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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Holiday over. Back in the office. Back on my laptop where I can embed links in my posts. It’s also back to viewing the world from home (as opposed to ‘away’).

As the Libya endgame continues, there is a good deal of comment in the blogosphere about the role of the National Transitional Council, NATO, foreign governments, etc. Much of it involves urging caution and questioning NATO’s involvement – approving the end whilst worrying about the means… and the potential consequences. EthicalComment has some good post-holiday observations (as usual) and some useful links to, for example, Chatham House papers.

I was intrigued to catch up with Tony Blair’s reflections on the UK riots. I know too many people who would disagree with Blair on principle even if he said the sky was blue; but, I think he is absolutely right to question the reflex of British politicians, religious leaders and media commentators to blame some sort of generalised moral decline for the riots. Whilst agreeing with Michael White’s critique of the inadequacy of Blair’s critique, I still think he was right to assert (initially when Prime Minister) that specific problems need specific solutions – that the dysfunctionality of some families requires systematic, one-at-a-time, targeted investment of time, expertise and accompaniment to turn around those dysfunctionalities that are deeply embedded in family culture, experience or expectation.

The problem, of course, is that one of the most valuable resources to achieve that end – and one that was making a demonstrable difference to many families – is being severely cut back: Sure Start. Ask any health professional working with such families and they will almost universally tell the same story. David Cameron has trumpeted the percentage increase in health visitors (my wife is one), but the health visitors need resources such as Sure Start to which they can refer their people. There is surely an irony that financial investment in youth provision and resources for supporting families is being severely cut at the very time that the decision-makers are complaining about the dysfunctionality of some of our citizens.

(And, yes, Blair helped to develop the consumer-greedy society that Thatcher began; and, yes, that introduces a further debate about public morality and the shaping of our culture in the last thirty years. But, it doesn’t setract from the significance of the specific point about the so-called ‘hard to reach’.)

This is not just about financial investment and my observation is not about ideology – that somehow chucking money at problems solves the problem. But, it is crazy to cut funding of those resources that are designed to make a long-term difference, but have already made short-term improvements.

Which leads on to the third element of these post-holiday thoughts: the teaching of Religious Education in schools. Again, some commentators will automatically reach for their red ink at the mere mention of religious education having any value at all. They think that their own world view is neutral and that religous world views are somewhere up the loony scale, heading away from neutral. Such respondents should read David Bentley Hart‘s excoriating expose of such shallow thinking in The Atheist Delusions – an academically informed response to the assumptions and ill-informed sweeping assertions of the so-called New Atheists. (Obviously, it’s a bit of a shame to introduce fact and history into these debates…)

However, what is often ignored is that Religious Education does not start from the assumption that a particular religious ‘truth’ needs to be propagated, but, rather, that children and young people need to learn (a) how to think about what they think about the world, (b) how particular traditions have developed ways of doing this through particular histories, and (c) why understanding epistemology – how we know that we know what we know – matters. Surely, this should be indisputable in post-riot England. Yes, I believe that the Christian world view makes most sense of the world, human experience, morality, etc.; but, that is secondary to the importance of at least getting kids to (a) ask the right questions and (b) understand that asking these questions actually matters.

To that end I agree that the teaching of RE should continue to be a core subject in the school curriculum. If it isn’t, what will be saying to the riots of twenty years from now when faced with dysfunctional kids whose morality was allowed to be shaped by happenstance and serendipity rather than being shaped and informed to the extent that they can make their mind up?

It is unsurprising that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians of Rome the way he did:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…

We continue to neglect the shaping of the mind at our future peril.