I was just asked on camera in Vienna why interreligious dialogue matters. I am here for the launch of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue here. There has been some controversy about the 'hypocrisy' of the Saudis establishing this Centre (in conjunction with the government of Spain and Austria), but the choice is simple: stand outside and shout about the lack of religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, or get engaged and thereby encourage the journey towards openness that some elements are progressing (and not in a vacuum).

Interestingly, this criticism is being articulated in the opening seminars this morning. The session I am sitting in (on conflict resolution) is being chaired by a rabbi. The speakers include both male and female Saudi intellectuals who are addressing the difficulties of dialogue – especially in contexts where some loud voices find dialogue to be both threatening and undesirable. So, those engaged in promoting dialogue are, not surprisingly, sensitive to ignorant observations from those outside who are driven by lazy stereotype as well as (implicit or explicit) threats from inside.

The level of presentation and discussion here is remarkable. There are guests from all over the world and from all the main faiths and other agencies/NGOs committed to interreligious and intercultural dialogue, conflict resolution and education.

Anyway, more anon. However, my response on camera earlier was simple: the alternative to dialogue is monologue. Monologues can make the speakers feel they have said something – even if no one has listened or heard. Dialogue starts with listening – to the 'language' understood by the interlocutor, paying attention to the world (and world view) of the interlocutor, subjecting your own theological or philosophical presuppositions (and lived experience) to perusal through the lens of the other.

OK, I put it more simply and directly than that. But, the point is clear. Dialogue shouldn't need to be defended; it might sometimes be risky, but it is fundamentally a no-brainer.

Or, as I said when preaching at Christ Church, Vienna, yesterday morning, the journey is as important as the destination. We certainly won't reach the destination unless and until we have embarked on the journey. I know it is a bit trite, but you can't steer a stationary car.

 

It wasn’t exactly a surprise – although even yesterday the speculation was simply that – but it is fantastic news that Justin Welby is to be the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. A remarkable man, he has the breadth of experience, the wisdom and the proven track record across the piece to make him the right man for the right job at the right time. I will support him 100% and pray for him with vigour. Excellent news all round.

I reproduce the press notice here:

The Queen has approved the nomination of the Right Reverend Justin Welby for election as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury. He will succeed Dr Rowan Williams who is retiring at the end of December after ten years as Archbishop.

The Right Reverend Justin Welby, aged 56, is currently Bishop of Durham.  He will be enthroned as Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral on 21st March 2013.

He said today:  “To be nominated to this post is both astonishing and exciting. It is something I never expected, and the last few weeks have been a very strange experience. It is exciting because we are at one of those rare points where the tide of events is turning, and the church nationally, including the Church of England has great opportunities to match its very great but often hidden strengths. I feel a massive sense of privilege at being one of those responsible for the leadership of the church in a time of spiritual hunger, when our network of parishes and churches and schools and above all people means that we are facing the toughest issues in the toughest place.”

Dr Rowan Williams issued the following statement:

“I am delighted at the appointment of the Right Reverend Justin Welby to Canterbury. I have had the privilege of working closely with him on various occasions and have always been enriched and encouraged by the experience.

He has an extraordinary range of skills and is a person of grace, patience, wisdom and humour; he will bring to this office both a rich pastoral experience and a keen sense of international priorities, for Church and world. I wish him – with Caroline and the family – every blessing, and hope that the Church of England and the Anglican Communion will share my pleasure at this appointment and support him with prayer and love.”

Biographical Information

Born in 1956 in London, the Right Reverend Justin Welby was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied history and law. For 11 years – five in Paris and six in London – he worked in the oil industry, becoming group treasurer of a large British exploration and production company. He focused mainly on West African and North Sea projects. During this period he became a lay leader at Holy Trinity, Brompton in London, having been a council member at St Michael’s Church in Paris.

His father’s family were German Jewish immigrants who moved to England to escape anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, and integrated quickly. His British ancestors, on his mother’s side, include several clergymen.

A major influence both on Justin and his wife Caroline was their experience of personal tragedy. In 1983 their seven-month old daughter died in a car crash in France. Six years later in 1989, after sensing a call from God, Bishop Justin stood down from industry to train for ordination

He took a theology degree at St John’s College, Durham, in which he focused on ethics – particularly in business. He has since published articles on ethics, international finance and reconciliation. His booklet, ‘Can Companies Sin?’, drawing on his experience in the oil industry, evolved from his dissertation at theological college. He has frequently said that the Roman Catholic approach to Christian social teaching, beginning with the encyclical of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, up to Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas Veritate, has greatly influenced his social thinking.

For 20 years, his ministry has blended deep devotion to his parish communities with Church work around the world, especially in areas of conflict.

After being ordained Deacon in 1992, he spent 15 years serving Coventry Diocese. His Curacy was at All Saints Chilvers Coton with St Mary the Virgin Astley, in Nuneaton. In 1995 he became Rector of St James, Southam, a small market town in the same Diocese – and also the next year of St Michael and All Angels, Ufton, the neighbouring parish. He helped revive both churches, growing their congregations and launching bereavement and baptism teams, among other things. Between 2000 and 2002 he also chaired an NHS hospital trust in South Warwickshire.

In 2002, he was made a Canon of Coventry Cathedral, where he ran the reconciliation work based there. With Canons Andrew White and Stephen Davis, he worked extensively in the field in Africa and the Middle East. He has a particular interest in Kenya, the DRC and Nigeria, where he was and remains involved in work with groups involved in conflict in the north. In the Niger Delta, he has worked on reconciliation with armed groups. He met with religious and political leaders in Israel and Palestine, and on one trip to Baghdad reopened the Anglican Church with Canon Andrew White, shortly after the allied invasion.  In 2006 he also took responsibility for Holy Trinity Coventry, the main city centre church, as Priest-in-charge.

He left Coventry five years later, being installed Dean of Liverpool on 8 December 2007, replacing the Right Reverend Rupert Hoare. Liverpool Cathedral is the largest cathedral in England. Its local area, Toxteth, is among the most deprived in north-west Europe. During his deanship, he brought the Cathedral into much greater contact with its local community, working with asylum seekers and in partnership with neighbouring churches. The Cathedral also hosted events from a TUC rally to royal services. Over his four years, during which he also continued to work on reconciliation and mediation projects overseas, the Cathedral’s congregation increased significantly.

In 2011, he returned to the place where his journey towards becoming Archbishop began: on 2 June 2011, he was announced as the new Bishop of Durham, taking over from the Right Reverend Tom Wright. He was enthroned at Durham Cathedral on 26 November, and drew parallels between Liverpool and Durham – noting both the struggles and the enduring spirit of the two places.

On 9 November 2012, the Right Reverend Justin Welby was announced as the 105th Archbishop of the See of Canterbury. He will succeed Dr Rowan Williams, who is retiring at the end of December after 10 years as Archbishop. He will be enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on 21 March 2013.

An expert on the politics and history of Kenya and Nigeria, he has lectured on reconciliation at the US State Department. In the summer of 2012, he was asked to join the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

His interests include French culture, sailing and politics

He is married to Caroline, who studied Classics at Cambridge, where they met. They have two sons and three daughters.

Chronology

Trinity College, Cambridge M.A. 1978
Société Nationale Elf Aquitaine, Paris 1978-1983
Elf UK plc, London 1983-1984,
Enterprise Oil plc, London, 1984-1989
St John’s College, Durham, B.A and Dip.Min. 1992
Deacon 1992, Priest 1993
Assistant Curate of All Saints, Chilvers Coton and St Mary the Virgin, Astley 1992-1995
Rector of St James, Southam, and St Michael and All Angels, Ufton, Diocese of Coventry 1995 – 2002
Canon Residentiary, Coventry Cathedral 2002 – 2005
Canon Residentiary and Sub Dean, Coventry Cathedral 2005 – 2007
Priest-in-Charge, Holy Trinity, Coventry 2007
Dean of Liverpool 2007 – 2011

Episcopal offices

Elected Bishop of Durham on 2 June 2011. Bishop Justin was consecrated at York Minster on 28 October and enthroned at Durham Cathedral on 26 November 2011.

The main roles of the Archbishop of Canterbury

The various roles and responsibilities of the Archbishop of Canterbury have developed over more than 1400 years of history. The one constant is his ministry as a senior bishop, though the nature and purpose of his authority differs in different contexts

Historically the central role, and the source of the archbishop’s authority, is as Bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury (the local church of Canterbury. His diocese in East Kent has a population of 890,000 people and comprises 261 parishes in an area of nearly 1,000 square miles.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of All England (the ‘first bishop’ of England), and shares several roles with the Archbishop of York. For well over a thousand years the distinction of the Diocese of Canterbury has given its bishop formal responsibility as a ‘metropolitan’ – the first among the bishops of a region. He has authority (also known as ‘jurisdiction’) at all times in the 30 dioceses of his Province – 29 in southern England, and 1 in Continental Europe. York has the same roles in relation to the 14 dioceses of his Province.

Based on his oversight in the Church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury became the original sign of the unity of the bishops and local churches of the Anglican Communion – all 34 provinces in communion with See of Canterbury, a total of about 80 million members throughout the world which has developed over the last 200 years or so. He is the focus and spokesman of its unity today, but shares his oversight as president of the Communion with other bodies.

In the last two areas of dialogue and activity – Ecumenical relationships between Christian Churches, and Inter Religious relationships between different traditional world religions – the Archbishop has no formal authority. But his role in England and the UK, and his leadership in the Communion at large, give him significant influence and the responsibility to speak authoritatively for the faith and witness of the Church, the Anglican Church in particular.

Outline of procedures for the Appointment of an Archbishop of Canterbury:

Since 2007 the agreed convention in relation to episcopal appointments has been that the Prime Minister commends the name preferred by the Commission to the Queen. The second name is identified in case, for whatever reason, there is a change of circumstances which means that the appointment of the CNC’s recommended candidate cannot proceed.

Once the Queen has approved the chosen candidate and he has indicated a willingness to serve, 10 Downing St announces the name of the Archbishop-designate.

The College of Canons of Canterbury Cathedral formally elect the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

The election is confirmed by a commission of diocesan bishops in a legal ceremony (the Confirmation of Election), which confers the office of Archbishop on him.

The new Archbishop does homage to Her Majesty.

The new Archbishop is formally enthroned in Canterbury Cathedral.

This is the text of the Radio Times article which caused a bit of irritated response in some quarters. It will be obvious that it is not critical of the BBC, but congratulatory and ‘encouraging’ of how things might develop constructively.

A couple of years ago, before X-Factor ‘popularised’ it, I contributed to a BBC Radio 2 documentary celebrating the 25th anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s great song Hallelujah. Covered by more than 120 artists, Cohen the Perfectionist ended up writing and re-writing around 80 verses or versions. The lyric, full of biblical allusions, breathes some human realism into a word that would normally be seen as purely religious (and, therefore, rather suspect).

During an interview with Guy Garvey, singer-songwriter with Elbow and presenter of the documentary, he put it to me that “Cohen had hijacked religious language”. “No,” I replied, “Cohen has understood it.” By this I meant that Cohen had liberated the word from some assumed compartment called ‘religion’ and given it back to real people living in the real world and with real stories to tell. The song speaks of the ‘holy and the broken hallelujah’ – a phrase that encapsulates the torn nature of human beings who long to be ‘holy’ but usually manage just to be ‘broken’. Cohen’s point is that God is not surprised by this.

Leonard Cohen refused to allow ‘religion’ to be stuck in a compartment from which everybody else is spared any engagement. Religion and its place in the public discourse are much misunderstood.

Mention ‘religious broadcasting’ in polite company and you might well be faced with finding someone else to talk to. Either that or it’s assumed you’re really wanting more Songs of Praise on the television to keep the Christians (who haven’t gone to church) happy.

Yet, this isn’t the case. Religious broadcasting simply takes seriously the indisputable fact that religion is a phenomenon that has to be acknowledged and understood, if we are to understand the world in which we live. This doesn’t presuppose a religious commitment, conviction, practice or adherence any more than doing a programme about Marxism demands that only Marxists produce it.

The BBC’s Easter programming looks increasingly imaginative, finding creative and engaging ways of telling the Easter story, questioning the implications of the Easter story, capturing the experience of Christians celebrating the Easter story. The Preston Passion follows on from the superb Manchester Passion of several years ago, taking Easter out of the church and onto the streets. This enables everyone to be part of it and be confronted by it. A bit like… er… the original Easter events.

However, go beyond the BBC (and the odd bit of Channel 4) and religion has been dropped as if it were a toxic contaminator of decent culture. This ideological knee-jerk sees religion as an embarrassing problem (for which there is obviously no audience) rather than part of a solution (one lens through which to tell stories and understand people, their lives and motivations). ITV sees no need to consider religion – despite the fact that more people shape their lives around religious conviction and practice than attend sporting events. Now look at the relative budgets given to sport and religion…

The point here is not that religion should be privileged or protected. It is not to argue that religious propaganda should find space in the schedules of broadcasters. But it is to maintain that we can’t understand people, events and the way the world is if we don’t take religion seriously.

The BBC has a sports editor, an economics editor, a political editor and editors for other areas of life. It has no religion editor. Yet, if an economics editor is needed to help explain and interpret economic decisions and events in order that the public should be responsible citizens in our democracy, why on earth isn’t there someone to explain, interpret and communicate the phenomenon of religion as it influences people, colours political and economic decisions, questions values and shapes both individual and corporate behaviour?

There are two issues here. First, how does the BBC fulfil its public service remit by challenging the ridiculous assumption that the ‘non-religious’ world view is neutral? Second, how do other broadcasters get beyond their own prejudices and see religion as an indispensable lens through which to see and understand the world?

There are some shining examples – despite the problems of encouraging imaginative commissioning – of good religious broadcasting. Some are on the Sandford St Martin Trust Radio Times Readers Award shortlist: the humanising Rev, the powerfully questioning Forgiveness, the affecting re-telling of the Life of Mohammed, to name but three. But, the need is for a change in assumption and perception of religion as phenomenon, motivator and shaper of human stories.

Good media need good stories. Religion is not primarily about mere ideas; it is about people, communities and the stuff of human existence. It is rich, ripe and fertile soil.

The BBC Trust‘s review of Radio 3, 4 and 7 makes for interesting reading.

In relation to religion, however, there are some intriguing statements:

Other types of content also feature in the Radio 3 schedule alongside the mainstay of classical music. These include arts programming (5 per cent of output), jazz (4 per cent), world music (3 per cent), religion (1 per cent), drama (1 per cent) and news (1 per cent).

I’m not quite sure of the definitions here, but I bet a huge amount of the ‘classical music’ content (at least) is ‘religious’ in origin, content or form. And ‘world music’?

On Radio 4 we read:

Radio 4’s commitment to a broad multi-genre proposition is reflected in its budgetary allocation. In 2009-10 Radio 4 spent £5.1million on entertainment and comedy; £3.4million on arts; and £2.6million on religion. Radio 4 is also allocated £2.6million of the BBC sports rights cost. These levels of spend have been broadly stable over recent years.

Excellent. But the report also concludes from audience responses:

Our research found that audiences were generally pleased with Radio 4’s religious output. … there are positive performance gaps for the statements relating to religion and beliefs, suggesting that Radio 4 is more than meeting audience expectations. We recognise, however, that this can be a very subjective issue for licence fee payers.

Well, that’s great news and demonstrates intelligence and maturity on the part of the audience. But, why is religion singled out as ‘a very subjective issue for licence fee payers’? Isn’t every judgement by licence fee payers subjective? Sport isn’t to everyone’s taste - nor is comedy. Or news and documentaries. Or short stories. I might be in a minority of one, but I can’t bear ‘The Archers’ and try to turn the radio off after the news and before that wretched music starts.

Ironically, the statement about subjectivity is a very subjective one and doesn’t belong in this report. If anything, it gives the ‘assumptions’ game away rather embarrassingly.

Tomorrow I go to Oxford for the annual meeting of the College of Bishops. Before it finishes I will head off to Wittenberg for the annual joint meeting of the Meissen Commission. (See last post for more.) So, I am interviewing ordinands, clearing the correspondence and catching up on ‘loose’ reading. (I am also speaking this evening on the great, late German lay theologian, preacher and politician, Johannes Rau.)

Catching up on unread back copies of Third Way (subscribe to it today – it’s the best Christian magazine on the market), I stumbled across Charles Foster’s wonderful account of some Christians’ reaction to his latest book, Wired for God: The Biology of Spiritual Experience. I say ‘wonderful’, but it is also sad. What are some Christians afraid of? He asks perfectly good and reasonable questions and finds himself accused of ‘heresy’, ‘blasphemy’, ‘poor scholarship’, ‘literary treason at its worst’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘worthless’. And all this because he takes Augustine‘s dictum seriously and follows it through: “Nature is what God does.”

Now, anyone who sticks their head above the parapet knows what it is to get it shot at. The certainty of ignorance certainly fires the venom of people who, I am sure, are normally quite pleasant, but become nasty when their little worldview is challenged.

Foster goes on to ask what it is that motivates such people:

There are many possible answers. I would like to believe that the main motivation is charitable: that they genuinely think that people like me endanger eternal destiny, and that my opponents pick up their verbal swords reluctantly, more in sorrow than anger, to protect the weaker brethren. But it doesn’t read that way. There is one absolutely unmistakable smell about the responses: it’s the stink of fear.

He later goes on to muse:

What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of questions. They’re afraid of leaving the ghetto. They’re suffering from a paralysing spiritual agoraphobia… They choose a view of the ghetto wall when they could have a view of the universe.

And, in a final swoop at luddite theology that cannot be challenged by the outside world, he concludes (putting words into their mouths, of course):

We are the faithful remnant, and the more of a remnant we are, the more faithful we must be. If sacience doesn’t help to reassure, cognitive dissonance will.

This evokes two memories for me: (a) growing up knowing church cultures that displayed this security in being a remnant (as opposed to shrinking because they have nothing attractive to offer), and (b) Jacques Ellul‘s The Meaning of the City in which he describes Cain building the city he calls Enoch (Genesis 4) as a way of creating meaningful space in a meaningless universe without God (and alienation from his created purpose). I picked this up in one or two of my books as it vividly illustrates the predicament of human beings seeking to create meaningful space and the choices we face when the universe is opened up to us – full of threat as well as promise.

Foster is right to identify fear as the smell that fires such indignation. What is there to be afraid of in opening up to questions about the world and its ways? As someone once observed, if Christianity is true, it is true because it is true; it is not true because it is Christianity.

Get a life. Get an imagination. Get a bigger vision of God and the enormity of the universe. As Foster concludes:

If you don’t ask [honest] questions,… I might suspect that it’s because you don’t really, truly, in the early hours of the morning, trust God to have the answers.

The BBC website is likely to shock the world today with a headline of staggeringly obvious accuracy:

Religion may influence doctors’ end-of-life care

Better sit back and absorb that one. The report begins:

Doctors with religious beliefs are less likely to take decisions which could hasten the death of those who are terminally ill, a study suggests.

So, before we go on to look further at the BBC’s report, why don’t we ask why the corollary of the headline wasn’t addressed instead. The item could – with equal validity – have begun with:

Doctors with no religious beliefs are more likely to take decisions which could hasten the death of those who are terminally ill, a study suggests.

(‘Suggests’? Why not ‘concludes’? Or would that make the story less worthy of coverage?)

The report goes on:

The London University research urges greater acknowledgement of how beliefs influence care. Doctors and campaigners described the findings as “concerning”.

I guess my question is the one I keep banging on about in various posts here: is it only religious beliefs that are to be ‘acknowledged’ or all beliefs? All human beings have a world view based on assumptions about why the world is the way it is, what matters (and why) and how moral decisions should be made. This is not the sole preserve of ‘religious’ people. Every human decision – including medical ones – are influenced consciously or unconsciously by the world view of the decision-taker. There are no exceptions.

This simply means that we should be asking of the (unidentified and unquantified) ‘doctors and campaigners’ what are the implications of their own world views on the treatment or advice they give to their patients about end-of-life options. What the report really seems to ‘suggest’ is that religious people might be more open, more honest or more clear about the moral or philosophical basis of their moral approaches.

Let’s try it a different way. I have just been in Berlin and looking afresh at the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. The question keeps being raised as to how human beings could possibly have done to other human beings what the Nazis did. It is dangerous to over-simplify such enormous matters, but it can be said at the very least that the disconnection came partly from an accommodation with a world view that reduced some people to (a) categories that are (b) sub-human. As we also saw in Rwanda in 1994, see people as vermin and you find it easier to treat them as vermin.

This is NOT to say that non-religious people are to be equated with Nazis or other genocidal psychopaths. Conscious atheism or agnosticism should be demonstrate equal consistency and be examined for inherent weakness in the same way as religious beliefs should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. But, atheism cannot simply be assumed to be the neutral default position from which any other ‘belief’ is a dangerous deviation.

The point is simple. Religious beliefs and convictions should influence doctors – but so should non-religious doctors allow that their assumptions and beliefs (about the way the world is, why the world is that way, where human beings derive their value – and why – and what happens when we die… and why this matters).

The British Medical Association said: “Decisions about end-of-life care need to be taken on the basis of an assessment of the individual patient’s circumstances – incorporating discussions with the patient and close family members where possible and appropriate.

Absolutely right – except that there is no mention of the basis on which these ‘decisions’ are to be taken.

The religious beliefs of doctors should not be allowed to influence objective, patient-centred decision-making. End-of-life decisions must always be made in the best interests of patients.

The ‘best interests of patients’. According to which criteria? Who decides and who defines?

Again, the corollary of that statement is: “The non-religious beliefs of doctors should not be allowed to influence objective, patient-centred decision-making.”

The unidentified and unquantified ‘doctors and campaigners’ might well be ‘concerned’ – but so should the rest of us be concerned at their naivete, selectivity and the poor philosophical thinking behind the ‘suggestions’ or ‘conclusions’ they derive from their research. Perhaps they are simply bringing the wrong questions to the data in the first place? Perhaps this is a matter of using language properly – for the language used in these statements gives the game away.

Update  27 August 2010: Much fuller analysis to be found here.

Tonight saw the Faith Shorts 2010 Awards by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at BAFTA in Central London. A very high-profile group of judges had shortlisted 26 short films in three categories. Young people around the world had bid for a video camera and the 50 winners had then submitted their films for judgement. The event was compered by the ubiquitous Adrian Chiles.

The judges included (among others) Tony Blair, Jonathan Caplan QC, Hugh Jackman, Anil Kapoor, Natalie Portman, Nik Powell, Queen Rania of Jordan and Deepak Verma.

The films were judged in three categories: (a) Under 18 Film Pitch, (b) 18-25 Film Pitch and (c) 18-25 Film Maker. The winners and runners-up were astonishingly good. Each film seemed to last up to five minutes, but they were totally engrossing. Awards went to:

Under 18 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘Forgiveness’ by Dolly Deeb from Jordan. Runner-up: ‘The Old Bridge’ by Rijad Guja from Bosnia Herzegovina (about the bridge at Mostar as a symbol)

18-25 Film Pitch: Winner: ‘The Guide’ by Shiv Tandan from India. Runner-up: ‘Under Cover’ by Sara Al Dayek from Lebanon.

18-25 Film Maker: Winner: ‘People I Know’ by Esteban Pedraza from the USA. Runners-up: ‘Let Us Show You How Our Faith Inspires Us’ by Tariq Chowdhury from the UK and ‘Self Realisation’ by Silvina Estevez from Argentina.

I intended to take some photos, but I found the whole thing engrossing and very evocative and only managed one. Here were young people of different faiths offering a new language for articulating faith with confidence in a complicated world. Some of the films were funny, others surprising, all powerful – especially having been made by such young people on such limited equipment.

One feature of the event was a panel discussion in which Lord David Puttnam observed that “the British media are self-referential” and Blair added his view that they are largely “religiously illiterate”. Being asked by a journalist prior to the event, “Is your faith important to you?” exemplifies this – a seemingly interesting question that assumes faith is some sort of odd consumer accessory, an add-on to an otherwise reasonable life. This led afterwards to a discussion about the assumption of neutrality on the part of our media, regardless of the fact that there is no such thing as a neutral worldview.

One of the young award winners made the point that the word ‘tolerant’ in relation to interfaith relations is inadequate. “Tolerance,” he said, ” is about simply bearing with people you don’t like – but love goes further than mere tolerance and it is love that is needed.” I was glad to hear this – a point I make repeatedly at the global interfaith conferences I attend and a point that is rarely understood (especially in the ex-Soviet bloc where ‘tolerance’ is heard as a stronger word than it is in the West where it is a lowest common denominator concept).

One problem of contemporary ‘public speak’ by government and local authorities is the use of the language of ‘tolerance’ without recognition that ‘peace’ is not simply ‘the absence of war’, ‘community cohesion’ is not simply ‘stopping people from hitting each other’, and ‘interfaith relations’ is about more than ‘reducing tension between faith communities’ (which usually doesn’t exist). Constructive love offers a better future than fearful ‘prevention’.

The problem with ‘tolerance’ is that the people who speak of it are often the same people who are totally intolerant of anyone who disagrees with their idea of ‘tolerance’. There is nothing more dangerous than an illiberal liberal – one who proclaims freedom for all who conform to his idea of freedom, but leaves no space for those whose idea is more limiting.

Funny old world.

Update 6 August 2010: Tony Blair has written about his reasons for launching the Faith Shorts initiative here.

It is impossible to leave Canada without promoting its finest son. The great Bruce Cockburn has put into context some of the most profound emotions we can experience and yet is also able to give frightening colour to political trauma.

This morning we heard a young man in Winnipeg describe his experience of having come from Guatemala and returning there each year. This year he arrived just after a public lynching in the town square. He spoke movingly about the need for change in some of the neediest countries of the world.

It brought to mind Cockburn’s powerful indictment of the US-backed Contras who caused such horrors in Central America in the 1980s. If I had a rocket launcher expresses the dilemma of a Christian pacifist faced with the massively cruel injustice of state-backed violence:

The G8 Religious Leaders Summit 2010 is now over and I have 24 hours to kill before flying to the earthquake zone of Toronto (!) for the connection to London. And England have got through to the last 16 of the World Cup. (I simply draw attention to my prayers and make no further comment…)

Despite requests for a ‘sharper and shorter’ statement from the Summit, the draft text kept growing. It really is impossible to do textual work on a committee of 60-odd sensitive and opinionated people. The organisers did a superb job of working the process, but some battles are beyond anyone’s competence.

One of the interesting elements to have become evident during the conference is the power of the ‘local’. I know I have banged on about this in the past, but it bears repetition. Any group of high-flying leaders can make statements on a grand scale – and feel that saying something achieves something – but it is usually at local community level that real change comes.

Every community has its own narrative and each community has to take seriously the history and culture that has brought it to where it is. This summit was begun and ended by the Anishnaabe people whose experience since colonialisation in Canada has been appalling. This morning we went to the university theatre in Winnipeg and had a presentation of excerpts from a musical called Strike. A general strike in 1919 not only shaped Winnipeg, but has become iconic as the event that brought together diverse ethnic, national and religious immigrant communities in a common cause (human rights). This memory defines the place even now and the musical is performed annually.

Before the final statement was handed to a Canadian Government Minister, I did the final keynote address to the summit. My brief was to suggest how we can go forward from here as the G8/G20 moves next year to France, in 2012 to the USA and to the UK in 2013. I had no script, so promised to write up the substance of it here.

Starting with the need for religious leaders (and their communities) to share a common space – however uncomfortable that might sometimes be – I went on to use Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ distinction between a ‘covenant of faith and a covenant of fate’. Diverse faith communities recognise a covenant of fate – we share common challenges and opportunities in the world – and we need to take seriously the urgency of our common demands.

This recognition sets the context for a summit like this one: we can see our role as religious leaders contributing to being the memory and the conscience of our political and economic leaders. This means that we can set a wider or deeper moral context for their policy-making. Religious leaders need to be more confident about this: more so than any politician anywhere, we are rooted every day in real communities with real people where we see the effects of sweeping policies on real flesh and blood.

This is not to say that only religious leaders or communities can set this context for reflection and thinking; but, it is to say that religious leaders need ot be more confident at valuing the difference their people make on the ground to the lives of millions of people.

However, grand aspirations, however eloquently expressed by religious leaders at a conference such as the one just concluded, are inadequate. Aspirations need to be confronted by hard ‘how?’ questions. Political leaders will not be inspired to take seriously passionate statements that do not demonstrate that their authors understand the realities with which their political leaders have to live. Any statement needs to be written through the eyes of the intended audience (if you see what I mean).

The way ahead for summits such as this (the sixth)? Well, the following points might be made:

  • We do not know if the G8 will continue to meet as it does at present. It might well give way to the G20. But the G20 in Toronto is causing huge local disruption and costing over $1.2billion. Questions will be asked about the effectiveness of what amounts to a very expensive and disruptive photo-opportunity. Religious leaders need to be light and flexible enough to ask new questions about how to engage most effectively in influencing the minds and priorities of political leaders – whether the G8 or G20 (or some other shape) continues or not. We must not lose sight of what we want to achieve and not simply perpetuate a familiar forum.
  • Effective engagement might need some different thinking. For example, we might need to recognise that by the time the G8/G20 meets, the decisions have already been made, the negotiations had and the priorities established. Running a parallel summit has obvious visibility attractions, but it might be illusorily incapable of having the desired effect. To this end, we might need to (a) meet with a smaller group earlier, (b) engage the media in raising the issues, (c) keep statements light and tight, and (d) find imaginative and creative ways of engaging.
  • If political leaders are to be leaders/shapers of a future (rather than simple reactors to crises), we might be able to find ways of encouraging as well as challenging, creating the space in which harrassed political leaders can be enabled to reflect on the worldview/vision from which policy and priorities can be derived.

The other point I made in passing was that the eclectic pragmatism evidenced by the approach of some of the young people present (who were intelligent, committed, articulate and great company) is inadequate. Put briefly, the question they ask is: ‘Does it work?’ when the really serious question is: ‘Is it true?’. Our young people are sometimes presented with a view of religion that encourages a pragmatic pick ‘n’ mix that avoids distinctives, contradiction or conflict. It is vital that we ask serious questions about truth, maintain our confidence in arguing our case (respectfully and humbly), listen to the experience/world view of others, and treat each ‘faith system’ with the integrity it demands.

Anyway, England has won – Germany looms on Sunday – and the British Government has been praised (and applauded) here for ringfencing international development aid. A good day to be English…

The G8 Religious Leaders Summit began this morning, but with three introductory addresses.

Dr Lloyd Axworthy runs the University of Winnipeg, but is a former Foreign Minister of Canada. He spoke about the need for religious leaders to have a common witness in matters of human concern (I think).

Justice Murray Sinclair has been chairing the recent Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission which wrestled with the historic abuse and injustices instigated against the indigenous (aboriginal) communities of Canada. He rooted our thinking in the more local (Canadian) experience of (a) state legal oppression of indigenous people and (b) the loss of credibility of churches for most indigenous people. Interestingly (and contentiously, given the language involved), he observed that the greatest oppressors of the indigenous communities are now what he called ‘fundamentalist aborigines’ – those who ‘converted’ away from their indigenous roots and now evangelise their fellows.

However, the third speaker was the most powerful and arresting. Senator Lt. General Romeo Dallaire (Retd) is famous for having been given command of UN forces in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In a serious, passionate and informed presentation, he questioned whether politicians are now offering leadership in the world or merely reacting to crises. He stated that leadership by crisis management does not offer leadership in shaping the future.

He cited George Bush’s ‘New World Order’ and changed it to a ‘New World Disorder’ in which the sheer complexity of a world undergoing technological (and other) revolution is being reacted to by politicians who are overwhelmed by panic and finding it difficult to live with ambiguity. For example, he wanted to know what were the criteria for deciding to send 400 UN troops to Rwanda in 1994 while allocating 67,000 to the former Yugoslavia: who set the priorities and according to which criteria?

The lack of an answer to that question represents the most serious challenge to the ability of politicians to lead: which world view (rooted in which assumptions and according to which moral base?) will be thought through and owned by those making decisions to shape the future rather than simply keep reacting to events/crises? Dallaire thinks that our political masters are waiting for citizens to give them the authority to lead.

This raises the most fundamental questions facing us all. It is not enough to make policy without doing the hard work of working through and owning the philosophical (or theological) assumptions/world view that will subsequently and consequently direct and shape specific policies that take a long-term view of the future and are not simply shaped to ensure electoral success in the short term.

Dallaire put it bluntly: are all human beings human or are others more human than others?

This was a very humane articulation of Justice Murray Sinclair’s conclusion that four fundamental questions need to be addressed by all peoples and communities:

  1. Where have we come from?
  2. Where do we go after here (that is, after death)?
  3. Why are we here (ethics)?
  4. Who am I / are we? (identity)

The implication offered here is that religious leaders might have to drive this sort of thinking in order to hold political leaders to a more informed account in a complex world that allows those political leaders little time for thinking, learning or reflecting before either reacting … or shaping the future.

These speakers were followed by Dr Andre Karamaga (General Secretary of the All Africa Conference of Churches) – who asked for Africa to be partners in alleviation of poverty rather than simply recipients of others’ aid:

Don’t speak of doing it for us, but with us.

He was followed by Jim Wallis from Washington who stressed the need for a vision to drive politics and the rest of us. He noted that our faith traditions began not as institutions, but as movements – and that the difference is in the capacity of the latter for sacrifice. He called for religious leaders to “announce the impossible and then work to make it happen”.

And here lies the fundamental problem for conferences such as this one: despite the challenges by Dallaire and Wallis, responses from the delegates resorted to “telling the politicians that poverty is unacceptable”. I will be arguing later that statements like that need to be read through the eyes of those who will receive them – and I can’t see any politician responding with anything constructive. It is like being told that we must support human beings in staying alive: no one will disagree with the sentiment, but it doesn’t help the decision-makers to know any more clearly how this should be done in a complex world of competing priorities and expectations.

Sitting here, it is hard not to hear successive contributions as worthy recitations of what we all already know (for example, about environmental disasters, the power of capital and the global problems of blind materialism). If we are to make any impact, we will have to be sharper and more savvy than this about the intended audience and the language of our discourse.

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