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


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.

Any conference in Germany is haunted by the 20th Century. The fact that churches in Germany and England maintained their contact and solidarity during the worst years of that century gets forgotten amid the horror stories of war and holocaust and death. So, here at the eighth Meissen Theological Conference at Arnoldshain (near Frankfurt, Germany), the theme of reconciliation is neither merely academic nor idealistic.

We meet in the Martin-Niemöller-Haus to discuss papers that can never be abstract because of the history that brings us together and sets the context for our conversations. After all, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the seeds of the slaughter that bore the Second. Since 1945 English Christians and German Christians have worked hard at confronting their history and the hard questions raised by their theological handling of political and economic realities.

This conference, co-chaired by the Bishop of London and Professorin Dr Friederike Nüssel (Systematic Theology, Heidelberg), takes conflict and reconciliation with the utmost seriousness. (Although, as usual, the friendship is funny, warm and very enjoyable.)

The conference began this afternoon – within half an hour of arriving – with introductions and then an initial paper by the Bishop of London on Perspectives on Religion and Reconciliation that took us from WW1 through WW2 to the challenges of today's world of religious (and other forms of) conflict. Rigorous questioning highlighted the importance of “symbolic act and apt liturgy” in enabling a society to take responsibility not for changing the past, but for shaping how we remember it and deal with it honestly.

The second paper was presented by Professor Dr Martin Wallraff from the University of Basel, Switzerland, and reached back into patristic considerations of Eucharist, Communion (Gemeinschaft) and communion (Kommunion) (a linguistic distinction that is too arcane, but too important, to deal with in detail here). The Christian tradition digs deep into the wisdom of the ages and does not satisfy itself with mere pragmatic reactions to current phenomena that always appear to be both original and 'ultimate'. Discussion addressed head on the scandal of division in a Christian church that lives with and works at the ideal of unity. The fact that the church even considers unity woth considering is, of itself, remarkable and worthy of proper consideration.

The third paper was presented by the Revd Peter Anthony, a parish priest from London, on 'Seeing and Being Seen' – in relation to texts in the Gospels of Mark and Luke regarding the Transfiguration of Jesus. Again, vigorous debate ensued – not least about what this means for us today.

So, the conference is typically rigorous and stimulating. Set in a centre named after a hero of the German resistance to Hitler, rooted in rigorous theological and biblical thinking and conviction, it isn't inevitable that such a conference would challenge comfortable 'truths' about theology, society, history or academic disciplines. But, we intend to do business on behalf of our churches – not in order to satisfy nice theological chat, but to bring our churches closer together… and to compel us to see through the lens of another culture and history the culture and history of our own people and church. This cannot but make us see differently and with a bit more questioning humility.


The Sandford St Martin Trust (which I chair) has just launched its new website here.

The first in a series of guest blogs is written by me, but to read it you will have to pop over to the website here!