There is something simple and dead good about a new pope beginning his pontificate by saying “Good evening” to the world. Nothing pious or 'deep', but simply human. I loved it.

It was quite funny watching the instant expertise all over the media from people who, ten minutes earlier, didn't know the Argentinian bishop from the Argentinian centre forward. Within minutes people were making instant judgements on him, his record, his character, his likely priorities. Utterly ridiculous, really. As I said on BBC Radio 5Live (!), we look for the 'iconography' of his appointment whilst ignoring the fact that the new man will have to come at the new role/challenges with a completely fresh approach. The past might give hints, but it won't necessarily set out a predictable future.

That said, however, Pope Francis might well bring an outside eye to the Curia, a South American perspective on both faith and social priorities, a fresh (and credible) critique to the world's dominant cultural obsessions, and a realignment of the Church's priorities with those of Jesus. Who knows if there will be any radical change – probably not in terms of the tough stuff around culturally. Probably both continuity and discontinuity – a bit obvious, really. We shall see.

To do any of this at the age of 76 is a tough call, isn't it? He will need the prayers of those who want him to grasp the nettles of change, and he will covet the encouragement of those who know just how hard it is to bring about change in any institution or organisation.

Anyway, Francis 1 started with human informality. He then asked people to pray for him before he blessed them. He then led people in the prayer that Jesus taught his friends – not as a mantra of pious wishful thinking, but as a manifesto for responsibility and change. As the noise rose around him he stood motionless – a place of rooted calm while the sea raged around him. A good external symbol that might (must?) indicate the internal centredness of the man.

Keep it simple, Francis. Please.

 

1. Kenny Ball died today. We got our first stereo before I was a teenager. One of the first records we got was a Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen album. I was just starting to play the trumpet and the two I tried to imitate (I failed) were Louis Armstrong and Kenny Ball. His jazz was fun and the you could never get bored with the songs. I eventually played in a couple of jazz groups as a teenager – I was rubbish, but I never lost the love of trad jazz.

2. Hugo Chavez is to be embalmed and put on display. I just think there is something weird about this. Is it a corporate inability to comprehend the finality of death? Or something more ghoulish? One of my great regrets is that I never got the chance (I wasn't allowed) to visit the Lenin Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square – I worked professionally as a Russian linguist and was intrigued by Soviet history. But, it was to glimpse mortality and to note how fragile even the most powerful human beings are: Lenin stuffed. Chavez deserves better.

3. The programme for the 19th Bradford International Film Festival has been published. It looks brilliant. Running from 11-21 April, it makes Cannes look lightweight. Bradford is a very surprising place. Not all about curry and the relics of a textile industry, but inspiring people with cultural vision.

4. The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have arrived in Rome for the conclave that will conclude with the presentation of the new pope. Not a role many people would covet, surely? The rumours around and charges levelled at the church in the wake of Cardinal O'Brien's resignation and the unending abuse scandals must make being the top man something you would only wish on someone you didn't like. It will take remarkable courage, intellect and integrity to argue confidently for the credibility of both church and faith – but it might also commend a refreshed humility, rooted in a theology that speaks less of authority and more of mutuality.

5. The Psalmists of the Old Testament constantly bemoan the fact that the wicked always seem to prosper while the just simply suffer. Then the prophets decry a society in which justice can be bought and the poor be trampled in the dirt – and all this be seen as 'normal' or 'acceptable'. And then comes Silvio Berlusconi.

Good grief…

 

OK, the Church of England appoints a new Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope resigns. Coincidence? Of course! But that doesn't stop people speculating that the Pope's reasons for retiring must be anything other than those he has given. This is a conspiracy-theorist's dream.

Well, now the cacophony of advice aimed at the cardinals has already begun. What seems to be commonly agreed is that the Roman Catholic Church needs to change – although that's the easy bit: what that change looks like is the subject of bitter and contradictory disagreement. It was ever thus.

In a further coincidence I am en route to Hannover, Germany, to speak at an ecumenical conference on how the churches in Germany need to change to face a challenging new world. They – both Protestants and Roman Catholics – are keen to open up creativity in a culture that has assumed its place in German society for centuries, but now finds it harder. There are significant differences between the German churches and the English churches, but the Germans want to learn more from – and be inspired and encouraged by – initiatives such as Fresh Expressions, Liquid Church, and others. I am quite heavily involved in speaking and engaging in discussion at a pre-conference conference today, the main conference (with 1200 participants) tomorrow and Saturday, then preaching on Sunday morning before returning to Bradford.

(I am writing this at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, having had a dreadful journey! I was supposed to fly from Leeds-Bradford to Amsterdam and then on to Hannover last night. It took three hours to drive the eight miles from home to Leeds-Bradford; the flight was delayed by three hours; I was put in a hotel in Amsterdam – getting three hours sleep – and now am waiting to board the flight to Hannover. This morning's meetings have been mucked up accordingly…)

It is always interesting to look at how a different culture deals with change. I am a close observer of the German churches, but they start from a different point from those in England. There are now some really interesting ad creative initiatives emerging and the seriousness with which these are being addressed in Germany is impressive.

I bring the mixed experience of England. Some 'fresh expressions' have failed, sometimes the rhetoric outstrips the reality, and sometimes they are just a way of 'doing what we want without the hassle of the bits of church we don't want to other with'. But, all in all, they have sparked an explosion of adventurousness, creativity and imaginative courage. On the other side, look at attempts to change the Church of England more substantially – for example, the Dioceses Commission proposals to dissolve three dioceses in West Yorkshire and create a new single diocese with five episcopal areas – and it becomes clear how, in some quarters, resistance to change prevents any creative engagement with either reality (look at the numbers, both people and money) or potential (taking responsibility for creating something new).

Change is always difficult, but difficulty is never an excuse for not changing. While looking though the German lens in the next few days I will also be reflecting from a distance on how change is faced in my part of England. Or not.

The agenda here in Wittenberg means that I only catch odd snatches of the Pope in the UK. I also don’t have time to review all the commentary. But, I think I can say this: thank God that the Pope’s visit clears some space for some clear thinking to be expressed.

The Pope is German. He doesn’t show much emotion, yet his feeble voice hides an intellectual rigour that repays attention. It is too easy to write him off (from a secular point of view) because of all the stuff ‘we’ disagree with. In one sense, such sneery dismissal is simply a form of distraction therapy – it makes us feel OK about not actually engaging intellectually with what he has to say and why he says it. The Archbishop of Canterbury often evokes the same response. None of what he said was new, but he made the most of the space cleared for such talk.

In his speech at Westminster Hall he drew a straight line between Christian theology/ethics and the assumptions we now take for granted about the importance of (for example) the rule of law. This thinking did not emerge from a vacuum. This is not to make a ‘truth claim’ for Christianity, but to stake a claim for historical factuality.

He then went on to make a strong prophetic demand to a culture that values banks above people:

The inadequacy of pragmatic, short-term solutions to complex social and ethical problems has been illustrated all too clearly by the recent global financial crisis. There is widespread agreement that the lack of a solid ethical foundation for economic activity has contributed to the grave difficulties now being experienced by millions of people throughout the world.

Just as “every economic decision has a moral consequence” (Caritas in Veritate, 37), so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore… The central question at issue, then, is this: Where is the ethical foundation for political choices to be found?

This is why I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue, for the good of our civilisation. Religion, in other words, is not a problem for legislators to solve, but a vital contributor to the national conversation…

In this light, I cannot but voice my concern at the increasing marginalisation of religion, particularly of Christianity, that is taking place in some quarters, even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance. There are those who would advocate that the voice of religion be silenced, or at least relegated to the purely private sphere…

In recent years it has been encouraging to witness the positive signs of a worldwide growth in solidarity towards the poor.

But to turn this solidarity into effective action calls for fresh thinking that will improve life conditions in many important areas, such as food production, clean water, job creation, education, support to families, especially migrants, and basic healthcare.

Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’.

Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: Here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention, that is truly ‘too big to fail’.

There you have it: the rule of law, foundations for ethical thinking that is not merely pragmatic, economic justice… all rooted in a clearly thought-through philosophical and theological anthropology.

We might not always like the logic of where his dispassionate thinking takes him, but at least he has the confidence to use his brain in a rigorous way. It is probably too much to hope that his critics will apply the same intellectual and philosophical rigour to their opposition.

However, if they do, the conversation should at least become interesting.

Do you remember them? I dredged it up from my rather worryingly selective memory – a soap in the shape of a pope on a rope so you could hang it conveniently in the shower.

Reading some of the stuff about the imminent visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the UK later this week, you could be forgiven for thinking that lots of otherwise reasonable people would be quite happy to see the Pontiff suspended from a rope. The nature and degree of the personal venom directed against him raises other questions about what it is that fires such vindictiveness.

Cards on the table: this Pope is a PR disaster and, while being as brainy as one could hope for in a spiritual leader, seems to have little or no grasp of symbols or gestures or how these work in relationships or communications at any level. I disagree with some elements of his social ethics (contraception and condoms being the obvious target), but I do know how he gets there. I don’t like the way he has taken the Roman Catholic Church back towards a pre-Vatican II map in which Rome sits bang at the centre and everything else revolves around it.

But, on the other hand, I respect a man who refuses to go along with ‘contemporary’ cultural and ethical mores simply because he is expected to. Benedict has a brain. His arguments need to be heard and understood before a response is offered. What we are reading this week doesn’t show much of a rational grasp of what all this is about.

Sorry to pick an easy target, but the sheer sloppiness of Polly Toynbee‘s tirade (yes, another one) in today’s Guardian is breathtaking. Let’s be clear: a rational, reasonable, informed, credible critique of the Pope and his assumptions should be achievable and might even be welcomed by Christians (among others). Get the argument going. Tackle the philosophical and theological assumptions which then shape the Pope’s doctrine and ethics. Prove him to be flawed, stupid, wrong, misguided or dangerous – if that’s appropriate – but just to throw things at him from your pram is both inadequate and sad.

Here are some examples from Polly Toynbee’s piece (which seems to have been rather uncritically welcomed by many readers whose sentiments she articulates):

…sex lies at the poisoned heart of all that is wrong with just about every major faith.

Er… and at the heart of nothing else? Sex and how we handle it (so to speak) is a human issue, not just a religious issue. It is not self-evidently true that ‘sexual freedom’ sets us free and improves human relationships or well-being. Everyone wrestles with sex (if you see what I mean…).

Women’s bodies are the common battleground, symbols of all religions’ authority and identity. Cover them up with veil or burka, keep them from the altar, shave their heads, give them ritual baths, church them, make them walk a step behind, subject them to men’s authority, keep priests celibately free of women, unclean and unworthy. Eve is the cause of all temptation in Abrahamic faiths. Only by suppressing women can priests and imams hold down the power of sex, the flesh and the devil. The Church of England is on the point of schism over gay priests, women bishops and African homophobia. The secular world looks on in utter perplexity.

So, let’s pick on the worst elements of religious expression (which millions of religious people also find weird and/or dodgy), shall we, and ignore the rest? What response would I get if I used Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and the other usual suspects as the epitome of secular atheism? Like everything else in this world – the real one in which most of us live – religious institutions or movements comprise huge ranges of agreement and dispute with just about everything the institution or movement lays claim to. There is no objective monolith – not even when leaders pretend there is.

And, just to be really clear, (elements of) the secular world looks on with utter perplexity at all sorts of religious motivation, belief and behaviour: self-sacrifice, humility, generosity, etc. (There I go again – generalising…) The mere fact that ‘the secular world looks on with utter peplexity’ tells us nothing other than that some people are perplexed by other people – it says nothing about the subject of the perplexity itself.

But the Vatican still talks of a few bad apples requiring internal discipline, the pope refusing to hand rapists over to secular law.

The Vatican might not want me as its defender, but that is simply nonsense. But why let reality intrude into a good rant?

The other dominion the religions control is death. Were it not for the faiths with their grip on hospices and palliative care, the law on assisted dying would be reformed.

Good grief! Clearly the assumptions behind Polly Toynbee’s view on the ethics of assisted dying are self-evidently true and the development of palliative care through the hospice movement (which is also concerned with the whole person in the context of the whole family, etc) is clearly a destructive fraud on dying people. Oh, right. No need to argue that point, then.

Where once secularism and humanism were relics of a bygone religious age, its voice is important again. But pointing out the blindingly obvious need to keep faiths in their private sphere has united religious gunfire against secularists.

Now, that really is breathtaking. It seems ‘blindingly obvious’ to some of us that Polly Toynbee has not bothered to listen to any challenge to her root assumption that her world view is self-evidently true – and therefore needs to have privileged place in the public square – while that of religious people is self-evidently stupid and dangerous and needs to be confined to the private sphere where it can’t do any harm. This nonsense has been knocked on the head in the last twenty years even by atheists.

All atheists now tend to be called “militant”, yet we seek to silence none, to burn no books, to stop no masses or Friday prayers, impose no laws, asking only free choice over sex and death.

No, not all atheists are being called ‘militant’. That’s ridiculous. That’s like bleating that all religious people are being labelled ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘brain-dead’. It might apply to some, but not to all. Please give us the rational atheists (of which there are plenty) instead of this sort of unthinking tirade.

And, actually, you are ‘wanting to silence’… by insisting on religion being confined to the private sphere (like an unmentionable hobby or embarrassing habit). You can’t have it both ways.

Religion deserves its say, but only proportional to its numbers.

Really? We all know how to play with numbers and proportions. Add the membership of the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Society together and ask if they would have any voice anywhere in proportion to their ‘numbers’. And, if the argument is that many more people are secularists than belong to the formal societies, then the self-same argument can be made for religion. Which gets us nowhere.

No privileges, no special protection against feeling offended.

At last, I agree. But it is amazingly easy to offend those who object to the ease with which religious people are offended. Watch this space…

Anyway, there are reasons for objecting to the Pope’s visit and the basis on which it has been set up. But, Polly Toynbee’s argument isn’t one of them.

What a difference a single letter makes.

While the Pope is in the UK next week I will be popping over to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission (of which I am the Anglican co-chair). The coincidence is both unfortunate and funny: Wittenberg, of course, is where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in 1517, thus igniting what became the Protestant Reformation in Europe. See also the post of a few days ago.)

I have informed the Archbishop of Canterbury that there is no theological or ecclesiological significance in me being there while the Pope is here…

While preparing for next week (Meissen begins on Thursday immediately after the annual College of Bishops Meeting in Oxford – so, it’s a bit of a week of fun fun fun…), the ‘noises off’ were dominated by the threatened burning of the Qur’an in the USA. A tiny spark, ignited by a remarkably … er … insensitive … er … ‘pastor’, has created a huge conflagration of unnecessary anger and frustration. Not the most intelligent of Christian pastors, is he – whichever way you look at it?

Goering's old Air Ministry & Berlin Wall from Topographie des TerrorsThese threats of book-burning brought to my mind the pictures I saw again recently in the harrowing exhibition Topographie des Terrors in Berlin (built on the site of where the old Gestapo HQ used to be). On 10 May 1933 tens of thousands of books were burned in Berlin by the Nazis – including those by the poet Heinrich Heine. Ironically (or not), Heine had once written:

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen (Where they burn books, they will, in the end, also burn people.)

Draw your own conclusions. The phenomenon of book-burning is well explored in today’s Guardian by Jon Henley – which I spotted just as I was about to write something similar here. He does it better, so I defer to him.

Of course, burning books does nothing to kill the ideas contained within them. And if ideologies and regimes cannot stand the scrutiny of people who think differently, they are ultimately doomed anyway.

I am tempted to post my ‘theses’ while I am in Wittenberg and the Pope is here in London. I don’t think I can run to 95. I might post 9.5 in the medium Luther might have used had it been available to him in 1517. (The door he nailed them to has since been burned and replaced with a bronze one.) Watch this space…

Apparently, there is a debate raging on some New Atheist blog about beards. I haven’t been able to find the blog in question (and how pathetic is that?), but I am sure someone will put a link on a comment here and send people through to see for themselves. (I found lots of stuff on Pharyngula about zombies, but not beards…)

I had a beard for ten years or more. Only a short, stubbly one. But, when I shaved it off my little daughter got the frights. I’ve sometimes thought of growing one again, but now the hair is falling out of my head, I don’t feel like compensating on my face.

But this did make me think about something important. The Ecumenical Patriarch has a big beard. The Archbishop of Canterbury has a notable beard. The Pope has no beard. Isn’t it time he grew one – after all, it isn’t just an ecumenical matter?

Anyway, the atheists are challenging each other to see how much they can raise for Barnardo’s. According to Simon Painter:

Basically, for just £2, you can vote on this page: www.justgiving.com/bearddebate and leave a comment for or against beards. When voting closes, if the “beards” have it, then I will grow a beard for three months, and if the “no beards” win ,then my friend David “Big Dave” Wood and PZ Myers will shave their beards for three months.

He adds:

PZ Myer’s rude tone may not be appreciated when it comes to religion, but at least his heart is in the right place willing to take part and help (to him a foreign charity) Barnardo’s.

Sounds like fun and a good cause, so I am happy to link up. And I want to see the evidence when the razors come out…