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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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This morning my office was emptied and sent to the new office in Leeds where it will open for business on 30 April.

As the last bits were being loaded we came across three boxes containing the manuscripts of Bishop Blunt's sermons (he was the second Bishop of Bradford – from 1931-55), the original texts of his Presidential Addresses to the Bradford Diocesan Conference, and an envelope containing the correspondence he received following the address that sparked the abdication crisis in December 1936. It will need to be properly archived (once I have found out to whom they legally belong and to whom they should be disposed).

Clearly, people were as horrible then as they can be now. The internet has speeded up the pace at which vitriol can be sent, but the green ink letters I read this afternoon also betray bile and venom – albeit in beautiful and elegant English.

The abdication crisis was provoked by Bishop Blunt – in the context of asserting everybody's need of God's grace, but aware of the gossip about the King's relationship with Mrs Simpson (although he denied knowing and said he had been referring to the king' slack of churchgoing) – adding one sentence:

… if he is to do his duty faithfully, we hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.

This sentence was picked up by the media and the scandal erupted. The rest is history.

 

I have not had time to post on all the myriad of things going on in the world. I am writing this on the train back from London before heading off to lecture and preach at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena tomorrow (after a 3.30am wake up).

But, these are the questions I would ask anyway:

1. Why do newspaper editors want everyone else in the world to be regulated, scrutinised and accountable to outside agencies, but scream when it is proposed that they should be regulated, scrutinised and accountable? When did regulation become a synonym for censorship? How do you spell 'special pleading'?

2. What do members of the English Defence League think they achieved by coming to Bradford last Saturday and shouting to themsleves for an hour before going home again? Genuine question. Nobody was listening. It just seemed like a waste of time and money – to say nothing of the cost to Bradford and the police.

3. Are Manchester United fans not just the teeniest little bit embarrassed about bleating like babies after a couple of games where they didn't win? After laughing at everyone else for twenty five years?

4. Where was all this new Madeleine McCann stuff hiding before the UK police got going on it?

5. We already owned the Royal Mail; so, why were we asked to buy it?

6. Who decides whether Edward Snowden did the world a favour or played into the hands of the bad guys?

7. When is the Pakistani government going to start protecting all its citizens, particularly Christians who are being targeted with violence?

8. Which Americans are proud of their political system when it inhibits the working of government?

9. How do we get the balance between protection (intelligence agencies) and oppression (intelligence agencies)? And who decides what is appropriate secret service?

10. Are we nearly there yet?

 

Being away has made me feel a little detached from the sound and fury of home. But, as I used to work for them, I have followed the GCHQ/NSA business quite closely. It seems as if, suddenly and because of inept handling of the Guardian by 'the powers', people are waking up to the enormous ubiquity of surveillance in the UK.

So much has been written during the last few weeks (including this reflection from Der Spiegel in Germany) and I won't add to it here. But, what it all suggests is that – as I have written before now – (a) we need a public debate about the powers of 'the powers' who act in our name, (b) we need a public debate about what sort of security we want and expect, and (c) we need to ask if the answer to (a) and (b) has any consequence for the realism of our expectations.

We can't have our cake and eat it. If we want total security – which means giving security services some substantial leeway – there will be a cost in terms of privacy. If we want less surveillance, we must be forgiving when stuff gets missed by the security services.

Given that total security is an illusion anyway, I prefer to limit the powers of 'the powers' and then face the consequences. And I would resist complaint against the security services if/when stuff gets past them. We can't have it both ways.

If anything, however, all this Guardian/Snowden business demonstrates the importance of a free and professional press, capable of investigating and digging deep behind the propaganda. Which, of course, raises the further question about the viability of a responsible and professional press when the digital revolution is rendering the old business models obsolete and making it harder for good journalism to survive or thrive.

We have choices…

 

It’s that time of year again. Easter is when the press do their ‘isn’t the church rubbish’ and ‘isn’t Christianity hopeless’ stories. So, in the middle of an excellent ecumenical Good Friday walk of witness in Ilkley, I got a phone call from a national newspaper about the story they are running on Easter Day.

Lindau crossI won’t spoil their fun (yet), but doesn’t this just get wearying? I would feel professionally a little embarrassed to keep doing the same thing every year and not find anything original or interesting to do instead.

Be that as it may, Good Friday happens to be a good day to think through this year’s shock charges against the Church. (That’s ironic, by the way.)

The Church of England is getting a bit of a kicking these days for not being ‘relevant’. I think the phrase this time is ‘out of touch’. Now, apart from the usual stuff about ‘out of touch with what or whom’, this sort of question in a poll simply tells us nothing. The main point, however, is that it has never been the job of the church to be ‘relevant’. Of course, the church has to live in the real world and understand/speak the language(s) of the cultures in which it serves. But, when ‘relevance’ is taken to mean that the Church should go with the flow of popular culture – for no other reason than that the popular culture is assumed to be unquestionably unquestionable – then the church has to dig into its tradition in order to find its bearings.

And what does this mean? Well, start with the prophetic tradition. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures got a seriously hard time for saying what people (especially powerful people) didn’t want to hear, and for not saying what the people (especially the powerful people) did want to hear. Being popular or ‘relevant’, whilst nice and affirming, can never be the primary motivating aim of the Christian church. If, for example, we are to change our mind/practice on ethical questions, then we must do so because it is right to do so and not (as some politicians and media commentators seem uncritically to think) because ‘most people think this way today’.

wpid-Photo-10-Apr-2012-1307.jpgAnd the Good Friday light on this? Well, as I observed in Ilkley this morning, if Jesus had been asked to submit a business plan before going walkabout in Galilee and beyond, he would never have got the contract. Three years and then dead? Call that ‘being relevant’? Was Jesus ‘in touch’ with popular culture? Dead in less than three years was not an encouraging fact for people who think the business of God’s people is simply to give people what they want, to say what they want to hear, or do what people want them to do.

Just read the first few chapters of Isaiah. Or any of the Gospels. Or… er… anything else in the Bible.

The second charge (yawn) is that the church is doing a bad job at offering moral leadership. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that this is closely linked to the first charge. I remember Rowan Williams saying to me that when people ask him to lead, what they really mean is to go in the direction they want to see him go in. And when they ask him to be prophetic, they simply want to hear him say loudly what they want to hear him say loudly. To not lead in their direction and to not say loudly what they want to hear means quite simply that he is not leading and is not prophetic.

Let’s take a moment of embarrassed silence to think about the nonsense this represents.

OK, that’s that dealt with. But, what the story does challenge the church with is (a) how to articulate its story and its life in languages that can be heard and understood, (b) to engage in conversation with culture rather than simply shouting at it (which is what some people mean by ‘moral leadership’), (c) to get stuck into the world as it is in a way that offers an alternative to the usual cycles of destruction and violence, and (d) to be more confident in putting itself ‘out there’, even if we get a good kicking (deserved or underserved), get ridiculed or end up having to say “we got it wrong”.

After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Unlike some Christians in today’s world, no one has tried to martyr most of us yet.

wpid-Photo-12-Apr-2007-0945.jpgGood Friday confronts us with mortality, death, endings and the bleeding loss of a world and a future – the disillusionment and betrayal of those who dared to think that God might be present in their world and found their hopes bleeding in the dirt of a rubbish tip on the edges of Jerusalem. If we stay with today’s experience, we might as well pack up and go home. But, Sunday will come and those who thought Friday confirmed the world’s mantra that ‘might is always right’ will find some embarrassment by Monday.

I am not worried about being relevant or having my leadership criticised or ridiculed. I am concerned about how we tell with credibility, conviction and imagination the story of Easter surprise – shining new light into a world that too often accepts that death, violence and destruction have the last word.

Just back from Zimbabwe where ‘living on rations’ has had a certain accuracy in the last couple of years and here we are in the silly season with an MP getting pilloried in the London papers for an inappropriate remark. I probably should be as ‘angry’ as the rest of the country apparently is (how do the newspapers know these things?), but I’m not. Instead, I’m watching England get embarrassed by Holland in the football friendly and dreading the inevitable ‘angry’ critique in tomorrow’s papers – written by people who probably couldn’t run to catch a bus.

Alan DuncanBut back to dodgy MPs. I have never been a fan of Alan Duncan – he’s in a party I don’t trust and has been playing the camp/risque jester ever since he came out as gay. I think I probably preferred him when he was trying to be a shockingly right-wing but serious politician. He comes over as the sort of smug politician who probably deserves all he gets – but I don’t know him and he does have a reputation for being charming.

But, I really dislike the way he has been stitched up today. He was secretly recorded on the House of Commons terrace making a serious point (whether we agree with him or not) about the calibre of people likely to want to enter Parliament in the future and making a not-very-good joke about MPs now ‘living on rations’. Of course, this has been picked up and milked for all it is worth – telling us that we must be shocked by this MP’s arrogance.

Andrew MarrWhat worries me about this is the likelihood that no MP will want to say anything in future that might be funny or not ‘fully formed’. Andrew Marr, in his excellent book My Trade: A Short history of British Journalism, comments as follows about the danger of forcing politicians to keep their real thoughts to themselves and not take the risk of rehearsing arguments openly in order to test or move on their own thinking:

If serious, difficult arguments are misrepresented by the media, then the whole point of political debate – which is that bad arguments are answered, and driven out by better ones, and so good governance advances – is destroyed. The twisting of politicians’ views by hostile newspapers infuriates them but, more to the point, persuades them to keep their real thoughts to themselves and so robs the rest of us of thoughts we may need to read about… Instant publicity can kill honest argument. Government requires full frankness; and frankness can look bad in print.

Now, Duncan’s silly remark was hardly a matter of State importance, let alone direct governance. But Marr’s point is apposite. He continues:

If you are in charge of a business, or part of government, or even if you are talking to a partner about your future plans, you need to be able to think and talk a little wildly, to test extreme positions and unlikely ideas, to speculate and joke, before you settle on a course of action. Almost all of us say things in private which we would be aghast to hear loudly quoted among our friends and neighbours… Without speculation there can be no good decision-taking: yet such is the authority and importance of government that its speculation, if revealed, can cause people to riot, foreign governments to protest, and ministers to seem very foolish indeed. The ill-considered private joke becomes a deadly headline. The wild surmise becomes a plan. The nose-tapping warning becomes a public libel. If we were all publicly judged on our private, intimate conversations, we would dry into inner silence, and the same is true of governments. (p.137ff)

Andrew Marr - My TradeMarr’s observations about governments are well worth reading for its own sake, but the point here is simply that we seem to have created (or be in the process of creating) a culture in which arguments can only be articulated when fully formed and that public people cannot be seen to change their mind because, having tested an idea or argument, they have learned from the process and moved on. The risky spontaneity of the joke is suppressed for fear of how it might be reported if overheard. Speech becomes constrained by fear. This cannot be healthy. Would it not be healthier if public servants such as politicians (and bishops, for that matter – which is what I think my blogging is all about) were to model how serious people can develop or change their mind by open consideration of arguments. Instead, a politician who changes his or her mind is pilloried for being inconsistent, unreliable or stupid.

Alan Duncan has never had my sympathy for anything and he perhaps should know better than to let his guard down the way he did. But the wider issue behind the lack of a private space for letting the guard down is also worrying.

I don’t want to flog the point ad nauseam. But I feel the way the Anglican Communion is dealing with some of its conflicts reflects this problem: when the battle lines are drawn, where is the space for people to be persuaded by another argument into intelligently moving or moderating their position, testing the arguments by articulating them?

Perhaps we just need people to stop playing the game, hang the consequences and try out their developing views anyway. I think such an approach would be evidence of what might in other spheres of life be called ‘maturity’.

So, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, has suggested he thought of resigning along with James Purnell, but decided against it. Then he gets castigated or mocked in the press for having thought about it.

David-MilibandIs this the same press that wants politicians to be honest and tell the truth? Would they prefer it if he had lied and said that the thought of resignation had never crossed his mind?

If we want politicians to be honest and tell the truth and avoid spin, then we as consumers of ‘news’ will have to demand of the press a more mature way of thinking and commenting. If we get the politicians we deserve, surely the same is true of the press. Which isn’t very encouraging.