Five days into August already and still haven’t got through a single one of the books lined up for the catch-up month. Oh well.

It could be this that is narking me; but, on the other hand, it might be that the world is going mad.

Three things for starters:

1. Apparently, the Minister for Local Government is going to write to the bishops of the Church of England today asking us to support longer Sunday trading hours. According to the Daily Telegraph, the letter will say:

The government has been determined to revive our nation’s high streets to ensure they remain the heartbeat of our communities for decades to come. High streets provide the social, cultural and essential services so many local people enjoy and rely on.

As the law stands, only the smallest shops are allowed to open for more than six hours on a Sunday, a law which came into force in 1994 after a long struggle by the business community.

The justification (according to news reports – we haven’t actually received the promised letter yet) is that this will limit supermarkets and revive the high street. The aim is noble – consider the action by dairy farmers yesterday: it costs them more to produce milk than they get when it is sold. But, this, once again, confirms that we have become a market society, driven by consumer economics, rather than a market economy, driven by the need for the economy to serve society. In other words, we now define our society in purely economic terms.

The alternative would be to restrict Sunday trading rather than expand it. This would restore to society the notion of a common sabbath and create space for common rest – the possibility for remembering who we are and why we are here. We are not born to shop.

A losing battle, maybe; but one worth scrapping over for the sake of questioning what sort of a society we wish to be, rather than simply (and unquestioningly) accepting the society we have become.

2. In a classic example of loaded reporting, the Guardian draws attention to consideration in Wales for re-shaping the teaching of Religious Education in schools. This is how the article begins:

For a long time, religious education has been about as unloved and neglected as a crumbling old church. Several people and organisations (some, admittedly, with a vested interest in its continuation) have warned in recent years that it has never been more needed, and this week it emerged that the Welsh government is considering an overhaul of the subject.

Huw Lewis, the Welsh government’s minister for education and skills told the Cardiff parliament that RE should be renamed, “[transforming] it into the religion, philosophy and ethics element of the curriculum – where there is an explicit commitment to allowing children to ponder ideas around ethics and citizenship”. He added: “We really need to allow young people the space and the time, within the school curriculum, to consider fundamental issues of faith and of citizenship and of the meaning of freedom.”

RE, long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects, has suffered over the years. A 2013 report by Ofsted found that more than half of schools were failing to teach the subject adequately

How many untested attestations does that contain? Staggering. How long is “a long time”? Where is the evidence that is has been unloved and neglected? Why compare it to a “crumbling old church” rather than a crumbling something else? Which organisations have a “vested interest in its continuation” – and why “admittedly”?

Is it not conceivable that the “vested interest” might be an intelligent argument or interest for the sake of the common good? Is it not remotely possible that, at a time when we need more religious education in order to understand the world and its people, we should be arguing for better teaching and learning rather than the dilution of it? Does “long seen by many pupils as being at the dossy end of school subjects” reflect simply the rather embarrassing prejudices of the journalist who wrote this stuff? Shouldn’t we expect better (of both RE teaching and journalism)?

If numbers fall because teaching is poor, then, surely, the answer is to improve the teaching and learning. As the media trust I chair keeps arguing in the sphere of broadcasting, we need more religious literacy in this conflicted world, not less. Popularity has little to do with it.

3. Giles Fraser redeems the Guardian by concisely putting his finger on a key question that is – understandably – annoying the government. Migration (inwards only) was a vexed matter during the general election. If media reporting is accurate, then immigration (and how to stop it) is a major concern for ordinary Middle Englanders, and politicians ignore it at their peril. Well, ‘majority opinion’ does not necessarily equate to ‘right opinion’. It is only a generation or two ago that German opinion was happy to see Jews and other minorities as sub-human and expendable.

Fraser recalls the difficult and embarrassing question Jesus put to people who probably didn’t like the implcit answer: “Who is my neighbour?” Those who have done RE in school will know that this follows the parable of the Good Samaritan. It was also the title of the pastoral letter issued by the bishops of the Church of England ahead of the last election – which the government (then and now) deepy resented.

But, the question hangs in the air like a bad smell. Get beneath the rhetoric around immigration and we cannot avoid the fundamental challenge: what is our theological anthropology? In other words, what is a human being and why does he/she matter?

That is the question that underlies all the conflicted rhetoric about immigration.

The other question is one that will not go away: is there a strategy behind policy in this regard, or are we condemned to constantly respond to the latest and loudest voice or situation? And what is the anthropological assumption from which policy emerges? And isn’t it important that someone keeps asking the awkward questions about human significance when justifications for action seem only to be economic?

Sorry, that’s three questions.

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It is an interesting week for words. Try these:

1. CLEAR: When will politicians realise that repeatedly using the word ‘clear’ does not actually make their view or policy clear? It is very odd to keep hearing it – in almost every statement. Saying something is clear doesn’t make it clear any more than saying something is good actually makes it good.

2. PLAN: Miliband and Cameron have a ‘plan’. We know this because they keep telling us. We get glimpses of what these and might look like, but we don’t get any idea of what the vision is that will shape their respective plans. On the other hand, it would be a bit weird if they didn’t have a plan, wouldn’t it? But, why do they need to keep telling us they have one?

3. AMORAL: In his Easter message, David Cameron pleads with those who disagree with his policies not to dismiss him as ‘amoral’. Fair enough. But, who has dismissed him as amoral? Disagreement with policies also surely cannot be dismissed as merely dismissive, rather than principled. Bishops seem to be a target, but our recent Pastoral Letter was also theologically and morally driven – and should not be dismissed by politicians who find that moral and theological basis inconvenient or objectionable.

4. EASTER: According to the Prime Minister, “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children.” Oh. I thought it was about the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I applaud David Cameron’s defence of the place of faith in the public square, but he can’t escape the cultural and political dynamic that reduces (legitimate) subversive religious vision to some bland appeal for community cohesion.

5. SYMPATHY: This is what I feel for all politicians, especially party leaders. They are partly trapped in a culture that the rest of us either foster or accept – one that expects them to have a view on everything and an ability to perform an act before an audience. Driven by the media we pay for, we don’t allow leaders to change their mind, learn to learn, or develop their thinking-based-on-experience. We are the poorer for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There isn’t much time for writing this blog at the moment. Life is full on, and my priorities lie elsewhere. One day I will get back to it properly.

The last post was the script of the Thought for the Day, broadcast just a couple of hours before Islamist maniacs went on a killing rampage in Paris. Naturally, I got a barrage of criticism and abuse via various media. Most of this was embarrassingly ridiculous, but not worth responding to in the heated hours (or, indeed, days) following the outrage in France. Charles Moore had a go in the Telegraph, but I decided not to respond – after all, the commentariat opines without cost and without ever dirtying their hands in the real stuff some of us live with every day. I can handle being accused of “weedy niceness” – but it is interesting that the people who went out onto the streets of Paris that night were, in fact, “dancing to a different tune” and not responding with some far-right driven anti-Islamic reflex.

What we have seen since then was predictable (though not sayable at the time). Questions have been asked about the meaning(s) of “Je suis Charlie” and whether this might be somewhat naive as well as well-intentioned emotion. Unlike most commentators, I used to read Charlie Hebdo. I gave up in my twenties because it was more puerile than satirical. Easy targets do not equate to justified targets. And, as someone observed last week, the freedom to offend does not equate to an obligation to offend.

Giles Fraser has now clearly written what I wanted to write (although I would almost certainly have done so less eloquently in response to the criticism I got): the French secularism being lauded in the popular response to the massacre in Paris is not noble and is not what is understood by ‘secularism’ elsewhere. It is one thing to deprivilege religion in the public square; it is something else entirely to be anti-religion to the point of wanting to wipe it out. The myth of neutrality is just that: the public square is either open to all – including religion – or it privileges those who believe that it is open to all except religions. Neutral it is not. Charlie Hebdo was not brave to target powerless people, and it will be interesting to see if it still survives in a year’s time once the myths and emotions have moved on (as they will).

So, as the commentariat now discovers the courage to question the response to the Paris events, I can only judge that it was probably wise to be too busy to blog. And France will have to do some deeper thinking about what it really means by ‘liberté, égalité et fraternité’ and how it includes Muslims – a debate that was informing French novels fifty years ago and questions that have not been addressed since then because of the veil of ‘laïcité’.

On the other hand, the church lives every day with diverse communities, hearing how world events impact on the local. We don’t just do “weedy niceness” from behind a laptop screen; we engage every day in our parishes with all-comers. And we go wider. In the last week in my diocese we have engaged with Sudan (where the church is working hard at living with Islam), Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Tanzania. We look through multiple lenses. And we get our hands dirty in the complexity of these contexts – a far cry from merely sounding off on a laptop screen. These relationships take hard work and a long time; they cannot be created in crisis.

I would love to ask what – practically – the commentariat would advocate should happen now. It is easy to comment and diagnose and pontificate and ‘reflect’. But, what do they suggest we then should actually do? Should all Muslims be deported, or all mosques shut? Should we close the doors to all Muslim immigration? If so, what do they suggest we should do with those left behind who suffer the injustice? And so on. What do the clever commentators propose we should actually do?

One of my parishes held a very imaginative and appropriate service last week to honour journalists and the price they pay for telling their stories. The service was titled: “The pen is mightier than the sword”. But, the question I finish on is this: what do we do when the pen becomes a sword? Too often people distinguish between ‘word’ and ‘action’. Words are action – they are performative and they have consequences. There is no neutrality.

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)

 

 

One of the partnership links enjoyed by the Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales is that developed over thirty years with the dioceses of Sudan. The Bisho of Khartoum and Archbishop-elect of Sudan, Ezekiel Kondo – a wonderful, wise and brave man – has issued a statement about the death sentence passed under Sharia law on a Christian woman who is pregnant with her second child.

It is important that politicians, religious leaders and leading Muslims at home and abroad raise their voice in protest against this barbaric and illegal judgement. In the meantime, here is the statement issued in Khartoum:

Re: Mariam Yahya Ibrahim and Death Sentence by Court in Sudan

Introduction:

On Thursday 15th. May 2014 in Haj-Yousif Court, Mariam Yahya was sentenced to death and 100 lashes for changing from being Muslim to Christian and for commiting adultery because she is married to a Christian man.

Mariam Yahya Ibrahim Ishag was born from a Christian mother (Ethiopian Orthodox) and a Muslim father. Her father left them when she was age 6, and she was raised by her mother as a Christian. Mariam is married to a Sudanese/American Christian husband. Mariam was sentenced to death for converting to Christianity simply because her father was a Muslim. The fact is that Mariam has been a Christian since as she was brought up by her mother who has been a Christian. According to the report, Mariam, the husband and their son were all arrested because they had changed their religon, but then, the husband was released, Mariam is sentenced to death and 100 lashed for her adultery because she accepted to marry a Christian man. Their marriage is revoked. Now, Mariam and her son are in prison until she gives birth, then she will be excuted.

1. According to the above, Mariam has never been a Muslim since her birth. The fact that she was born from a Muslim father, this does not make her a Muslim in any way because she was brought up by her mother as a Christian.

2. The verdict reached by the court on Mariam is a clear and direct perscution on Christians and the Church in the Sudan.

3. The verdict on Mariam Yahya is a Human Right and Religious violation against Christians in the Sudan.

4. This sentence is even against Sudan Constitution 2005 Article 38 on Freedom of Creed and Worship. “Every person shall have the right to the freedom of religious creed and worship, and to declare his/her religion or creed and manifest the same, by way of worship, education, practice or performance, subject to requirements of the law and public order, no person shall be coerced to adopt such faith, that he/she does not voluntarily consent”.

5. There is again another court case going on right now in Kalakla, Khartoum, of a young man who has been accused of being converting from Muslim to Christian according the Almeghar News Paper of today 21st May 2014. This young man may face the same fate as Mariam did.

Episcopal Church of Sudan Internal Province hereby condemns this court decision and requests the Ministry of Justice to review the case of MariamYahya and release her immediately. She is free to believe in religion of her choice. Episcopal Church of Sudan also requests the authorities in Kalakla to free the young man. The last judgment on the faith should be left to God alone.

The spirit of dialogue, coexistence and love that the President of the Republic called upon should be upheld.

The Most Revd. Ezekiel Kondo

Archbishop-elect and Bishop of Khartoum

21st May 2014

A letter was published in the Daily Telegraph this morning, signed by fifty eminent people, in which they criticise the Prime Minister’s article of faith published in the Church Times last week.

The letter itself is fairly unremarkable – and certainly not a surprise – although why such people think it is worth all the energy, time and activity involved in getting such a number of signatures, still beats me.

The statistics cited are, of course, at variance to other published statistics (e.g. the 2011 Census), but that is in the nature of statistics and we draw to our defence those that suit our argument the best. So, I won’t waste time arguing with the numbers.

What is bizarre is the charge that the Prime Minister, by saying what he said, “fosters alienation and division in our society.” That ” this needlessly fuels enervating sectarian debates that are by and large absent from the lives of most British people, who do not want religions or religious identities to be actively prioritised by their elected government.” Good grief!

First, if politicians were to refrain from saying anything ‘divisive’, they would be silent. Any stated viewpoint or priority is by definition ‘divisive’ as there will always be people who strongly disagree. The use of potential ‘divisiveness’ as a charge against anything inconvenient is ridiculous. Presumably, the divisiveness caused by publishing this letter is to be excused?

Secondly, why should ‘secular humanism’ be prioritised above other world views or identities? There is no neutral territory – something is always being prioritised over other preferences. That is a fact of life. And if you want a purely relativistic world view to dominate (which is a perfectly legitimate thing to want), you can’t then decide to absolutise certain priorities or assumptions.

‘Fostering division’ is a phrase that should be dropped as a threat. Anyone can use it and, being a threat, of course, there is no evidence that it has or does.