It was reported last week that the BBC is to move current Defence Correspondent Caroline Wyatt to Religion, replacing Robert Pigott who has held the post for a decade. Given Wyatt's heavyweight role in Defence since 2007, this is seen as a beefing up of the religion brief. Some of us have argued for years that the BBC should appoint a Religion Editor – recognising the importance of religion as a factor in the world and how we understand it. This seems like a re-beefing up of the 'correspondent' role and goes some way to meeting the need.

Ironic, then, that it was also reported this week that the Times is to get rid of the Religion Correspondent role that has been occupied so successfully for 25 years by Ruth Gledhill. This means that no English newspaper has a journalist dedicated to covering religion as a specialism.

This is the context in which the Sandford St Martin Trust – which I chair – is changing. During the last year we have conducted a detailed strategy review and clarified that we wish not only to 'promote excellence in religious broadcasting', but also 'to advocate for' it. To this end we are changing the way we operate and will shortly be advertising for a part-time Executive Secretary to help us run the trust and develop our ambitions.

The Trust gives prestigious awards each year, presented at a ceremony at Lambeth Palace and with judging panels chaired by people who know their stuff. We have been developing our year-long presence, especially through good work in social media and a new website, but our ambitions go well beyond this to both stimulate and engage in debate on religious broadcasting.

More will become clear as plans are developed. However, the point is that the religious broadcasting drum will continue to be banged – but more smartly as we invest in making a difference.

 

I came to London today to sit on a panel at the Christian Solidarity Worldwide annual conference in Westminster. Other panelists were Ruth Gledhill (Times Religion Correspondent), John Coles (New Wine) and Fiona Bruce (MP for Congleton), and it was chaired by Steve Clifford (General Director of the Evangelical Alliance). It was surprisingly good fun and stimulatingly lively.

My main point was to encourage greater confidence by religious people – Christians in particular – in occupying the space they have… and not to react to everything 'offensive' in victim mode. Ruth Gledhill articulately explained the role of journalists and editors, castigated religious people for not getting 'good news' stories into the press, and told them to use the clout they already have for raising concerns about issues of religious freedom. I concurred, noting that Christians need to look first in the mirror when moaning about failures to tell our stories – asking ourselves who is to blame for this. (Earlier Os Guinness had noted that the primary casualty of religious bad news was the failure of Christians to love one another in public.)

Of course, the other media angle is simply that religious groups often simply want to 'get their message over' – which is hopeless in the new world of social media in which 'interconnectivity' and 'interactivity' are the key features of discourse. We now engage in a conversation and not in a monologue. The message emerges from the conversation and its mode.

It is always a little difficult to deal briefly and concisely with complicated issues. However, I did describe the contemporary conflict of 'freedoms' as a 'crisis of liberalism': that once we claim equality and equal validity of any opinion (including the right to be offended, etc.), it becomes hard to deal with conflicts in rights/freedoms. We are left with having to establish hierarchies of value or rights, and this is problematic. In other words, if my freedom compromises your freedom, who judges which is to have priority – and against which criteria?

I also sat there recalling silently on the eve of Remembrance Day that more religious people died in non-religious conflicts in the twentieth century than in all previous nineteen centuries put together.

Anyway, I had to leave afterwards and missed the people who were to reflect on cases of religious persecution around the world. (Of course, we had agreed earlier that 'marginalization' and the 'religious illiteracy' of media people and politicians do not constitute 'persecution'.)

And my Fantasy League team is doing rubbish today…

Last week I agreed to provide the Times with a statement in response to questions about the future of the Church of England in the face of its current debates (plural). The intention was to offer a wider perspective from which to view where we have got to. It was intended for publication before the ‘women bishops’ debate, but was posted on Ruth Gledhill’s blog today. As agreed, she published it in full – and I am grateful. Had I written it today, I might have done it differently – in the light of what actually happened – so I will follow the quoted statement with further observations. Here is the statement:

The church does not need to be saved – other than in a theological sense. The current debates are happening because, rather than being indifferent, Anglicans take theology and church order seriously. Contrary to some opinions, this is not an unhealthy thing to do openly.

It is clear that the Church wants to be able to appoint women bishops. It is the duty of all bishops to seek the unity of the church and it is this attempt that is proving difficult. If the circle proves itself incapable of being squared, then the church will have to make painful decisions. However, it will then do so in the light of having explored every option – which is what pastoral leadership is all about.

The Church of England is unique in being reformed and catholic, and it is this ‘stretch’ that both gives it its unique breadth and greatest challenge. In a culture of fragmentation and selfishness, it also offers the possibility of modelling how, despite the real tensions, a community of difference can hold together. After all, Jesus called his disciples and didn’t give them a veto over who else could join them: their witness was in how they followed Jesus together, and not in their forced unanimity. Nothing has changed.

In this, as in other contentious matters, we will argue our cases, make our decisions and then move on. This generation is not unique in facing difficult judgements, so we should not get current debates out of proportion: no ‘crisis’ is ultimate. As with other issues, we engage with the realities of people’s lives and society’s challenges and changes; but the role of the church is not simply to ‘go with the flow’ of the wider world, but to question and challenge and, sometimes, appear stubborn. That will not change either – in relation to political issues, economic praxis or priorities, social movement or moral norms.

Fundamentally, the Church of England is rooted in a theology of resurrection. Endings are never the end. It is Christ’s church and we are called to remember this whenever we think it all depends on us. However, if things get even tougher, we will still wake up in the morning, take a breath and get on with the business from where we then find ourselves. This is not novel, but neither is it boring.

The confident leadership the church has had thus far – and will continue to need in the future – will  be rooted in a perspective such as that cited above. Such leadership needs to know when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to remain still… but always to pray. There is no reason why the church should not grow in confidence in the years to come, but this makes sense because of my final point…

Look at (a) any General Synod agenda and (b) what ordinary Christians are doing in and through their parish churches and institutions and it becomes clear that the issues that dominate the media do not dominate every waking moment of ordinary Anglicans. On the contrary, links with parishes and dioceses abroad, social action at local and regional level, deep commitment to children and young people in education, imaginative and creative outreach and evangelism – all these things go on every day, with the most vulnerable people in our society cared for, spoken for and supported… without being trumpeted. Only two contentious issues hit the media headlines while 99% of our service, concern and activity does not. Life will carry on.

Where we are now is this. The House of Bishops, which had been asked to be clear about the status of women in the episcopate whilst making proper provision for those opposed, had attempted to do so – and ended up pleasing no one (apparently). However, their role in amending the Measure was what the church requires of its bishops – who were trying in good faith to square a circle that no one else has managed to square thus far. The response was anticipated by some, but not by most. The response itself demanded further attention be given to the matter. Adjourning the debate was clearly the best outcome, but it still leaves the original question unanswered: how are we to satisfy two conflicting demands in a single legal clause? Simply dropping the offending amendment will not of itself resolve the issue as it is highly likely that the unamended Measure would still be defeated in the House of Laity on the grounds that inadequate protection was being offered to those opposed to women bishops. (And it is worth noting that ten or a dozen dioceses that voted for the draft legislation also passed following motions to this effect.)

We need to draw breath, look at it again, receive advice on how others might see the circle being squared, then return to it in November as a synod. But, we should be cuatious about responses such as that in the Guardian which stated that the Synod had ‘thrown out the bishops’ amendment’. It hadn’t. And returning with the same amendment is one of several options if no better way can be found to resolve the matter. It is to be hoped, of course, that a better way (or wording) might be found in the coming weeks or months.

However, behind all this it is important to remember that painful as all this is – to everyone – its outcome does not change the resurrection or the vocation of the church to live in the light of the resurrection every day. And in that light I, personally, pray we will open the way for women in the episcopate as soon as possible.

Why are some people fearful of engaging with the media?

Well, you only have to know anyone who’s fallen foul of them to know why keeping your distance might be a wise tactic. So, given that I know plenty of people who would include themselves in that category, why do some of us keep getting stuck in?

Last Sunday I was asked to address a hundred or so theological students (St Milletus College) on the theme ‘Old message, new media’ – a theme that got me asking questions about language, content and confidence. Having commended engaging with old media and new social networking media (in a disciplined way, of course), I emphasised three points:

  • we need to be confident about the message we hope to communicate via various media
  • attention needs to be paid to learning the languages that people speak/hear in order that we can ensure good communication
  • new media offer great new possibilities for (a) giving people access to people (like me – a bishop) whose life and preoccupations might otherwise belong to a remote and mysterious hidden world, (b) engaging outside  and beyond the safe and comfortable territory of those who ‘belong’ to the communities in which we live and work, (c) being present in a space where a different sort of conversation can be had, and (d) allowing connectivity between people, groups and ideas that in a previous generation might not have been possible, even if desirable.

Then, today I went to Cambridge for the first day of an Apologetics Conference at Westcott House. The theme was ‘How Does Today’s Church Engage with Today’s World?’. The first speaker up was Professor Alister McGrath who seems to write a new book every week. He stressed the need for clergy to help their congregations to grapple honestly with tough questions and grow in confidence in the competence of a Christian world view to account for the way the world is (and could become). Critiquing the New Atheists, he made the point that simply making assertions is not the same as rationally arguing a point (something Christians need to note also).

I followed Alister with a ramble through my apologetic method and illustrated what it looks like in my own experience. Key to this approach are the following:

  • objections to religious belief must be taken with the utmost seriousness
  • interlocutors are people with histories, contexts and contingent lives: they are not projects upon whom we work our philosophical or theological games
  • the way Christians speak to and about each other is sometimes so scandalous that many observers get nowhere near hearing the ‘good news’ behind the sheer bad news of how some Christians behave (parodied as ‘They’ll know we are Christians by the intensity of our mutual loathing…’)
  • Christians need to model the ‘ministry of reconciliation’ and change the rumour about God and the church
  • we must start on other people’s territory and learn their languages – primarily in order to listen and understand before questioning coherence or consistency.

Underlying all this, however, is the conviction that unless Christians are prepared to open themselves to the possibility of changing their mind, they have no right to expect anyone else to do so. Conversation must be respectful and genuinely dialectical.

This was followed by Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, who looked briefly at such matters as creation, God, christology, eschatology and pneumatology in their apologetic connection. And he was followed by Ruth Gledhill, Times Religion Correspondent who reflected on journalism, journalists, the Church and media.

Two points need further thinking through on my part.

First is Ruth’s statement that the erection of the Times paywall has (a) vastly reduced the number of screaming nasties on her blog, (b) improved the quality and courtesy of the discourse between those who do engage with her and each other, and (c) led to a recovery of clearer (less distracted) journalism.

Now, I am opposed to the paywall, but I know other news agencies are keen for it to work. A new and effective business (financial) model for journalism is needed if quality journalism is not only to survive, but thrive in the complex new media age. Despite my prejudices about the effects of the paywall model on universal access to news, I hadn’t thought about the potential for the paywall to change/improve the quality of the discourse between those who do engage behind it.

Second was a question posed to me about mad or dangerous Christians – a question to which I did not respond adequately. Having asserted that Christians need to stop bitching about each other and work out their inherent unity as disciples of the Jesus who calls them, how should we then deal with the crazies and horrible nasties who claim the Christian label? Or, put more simply, when is it legitimate to disown and firmly distance ourselves from the loonies?

On initial reflection I think we can say that (a) Christians who, for example, espouse violence should be disowned and distanced, and (b) this should be done in language that still bears the hallmarks of grace and generosity, not arrogance and self-righteousness. More reflection needed on this one.

So, the last few days have exposed me to a wide range of people who are taking really seriously the need for Christians to engage with the wider world on the wider world’s terms, bringing a confident and gracious critique to the world’s presenting agenda, and offering an apologetic for Christian faith that is rationally coherent, emotionally powerful, existentially consistent and makes sense of human experience (which is more than purely rational).

In last Sunday’s Observer Victoria Coren invited theists to own up confidently to their faith:

Come on; let’s make this a fair fight, at least. Identify yourselves, thinking believers! Don’t be cowed into silence by the idea that faith is the weakness of a halfwit, like buying your goldfish Christmas presents or watching ITV2. It isn’t. I’ll start: I believe in God and I’m perfectly intelligent and rational.

Time to stand up. And new media make this possible in new ways. (The Apologetics Conference continues tomorrow, but I won’t be there…)

I am grateful to Ruth Gledhill for tweeting frequent updates to the Pope’s condom story. I have been out and about and keeping track of comments on Twitter. Not only did she jump into the story with both feet, but then had the integrity to feed informed comment subsequently – comment that changed the story and posed questions of comprehension to the media commentariat.

The BBC website proclaims (in common with loadsamediaorgans):

Pope’s condom comments welcomed by campaign groups

Well, they won’t welcome them once they’ve engaged brain and thought about them. Why? Because this is a great example of people hearing what they want to hear, responding to it… and only then looking at the actual text of what the Pope said. So, the media story ends up being about the media handling of the issue rather than the content of what the Pope said.

It seems to me, from reading the text and one particular comment on it (fed by Ruth Gledhill and to be found at http://www.catholicworldreport.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=220:pope-benedict-on-condoms-in-qlight-of-the-worldq&catid=53:cwr2010&Itemid=70 – but WordPress won’t let me embed the link) that the Pope hasn’t changed his mind or the mind of the Roman Catholic Church on the matter of condoms, contraception or sexual morality. He hasn’t even opened the door to exceptions to the Church’s rulebook on these matters. He has answered a question with the precision one would expect from him (an academic), but with nuances too sharp for blunt interpreters.

Janet Smith contextualises and then quotes the interview given by the Pope:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.  But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The comment goes on to make clear that the Pope has not changed his view that the issue is about sexual behaviour, not condoms. The example he uses is of a homosexual prostitute – so he is saying nothing about the procreative element of heterosexual sex. Janet Smith concludes with an analogy that is, at the very least, suggestive:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it.  It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets.  Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

This might not be comfortable – and it certainly will be a nuisance to those who think (or hope) the Pope has opened a door to the relaxation of condom use – but I cannot see that the Pope has said anything remarkable or that deserves the ‘liberal’ headlines dominating our media. It’s a good story – but it smacks of misreading.

Unless I have misread it, of course.