes with a number of responses to the responses.

First, the Telegraph headline was not only wrong, but it could not be derived from the article that followed. (The article itself elided two completely separate General Synod debates that were not linked at all – as anyone there will tell you.) I did not say that Christians can learn from Muslims how to be a minority. (And why did the headline put the word ‘minority’ in inverted commas? What was that about?) I said that, just as Muslims are having to learn what it is to be a minority in the West, so Christians who find themselves in a minority here in England have to ask serious questions about what it means to be a church in this context. It is the phenomenon of learning afresh that was the point – which I thought was obvious.

Second, I was not implying and did not make any comparison with Christian minorities in Muslim countries. I was specifically speaking about the challenge of being a Christian church in Bradford (and one or two other English cities), not Iraq, Iran, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. I am not responsible for a dodgy headline on an odd newspaper article that then gets re-shaped as it gets transmitted around the internet, ending up as a story almost totally unrelated to the original fact. Those who rather uncritically told me to wise up might just take a moment to consider this: in the global interfaith work I do (representing the Archbishop of Canterbury) I consistently raise the question of these Christian minorities. I neither fear nor favour, and have never hesitated to ask these questions. Occasionally I have met resistance, but often it has given an opportunity for forthright conversation. The plight of Christian minorities in Muslim countries is serious and one to whcih I give serious attention. To suggest that I am ignorant, fearful or stupid is itself absurd.

Third, my argument would have stood without reference to Muslims. The reality here in Bradford is that entire communities are now Asian. That is fact. Those who don’t like that fact can moan all they like about Muslim threats, but that doesn’t help one iota address the challenge of what it means to be a church right here. Outsiders can scream all they like about ‘segregation’, but they often do so from a distance and never venture to offer a strategy for addressing it. So far, not one respondent has offered anything constructive. Which leads me to the fourth (linked) point…

Fourth, what I said in my Synod speech was that the challenge this provokes is one the church should grasp and not simply cower away in fear. I was precisely encouraging the church to stand firm, maintain Christian witness, not abandon these areas; but, they have to engage with being Christian churches in these areas in new ways. They are admirable because they bring committed Christians into these areas precisely in order to be present and engaged. Or would the respondents prefer us to run away and hide?

Fifth, I would love to know how many of these respondents have the first idea about Bradford. Which of them lives here? Or has even visited the place? Andrew Carey in the Church of England Newspaper admonishes me for my encouragement of Christians to rise to the challenge – yet I wonder what he knows of Bradford. When was he last here? Before I came to Bradford as bishop I refrained from commenting on interfaith matters here (despite having read alot and heard alot) on the grounds that the grassroots reality is always different. I thought it would be arrogant to comment on what I didn’t know from experience, and had only read about. I am amazed at how people who don’t live here are kind enough to offer me their patronising advice. (A charge I am not aiming at Andrew Carey, but some of the commenters on the blog.)

Finally, Bradford is probably unique in some elements of its population make-up and this presents real challenges. Shouting about Islamism isn’t likely to help anyone address these. Seeing ourselves as victims isn’t likely to do much either. I want to encourage our Christian churches to stay stuck into all our parishes – regardless of their ethnic complexions – and being confident, resourceful and joyful. My job is to support them in doing so and to put my back (as well as my prayers) into developing Chistian presence and witness in all these areas. No fear. No favour. No running away. And no wasting time pandering to the ignorance of those who shout advice from outside a place they do not know.

That’s it. From now I will turn to blogging about other things of interest.

The Daily Telegraph reports this morning a comment I made in a General Synod debate yesterday which I posted on last night. The Telegraph report says:

Christians should learn how to be a ‘minority’ from Muslims, bishop says.
Christians should learn from Muslims how to exist as a “minority” culture in British cities that are increasingly dominated by immigrant communities, a Church of England bishop has said.

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, the Bishop of Bradford, said some parishes in his diocese were 95% Muslim but that this should not be seen as “a problem”.
“This is a fantastic opportunity,” he told the General Synod, the Church of England’s national assembly, in York.
“It is a challenge, yes, but it’s an opportunity to rethink what it means to be a Christian community. We often ask Muslims to learn what it is to be a Muslim as a minority culture. Maybe we could benefit from learning some of the same lessons in some of our cities.”

His comments came as Church leaders at the assembly were warned that Britain’s increasingly diverse society could undermine the position of the Church of England as the “established” faith of the nation.”

The point he is an important one, but one that is open to misunderstanding. The screamers will now accuse me of selling out or giving up or conceding ground. My response is fairly simple: which bit of reality do you not understand?

The point is this. One of the major challenges facing Muslims in this country is how to be a minority community and faith. Islam assumes majority status, so the learning is not an easy exercise. Where Christians find themselves a minority presence in a parish here, it has to ask what sort of a community it should be, how it should shape its life, how it can best witness to Jesus Christ, what sort of language it needs to enable its voice to be heard and its life to be understood.

We could pretend that the situation didn’t exist. We might wish the situation were different. But that would simply be to ‘do a Daily Mail’ and live with a rather unpleasant fantasy. It is always better to live in the real world and embrace the questions and challenges we might otherwise ignore.

The point is, however, that Christians in such minority contexts (and we have some brilliantly committed examples in Bradford) have to ask fundamental questions others might be able or inclined to avoid: what is our gospel, how do we live/tell it, how do we witness to this faith, how do we order our church life (and for whose benefit), what language do we use, how committed are we… and to what?

It is not boring. It is demanding… and very exciting.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


After Yad Vashem yesterday we drove to the last Christian village on the West Bank, Taybeh. I last visited this remarkable village two or three years ago and was pleased to have the opportunity to come back.

Fr Raed has been the Roman Catholic priest here for the last seven years. The huge problem for Palestinian Christians is that there is little or no work, little housing, few prospects and not a lot of hope. So, they are leaving in droves. Taybeh used to have a population of 3,400; now there are 1,300.

How, then, to encourage local young men (particularly) to stay and maintain this Christian presence here? So far the priests (three of them) have:

  • bought an olive press and market olive oil in French supermarkets – this year they will make a profit for the first time;
  • brew and market beer (a bit girly to the taste, but does the business!)
  • provide employment in all sorts of services
  • built and run a home for elderly people (a new phenomenon in a culture of extended family relationships and responsibilities).

In addition Fr Raed has established a youth choir of 50 young people and they ahve joined with youth choirs from the Muslim and Jewish communities elsewhere to record a CD. Along with the other preists in Taybeh, they now celebrate Easter together (on the Orthodox date) in order to present a united witness to Muslims who cannot understand why Christians celebrate several staggered crucifixions/resurrections.

The man is a fast-talking, over-energetic ball of enthusiasm. But he laces his talk with theology and economics, casting fresh and refreshing light on all sorts of issues. He even has a PhD in ‘Violence and non-violence in Islamic Tradition and Thought’.

What was most remarkable about this encounter, however, was his insistence that we should not be afraid for him or his people. They will stay and be a Christian presence and witness in land that is being abandoned by many because of the difficulty of living there with any hope for bringing up children and forging a future. He said:

We will stay here in a small community and under the shadow of the cross.

This echoes the stance of my friends in Zimbabwe.

But, interestingly, he turns on its head the notion that those who suffer are somehow ‘weak’. No, he says:

We are not weak people – we are strong people because we choose to stay here. Let the weak leave or stay at their new home in front of the television: the strong stay here.

This would sound like bravado in the mouth of some; but, it is spoken with both humility and determined confidence by Fr Raed. He is adamant that visitors like us should not take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but support those who seek a third way, the way of peace and coexistence on the basis of a common humanity.

Interestingly, this plea echoes the similar one we heard in Bethlehem a few days ago – a plea we have heard only from Palestinian Christians and nobody else.

Well, that powerful experience left us with much to discuss last night before we left Jerusalem to head off – via Wadi Qelt, Jericho and the wonderful Bet She’an (all further reminders that empires come and go, but empires never listen to their prophets) – to Galilee where we will spend the next few days before returning to London.

On the way out of Jerusalem we passed a ‘restaurant’ which dared to call itself ‘Doggy Style’ – its subheader was ‘Hot Dog Heaven’. That was a relief…

It is amazing how undramatic drama can be.

Astana pyramidThis morning we left the hotel in buses to begin the work of the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. The giant pyramid was only completed the day before the last Congress in September 2006 and it was set in wasteland behind the new presidential palace. Now it is surrounded by large buildings and vast landscaping. It all looks a bit strikingly odd, but you can’t deny the ambition that is seeing this city grow so fast.

We arrived at the conference centre in the pyramid to discover that we were to be addressed at some point by the President of Israeland Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Shimon Peres. I learned that this had caused some tensions, but the President of Kazakhstan opened proceedings with a much more political speech than we have had in the past. But he noted the ‘importance of this Congress in its unique role in post-Soviet space’ – in other words, the context out of which Kazakhstan has come and from which it is trying to grow has to be understood before criticism is levelled about some of the weaknesses of the place.

Astana congress hall 2Nazarbayev toured the world’s trouble spots and elicited the challenges faced by the world community. He criticised the capitalist culture that had created the ‘illusion of wealth without labour’, identified the gap between rich and poor and drew attention to Kazakhstan’s brave initiative in unilaterally disposing of its inherited nuclear weapons. It was a wide-ranging speech aimed at stressing the non-negotiable importance of religion and spirituality to politics and economics. Unfortunately, the interpreting was not great and some non-Russian speakers were left with some gaps.

Astana congress hall 4But that’s when the trouble began. The first speech of general greeting issued from Sheikh Dr Abdullah bin Abdul Mohsin Al-Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League. Even Shimon Peres applauded him and thanked him for the positive nature of his speech. But when Peres was invited to speak the Iranian delegation walked out of the room. Most people didn’t notice that they had gone. When Peres finished, they returned to their places and remained while the Chief Rabbis of Israel contributed later in the proceedings. No Muslims applauded Peres – perhaps because he offered for Israel to meet Arab leaders at a place of their choice (Kazakhstan?) to discuss progress in relations.

My notes of subsequent speeches (two hours of them) do not make for edifying or enlightening reading. But the significant thing here has to be the considerable achievement by the Kazakhs in getting these people in the same room as each other and enabling them to listen to each other – despite the discomfort such listening provokes. At one point I wrote in my notebook: ‘Every speech covers the same ground – God made you, so be nice to each other.’ Perhaps a little unkind, but that is how it sounded.

Astana congress hall 5

Some speakers did a good job in locating this religious stuff into the wider world of poverty, HIV/Aids, economic struggle, education, media and the Millennium Development Goals. Particularly good were Sergei Ordzhonikidze (Under-Secretary General of the UN), Kjell Magne Bondevik (former Prime minister of Norway and, before entering politics, an ordained Lutheran pastor) and Dr Ishmael Noko (General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation) who pointed the Congress delegates firmly toward action, engagement with the grassroots and reform of the Congress culture for the future.

Astana photographersAfter lunch downstairs (followed by the inevitable ‘family photo’ – I took one of the media photographing us…), we went into the main plenary session in which delegates were asked to address the theme of ‘the role of religious leaders in building a world of tolerance, mutual respect and cooperation’. I am not sure most speakers got us beyond the usual platitudes and there is a clear discrepancy between the words used here and the realities we know about on the ground. It is easy for a speaker to call for a culture of mercy when we know Christians are persecuted in his own country, for example.

Astana congress hall 7But this is surely the point. It is in this context of open speech that the contradictions and hypocrisies are identified. After all, it is usually only when there is an interlocutor that we begin to spot our own hypocrisies and inconsistencies. Bondevik was good here in urging religious/Christian groups not just to lobby politicians on their pet subjects, but to explain why they think the way they do – in other words, to explain the theological, philosophical and ethical basis for the position they hold and wish to urge upon the particular politicians. Good advice, I think.

(Bondevik also made the point conveniently forgotten by opponents of religion and often not emphasised by religious people that although there are examples in every religion/culture of conflict and tension, there are also long histories of support, mutual assistance, cooperation and reconciliation.)

There followed lots of speeches that contained lots of buzz words and yet some good points also emerged form under the verbiage. For example, (a) that the younger generation is impatient with inter-faith talking shops dominated by elderly men (Sam Kobia of the World Council of Churches); (b) there can no longer be a form of security that looks to ‘my own interest’ in defiance or ignorance of the security of my neighbour/enemy (William Ventley who also repeated the line that ‘no fence can be high enough to protect us from the needs of others…’) and (c) that Rowan Williams’s poetry is needed by the world.

Yes, that is what was said! Professor Dr Mohamed Taher (a very nice and good man), who teaches at the Islamic College in Tripoli, Libya, met the Archbishop of Canterbury three months ago in Tripoli and asked if he could translate five of the Archbishop’s poems. He now uses them in his teaching and concluded his speech today saying ‘all human beings need to hear what Dr Williams is saying’. Clearly, we have an Archbishop who must be free to reach into the wider world and not be solely preoccupied with keeping the Church happy.

My speech was aimed at challenging the language/words religious leaders use not only at congresses such as this one, but when they are back in their local communities. I’ll post the speech later when I have written out what I actually said.

So, that is the first day done. I’ll post separately on some of the funnier stuff. I’ll conclude this bit with the observation that it is easy to be cynical about the ‘inter-faith circus’; but the achievement here is not to be found in a single solution to all the world’s problems, but in the commitment of a large and complex group of people to sit together, listen uncomfortably and join in dialogue. We need to dispel the fantasy that if we cna only get the formula right, everything would fall into place and all problems be solved. In any relationship – especially, perhaps, when it is going well – the relationship has to be worked at: you can’t reach a point of completion, but it is always an ongoing work that demands contact, dialogue, persistence and presence – all of which are (surprisingly) characterised by this Congress.